What Might Have Been: Highcroft Michelin Pilot Sport Sponsored R15 plus at Le Mans
by, 05-17-2011 at 04:29 PM (4673 Views)
We really felt for Highcroft Racing and its stellar drivers when we got the news from Marino Franchitti's PR rep that the American team would pull its Honda-powered ARX-01e LMP1 out of the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Honda-powered prototype proved itself highly competitive at the 12 Hours of Sebring but the devastation in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan were likely reasons that Honda has decided to terminate the program and thus the relationship with Highcroft. In the eleventh hour, Highcroft was forced to pull out of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and presumably also the American Le Mans Series which will surely hurt the US series where Highcroft was the reigning LMP1 champion. Its departure leaves an ever-shrinking field in the top class of that series.
In the meantime, Highcroft will be replaced at Le Mans with the Aston Martin team headlined by former Audi DTM driver Vanina Ickx. While it'll be great to see Vanina racing at Le Mans, we can't help but wonder what might have been (and may yet still be).
Those wishing for Audi racing in America may remember that Highcroft was one of three teams that vied to become Audi Sport North America and field a pair of R15 plus racers just like those run at Sebring in non-ILMC rounds of the ALMS. Audi and Audi of America decided not to financially support the effort and the deal fell apart but Highcroft (sole among the three teams being considered) continued on with an ALMS program. Might the R15 plus bid be revisited?
What we'd really love to see is Highcroft return to Le Mans with the R15 plus. Both Peugeot (with Oreca) and now Aston Martin (with Ickx) will now have privateers competing with last year's car in Le Mans. Having a team on the level of Highcroft with a driver lineup like David Brabham, Simon Pagenaud and Marino Franchitti would make for a team that would have very good chances of scoring in the top 10 and maybe even challenge for a win with a year-old car. Frankly, they led the race at times in Sebring. Maybe they'd do better and they'd help wave the Audi flag at Le Mans.
In reality though, it's too late for a bid at the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans. Even if Highcroft hadn't officially pulled out, none of these drivers had any experience in the R15. Marco Werner was part of the Highcroft squad last year (instead of Pagenaud) but even still they'd have been hard pressed to be competitive in such a new-to-them car. And, even with the plus modifications, the R15 has proven a tricky car to learn.
Sill, even with Le Mans out, we wonder where Highcroft will go. They're reigning champs and likely they'll not simply disappear. Might Audi consider selling or leasing one of the Sebring R15s to the American team so that they might contest the remainder of the season in the ALMS? It's likely all a matter of numbers, whether Audi would back the expensive R15 program with dollars and/or engineers who know the technology inside and out. Or, maybe if Audi doesn't want to financially support, Highcroft's Michelin sponsorship might leave it in a position to be able to afford to field the program on their own. Either way, we'd love to see it happen and, after Le Mans, one of Audi's three teams should theoretically have the rest of the season off as only two cars will continue on in the ILMC races. Could that third team continue on alongside Highcroft's squad with three remaining Audi Sport works drivers? Now that would be an interesting development.
Editor's Note: This post is NOT based on any source inside Audi or Highcroft indicating anything of the sort. We're simply wishing and hoping something might come together. That Highcroft is now without a car indicates desire on their part to find a car. That Audi is interested in providing one (or two) remains to be seen. Unfortunately they already said no once this season.
For Reference: Highcroft Le Mans Announcement
HIGHCROFT RACING - THANKS AND FAREWELL TO HONDA[/b]
After a highly successful five seasons as partners, Highcroft Racing and Honda have concluded their relationship – the combination’s giant-killing performance at the 12 Hours of Sebring earlier this year was the final curtain for the partnership.
Highcroft was selected as one of the initial factory Acura teams for the brand’s debut in the American Le Mans Series in 2007.
Throughout the partnership, Highcroft established itself as not only the highest ALMS point-scoring team out of four factory outfits, but also collected back-to-back ALMS championships in 2009 and 2010.
The team also won the 2010 Michelin Green X Challenge Championship for optimizing overall on-track performance, while using the least amount of fuel.
Highcroft scored 11 race wins for Honda, nine pole positions and 28 podium finishes from only 42 races, including its gallant second place finish at Sebring, where it defeated both factory Audi and Peugeot entries.
It was the only ALMS team of any class to score a podium finish in every round of the championship in 2010. It’s championship victory last season came in the most competitive year in ALMS history where five different teams and manufacturers took overall victory.
The team had intended to run the HPD ARX-01e at next month’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Unfortunately, given the situation in Japan and its impact on Honda, Highcroft has been obliged to withdraw its entry at Le Mans, due to lack of adequate financial support.
“We have had an amazing relationship with all the associatesat Honda, Acura, Honda Performance Development and Wirth Research over the past five years and it is with deep regret that our amazing run has come to an end,” Highcroft Racing owner, Duncan Dayton said.
“We are extremely proud of what we have achieved with our partners. When we were first selected as a factory team, nobody expected we would be able to run with some of the biggest names in racing, that came across from IndyCar racing.
“Not only did we prove that we were competitive, but we became the team the beat. We are equally proud of the great working relationships we built with HPD and Wirth Research developing the cars and turning them into winning machines.”
“We certainly appreciate the massive impact the earthquake and tsunami has had on the people of Japan and the huge challenges facing Japanese business.
“It appears this may have contributed to Honda’s decision and we fully respect and understand their position.
“Everyone was really looking forward to taking the ARX-01e to Le Mans – we really believed the car could have been extremely competitive.
“Le Mans is one of the greatest races in the world, but it requires significant financial and physical resources to compete at the highest levels. Whatever we do, we want to be able to do it properly and it just isn’t viable at this time without proper backing.
“I am deeply disappointed for our team at Highcroft Racing who were really looking forward to the race and for David (Brabham) and Marino (Franchitti) who are left without a ride at Le Mans at a very late stage.
“Our drivers have been truly incredible in recent years and I know they are as disappointed as we are that the ARX-01e will not be at Le Mans.”
Highcroft completed a number of firsts for Honda in the development of the sportscar program including the first overall race victory, first LMP1 victory, first championship and an amazing effort in 2010 where it took a LMP2 chassis to overall series victory in the combined LMP1/LMP2 class – taking the team’s title, the drivers championship for David Brabham and Simon Pagenaud as well as the manufacturer’s championship for HPD with a single car entry.
Highcroft Racing is actively seeking new manufacturer relationships and is beginning discussions regarding future programs – both in sports cars and other championships.
“For our future, we need to take the next step in the development of our team,” Dayton said.
“The team is now in a position to start with a clean slate and work towards our next championship assault with new partners.
“Our organization was established as a platform for manufacturers to showcase their technology on the world stage through motorsport.
“We still have very big goals and ambitions – including additional victories in the ALMS as well as Le Mans and IndyCar.”