Cyber Motorsports Event Photos

Test Day at the Petit Le Mans

by Earl Cook

Wednesday, September 15, 1999 Today was test day in preparation for Saturday's Petit Le Mans. The big news of the day is that JJ Lehto crashed the #42 BMW V12 LMR in a high-speed and almost head-on smack with the concrete wall. The good news is that Lehto appeared to be OK as well as the car. The crash occurred as Lehto exited the high speed turn 5 at the end of the esses and crested the rise after turn 5.

I was at turn 6 and saw the crash as I looked back up the track. The flagman for the corner, Todd Rice said, "It looked like a frisbee after it hit the wall! It spun about three feet off of the ground." The crash was so hard that it reportedly moved the concrete wall back 3 inches. I was one of the first people at the accident and Lehto was already out of the car and was uninjured.

Video from the scene

I asked Lehto what happened. He said, "I understeered." I asked if it was a downforce problem? He replied, "No, I had plenty of downforce." Once the session was red-flagged, I helped Lehto remove the nose and inspect the damage. Lehto remarked as he looked at the minor damage to the car, "Amazing! I was going so fast. I was in 4th gear. The car is so strong! The tires are OK, the suspension is straight!"

Lehto hit the wall with his right side at about a 15 degree angle while at an estimated 130-140 mph and then quickly spun to the left. The BMW V12 LMR is an amazingly strong car. Only the bodywork appeared to be damaged. Bill Auberlen also witnessed the accident. He remarked, "Men have died in less impacts than that."

I said to JJ, "I thought you were about to flip." He replied, "Not in this car. Its center of gravity is so low, it won't do that."


To the left is a 'before' photo of the nose of the BMW. After the high-speed smack with the wall, the only things damaged were the brake ducts and the tow ring. The front of the tub where the tow ring attaches was scuffed a bit, but that was the only damage. The front of the tub was so strong that I could barely tell that it had suffered any impact. The Williams Formula One construction technology earned its price.

That was one of the toughest, almost front-on collisions that I have ever witnessed and I am amazed at how strongly the BMW is constructed. For people wanting to outlaw carbon fiber construction technology, I think they need to examine what happened today.

Before the crash today, Lehto was looking fast. It was interesting seeing the two layers of winglets on the nose of the BMW. When I arrived at the track today, the team was busy changing the pairs. I asked one of the crew if they had ever run with this much downforce at a track before and he replied, "No, this is this most."

Road Atlanta is a challenging circuit and I have been surprised seeing the European teams arrive at the track in relatively low-downforce configurations. Last year, the Porsche 911 GT1-98 was basically a level-ground, low-downforce machine designed for Le Mans. Road Atlanta presents different challenges in downforce with its large changes in elevation. Look at the splitters and the noses of the Panoz, Dyson R&S and Doran Ferraris and you will see some rather large aerodynamic devices.

Jean-Marc Gounon of Aubenas, France is currently one of the hottest drivers in the world today along with Team DAMS with their Judd V10 powered Lola B98/10. Racing in the SportsRacing World Cup (formerly ISRS), Gounon has three wins, three poles and two fastest laps this season. He is fresh off a victory at the Nurburgring, Germany race. Gounon and DAMS are the only team that has been able to beat the Ferrari 333 SP in Europe on more than one occasion.

Gounon, with co-drivers Franck Montagny and Christophe Tinseau will be a team to watch at the Petit Le Mans. During testing today, Gounon looked very fast.

The Porsche 911 GT1 EVO waits for inspection. In the background is the new Michelin Bridge connecting the new paddocks with the tower and old paddocks. Thank you, Don Panoz and Road Atlanta. Today I took a walk that took 10 minutes that would normally take two hours if you were walking.

The clouds in the sky were the 'fingers' of Hurricane Floyd. Floyd will miss Road Atlanta and the Petit Le Mans. Our heart goes out to those caught in its path.

For those of you online brethern (and sistern) that will be meeting at the Petit, the little park is to the left and rear of the tower in this photo. This shot is from the new paddocks looking to the outside of the track.

The two Panoz LMP-1 Roadster S/Ford cars were early on the inspection list today. They were poked and prodded, measured, weighed and looked at again, and again. Just like all of the cars, inspection is a time when the inspectors have fun and the crews stand by nervously hoping that everything is within specifications.

The Rafanelli Riley & Scott Judd V10 makes its appearance for inspection. In an interview with Road Atlanta winner Mimo Schiattarella, he said that Rafanelli has made some aerodynamic changes to the car to give it more downforce. With the Panoz and BMW at the track, the team doesn't expect a pole and know that they have a challenge to win against the level of competition that is present at the Petit Le Mans.

Dodge Viper Team Oreca is impressive with its three car setup. It is a busy paddock with three cars and nine drivers. Oreca has dominated the FIA-GT championship in Europe with seven wins and five 1-2 finishes.

A domineering team in American GT3 has been Prototype Technology Group with their three-car BMW M3 team. This year, a battle has broken out between PTG and the Manthey Racing Porsche 911 GT3. The GT3 is Porsche's new water-cooled flat 6 engine.

Eric Bernard of Pertius, France powers the #1 Panoz LMP-1 through the turn. the Panoz team looked extremely quick today. (Sorry about the approximations of speed, but since it was a test day, there was no official timing & scoring today. So, my educated guesses at speed must do.)

The first customer Panoz can be seen at right. This is Panoz LMP-1 Roadster S/Ford chassis # 003 and is being raced by J&P Motorsports. #13 is being driven by Klaus Graf of Dornham, Germany, Franz Konrad of Verl, Germany and Jan Lammers of The Netherlands.


The #93 Dodge Viper Team Oreca car of Justin Bell of England, Ni Omorim of Oporto, Portugal and Emmanuel Clerico of Paris, France. The Orecas looked smooth in testing today.

Wayne Taylor returns in the #12 with a duo of very-fast Italians as his co-drivers... Alex Caffi, veteran of 59 Formula One starts, and Andrea Montermini, who was blisteringly fast in the MOMO Ferrari in 1997. Montermini is fresh off an 11th place finish in his first CART start.

The Doyle-Risi Ferraris looked solid today. Not the fastest on the track, but a team that appears to be focused on the endurance aspects of the Petit Le Mans.

Wayne Taylor is the only driver to have won all four classic sports car endurance races (Le Mans ('98 prototypes), Daytona, Sebring and Petit Le Mans).

Dyson Racing has only one car entered, but they had two cars testing today. James Weaver of Wiltshire, England was looking very fast today in the 'T' car. I saw him lock up the brakes once today just inches from going up the rear of one of the Doyle-Risi cars. Just a short time ago, Dyson had won three-out-of-four races at Road Atlanta and James Weaver was the man to beat at Road Atlanta.

With the driver trio of Butch Leitzinger of State College, PA, Elliot Forbes-Robinson of Sherrills Ford, North Carolina and Weaver, the Dyson team enters the Petit Le Mans with a team that is more experienced in American Sports Car racing and has won more races in the past five years than any other team. While a lot of the other teams get the attention, the Dyson team methodically goes about its business... and wins.

Turns 6 and 7 provided a lot of excitement today. The Konrad Porsche 911 Turbo got sideways with the Lista Ferrari 333 SP and the Dodge Viper GTS-R right on his tail. Both managed to miss him while the Doyle-Risi Ferrari powers on down the back straight.

Andy "Mr. Dependable" Pilgrim buckles up in the Corvette Racing C5-R. Pilgrim has an incredible record of bringing a car across the finish line in one piece. I was amazed to see how many stock items are still in place on the Corvette interior. The dash looks amazingly stock as well as the door latch which looks as stock as it can to be. While I was standing there, the wind from Hurricane Floyd blew the door closed against me. As I pushed the door back open, I realized that the door was way too light to be stock, but it sure appears to be so.

The Doran Mathews Racing Ferrari 333 SP looked good on the track today. Drivers for the #36 are Jim Matthews of Warsaw, North Carolina and Stefan Johannson of Indianapolis, Indiana.

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©1999 Cyber Motorsports

All photos by Earl Cook