The least remarkable fact about the 2005 American Le Mans Series race at Road America is it was won by an Audi R8.
The true brilliance of the event came from the dogged battle between the lightweight 4-cylinder turbo Lola EX257-MGs that nipped at the heels of the all-conquering twin-turbo V8 R8s. And then there was the stunning performance by Corvette Racing to displace the entire LMP2 field while nearly earning a top-3 overall finish.
To borrow a line from Stefon, Road America 2005 had everything. It was wonderful snapshot of that ALMS season with the unforgettable Maserati MC12, the high-dollar ACEMO-run Saleen S7R, the year-old privateer Corvette C5-R in the hands of Pacific Coast Motorsports’ Ryan Dalziel and Alex Figge, the B-K Motorsports rotary-powered Courage C65 LMP2, the twin factory Panoz Esperante GT2s with the stellar driver lineups of Bill Auberlen/Robin Liddell and Marino Franchitti/Bryan Sellers, the powerhouse Peterson/White Lightning Racing, Alex Job Racing, and Flying Lizard Motorsports teams, and the main protagonists in LMP1 and GT1 (see photo gallery below).
Through Florida’s Champion Racing team, Audi Sport won seven of 10 races in 2005, including Road America, but the narrow 3.2-second margin of victory by Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela in the No. 2 R8 over Chris Dyson and Andy Wallace in the No. 20 Lola-MG made for great drama.
Set in Wisconsin’s rolling Kettle Moraine valley, Road America’s daring 4.0-mile road course should have favored the Audi’s big motor and big-budget aerodynamic developments. The lightweight Lolas were quick and nimble, and seemingly better suited for shorter, slower circuits like a Lime Rock or Mid-Ohio, yet in the hands of the Dyson Racing Team, 2005 played out as a season-long game of cat and mouse (LEFT, LAT photo).
Built to the ACO’s LMP900 rules (the “900” was for 900 kilos), the Audi was more powerful, and paid for that extra oomph with added weight. The Lola, which conformed to the lighter LMP675 class, wasn’t a big bruiser like the R8, but was a stout contender that made good power and, unlike the Audi, could trim to impressively low levels of downforce and drag.
The scrappy little privateer Dyson Lolas took the fight to Audi before the German manufacturer brought its diesel R10s in 2006, and with Porsche’s factory LM2 program on the horizon, along with Aston Martin preparing its DBR9s to challenge the Corvettes, ALMS 2005 was the last year where diehard entrants and drivers ruled the series.
Click on the thumbnails for larger images. Next page: Chris Dyson and Oliver Gavin recall Road America 2005.
“The 2005 season was a great year with the Champion Audi team, and our MG-Lolas that year really came into their own,” said Chris Dyson (LEFT, LAT photo). “That year was two-on-two warfare the whole way between the Audis and our Lolas, and Road America was a race that typified the year where it went back and forth, and we could have won just as they could. It was a race where our sister car, the No. 16, with James Weaver driving, made an uncharacteristic error early on at the Carousel and that put them out of contention, so we had to go at the Audis on our own.”
“It was one of those races that didn’t come down to fuel saving, or a phantom yellow to close the racing up at the end,” Dyson continued. “Audi had JJ Lehto and Marco Werner in one car, and [Pirro and Biela] in the other, and Andy and I in one MG-Lola and James and Butch Leitzinger in the other, and I think they would all say Road America was a race where we all had to push every lap of the race, no matter where you were in the field.”
By 2005, the split LMP1 design options of LMP900 or LMP675 was nearing the end. The smaller P1s posed a fun threat to their bigger counterparts, but the underdog cars were on the downhill side of interest and car counts. It made a race like Road America even more special to see privateer P1s harass the mighty R8s.
“The LMP675 was designed as an equivalency formula in the early 2000s to give smaller teams, smaller manufacturers, a chance to take on the bigger and heavier LMP900 factory cars, and Lola took up the challenge at the time with a resurgent MG-Rover Group where they read the rulebook and saw they could build a car that could go to Le Mans and take on Audi,” Dyson said. “We did a lot of development on the car for America, did a lot of aerodynamic tweaks that added some downforce, and overall, it had great efficiency at a track like Road America because it made very little drag.
“So, we didn’t give up much on straightline speed to the Audis with our AER engines, and we were better under braking and in acceleration because of our lightness. Once the heavier R8s got up and moving they really went quickly, and had more downforce, but it wasn’t like we were missing six or seven miles an hour in top speed. At Elkhart Lake, we would trim out to try and keep up, and to get by traffic on the straights, so that played a part in keeping things close in that context. When the [Audi] R10 diesels showed up the following year, it shot all that to hell, but as far as 2005 went, it was a proper equivalency formula that kept both types of LMP1 cars relatively close.”
After two hours and 45 minutes of racing, the No. 20 Lola lost out to the No. 2 Audi by a small margin, and the No. 1 R8 was hot on their heels in third, just 0.538 seconds arrears.
Dyson recently re-acquired the No. 20 Lola, and based on the success Oliver Gavin had in the No. 4 Corvette C6.R with teammate Olivier Beretta, the Briton would surely welcome its addition to his stable of cars. The new-for-2005 C6.R was a marked improvement over its predecessor, the C5-R, and with the ALMS continuing to embrace the top GT1 racing category, the badass V8 ‘Vettes were capable of playing with the second-tier LMP2 cars of the era.
“That car around that track was a huge amount of fun to drive,” said Gavin (RIGHT, LAT photo). “It was the first year of the C6.R GT1 car, and made some pretty big steps forward from the C5-R. It had about 600 horsepower, and wasn’t that far off from some of the big prototypes. At Road America, the delta was a little bit smaller, and we hit the setup pretty sweetly. It was a good race for us.”
Starting with the previous round at Portland, Gavin and Beretta started a winning streak that would continue through Wisconsin and extend into 2006.
“There were many victories for Olivier and I in that car, and we began – right around that time – almost a full year of winning,” Gavin continued. “We went on to win eight races in a row and took the 2005 championship for Corvette rather handily.”
Placing fourth at Road America wasn’t the best overall finish achieved by the Corvette Racing team – it went one better the year before by placing third at Mid-Ohio with the C5-R, but was six laps down at the checkered flag. Thanks to a monstrous 7.0-liter engine and more advanced aerodynamics, the GT1 C6.R could fly at Road America, and with the sister No. 3 Corvette in tow, both cars crossed the finish line just one lap behind the LMP1 Audi-Lola-Audi train, and ahead of the entire LMP2 field.
“The P2 in that period was still evolving,” Gavin said. “Where LMP1 had embraced all-carbon chassis, the aerodynamics and chassis in P2 were still somewhat basic. They were light on power as well. I’m not saying we completely schooled the LMP2 field, but they weren’t the heavyweights they are now – the premier class in IMSA. Now, they’ve refined the cars, have more downforce, more power. And we’ve gone from 600 horsepower to 500 horsepower in the top GT class – the opposite direction.”
Gavin has been a constant through five or six generations of Corvette Racing models, and has a clear affinity for the big-banger GT1 cars of yesteryear.
“All of the technology and advancements we have today in our C7.R is amazing, and each car has been different as the rules and classes have changed over time,” he said. “As I said, that C6.R, at Road America…it was a special car to drive. Great memories of that car and that track…”