Commentary

ALMS: Growing pains for Muscle Milk

Updated: July 21, 2011, 6:05 PM ET
By David Phillips | Special to ESPN.com

ALMSCourtesy Dan Boyd/ALMS Greg Pickett's Muscle Milk team is in the first year of its official partnership with Aston Martin Racing for a Lola-Aston Martin coupe in the ALMS' LMP1 class for premier sports prototypes.

Talk about biting off a big piece.

No sooner did the Muscle Milk team get to feeling really comfortable with its Porsche RS Spyder than the team switched gears to the Lola-Aston Martin for the 2011 American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón. In one fell swoop, the Benecia, Calif.-based team went from an open-cockpit chassis weighing 825 kilograms (1,819 pounds), powered by a 3.4-liter V8 worth roughly 440 bhp, to a 900-kilo coupe powered by a 6-liter V12 putting out about 650 bhp.

And that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

While the RS Spyder campaigned by team owner Greg Pickett, Klaus Graf and occasionally Sascha Maassen and Lucas Luhr was widely considered to be among the most sophisticated sports cars ever developed, the team had support from Porsche in the form of a couple of embedded engineers at every race weekend -- engineers not only familiar with the inner workings of the RS Spyder but with reams of data on the car's past performance at all of the venues on the ALMS schedule.

In contrast, although Aston Martin has tweaked the Lola B08/60, the chassis that forms the platform for the Muscle Milk Aston Martin Racing ALMS entry circa 2011 is, at heart, a customer chassis. Sophisticated to be sure, but perhaps not to quite the same level as their former rocket ship from Weissach. Though Aston Martin also is providing ample technical support, the car never has run at most of this year's ALMS circuits.

Did we mention the team didn't take delivery of its new car until January? Or that it lost much of the preseason test to a fire that required a thorough rewiring of the car? Or that MMR suffered a further setback in another (unrelated) fire during practice for the 12 Hours of Sebring?

[+] EnlargeTeam Muscle Milk
Courtesy Paul Webb of LAT USA for ALMS Klaus Graf, left, Greg Pickett, center, and Lucas Luhr on the grid prior to the ALMS race at Long Beach. Graf and Luhr led all but one lap for Muscle Milk Aston Martin Racing's first ALMS victory of 2011.

Little wonder that, even though Graf and Luhr scored a convincing win in the second race of the season at Long Beach, Job 1 for the team during the lengthy Le Mans break is turning the Lola-Aston Martin into "their" car.

"When we stepped into the Porsche program, along with our ability to get our engines done at Weissach, we had an engine and a telemetry engineer that came over for every race last year, and they did a tremendous amount," Pickett said.

"So we had a complete book. Porsche had run all those circuits, so it was not nearly as big of a jump off a cliff into the unknown as it has been with this car. They had more book, we had more experience with the engineers, and even though we've got an imbedded engineer from Aston Martin Racing, John Ogden, a very capable guy also builds our engines over there in the engine shop, dynos them and brings them over for us and is doing a splendid job.

"But on the other systems of the car, since we only got the car after the first of the year, we really didn't have an opportunity to make it a Pickett Racing car -- our own car -- by the first event," the team owner continued. "We kind of had to 'run what we brung,' so to speak. We did a little shock development on a seven-post rig, but we honestly didn't have the time to go completely through the system, check and recheck, and validate them and call them our own."

Sharing Road Atlanta with Flying Lizard and Paul Miller Racing for two days of testing in mid-May was the next step in putting the real Muscle Milk into the Muscle Milk Lola-Aston Martin.

"We're feeling very good about this test," Pickett said. "It's a relatively straightforward car. It's got some very nice additions to it from an aerodynamic standpoint, and from geometry standpoint that make it a lot different from a Lola -- the base chassis. We can see those improvements and we like this car."

Remaking the Lola-Aston Martin also required the team to alter its modus operandi, one that was largely content to follow Porsche's voluminous book on the RS Spyder since first running the car in August 2009. Not only has respected engineer Brandon Frye been brought on in a full-time capacity, the team's approach has changed.

"We don't have the same type or amount of information that was provided by Porsche, which had run all the tracks with Penske since 2005," Graf said. "And we pretty much stuck with the plan and ran the car -- I wouldn't say we ran the car exactly as Porsche wanted us to, but we didn't go out of the box too far.

"So that's a different deal now because we have to come up with some of our own ideas, especially for tracks like Lime Rock, Mosport, Road America, Laguna Seca and Road Atlanta. We have to decide which direction we want to go so, for sure, it is more labor intensive."

In addition to Sebring and Long Beach, of course, Aston Martin campaigned the car throughout the bulk of the Le Mans Series in Europe, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans itself. But while the car is a proven commodity in many respects, it lacks a track record, so to speak, in most of North America. And as Graf well knows, that's significant.

"I think sometimes it gets underestimated by the European-based drivers and teams," he said. "You come here and it's almost like a different sport. The tracks are so different. The temperatures are so different. It's very difficult to apply the full package from Europe to the ALMS because the tracks we go to in Europe are very different. I mean I know the tracks on both sides of the ocean. I know the tracks in Europe and I know the tracks in North America, and I can tell you it's like night and day. So you really have to apply the 'American' pattern to these tracks to make the car work, and that's quite a lot of work."

There is, of course, another major dimension to the car's performance, namely, tires. Again, the challenge is formidable. For not only does Michelin's North American experience with the Lola-Aston Martin begin -- and end -- with the runways of Sebring International Raceway and the streets of Long Beach, the torquey turbo diesels of current prototype heavyweights Audi and Peugeot use their rubber altogether differently than the normally aspirated Lola-Aston Martin, replete with engine intake restrictors that cost the cars upward of 15 mph in top end at Sebring this year compared to 2010.

"Michelin has done a great job with the tires," Pickett said. "Honestly, one of our problems with the P1 tire is the Peugeots and the Audis, with all their power, are so difficult on tires. So this car, without the power it's had in past years, it's hard to get heat in the tires we'd like. But Michelin is working very closely with us and I think we're making a lot of progress in that regard.

"That's the main thing overall: I like our progress. Brandon [Frye] is with us full time this year rather than just part time; he's a splendid addition to the team and we've brought in some top mechanics, so I think we're positioned to have a good year."

My commitment to the team is to provide them with the equipment, the budget, the management, the people -- all the assets -- required to be successful. And that includes some really good people behind the wheel.

-- Muscle Milk team owner Greg Pickett

A good year? Likely. A championship season? Not so sure, given the fact that Muscle Milk Aston Martin Racing's DNF shy of the 70 percent mark at Sebring left the team in a 30-point hole to Dyson Racing. What's more, a thin LMP1 entry at Long Beach meant that, even with the win, the Muscle Milk team gained only four points on its rival from Poughkeepsie. With just seven more events on the calendar, Pickett & Co. will have to run a flawless campaign to overhaul the Dyson team in the points race -- or hope for some help.

"When there's only four points difference between winning and second, we're going to have to be perfect the rest of this season to get where we want to be," Pickett said. "Particularly if we're only racing against Dyson, so we're very hopeful some other guys will be back."

Still, Pickett well knows his team can't rely on other people for help. Witness the recent announcement of a parting of the ways between Highcroft Racing and HPD. But the prospect of other teams taking away points from Dyson Racing is not the only reason Pickett hopes for more LMP1 entries when the ALMS gets back to racing at Lime Rock Park, where the Muscle Milk Porsche won overall last year.

"Car count is important here, and let's face it, when you race against the best it brings the best out in you," he says. "Highcroft were very good last year and very complimentary about us, and we feel the same about them as well as Chris [Dyson]. He has a very deep organization as well as a car he's run for a couple of years now and is very familiar with; they're just going to get tougher and tougher. You can see he's got his reliability down and Guy [Smith] did a great job qualifying at Long Beach, very exciting to watch. So we know they're just going to get better and better ... that's why we're out testing. We know we have to be on top of our game, and continue to get better and better."

If Pickett sounds just a tad wistful about the fact that Dyson Racing is "very familiar" with its Lola-Mazda, it's because at least a part of him wishes Muscle Milk was racing a car it's equally familiar with. But that simply wasn't in the cards.

"Honestly, Porsche ran out of bits and pieces for that program," he said. "That was the reason that, reluctantly on both parties' parts, we were not able to continue with them. We would very much have liked to continue another year. That said, we couldn't be happier with the Lola-Aston Martin and the support they are providing and to be associated with two companies with the heritage of Lola and Aston Martin."

Of course, one of the reasons Porsche "ran out of bits and pieces" for the RS Spyder is that Pickett left a trail of parts scattered across central Ohio as the result of a colossal crash in testing at Mid-Ohio last summer. The accident would have been hard on any driver, let alone one who won the 1978 Trans-Am Championship.

A couple of cracked ribs and a compression fracture to his L3 vertebrae at Mid-Ohio ended Pickett's 2010 season. However, he drove a couple of stints at Sebring before, as he says, deciding to step out of the car and focus on ensuring the Muscle Milk Aston Martin Racing has what it needs to make a run at the 2011 LMP1 title. If that means Luhr takes his place on a regular basis (as he did at Long Beach), so be it.

"It was my ambition going into the season to do a number of races with Klaus," Pickett said. "Right now that's still our plan. We've got Lucas on a basis where he can come in, even on short notice. My commitment to the team is to provide them with the equipment, the budget, the management, the people -- all the assets -- required to be successful. And that includes some really good people behind the wheel.

"So if we feel we are behind in that area, I'm not going to blink. I've enjoyed my driving immensely. I don't think I have a lot else to prove. That win that I got last year at Lime Rock with Klaus was very important to me, personally, a real feather in my driving cap.

"So I feel good about that, I really do. And if we feel that becomes something where I'm letting the team down, I won't hesitate to make changes. Honestly, I hope people will see a little more of me behind the wheel, but we'll see how that goes!"

However it goes, rest assured Pickett and the Muscle Milk team will be going its own way in 2011.

David Phillips' work has appeared in AutoWeek, RACER and other prominent motorsport magazines. He will be a regular American Le Mans Series contributor to ESPN.com.