Racin' USA - 6h COTA Preview

Nobody does big, brash spectacle quite like the Americans. Whether it’s Superbowl halftime shows, Oscars awards parties or 72oz steak challenges (Rule 6 - “Should you become ill… please use the container as necessary”), our cousins across the pond know how to put on a performance.

COTA Dawn

World class endurance racing returns to Austin’s Circuit of the Americas next weekend with a fresh take on 2013’s multi-series format; a double headlined event featuring both the globe trotting WEC and the newly formed, US based Tudor United Sportscar Championship.

But that’s where the similarities end and the big changes begin. Last year’s spectator-light affair has been thumped with the Yank hammer and reforged into ‘Lone Star Le Mans’, a name that according to the organisers ‘reflects the spirit of Le Mans in the Lone Star State of Texas’.

And whereas 2013’s two races were split evenly across the weekend this year’s edition has them jammed into a single day, with the 6 hour WEC finale running deep into the night.

It’s a hectic schedule, and when combined with a massive, mid race fireworks display, armadillo racing (no, really) and performances from Blue Öyster Cult, Mike Barfield and Wayne ‘the Train’ Hancock (whose ‘reckless honky tonk’ can move the dead, allegedly) it looks set to be a proper all-American hoedown.

But the big news, as Speed Chills elaborated on earlier this week, is the Return of the WEC after a three month break. This will be the first time we get to see the field in action since the Le Mans 24 Hours concluded the European leg of the season, which means that we could be looking forward to a whole new ball game in Austin.

Porsche in particular have been keen to tell everybody how much testing, improving and retesting they’ve been doing since they returned trophyless from Le Sarthe. Podiums in the first two rounds at Silverstone and Spa showed the world that the returning legends mean business, so expect them to have made some considerable progress.

Neither Audi or Toyota have been sitting contentedly on their respective laurels though. The Japanese team from Cologne may have had a frustrating time at the 24 after a crash and an electronic failure left their chances scuppered, but the new TS040s have been almost unchallenged in the 6 hour races so far and their newly rejigged driver line ups are working well.

And it says a lot about this season that Audi are now thought of as contestants rather than shoo-ins. After their decade long domination the German modern endurance behemoths are starting to find that they can’t just rely on reliability any more - Le Mans victory notwithstanding - so they’ve been putting in the laps too and the R18 e-tron Quattro has a good chance at the podium.

Outside of the big manufacturer mix up we finally have something a bit more tantalising in the new-for-2014 LMP1-L class with Lotus debuting their brand new CLM P1/01. The Romanian team will be the first to challenge Rebellion’s brace of R-Ones that first raced back in Spa, and we can’t expect too much of such a new chassis but the opportunity is there for a shock performance.

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The SMP Racing Oreca of Viktor Shaitar and the Ladygin brothers currently leads the LMP2 championship after registering the WEC entries’ sole finish at Le Mans, but victories in Silverstone and Spa for G-Drive Racing mean it’s currently a two horse race for the top, with KCMG still in with a shout and the second SMP nowhere to be seen.

And while P2 may have been a bit threadbare so far in 2014 the 6 hours of Circuit of the Americas is due to change it up a bit with the introduction of TUSCC team Extreme Speed Motorsport. Though they're only having a one-off go with this race (with a possible full season entry in mind for the future) we’re now up to five entries which looks slightly more respectable.

However, the question every fan is asking is how much of an impact ESM can make. With acres of experience in the TUSCC and ALMS and an experienced team in Sharp, Dalziel and Brown the tequila sponsored HPD could be in a position to dole out some serious embarrassment to the world championship teams.

There’s a similar story on the cards in GTE Pro too, with Corvette Racing finally making their return to the top level series. They’re also here for a ‘one-off’ but rumours are swirling about a full season return in 2016. The fans definitely want it, so Corvette Racing could be making their preliminary assessments in Austin.

They’ve got a lot to deal with though, in the form of factory GT teams from AF Corse, Aston Martin and Porsche. These four greats came together in France in June and gave us an astonishing display, with most of the cars heading the field at one point or another.

That contest ended in another win for the ever excellent 458 Italia of Bruni, Fisichella and Vilander who now top the championship table. The two 911 RSRs and #97 Aston aren’t far behind however, and if 2013 is anything to go by the Pros will be battling right up until the chequered flag.

GTE Am is altogether quite different. The WEC's gentleman drivers cover the whole spectrum of talent ranging from ‘possible liability’ to ‘should probably have been a prototype champion’, and of the current entries it’s the #95 V8 Vantage ‘Dane Train’ that has eked out a healthy lead.

But when they do manage to stay on the track the Ams give us a good show with notable efforts from both AF Corse and Proton Competition keeping the championship alive. Krohn Racing are back for one race and will be hoping to run well at their home track while 8 Star and Prospeed will be looking to get some decent points on the board going into the second half of the season.

COTA is one of those rare animals: a modern track that encourages great racing with its combination of high speed sweeps, hairpin turns and long, undulating straights coming together to provide a tough challenge to both experienced and amateur drivers.

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The challenge will be even harder this year as the cars catapult through the first corner and into darkness. With bright flashes, loud bangs and country and western readily on offer to give the racers a healthy, Texan distraction, Lone Star Le Mans will be bringing that big, brash spectacle right to the heart of the World Endurance Championship.

The race weekend starts on Friday with the usual separate qualifying sessions; 6pm local for the GTs and 6.35 for the prototypes (that’s midnight and 00.35 for us Brits) while the race kicks off at 5pm on Saturday.