BRASELTON, Ga.—IMSA’s WeatherTech Sportscar Championship wrapped up its 2016 season and its opening era at the ten-hour Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on Oct.1.
The #60 MSR Ligier-Honda charged off at the start but lost time in the pits on its first stop, with faulty rear wheel drive pins—which held up the car at every pit stop, but never failed outright.
When the MSR Ligier dropped back, the #31 Action Express car was right there and eager to take over trailed by the Mazdas, which showed excellent speed all weekend. The battle for podium positions continued behind the Shank Ligier with the #31 AXR Coyote-Corvette and the #10 WTR Dallara-Corvette going at it hard all night long, with the #70 Mazda chasing hard until nearly the end.
Mazda looked very strong early in the race. Tristan Nunez moved the #55 into second with team mate Tom Long in the #70 a few seconds back in third. Unfortunately the #55 Mazda broke after only two- and-a-quarter hours; Tristan Nunez had to park the car just past turn Three. He restarted it, and had to park it again, and then limped back to the pits. Spencer Pigot took over and ran a few laps, but ended up parking it right next to where Nunez had , for good. The final diagnosis was a terminal misfire.
The #70 ran strong for almost ten hours. The #70 Mazda led briefly in the final hour, as it was the last of the leaders to pit, and seemed to be perfectly positioned to take third, creating an all-LMP2 podium. Unfortunately Mazda had Mazda luck—the #70 car burst into flame just 14 minutes from the checkered flag and had to retire.
The #02 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier-Honda was a pre-race favorite, but seemed to be off the pace through most of the race. The team was just running its own strategy; the car picked up pace as the evening progressed, eventually challenging the Shank Ligier for the overall lead. The Shank car was too fast; even with young hotshot Pipo Derani at the wheel, the ESM car couldn’t close the gap, and instead slowed, opting to preserve second instead of risking a wreck trying for the win.
The race ran relatively caution-free—only five in ten hours, including one extended caution period of over an hour while the track crew repaired a growing pot-hole at Turn Three. Cars tend to hit the curb at Turn Three, springing the right side high into the air while jamming the left wheels hard into the track. Finally the track started to break up. it took just over an hour for track officials to complete a patch which lasted for the rest of the race.
Collisions caused a few cautions: three hours and fifteen minutes into the race, Fred Makowiecki in the GTLM #912 Porsche North America 911 RSR nailed Andy Lally in the GTD #44 Magnum Racing Audi at the apex of Turn Three, spreading debris across the track. Just past the six-hour mark Johnny Mowlem in the #20 Bar1 Oreca speared the #911 Porsche coming down hill from Turn Three, sending Nick Tandy hard into the wall on driver’s left, causing another caution.
Tomy Drissi beached the #20 Bar1 Oreca # an hour and 20 minutes into the race, causing the first caution period. And the final flag came for the #70 Mazda when a failed fuel injector set it afire in Turn Ten, creating a ten-minute sprint finish.
The long caution for track repair effectively divided the race in half; once the patch was finished, the entire field reset, with full fuel tanks, fresh rubber, and rested drivers, eager to contest the remaining four hours, fifty-three minutes of the ten-hour event.
The green flag flew again on lap 195. Oz Negri in the #60 MSR Ligier restarted fourth but worked his way back to the lead within 15 minutes. None of the other prototypes could match the #60’s pace; the car ended up setting a new Prototype class record.
The #60 retained the lead after a round of pit stops—apparently the MSR crew had figured out how to get the left rear wheel off in a more rapid fashion despite the broken drive pins. After everyone pitted the Risi Ferrari, closely pursued by the #4 Corvette, led GTLM; the #23 Heart of Racing Porsche led in GTD, and the #38 Performance Tech Oreca in PC.
Three minutes after the GTLM-leading Risi Ferrari pitted, Johnny Mowlem hit Nick Tandy in the #911 Porsche, bringing out he yellow flag again. I t took track crews six laps (about 16 minutes) to clean up the mess; then racing resumed for what would be three-and-a-quarter uninterrupted hours.
Olly Pla had gotten back into the #60 MSR ligier-Honda during the pit stop; he charged away from t he field when the green flag fell, but nearly threw away his lead on the second lap. He stormed into Turn 10a on cold tires and couldn’t turn in. Once he realized that he had no chance to make the turn, the intrepid Frenchman steamed straight across the gravel traps and the grass, to rejoin the track just after Turn 10b, still a couple of car lengths ahead of the second-placed #5 Action Express Coyote-Corvette.
A lap later the #5 Action Express car suffered an unfortunate left rear puncture which sent it to the pits and handed the series championship to its sister car, the #31 AXR Coyote-Corvette. The incident could have cost more than just the title; Felix Albuquerque was fighting off a charge from the #31, climbing the hill from Turn One to Turn Two, when the tire deflated, almost sending the car off the road.
Albuquerque’s amazing reflexes kept him from crashing, but the #31 went past … as did much of the rest of the field, as the #5 fell to sixth in class. Albuquerque spent the rest of his stint fighting to keep from being lapped by Pla.
Behind Pla, the #31 AXR Coyote-Corvette and the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Dallara-Corvette fought over the podium positions, with the #2 ESM Ligier-Honda and the #70 Mazda trailing closely.
GTLM and GTD
The battle in GTLM stayed hot, with Sebastin Bourdais in the #66 Ford GT trailing Giancarlo Fisichella in the #62 Risi Ferrari by about five car-lengths, carrying on where Joey Hand and James Colado had left off. Bill Auberlen in the #25 BMW Team RLL M6 ran third ahead of Daniel Serra in the #68 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari and Marcel Fässler in the #4 Corvette.
Fassler had an interesting experience in the Corvette; he ran off at Turn 10a and loaded his grill with grass, causing the car to overheat and shut itself off. Fässler came to a complete and sudden halt on the hill exiting 10b, and actually started to roll backwards slightly.
This involuntary maneuver was enough to dislodge the grass, so Fässler restarted the engine and continued on his way.
The GTD contest was equally hard-fought with Alessandro Balzan in the #63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari fighting hard to keep Andy Lally in the #44 Magnus Audi behind him.
On lap 270, with three hours, seven minutes left in the race, Lally made a bravura move, pulling along side Balzan through Turn One, staying there all the way through Turn Two, and managing to squeeze by to take the class lead by Turn Three.
Both cars stopped in the pits a few minutes later, turning over the lead to the #33 Viper. Balzan retook the class lead on lap 281, with the #44, now with Marco Seefried behind the wheel, hot on his wing.
Meanwhile, the #52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Oreca maintained its lead in the Prototype Challenge class.
As the sun began to set, the race settled in to a rhythm—not a relaxed rhythm, because there were fierce fights in three of the four classes, but a steady pattern of close pursuit, occasional risky passing attempts.
With two-and-a-half hours left, the race entered its final phase, the final hundred or so laps—a distance about as long as an entire WSC sprint race. Only half-a-dozen cars were in the garages or retired—the remaining thirty-odd cars were preparing for the most important hours.
Oz Negri pilots the #60 MSR Ligier through Turn Seven as the sun sets behind the trees at Petit Le Mans. (Chris Jasurek/Epoch Times)
The Final Hours
Approaching the final two hours, the #60 MSR Ligier remained in the lead, trailed by Ricky Taylor in the #10 WTR Dallara-Corvette and the #70 Mazda driven by Spencer Pigot.
Pigot probably had the quicker car over a lap, but the two-liter Mazda didn’t have the low-end torque to keep up with Taylor exiting the corners, so Pigot couldn’t catch a draft down the straights to make a pass at the next corner.
Pigot could stay within a car’s length … on lap 301 Pigot managed to draw level with Taylor in Turn 12 but couldn’t quite hand on down the front straight.
Negri was in a fight of his own, trying every trick he knew to overtake Felipe Albuquerque in the #5 AXR car, trying to put it a lap down, while Albuquerque used his considerable experience, and his larger motor, to keep a few car-lengths ahead.
James Calado in the #62 Risi led Joey Hand in the #66 Ford GT by about 12 seconds on lap 303, with Bill Auberlen another 15 seconds back.
Marco Seefried in the #44 Magnus Audi led Jeroen Bleekemolen in the #33 Viper in GTD.
With all cars looking at three more pit stops, crew chiefs were starting to count back laps and time, deciding on final strategies, while also looking towards the eight-hour mark when points would be awarded for the North American Endurance Cup.
Fifteen minutes before the two-hour-to-go mark, the #68 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari pitted from fifth in GTLM. A problem with the fuel nozzle led to hot fuel spilling and igniting all over the car and the fueler. Quick work with fire extinguishers got both the fueler and the car extinguished without injury or damage; the crew calmly cleaned off some of the extinguisher powder and sent the car on its way.
Two to Go
Despite the race being eight hours old there were still fierce battles playing out in several classes. While Oz Negri had a hold on the overall lead, he kept pushing, trying hard to put gain a second lap advantage on Felipe Albuquerque in the #5 AXR car. Albuquerque fought back hard, eventually earning himself a drive-through penalty for blocking, which he served on lap 323.
Not far behind this pair, Ricky Taylor and Spencer Pigot continued their battle for second. Taylor pitted on lap 325, letting Simon Pagenaud in the #31 AXR car into second. Pigot pitted five laps later and after an excellent stop rejoined in third. Pigot got past the AXR car on lap 342, with 95 minutes left in the race.
The Mazda actually led the race from lap 354 to lap 360, while the #60 made a pit stop, but the #60 had enough of a gap to pit and rejoin back in the lead, a position it never again relinquished.
Olivier Pla got back into the #60 for the final stint, a stint which nearly started with a disaster. A few laps after rejoining, Pla got pushed off into a spin by Jörg Bergmeister in the #73 Park place Porsche. Bergmeister cut sharply across the nose of Pla’s car exiting Turn 11, making a late move to pit entrance. Pla was able to recover, keeping the car on the track and keeping the engine running; he was far enough ahead of the Mazda that Pla kept the overall lead.
Meanwhile Jose Guterriez in the #52 and Kenton Koch in the #38 spent the last two hours of the race the same way they had spent the hours before, struggling for the Prototype Challenge class lead. This pair fought it out for the next hour before handing off the Tom Kimber-Smith and James French, who continued the battle. Kimber-Smith in the #52 eventually won the class when French in the #38 had to pit for a splash of fuel with six laps left in the race.
In GTD the #33 Viper and the #44 Audi fought equally hard. The pair pitted together from second and third in class on lap 371; the Viper got out first, passed the Audi and moved up to second, then first in class when the #63 Ferrari pitted. The Viper held the class lead from until lap 410, when the Audi pushed past to finish the race first in GTD.
However, Magnus Racing made an error in rules interpretation. On the lap 371 pit stop, the team opted to keep its fastest driver, Andy Lally behind the wheel to counter Jeroen Bleekemolen in the Viper; team owner John Potter passed on his stint.
Lally chased Bleekemolen doggedly, but while the Audi was faster through the curves, it couldn’t overcome the raw power and speed of the even bigger V-10 in the Viper. Lally never quit hounding his adversary, though, and finally, on the last lap of the race, Bleekemolen made a slight error, dropping two wheels in the dirt at Turn Five. Lally forced his way past and took the class lead.
The maneuver earned Magnus the overall win on the track, but since Potter, the team’s Bronze driver, didn’t complete his minimum drive time, the Audi was relegated to last in class.
There was some GTD action of another sort in the final half-hour: Jens Klingman in the #96 Turner BMW decided for some unknowable reason to attack his team mate Marcus Palttala in the #97 Turner BMW. Klingman sideswiped Palttala exiting Turn 10b, terminally damaging his own car and flattening a tire ont he #97.
The two Turner BMWs had been running third and fourth in class, guaranteeing the team a podium finish at least. After the collision and the resulting repairs and retirement, they finished fourth and tenth. Certainly Klingman faced some unpleasant conversations after that ill-planned maneuver.
The Final Shootout
Pipo Derani, Extreme Speed Motorsports’ secret weapon, got back in the #2 ESM Ligier-Honda for the final two hours, and put on the same kind of performance which had earned the team the win at Sebring: as the sky darkened, the 23-year-old Brazilian kept going faster and faster.
Derani caught up to third-placed Dane Cameron in the #31 AXR on lap 371, and found a way past, weaving through heavy traffic at Turn 7, then hunted down Joel Miller in the #70 Mazda and pushed past on the outside at Turn 10a.
The Brazilian pitted on lap 380, caught Miller again in five laps, and made the same pass outside at 10a to retake second. Derani was eleven seconds behind Pla in the #60 MSR Ligier; at first it looked as if he might have a chance to catch the Frenchman, but they were too evenly matched.
When the #70 caught fire with 13 minutes to go, bringing out a full course yellow, it seemed Derani would have another chance to bring his team a sweep of the three big Endurance contests.
Derani had cars between himself and Pla on the restart, which allowed the MSR driver to open a couple of second lead on the first green lap, a gap which stretched to five seconds through the next few laps.
It took Derani those two laps to get his tires hot and his rhythm back; he cut into Pla’s lead back to 3.5 seconds with a personal-best lap of 1:14.1 but ran out of time—Oliver crossed the finish line, completing 412 laps in ten hours of racing, closing out Michael Shank Racing’s season with its best win since the start of the series.
The 2017 IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship season starts officially on Jan. 6–8 with the Roar Before the 24 at Daytona International Speedway, followed by the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Jan. 26–29. Tickets and information are available via IMSA.com or the Speedway website.