“This level of car could possibly be the best type of sports car racing in the world.”
It’s a bold statement from Lawson Aschenbach, driver of the No. 10 Blackdog Racing Chevy Camaro in the GTS class of the Pirelli World Challenge. But considering Aschenbach’s resume – driving everything from Porsches, to Civics, to Cadillacs – it carries some weight.
Team and driver switched from the GT class to the GTS class in World Challenge this year; Tony Gaples is a longtime Corvette racer in GT, and Aschenbach drove for the TruSpeed Porsche team in 2012.
Now, they’ve entered a hornet’s nest of competition that includes the RealTime Acuras, GTSport with Goldcrest Porsche Caymans, Best IT Camaros, Kinetic Kia Optimas and other cars such as the Ford Mustang Boss 302Rs, Aston Martin Vantage, Nissan 370Z, Lotus Exige and Scion FR-S. It’s as diverse a class as you’ll see racing in North America today.
“From street car to race car, most are street-related parts,” says Aschenbach. “It’s the best way for a manufacturer to validate their street car. The class showcases that. I don’t see why any manufacturer wouldn’t want to be involved. Top programs like Kinetic, RealTime, Goldcrest/GTSport, etc., probably should be in GT. But this is a great place to prove the team and the car capabilities.”
That makes it all the more impressive that in just their second weekend as a combined unit, Aschenbach took down established class king Peter Cunningham of RealTime at Long Beach to score Blackdog’s first GTS victory (see it Sunday, May 5, 2 p.m. ET, on NBC Sports Network). Aschenbach attests the effort Gaples and chief mechanic Ray Sorenson have put in has made all the difference.
“I’m so pleased with the results so far, but in all honesty, I expected it,” Aschenbach says. “When this program started to come together, and I worked with Ray and Tony a couple years ago in a test day, I realized the professionalism and what they were capable of.”
Aschenbach, who notes the Camaro is a true testament to the effort of GM engineers, handles street courses very well. It has great brakes and takes bumps and corners very well, key elements to success on the concrete canyons that populate the World Challenge schedule.
Knowing where GT cars have their strong suits is also important, as in the GTS class, you always have to be aware of faster GT traffic. Having been in both classes is an asset for both Aschenbach and Gaples.
The drive for another win occurs in a little more than two weeks at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas. GT and GTS will race combined as they have to open the year, with TC and TCB joining for the first time this season.
“Following the unanimous agreement of the Strategy Group, in July 2016, to introduce additional frontal protection for Formula One and the repeated support from the drivers, the FIA confirms the introduction of the Halo for 2018. With the support of the teams, certain features of its design will be further enhanced.
“Having developed and evaluated a large number of devices over the past five years, it had become clear that the Halo presents the best overall safety performance.”
One of Bobby Rahal and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s strengths for the better part of the last decade has been the ability to run two parallel programs – one in IndyCar and one in sports cars – that contend for wins and championships on an annual basis.
And the goal is to continue that into 2018 as one of its programs comes up for renewal.
BMW Motorsport has partnered with RLL, under the BMW Team RLL banner, for nearly a decade since 2009. In that time frame, BMW and RLL have combined to launch the M3, Z4 and M6 GTE spec models, winning races seven of the nine years.
There have been 13 combined wins – seven with the M3 from 2009 to 2012, four with the Z4 from 2013 to 2015 and now two with the new M6 this year – along with the 2011 ALMS GT title for Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller and a pair of back-to-back Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring wins in 2011 and 2012.
While the contract is up for bid and as rumors swirl of a possible change by BMW to another outfit, Rahal is optimistic the years of success achieved by the combined unit will be able to continue together for 2018 and beyond as the new M8 GTE makes its debut.
“BMW is our priority – we’ve been with them nearly 10 years,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “Of course it’s a contract year. I would presume given our success that should mean something to them, and that the relationship would continue.”
The pair of back-to-back wins this IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season at Watkins Glen International and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park could not have come at a better time.
Balance of Performance adjustments seem to have adversely affected BMW Team RLL and the M6 GTLM more than other cars within the stacked GT Le Mans class, and through a combination of bad luck, pace restrictions and the heavier car, the M6 was stuck in a near two-year rut from when it got introduced prior to 2016 through mid-year this year.
That was a challenge to team morale, but it was something Rahal was keen and focused to lead the team through.
“It’s been a long time coming as you say. Let’s face it; there were mechanical issues we started out with when the car first showed up, and then BoP came in and knocked the wind out of our sails for most of the rest of 2016,” he reflected.
“Even Sebring this year, we were so far off. I thought it was a hell of a job to finish on the same lap as the leaders almost at Daytona and Sebring, as we didn’t have anywhere near the pace (timing data backs that up; best race lap at Daytona was a 1:44.247, one of only three cars in 11 in the 1:44s while rest in 1:43s and at Sebring, best race lap 1:58.376 more than a second off leaders). That was just good consistent running and pit stops.
“As I told people recently, I think Sebring was the longest 12 hours of my life – it was painful. We didn’t stand a chance. To sit there and pound around there knowing that, the crew pushing on anyway, depressing was a good word.
“We finally got the BoP back starting at Austin as we were on equal ground, and now we actually had a shot. At least you’re in the race with a chance. We saw that in Austin and then it kept going at Watkins Glen and Mosport.”
Both lineups have changed this year with Alexander Sims and Martin Tomczyk joining BMW American veterans Bill Auberlen and John Edwards, respectively, in the Nos. 25 and 24 BMW M6 GTLMs. These two are largely new to the American scene but have adapted rather well.
Rahal also harbors Le Mans ambitions for his team, and while that is highly unlikely to be with BMW given it will have the M-TEK team running the M8 GTE in Europe, he’d one day like to run an LMP2 entry there and have a heavy American presence in the driver lineup.
As for on the other domestic front, one of the annual questions that arises with RLL – which consistently overachieves as a one-car team in the Verizon IndyCar Series – is whether it will expand back to a two-car program full-time for the first time since 2013. A second car has run part-time each of the last four years, including this one.
The possibility is greater of that happening with again, rumors of teams switching manufacturers. If Honda has available units in the bank, that enhances the chances that a second RLL car will appear on the grid. Rahal remains adamant though that such a driver would need to enhance the overall competitiveness of the program.
“Having a good two-car team is better than a good one-car team, but the second car has to be a contributor, not just a second car,” Rahal said.
“But I feel pretty good about our opportunities in that respect. We’re talking to several people – and the thing is we’re looking for our own money so we don’t need a driver with money. We’re not there yet, but odds are good we’ll have a two-car team.”
Past RLL veterans Takuma Sato and Oriol Servia would make sense there; Sato if Andretti Autosport shifts from Honda to Chevrolet as is possible and Servia, who’s been off-and-on with RLL since 2009 on several occasions but never enjoyed a full-time season with the team. Servia is undertaking the Honda development on the 2018 universal Dallara aero kit and his setup presence would be invaluable.
“There’s some good teams that could look to improve their lineups, or teams that aren’t doing so well to improve their driver lineup. Then teams will add, like presumably us. It’s interesting to watch.
“As I’ve said all along, whoever is in the second car, it’s gotta be a competitive race car. A guy like Taku, we have a lot of warm feelings having worked with him a number of years ago. Hinchcliffe is on the market. If I look at the driver, you look at what combination works, and there’s other guys out there. Those two would get along. There’s even Oriol, who works very well with the team.
“There’s a number of options, so the goal is to get the most competitive guy you can get.”