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IMSA: Corvette balances redemption, heartbreak in Long Beach win

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – Covering races off site often leads one to rely heavily on the results sheet – likely too much – without factoring in the circumstances behind how the car, driver or team got there.

So if one was to look at the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix and see that Corvette Racing qualified on the pole with its No. 3 Corvette C7.R and won the race with the No. 4 car, you’d think – oh, that was straightforward.

It was easily one of the least straightforward days in the team’s history after a bizarre ending to a goofy race, which packed so much drama in the LBC in just 100 minutes of action.

Jan Magnussen, who’s ratcheted up his performance lately, scored a decisive pole position on Friday in a great effort to put the No. 3 car he shared with the “King of Spain” – Antonio Garcia – on the top spot.

But the race almost went away from them right at the start. Toni Vilander tried an enthusiastic passing maneuver in his No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE, as the GTLM leader, to try to pass Ed Brown’s No. 22 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi on the opening lap of the race exiting Turn 5.

Yet it backfired, badly. Vilander spun Brown, then took himself, Magnussen and Joey Hand in the No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT into the outside wall of the corner in an accordion effect accident.

Vilander’s Ferrari was done on the spot while Magnussen’s Corvette had left front quarter panel damage, and Hand lost the hood of his Ford.

Magnussen didn’t lose a lap though and pressed on with the damage. A second caution 22 minutes into the race provided an opportunity to go off-sequence, which about half the GTLM field did. The No. 3 crew pitted Magnussen to switch him out and put Garcia in. The Spaniard then drove the final 78 minutes on the same set of Michelin tires and tank of fuel, aided by five full-course caution periods.

As the race neared its finish, the No. 24 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM was leading in class and for that matter overall on the same strategy, but an apparent ECU issue took that car from the lead as it slowed exiting Turn 8. It provided a window for the two Corvettes and the second Ford to barge through into the new podium scenario.

Corvette Racing looked destined for a 1-2 finish, which would have been the team’s first since Lime Rock last year, when disaster struck entirely out of their hands.

A battle between two GTD cars, the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 and the No. 86 Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3, was always going to make the hairpin tricky but when the No. 15 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 attempted to make it three-wide, a rather late lunge from GT class rookie Robert Alon, it turned the Long Beach hairpin into a parking lot on the 405 freeway.

This blocked the track and Garcia was stuck, trapped in behind the three cars on the outside of the corner apex. When one of the GT cars was able to get out, it opened up a lane for the No. 4 Corvette, driven by Tommy Milner and started by Oliver Gavin, to go through to the win over the No. 67 Ford. Garcia dropped to fifth.

IMSA reviewed the incident, and a series spokesperson confirmed the traffic jam was deemed an “incident in progress.” In layman’s terms, that meant if you were stuck in the incident, you were trapped, while if you were able to get out of the incident, you could get out. The field was not frozen as it was not a full-course caution but only a local caution in that corner, and the overall leader had already taken the checkered flag as the GT cars were on their final lap.

“I’ve seen a lot of races before, but none like that,” Danny Binks, the legendary crew chief on the No. 3 Corvette, lamented to NBC Sports. The only logical conclusion to occur at this point was that Garcia had exhausted all his luck with the racing gods after his heroic drive at Sebring, and the racing gods felt compelled to take one away that they giveth in Florida.

Meanwhile for the No. 4 car, it provided the quirkiest bit of redemption because a Porsche took Milner out at the hairpin last year.

While the win was appreciated for the No. 4 car, it was still hard to swallow because the No. 3 had the win to rights by strategy.

Gavin and Milner attempted to explain a race that was lacking in rhythm all the way through.

“The start for me was pretty interesting. I was coming into turn 1 and it looked like Jan had been jumped by the Ferrari and the Ford,” Gavin said. “And on first laps here you’re looking at who’s tires are up to temp and who is taking chances. It looked like everyone was taking chances. And by Turn 5 it looked like the Patron car was already into the curbing there. The three of us managed to avoid any contact after the stopped car. We were 1-2-3 then and it was just some insane racing, not by just us three, but by all the cars.

“There were some choice moves by a lot of cars out there, everyone wanted to win it, but making moves with 85 minutes to go. So I was just trying to keep the car clean and hand it over to Tommy for the finish. And the way the team managed the pit stop, we managed to get the car out in front of everyone we were racing. But the race kept turning on its head, and it’s one of those you can’t take your eyes off.”

Gavin then highlighted a variance in the technical regulations about the different elements the GT Daytona class cars have which the others in the series don’t.

“This really highlights an issue in that I really don’t think you can run cars with ABS in the same series with cars that don’t have ABS,” he said. “I think you have to have everyone on it, or no one. Especially in our class, trying to get past those guys, someone can make it really hard. They can park the thing in the middle of the corner and drag strip it off. We have to develop the speed with Michelin, and in the chassis and our team. And ABS on this circuit is something you can rely on and be a hero. Driving around here without ABS, you’re holding your breath trying to find out if you’re on the limit at every corner. With ABS you can just hump on the pedal and turn the wheel and the car looks after itself. This race really highlights that. I think it’s part of some of the reasons the race happened that way today.”

Photo: Corvette Racing

Milner then offered take on the race: “It was just a weird race today for sure. We started off a bit behind and it looked like the strategy wasn’t going to pay off for us, and the cautions made for the people who made the stop early were going to play it out on fuel. Then we kind of hoped for yellows to bunch us back up there. I was racing hard with Briscoe and Antonio and the BMW, but I had newer tires by 14 laps. The BMW had a problem coming off of turn 8 and I kind of went for it. I expected him to keep going, but he didn’t. we got a little sideways with the Ford and it freed up where Antonio was and we both pulled away. Certainly my newer tires were better, but getting by Antonio was going to be pretty tough.

“Then we came to the last corner there, I knew the race was over because Antonio had a bit of a gap on me. It came on the radio and I saw the caution flags there. It was free, and then it wasn’t. I tried going to the outside in the same situation last time and lost spots. This time I went on the inside. I wasn’t even full speed, I was cruising thinking we were under caution. Then I saw the green flags and the guys on the radio said we were P1. Racing is a lot about luck in a lot of cases, I don’t think I’ve seen it play out this way for me or for anyone else. It’s good to just get some points for me and for Chevrolet and Corvette and so we’ll start to go on to the next one.

“At no point do I feel like I was in a rhythm until the last 4 or 5 laps and then I could see what the car could do and find its limits, then start taking off tenths. For those short spurts you could see it was going to be hard to pass cars. I can’t say I took an opportunity at the hair pin, I just lucked out. It goes along with having classes similar in speed in a lot of places. Certainly the GTD cars are quicker in a few places. The way we mixed together is not ideal and this track really highlights those mismatches. Those guys are racing hard and we all have to co-exist, and it’s hard to get 100 drivers to co-exist for an entire race. It’s not ideal, but you make the most of it and deal with it.”

At least one Garcia won this weekend, as Sergio captured The Masters, and Garcia and Gavin had some fun with it on social media…

With this the 104th win in program history, albeit one of the strangest ones, it’s worth looking at how Corvette Racing has endured and sustained the success over nearly 20 years. A quick answer to that can be found below:

F1 2017 driver review: Lance Stroll

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Team: Williams

Car No.: 18
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Best Finish: P3 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 40
Championship Position: 13th

Lance Stroll’s arrival in Formula 1 at the start of the 2017 was a far from smooth one despite a significant private testing program being undertaken in the months leading up to his grand prix debut.

Even with older hand Felipe Massa at Williams, Stroll looked uneasy behind the wheel of the FW40 car through the opening run of races as he failed to reach the checkered flag in any of his first three starts.

The Canadian was left deflated after his first decent effort in Bahrain was cut short after a clash with Carlos Sainz Jr., calling it his “rock bottom” moment – but things would turn around on home soil.

Stroll produced a stunning fight through the field to take an excellent P9 in Canada, proving his talent seen in Formula 3 the previous year and shushing many of his critics.

Better would follow two weeks later in Baku when Stroll became the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium, dodging a crazy race to finish third. It would have been second had he not lost a drag race against Valtteri Bottas to the line.

Stroll’s form then fluctuated greatly. He was sublime on occasion, the best examples being Monza, when he started a remarkable P2 on the grid and ended as the top midfielder in P7, or Mexico where he took a brilliant sixth.

But there were too many weekends he was a little anonymous. Sure, Williams didn’t have the best car this year, but perhaps a little better was expected from Stroll.

2018 will be an even bigger challenge as he looks to the lead the team when a new teammate arrives – and at only 19, it is a lot to handle. Nevertheless, there are positive signs to be found; you just need to look for them a little.

Season High: Taking a shock podium in Baku after dodging chaos in front.

Season Low: A poor opening two races in Australia and China.