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IMSA: Dramatic finishes, popular winners at Mazda Raceway

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The penultimate round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca featured three first-time winners this year in the Prototype, GT Le Mans and GT Daytona classes – all of whom boast fascinating stories.

In Prototype and overall, Renger van der Zande and Marc Goossens delivered the first overall win of the year for an LMP2-spec car versus a Daytona Prototype international (DPi), and after a dramatic week for the Troy Flis-led VISIT FLORIDA Racing team.

Van der Zande and Goossens were only in their second race start with the team’s new No. 90 Ligier JS P217 Gibson, which replaced the troublesome Riley Multimatic Mk. 30 chassis run through Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in July.

Running second into the final few minutes of the two-hour, 40-minute race, van der Zande unleashed his inner Alex Zanardi at Mazda Raceway’s iconic corner, the Corkscrew, going down the inside of Penske Acura-bound Dane Cameron in his second-to-last race with Action Express Racing aboard its No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R.

Cameron left the door open just enough for van der Zande to slide through, with his momentum carrying through the inside of the left-handed downhill apex and then back onto the right-handed second portion of the corner in line.

He pulled away from there en route to the team’s first victory of the year at a track where it had won before, as recently as two years ago with Richard Westbrook and Michael Valiante in a Corvette DP.

The win comes after a week when the Florida-based team, with the likelihood of change to its partner portfolio if VISIT FLORIDA support doesn’t continue into 2018, incurred damage at its shop from Hurricane Irma. Van der Zande joked on the FOX Sports broadcast after the race he might get a tattoo of the Corkscrew after the win.

With third place in their No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R, Jordan and Ricky Taylor built their points lead to an unofficial gap of 29 points over Cameron and Eric Curran, the defending champions, with one race remaining. The Taylors will be set to clinch the Prototype title at Motul Petit Le Mans by starting the race, on October 7.

The GT classes featured two other cool stories and maiden 2017 winners.

In GT Le Mans, John Edwards broke a long winless drought sharing his No. 24 BMW M6 GTLM with Martin Tomczyk, in the revised black livery for the BMW Team RLL car. Edwards held off Toni Vilander in the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE at the flag, on a fuel save run.

The No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR was third ahead of the No. 3 Corvette C7.R, with points leaders Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen set to carry a 19-point lead over Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe in their No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT heading to Motul Petit Le Mans.

GT Daytona points leaders Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen, in their anticipated second-to-last race together in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 this year (Nielsen told RACER over the weekend she’ll leave the team at year’s end, following the end of her two-year contract), finally got on the board this year after a wealth of podiums but no wins.

Balzan moved into the lead following Colin Braun’s late splash for fuel, which denied the No. 54 CORE autosport Porsche 911 GT3 R lineup of Braun and Jon Bennett a potential first win in class.

Balzan and Nielsen have a 25-point lead over Jeroen Bleekemolen in GTD – Bleekemolen and Ben Keating finished eighth today in their No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG Mercedes AMG-GT3 – and are poised to wrap their second straight class title at Motul Petit Le Mans.

RESULTS

Lewis Hamilton takes sixth USGP win to stand on brink of F1 title

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Lewis Hamilton fought back from a sluggish start to claim his sixth United States Grand Prix victory on Sunday at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, putting himself on the brink of a fourth Formula 1 world title win.

Hamilton entered the race weekend requiring a 16-point swing over Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel to clinch the drivers’ crown in Austin, the site of his most recent success back in 2015.

While he was unable to finish the job on Sunday as Vettel finished second, Hamilton’s ninth win of the season makes a title win likely next weekend in Mexico City, with his points lead growing to 66 ahead of the final three races.

A slick getaway from P2 on the grid saw Vettel dive up the inside of pole-sitter Hamilton on the steep run up to Turn 1 at COTA, forcing his title rival out wide and cutting him off to seize the lead of the race.

Daniel Ricciardo attempted to follow Vettel’s lead by also passing a Mercedes in the shape of Valtteri Bottas for P3, attempting dive-bomb moves on consecutive laps, only for some astute defense from the Finn to force the Red Bull racer to settle down in fourth after a tight wheel-to-wheel battle.

Hamilton was able to stay in sight of Vettel at the front through the opening laps before closing up with some help from DRS. After a series of quick sectors, Hamilton was able to tuck in behind Vettel and make a pass on the back straight on Lap 6, taking to the inside and defending well to seize the lead from his championship rival.

Further back, Max Verstappen had been quietly picking his way through the order after starting 16th due to a grid penalty for engine changes on Saturday. The Dutchman was predicted by Red Bull to take P6 at the checkered flag, but was able to run that high after just 11 laps at COTA, completing his rise past the midfield runners with a slick pass on Esteban Ocon.

Verstappen gained another position when Red Bull teammate Ricciardo pitted early, taking on a set of super-softs and pumping in a series of quick times to try and get the undercut on the front-runners. However, the Australian’s hopes were dashed on Lap 16 when he suffered a loss of engine power, forcing him to park up at the side of the track and retire from the race.

Despite there being no safety car, Ferrari opted to bring Vettel in just moments later, fitting the German with a set of soft tires that would take him to the end of the race. Like Ricciardo, Vettel pushed hard to try and get the undercut on Hamilton at the front and claw back some of the four-second deficit as Mercedes kept its title hopeful out for an extended stint.

The strategy worked wonders for Ferrari to bring Vettel back into contention, with Hamilton’s lead being cut to less than a car length when he emerged from the pits after stopping at the end of Lap 19. Hamilton was able to quickly pull clear again, but asked Mercedes why they had allowed Vettel to get so close. Vettel, meanwhile, vented his frustration after running wide at the final corner, potentially costing him the net lead.

Vettel had a sniff of challenging for the lead again five laps later as Hamilton tried to pass Verstappen, who had risen to the front thanks to his long first stint on the super-soft tire. Despite the Red Bull driver’s best efforts to keep Hamilton back, the Briton was able to make a clean pass through the final sector, regaining the lead once again.

Verstappen pitted soon after losing the lead from Hamilton, moving onto a set of soft tires as he emerged back out in fifth place with 30 laps to try and catch Raikkonen some nine seconds up the road.

The race to top the midfield at COTA took a twist at half-distance when Fernando Alonso was forced into a frustrating retirement after an engine issue. The McLaren driver had been poised to end a points drought dating back to Hungary, and made no secret of his annoyance over team radio.

As Hamilton continued to dominate up front and pull out a healthy lead over Vettel, Ferrari was started to get nervous as its title contender started losing time to Bottas and teammate Kimi Raikkonen behind, with the pair catching and closing to within a couple of seconds. Vettel asked Ferrari to think about “plan B”, but the team kept him out as he pulled out a gap over the battling Finns again.

Verstappen continued to put pressure on the trio by catching rapidly, with Red Bull then taking the bold call to bring the Dutchman in for a second stop at the end of Lap 37, trying to force the cars ahead into pitting again.

Ferrari did not wish to take any risks, pitting Vettel just one lap later, yet Verstappen was able to close right up on the German with a rapid out lap, leaving less than a second separating them on-track. Vettel was able to open up a gap once again, with both setting their sights on the leading trio, all of whom opted to stay out.

Both were gaining time on Bottas and Raikkonen as they scrapped for position, with the latter sliding up into second with a tidy move at the end of the back straight on Lap 42, splitting the Mercedes drivers at the front.

Vettel and Verstappen continued to make inroads on the Finns in second and third, but neither had any hope of catching Hamilton at the front, who crossed the line after 56 laps to secure his sixth United States Grand Prix win, five of which have come at COTA.

The victory also confirmed Mercedes as F1 constructors’ champions for the fourth consecutive year, with the German marque moving into an unassailable lead in the teams’ standings with three races to go.

Vettel was able to fight his way back up to P2, passing Bottas with a classy move around the outside of Turn 1 before then easing past teammate Raikkonen, ensuring the title fight will continue to the next race in Mexico.

Verstappen completed the podium for Red Bull after passing both Bottas and Raikkonen late on, with his final move for P3 coming on the final lap after riding across the kerb in the final sector. As bold as the move was, the stewards quickly handed the Dutchman a five-second time penalty, stripping him of the podium and leaving him fourth behind Raikkonen.

Verstappen was therefore classified ahead of Bottas in fifth, the latter making a late stop due to fears about his tire life. Nevertheless, the result was enough for Mercedes to wrap up the constructors’ title.

Esteban Ocon finished as the top midfielder in P6 for Force India following a late fight with Carlos Sainz Jr., who delivered one of the drives of the season on debut for Renault en route to seventh. The highlight was an overtake around the outside of Sergio Perez through the long right-hander in the final sector, with the move likely to feature in many a showreel come the end of the season.

More to follow…