Pirelli World Challenge primer: Sonoma

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Title fights in the GT and Touring Car B-Spec classes are at the forefront this weekend as the Pirelli World Challenge tackles the challenging and scenic Sonoma Raceway in northern California.

The Touring Car and TCB categories will stage Rounds 11 and 12 tomorrow afternoon, while the GT and GTS categories will have its 13th round on Sunday.

In TCB, the championship battle features Ernie Francis Jr. (No. 98 Mazda 2) and Robbie Davis (No. 37 Mini Cooper), who both split a pair of wins last time out at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and are separated by a mere two points; Francis holds a 1036-1034 lead over Davis.

Needless to say, this weekend’s TC/TCB doubleheader will be critical for both men, as well as for third-place Joel Lipperini (948 points), whose hopes of driving to a TCB crown in the No. 81 Honda Fit are also still alive.

Meanwhile, GT sees Johnny O’Connell (No. 3 Cadillac CTS-V.R) holding a slim 14-point lead, 1278-1265, over James Sofronas (No. 14 Audi R8 LMS). A pair of third-place efforts from Sofronas at Mid-Ohio has helped him trim the gap to O’Connell, who will look to bounce back after a damaged radiator knocked him out of GT/GTS Round 12 at that track.

However, O’Connell and Sofronas will not only have to contend with each other but also Alex Figge (No. 9 Volvo S60), who rides into Sonoma with momentum fully at his back after sweeping both GT races at M-O. He’s also the defending GT race winner at Sonoma and could easily be a threat again.

Additionally, GTS class leader Jack Baldwin (No. 73 Porsche Cayman S) will look to keep his strong 2013 campaign going and stay ahead of his closest rivals, Mark Wilkins (-87 points) and Lawson Aschenbach (-105 points) – both of whom split class wins at M-O.  In TC, Ryan Winchester (No. 72 Honda Civic Si) won’t be able to clinch that title this weekend, but with a hearty 231-point lead in the standings, he can still take further steps toward sewing it up.

The weekend’s races will be streamed live on World-ChallengeTV.com, with Saturday’s TC/TCB events airing at 6:55 p.m. ET and Sunday’s GT/GTS event airing at 1:45 p.m. ET. In addition, NBCSN will broadcast the Sonoma rounds on Sun., Sept. 8 at 3:30 p.m. ET.

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans
JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP via Getty Images
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LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.