The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship heads to the streets of Long Beach, Calif. this weekend for its first sprint race of the season, the 100-minute BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix At Long Beach.
After caution-free affairs the last two years with just the Prototype and GT Le Mans classes, an added wrinkle comes this year with the Prototype Challenge category rejoining the field to bump the grid up from what would be an 18-car field (8 P, 10 GTLM) up to 25 cars.
The additional seven PC cars may play an interesting role in the weekend proceedings. Some of the teams and drivers are more experienced on these streets than others, and in their first street course race with new electronics that debuted at Sebring, spins are inevitable at some point during the weekend. You’d be a brave individual to place any money on the race running caution-free for a third straight year, but it’d be a credit to the entire field if they do.
As such, that might make strategy plays here a bit different. Long Beach, at 100 minutes and the shortest event on the IMSA calendar, is always a one-stop race. When you make your stop is important as it will dictate track position; oftentimes, with passing not particularly easy at Long Beach, leapfrogging in the pits is the way to get ahead.
The Konica Minolta Wayne Taylor Racing Corvette DP won this race overall last year with brothers Jordan and Ricky Taylor, who executed flawlessly all weekend from pole.
Action Express Racing has struggled in its two prior Long Beach starts; that being said, they did win the series’ most recent street race in Detroit last May in mixed conditions. This is a track where if the team wants to extend its title dominance within the Prototype class, it needs to find a way higher up the podium with either or both of its Mustang Sampling or Whelen Engineering backed entries.
“Long Beach is one of our toughest races of the year with such a condensed schedule for practice and a shorter race,” said Dane Cameron, who co-drives with Eric Curran in the No. 31 Whelen car. “That format places a premium on showing up ready to go and maximizing every opportunity. It is tough to pass so qualifying well and using strategy and perfect pit stops to your advantage are a must at Long Beach.”
Still, any of these three or the Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP are a more likely overall winner here than the remaining four Prototype class entries. Long Beach, as more of a point-and-shoot street track, favors the more torquey, grunty Daytona Prototypes over the lighter, more nimble but less powerful LMP2-spec cars. The chances for the lone Ligier JS P2 Honda of Michael Shank Racing are reduced here owing to a pre-event Balance of Performance change where the car’s boost levels were reduced.
The Mazda Prototypes look for another double finish and perhaps their first top-five racing barely more than 20 miles away from home soil in Irvine, Calif. while the DeltaWing seeks an elusive finish after coming oh so close at Sebring.
Ryan Hunter-Reay and Andy Meyrick deputize for Ryan Dalziel and Sean Rayhall, respectively, this weekend. IndyCar ace Hunter-Reay takes over the No. 90 car with Marc Goossens in for Dalziel with Meyrick making his first Long Beach start in the DeltaWing he shares with Katherine Legge.
“Long Beach is an iconic circuit,” he said. “It’s a track that’s on every driver’s bucket list and it’s been on mine especially since I first came to America to race in 2010.”
The PC battle is likely to favor track experience; CORE autosport’s same pairing of Colin Braun and Jon Bennett won the most recent PC race at the track in 2013 in the American Le Mans Series. Alex Popow, Johnny Mowlem, Tomy Drissi, Kyle Marcelli and Stephen Simpson also have a degree of experience at the track, while most of the rest will either get refreshed or learn the circuit during the two-hour morning practice on Friday, the only pre-qualifying track activity.
Figure the action to be intense and harder to project out in GT Le Mans, where Corvette Racing has won the first two races of the year and has had past Long Beach success, but where BMW has traditionally held the edge.
Bill Auberlen is always particularly amped up for his home race. Last year, he won the pole and then co-drove with Dirk Werner to the win in the No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW Z4 GTLM. Now he’ll look to add the first win for the new BMW M6 GTLM to his resume.
Elsewhere in class the fellow turbocharged Ford GT and Ferrari 488 GTE make their street course debuts. Porsche has not podiumed here each of the last two years and will look to end that drought this weekend.
Scuderia Corsa will be a team to watch in GTLM with Alessandro Balzan making his class debut alongside Daniel Serra. The California-based team runs its third straight GTLM race with the GT Daytona class not running at Long Beach.
There’s been a couple BoP changes in GTLM, with the BMW gaining and Corvette and Ferrari each losing a bit in refueling restrictor size. Keep that in mind when we get to pit stops.
While Continental races at both street events this year, this marks Michelin’s lone street course race of the season as the GTLM category doesn’t run at Detroit.
“Several years ago, we developed a special racing tire to use here at Long Beach,” said Michelin’s director of motorsports, Chris Baker. “The things we learned from that experience fed into our Michelin Pilot Super Sport tire that raised the bar for Ultra High Performance (UHP) tires and became the standard by which all products in the category are measured.
“Long Beach is the only street circuit that our GTLM cars race on in the WeatherTech Championship so it provides us with a very unique opportunity to assess tire performance on real city streets.”
The race runs live at 7 p.m. ET on FS2 on Saturday evening, with live flag-to-flag coverage also available then and throughout the weekend on IMSA Radio. FS1 re-airs are at 11 p.m. ET Saturday and 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday.