If we’re kind, last year at Long Beach marked the single low point in a tumultuous campaign for the Pirelli World Challenge.
A caution-strewn 50-minute race, which was after the IndyCar race, was still headed for a great finish before a controversial three-car accident at Turn 8. Olivier Beretta and Johnny O’Connell sandwiched Kevin Estre, with O’Connell (outside) and Estre (middle) getting the short end of the stick while Beretta bulldozed his way through on the inside; he eventually won the race (2015 results here).
Granted, Beretta didn’t get off for the contact – but he did make the not-so-elusive 19-driver post-race penalty list that dominated headlines and generated controversy in the week after, and in the run up to the next race at Barber Motorsports Park the following week.
Flash forward 12 months later and quite a bit has changed in PWC since as the series heads to Long Beach for the race presented by Cadillac (race airs 2 p.m. ET, Sunday, CBS Sports Network). For Long Beach purposes, we’ll focus solely on what’s changed on the driver front (2016 entry list here):
- None of the podium finishers return. Olivier Beretta isn’t back after earning a wealth of condemnation after last year; Chris Dyson is focused on other business interests and Ryan Dalziel is in Europe this weekend for the FIA World Endurance Championship opener.
- Less might be more. Last year, there were 38 starters and a load of accidents. This year, the field is down to 24 cars. As we’ve seen in IMSA on these streets the last couple years, the fewer the cars, the greater the likelihood is that the race could go off with a reduced number of cautions.
- No Cup cars. The GT Cup class doesn’t race at Long Beach and while this is unfortunate for those competitors who could use another “showcase” event, fact was GT Cup contributed to a bulk of the caution time at St. Petersburg race two. They were also in this race last year; this year, they’re not.
- Year-on-year changes: OUT: Beretta, Dyson, Dalziel, Mike Hedlund, Eric Lux, Dan Knox, Christina Nielsen, David Welch, Henrique Cisneros, Drew Regitz, Andy Pilgrim, Robert Thorne, Estre, Butch Leitzinger, Bill Ziegler, Mike Skeen and entire GT Cup field minus Colin Thompson. IN: Kyle Marcelli, Austin Cindric, Michael Cooper, Alvaro Parente, Patrick Long, Andrew Davis, Andrew Palmer, Adderly Fong, Jon Fogarty, Jorge de la Torre and Bill Sweedler. Given those additions and with a respectable GTA field this year, it’s hard not to call the 2016 PWC field at Long Beach a stronger overall group than 2015’s.
So what should we be watching for this weekend?
In a word: redemption.
Close backups are “cleanliness” and “survival” with Barber once again a week after.
Fortunately, the PWC race runs several hours earlier this year than it did last year, and that should allow the PWC contingent to get out of California and get on the road to Alabama quite a bit sooner.
Here’s the thing for World Challenge: it desperately needs a showcase race devoid of too much drama, whether it’s on the competition side, the broadcast/stream side or the operational side.
Long Beach last year was the prime example of what could go wrong for this great series. Officiating, cautions and poor driving standards ruled the day, rather than badass competition between nearly 30 GT3 cars from double digit manufacturers.
With a prime race slot now before the IndyCar race on Sunday morning, more fans would be likely to show up because they’ll want to be there for the headliner. In past years, PWC has needed to ensure fans would stay later to watch.
Both race ones this year at COTA and St. Petersburg have been clean, hard-fought affairs. Both race twos have been caution-heavy, and featured a bit of drama – the Long/James Davison contact at COTA forced the EFFORT Racing team into a thrash to even get the same Porsche 911 GT3 R ready for St. Petersburg.
With the Barber doubleheader the following week, this weekend’s Long Beach race is vital for PWC to go off cleanly and without more than one caution to ensure it gets the fans who are on site and able to see the race pumped.
You’re getting way more variety in PWC than you will in the IndyCar race later that day, in terms of different manufacturers.
You also have two cool hometown stories – Long, a veteran Californian and EFFORT teammate Michael Lewis, who swept St. Petersburg – both keen to win on home soil in the series’ first of two visits to the state (season ends at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in October).
Add in additional Californians James Sofronas, Ende, Palmer and Bryan Heitkotter in the GT class, a hungry O’Connell looking for redemption after being taken out last year, Cooper in search of his first GT win and Davison looking for glory on Always Evolving’s home soil and you have no shortage of story lines.
The prayer is that the racing, and not the controversy, emerges strongest at the end of the day.