Photo courtesy of IMSA

Titles, track breakup, cautions peppering Petit Le Mans

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BRASELTON, Ga. – The 19th annual Petit Le Mans presented by Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort didn’t have a ton of news in the early stages of the race, but it does now as the race has eclipsed the 4-hour mark of the 10-hour race that caps off the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

The race is under its third full-course caution of the race for a track inspection at Turn 3. Just prior to that, there’d been contact as Fred Makowiecki in the No. 912 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR hit the rear of Andy Lally, in the No. 44 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS.

Class leaders at the 4-hour mark, when the first points in the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup are awarded, are:

  • P: 1-10-Jordan Taylor, Corvette DP, 2-5-Joao Barbosa, Corvette DP, 3-60-Ozz Negri, Ligier JS P2 Honda
  • PC: 1-52-Tom Kimber-Smith, 2-38-James French, 3-85-Stephen Simpson
  • GTLM: 1-4-Oliver Gavin, Corvette C7.R, 2-62-Toni Vilander, Ferrari 488 GTE, 3-66-Dirk Mueller, Ford GT
  • GTD: 1-44-Andy Lally, Audi R8 LMS, 2-9-Dion von Moltke, Audi R8, 3-6-Mike Skeen, Audi R8

Here’s some notes thus far:

TITLES CLINCHED

Christina Nielsen drove the opening three-plus hours in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 and by doing so, secured the GT Daytona class championship for both her and co-driver Alessandro Balzan. If at least one Silver or Bronze-rated driver completes that minimum drive time of three hours, that is enough to score points for the pairing.

Nielsen, the 24-year-old Dane, becomes another female driver to win a major sports car championship. There are others – Melanie Snow won American Le Mans Series’ GTC in 2009 and Amy Ruman in Trans-Am last year – while Nielsen’s comes in the deep GTD field that features upwards of six manufacturers and 12 to 22 cars entered in every race this year.

“I’m sad that this is perhaps the last time I get to run the 488 this year, but it’s absolutely amazing that we ran it and it ran so well,” said Nielsen after her three-hour, 8-minute driving stint, via IMSA.

“It’s a nice car to drive, the team did a great job, good pit stops. This just shows what the team has been doing all year. It’s a pleasure to be a part of, they just do so much right and so little wrong. To call ourselves ‘champions’ this early is unbelievable, but we’ve still got an endurance championship to go for so, game on.”

This is a stunning achievement for Giacomo Mattioli’s Scuderia Corsa team, which has now thus far won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, IMSA GT Daytona and Pirelli World Challenge GTA titles this year.

I spoke to both Nielsen and Balzan on Friday, and will have more from them to come in the wake of this championship achievement.

Meanwhile, when the race took the green flag, Chevrolet clinched both Manufacturer’s Championships in Prototype and GT Le Mans. Both manufacturers also have drivers going for Driver’s Championships – the Nos. 31, 5 and 10 Corvette DP pairings in Prototype and the No. 4 Corvette C7.R pairing in GTLM.

TRACK BREAKUP

The most recent caution saw a portion of the track come up at Turn 3, and required crews to survey it. But rather than it being a too lengthy caution, the race has resumed.

If there is an upside to this bit, this isn’t IMSA Race Director Beaux Barfield’s first rodeo dealing with track breakups. He’s also dealt with this in his former career as IndyCar Race Director at Detroit and Houston.

A COUPLE CAUTIONS

The debris caution as noted above, which turned into a longer caution, and an off by Tomy Drissi in the No. 20 BAR1 Motorsports Oreca FLM09 at Turn 10 are the first two cautions of the race. And now, at four hours and four minutes, we have our third full-course caution of the race.

WOES THUS FAR

The DeltaWing is done with timing chain issues, capping off a frustrating weekend for the hometown team.

The No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT’s chances of usurping the championship from the No. 4 Corvette C7.R in GTLM went away when that car went behind the wall in the third hour. Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook were trying to overcome an 11-point deficit.

The sister No. 3 Corvette C7.R went behind the wall at the start of the third hour with a throttle issue. Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia share that car with Mike Rockenfeller.

Mazda’s No. 55 Prototype had a couple offs with Tristan Nunez driving, then a trip to the pits with electronics issues.

Motor issues have hampered the No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP of Ryan Dalziel, Marc Goossens and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Pressing on wounded with what Mike Shank told IMSA Radio was an “issue in the left rear” earlier in the race, and now confirmed as having broken drive pins, is the pace-setting No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2 Honda of Olivier Pla, Ozz Negri and John Pew.

An alternator belt issue has slowed the No. 16 Change Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3, driven by Spencer Pumpelly, Corey Lewis and Richard Antinucci.

First car behind the wall with a possible suspension issue was the No. 7 Starworks Motorsport Oreca FLM09 of Stefano Coletti, Quinlan Lall and James Dayson. Coletti then spun again when back on track.

Brake issues have slowed the PC-leading No. 8 Starworks Motorsport entry of David Heinemeier Hansson, Alex Popow and Renger van der Zande.

There’s also been a charging system issue for the No. 100 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM.

Lewis Hamilton aims to match Michael Schumacher’s F1 win record

Lewis Hamilton Schumacher record
Mark Sutton - Pool/Getty Images
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SOCHI, Russia — Lewis Hamilton has set many Formula One marks over the years, but few are as significant as the Michael Schumacher record he can match Sunday at the Russian Grand Prix.

Victory for Hamilton at the Sochi Olympic Park would see him draw level with Schumacher at 91 career victories, more than any other driver in the 70-year history of F1.

It also would increase Hamilton’s commanding 55-point lead over teammate Valtteri Bottas in the championship standings, putting him closer to a seventh world championship, matching another Schumacher record.

YOU’RE INVITED: Bubba Wallace hopes to see Lewis Hamilton at Daytona

History is on the side of Hamilton, who won Sept. 13 at Mugello. He’s won four of the six Russian races so far, and all six were won by Mercedes drivers. His closest challenger is likely to be Bottas, who beat Hamilton in the 2017 edition of the Russian Grand Prix.

Elsewhere in the championship hunt, Red Bull driver Max Verstappen’s season has gone up in smoke since his Aug. 9 victory at Silverstone. An overheating engine forced the Dutch driver out of the Sept. 6 race at Monza and then a similar problem struck just before the start at Mugello. Verstappen was far slower off the line than the cars around him and was struck by Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo.

That leaves Verstappen 80 points off Hamilton in the standings and a 25-point deficit to Bottas.

If Hamilton does win to tie Schumachher at Sochi, more fans will see it in person than any other race in a 2020 season mostly run before empty grandstands because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Organizers say the race weekend is sold out but haven’t given final ticket sales figures.

Race promoter Alexei Titov previously told Russian state TV that the stands would be at 50 percent of their capacity, which equates to around 30,000 spectators.

That’s far more than the previous season high of 3,000 fans for the most recent race, the Tuscan Grand Prix at the Mugello circuit.

Unlike at the last two races in Italy, there will be a full entertainment program on offer for fans with concerts featuring some of Russia’s most popular musicians.

Russian organizers say they’re taking precautions to keep fans safe and will have medical staff posted at checkpoints around the venue, and that spectators will have their temperature measured on entry.