ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The No. 22 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi won the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship unofficial “Which Prototype topples Cadillac sweepstakes” in Sunday’s Continental Tire Road Race Showcase.
But it was the car that’s been the most consistent challenger to the Cadillacs – the No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson – which was perhaps in with the best chance to win today but fell victim to a strategic misstep, that didn’t look bad at the time.
Misha Goikhberg started eighth and last in the Prototype field but even so, that wasn’t the worst case scenario because both he and Stephen Simpson had nowhere to go but up afterwards, and they knew they had better race pace.
Goikhberg enjoyed a couple intense battles in his stint, and then Simpson was up to fourth with just under an hour remaining in the race and the question was how they could move even further forward from there.
The caution flew once John Edwards stopped at pit in in his No. 24 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM, and that presented a tough place for the Prototype field at that time.
With most cars unable to run much longer than 40 minutes on a single tank of fuel, but with 55 minutes and change left in the race, the JDC-Miller team gambled that staying out then could pay dividends – but it would only work if the race would stay green from there after the restart.
Simpson restarted in the lead on Lap 55, with just under 40 minutes left to go, and seeing this strategy play out against the other six Prototypes that pitted under the caution would have been fascinating.
It never got the chance to materialize though as contact between the No. 3 Corvette C7.R of Antonio Garcia and the No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR of Dirk Werner saw Werner get beached in Turn 1 after getting sent off course. And it also doomed Simpson’s hopes because he’d need to pit on this caution and lose all the track position.
Following a stop for emergency service and a second, later stop for full service, Simpson and Goikhberg dropped back to eighth overall and in class, for their worst finish of the season. Until Road America, the team finished between second and sixth each race – which placed the pairing third in points.
Simpson was left to rue the tough call in the immediate aftermath of the race, but still praised the team for making it because under green conditions, it could have played out in their favor.
“The rationale behind it made sense. But obviously we need to revisit it and learn from it,” Simpson told NBC Sports. “It’s not that it was a silly decision. It just didn’t fall our way.”
Before he did pit, Simpson enjoyed a great battle with eventual winner Pipo Derani in the Nissan, even though it wasn’t a real battle for position knowing the pit stop was imminent. Simpson praised Derani’s race craft, and Derani did the same afterwards.
“Before the weekend even started, I had a bug in my stomach, extra determination to succeed,” Simpson said. “Even after qualifying I didn’t worry. I believe I can out race all these guys. I planned on doing it today and the next two races as well.
“I’m not sure who I was racing in the Nissan, but I have tons of respect for him. It was fun to race up there. It was very good. It’s a pleasure competing with them. I’m disappointed we are not rewarded.”
Derani echoed those thoughts, while also not sure when Simpson would need to pit.
“I knew he had to make a pit stop. My engineer advised me to play smart with him,” Derani said. “You never know. I tried to overtake him. Luckily he had to pit and we had the green laps in the end. It’s a tricky situation. We could see how aggressive he was driving. Didn’t want to put myself in a risky position. Luckily he pitted and we had clean air after that.”
Simpson regretted the day’s ending but said eventually if the performance keeps up, their day will come.
“That’s what makes this one disappointing. The JDC-Miller guys work extra hard. We need to convert these good opportunities into wins.”