IMSA: Road America post-weekend notebook

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Some final thoughts on the IMSA weekend from Road America, the Continental Tire Road Race Showcase, are below:

FINALLY, A NON-CADILLAC WIN

The early rate of development, mileage and performance from the Cadillac DPi-V.Rs in September last year gave them a distinct advantage in the early races this year. By contrast, the Mazda RT24-P didn’t roll out publicly until November and Tequila Patron ESM’s Nissan Onroak DPi didn’t break cover until barely before Christmas. The several month lead-time the Cadillac had meant it was always a better sorted package out of the gate.

However, the other Daytona Prototype international (DPi) manufacturers are catching things up. Testing for what will likely be a revised Mazda – at least within the box and framework of the regulations – will start soon in Joest Racing’s hands, hence why they’ve withdrawn from the final few races. The Nissan, meanwhile took on an electronics update prior to Road America this weekend. A more reliable package followed and the car, with its GT3 engine taken from the Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3, delivered a “Patron perfect” finish in the race with first and third.

Photo courtesy of IMSA

Pipo Derani remains fast as ever when the car’s right and seized his opportunity Sunday, taking over from the consummate professional Johannes van Overbeek who’d put the No. 22 car in that close-to-the-lead position with his opening stint.

Cadillac couldn’t run the table this year and with the race on to be the first non-Cadillac winner, it was Patron and ESM that prevailed.

With the two Nissan Onroak DPis in first and third and the No. 90 VISIT FLORIDA Racing Ligier JS P217 in fifth, it was a great day for Onroak Automotive on Sunday.

CONTINENTAL RACE WAS CAUGHT BETWEEN ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

Some races just don’t go according to plan and the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge two-hour race on Saturday was a perfect example of that through a combination of factors.

Taking it from the start, a local 4:30 p.m. CT green flag time meant an already later start to the day, and followed the Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America race which preceded it. Usually, the Lamborghini race comes at the end of the day with the Continental race taking place immediately after IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship qualifying. That wasn’t the case here. With rain coming later in the day, that start time then has a knock-on effect that you’ll be closer to darkness by end of day (yes, it wasn’t going to be night at 6:30 p.m. but it would certainly be moving into night).

Photo courtesy of IMSA

Secondly there’s the issue of lap length at Road America, at a season-long 4.048 miles. When a full-course caution is displayed, it slows an already long lap optimal time at around 2 minutes, 25 seconds under green flag conditions to almost 4 minutes per lap. Conservatively, at a 2 minute, 30 second lap average with no yellows, a two-hour race would only deliver 48 total laps at this track.

Once the second caution flew at just past the one-hour mark, with a red flag following shortly thereafter for lightning in the area, then heavy rain, it was always going to be doubtful to get a restart in purely down to the available time left. The red flag was displayed with 40 minutes left, and the race clock still ran. That meant there was realistically only about a 15-minute window to ensure lightning was out of the area for long enough, and that the field could restart with time to complete the full yellow flag procedure to make pit stops, change drivers and complete the yellow, and you might have had five to eight minutes for a restart – good for two, maybe three laps of green flag running without any further yellows.

The considerations and health/well-being of the fans, competitors, corner workers, camera crew, and photographers all around the course also needed to be noted.

Ultimately the clock ran out on such an opportunity and with the weather doing what it was, IMSA was stuck in a position where calling the race early was the only viable option given the extenuating circumstances. IMSA’s full statement on the race’s early conclusion is linked here, and below.

As for the ST class cars that ultimately finished in the top four positions? You can’t fault them for their strategy plays, by running long enough in the opening stint to move to the front, get track position, and wait to switch to their second drivers. That they benefited from the early end to the race was payoff for their gamble. Had the race been restarted, it’s likely they would have dropped further down the order. As they say, that’s racing, and what this did at least do was open up a running joke among many ST drivers to ask, “how many total laps did you get this weekend?”

The win was particularly special for Chad McCumbee, who wound up driving the entire race in the No. 25 Freedom Autosport Mazda MX-5 he shares with Stevan McAleer, and was racing with a heavy heart after losing a close friend last week.

CORVETTE’S NO. 3 CAR SOMEHOW KEEPS GTLM POINTS LEAD

Photo courtesy of IMSA

Corvette Racing’s reward for winning early races in recent years seems to be falling further down the perceived Balance of Performance “pecking order” for the rest of the year. And it then falls to their drivers to keep their nose clean and make something out of nothing to ensure the early season success doesn’t get washed away as other cars rise to the surface.

Any of BMW, Ford or Porsche has had the measure of Corvette on outright pace in the last several GTLM races – Corvette not having won since Circuit of The Americas in May. Despite all that, Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen still lead the points, and actually increased the gap from seven over BMW’s Bill Auberlen and Alexander Sims to eight over Road America winners Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand of Ford this weekend.

Sims, whose No. 25 BMW fell back early in the race with a suspension issue, inadvertently helped the No. 3 Corvette car gain more points after tapping the sister No. 4 Corvette, which has had a luckless campaign, into a spin at Turn 3 near the finish.

Garcia and Magnussen held off Mueller, incidentally, for the 2013 American Le Mans Series GT title in the last year with the old Corvette C6.R through a combination of guile and determination, not outright pace. It might be a case of history repeating itself if they do so again in 2017.

PERFORMANCE TECH SEALS PC CROWN, NOW SEEKS PERFECTION

Photo courtesy of IMSA

Another race, another win for Performance Tech Motorsports, and this one sealed the driver’s championship for James French and Pato O’Ward a race early. Not that it was really in doubt, but stranger things had happened.

French finally has a professional win at his home track, after the hundreds of thousands of miles the Sheboygan native has logged here. O’Ward received a welcome entry into victory lane after his Pro Mazda season began to unravel here last year, when teammate Aaron Telitz delivered a perfect weekend.

It’s been an odd year because the team’s executed flawlessly all year but hasn’t had the level of competition the PC class has had before. It shouldn’t detract from their efforts though, and that was something O’Ward was keen to emphasize Sunday.

“The problem has been this year there’s not many cars, so yeah we’re winning, but there’s only three cars. I wish there was more competition. But all the times set last year and the year before, we shattered all those,” said the talented teenaged Mexican driver, who has adjusted well to his first season in sports cars. “I feel it would be more fun with more cars and competition; but we’ve maximized everything we have.”

A win with third driver Kyle Masson at the Motul Petit Le Mans in October would complete the team’s perfect season of winning all eight races in the category’s sign-off.

VARIOUS GTD NOTES

Photo courtesy of IMSA

There wasn’t really a dominant theme in GT Daytona this weekend so here’s some quick thoughts about the most populous class in the field:

  • Top six in GTD, manufacturers: BMW, Porsche, Audi, Mercedes-AMG, Ferrari, Lamborghini. Can’t get the balance across the eight manufacturers in class much better than that.
  • A roller-coaster year with a rotating driver lineup is never something you want but it’s something Turner Motorsport has had this year. Having two factory affiliated drivers in what’s meant to be a pro-am class doesn’t hurt though, and Jens Klingmann and Road America newcomer Jesse Krohn did both BMW and themselves no harm with a flawless weekend in the team’s No. 96 M6 GT3.
  • Seeing “Dyson” on a Porsche GT car forces one to do a double take – you’re wondering where Dyson Racing and its fleet of sports car legends are – but the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R car lived up to the name of the legendary team with the vacuum cleaner sponsor on board, and Joerg Bergmeister and Patrick Lindsey coming home second, one spot ahead of the lone Audi in the field from Stevenson Motorsports.
  • Consistency keeps fueling the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3’s championship lead – another workmanlike fifth place from Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan extended their run of top-six finishes to eight in a row, all without a win. Closest title rivals in the No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG Mercedes AMG-GT3 finally ended a rough four-race patch of results with fourth.
  • After a weekend dominated by controversy and rumors, Paul Miller Racing pressed on after its post-qualifying penalty assessed to finish sixth in class with Madison Snow and Bryan Sellers in the team’s No. 48 Lamborghini Huracán GT3.
  • CORE autosport posted its best 2017 result, seventh, with Colin Braun and Jon Bennett in the No. 54 Porsche 911 GT3 R. The team hasn’t forgotten how to win, but the adaptation for driver and team into GTD has proven one of the year’s biggest tough surprises.
  • In its first race back with Porsche, the No. 50 WeatherTech entry of Cooper MacNeil and Gunnar Jeannette was ninth in class, third among four GTD Porsches and behind the No. 33 Riley Mercedes-AMG it had shared a tent with all races except here this year.
  • Lexus again failed to convert impressive qualifying pace into a result, ending eighth and 10th with a switched-up driver lineup. At least it was a better weekend for them than Acura, who switched up its liveries and then wrote off one of its two cars.

OTHER NOTES FROM THE WEEKEND

  • Your overall winners from the weekend in Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama were Kelly-Moss Road and Race Jake Eidson (Friday’s Watkins Glen Race 1 makeup race), then Moorespeed’s Corey Fergus in both Saturday and Sunday’s Road America scheduled races. Eidson still leads Fergus, 191-157, in points with three weekends remaining.
  • Another banner weekend for Jeff Mosing occurred in the GT3 Platinum Masters’ class; the likable Texan won his class both days (Sunday’s in a final lap, up the hill pass for the win), and added a third in the Continental Tire Challenge race Saturday where he drove all race to extend his and Eric Foss’ points lead.
  • Prestige Performance’s Trent Hindman and Riccardo Agostini swept both Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America races overall, building their winning streak to three straight races overall.
  • Of note, Shea Holbrook and Pippa Mann finished fourth in their class (Am) in both Saturday and Sunday’s Lamborghini races, and one spot higher overall on Sunday than on Saturday. Facing bad weather, limited track time and limited car experience, Mann describes how the friends got on as teammates this weekend in her most recent Sportscar365 blog.
  • Risi Competizione has announced its return to action starting with the next round at VIRginia International Raceway. It’ll be nice to see that Ferrari 488 GTE with Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander back on the grid.
  • Top gesture of the weekend goes to Porsche GT Team for having the team sign a bonnet for outgoing Porsche Motorsport North America President Jens Walther, who served in his last race in this role this weekend. Dr. Daniel Armbruster takes over the role from Sept. 1, while Walther will become the new Director of Sales and Marketing for Porsche Leipzig.

IMSA is off until VIRginia International Raceway at the end of this month, for a GT-only weekend. However, both the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda and Ultra 94 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Canada by Yokohama series race in Canada this weekend on the streets of Trois-Rivieres.

Jenson Button joins NASCAR Garage 56 at Le Mans with Jimmie Johnson, Rockenfeller

Jenson Button NASCAR Le Mans
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Garage 56 entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be driven by champions of three major-league series — Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The lineup of the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Next Gen Camaro was announced Saturday before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

NASCAR’s Garage 56 project was announced in March 2022 as a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear. It marks the return of a NASCAR team to Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick fielding a Camaro ZL1 as the “Garage 56” entry in the 100th edition of the sports car classic.

It’s long been expected the car would include Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who is returning to NASCAR’s premier series as a driver-owner in 2023. Rockenfeller, the 2013 DTM champion and 2010 Le Mans overall winner, has attended every NASCAR Garage 56 test since last year while racking up simulator testing hours.

The surprise was Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who has become a popular commentator. Rick Hendrick initially said wanted four-time Cup champion and current Hendrick Motorsports COO Jeff Gordon to drive the car, and Gordon had raced a sports car at Indianapolis last year to test his race shape.

GARAGE 56 ANSWERS, ANALYSISMore on the NASCAR-Hendrick entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “The lineup of Jimmie, ‘Rocky’ and Jenson is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans, and across the world.”

Button had one of the most prolific careers in F1 history finishing with 15 wins and 50 podiums on top of his 2009 World Championship and is widely considered one of the top British drivers of all time.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said in a release. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and ‘Rocky’ for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world. I’m really looking forward to sharing this journey with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and current and future NASCAR fans from around the world.”

Johnson will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut a year after starting his first Indy 500. He has 83 victories in the Cup Series, where he will return for the Daytona 500 next month with his Legacy Motor Club team.

He also has been involved with testing the Garage 56 Camaro.

“I’m super thrilled – it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come – and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup – is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller teamed with Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2021-22. The German driver has been the lead test driver for Garage 56 and has driven during every on-track test.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

The car will continue testing with all three drivers next week at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Rolex 24 and four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who drives for Corvette Racing, will be the team’s backup driver and coach. Taylor also won the GTE Pro class in 2015 at Le Mans, where he has four podium finishes.

The project also is being supported by IMSA GTP team Action Express, whose general manager is former NASCAR executive and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Gary Nelson. Action Express built the first test car for the Garage 56 but since has handed off the project to Hendrick, where it’s being over seen by vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven championships).

“Action Express got it going and built the mule car, and then Hendrick joined the program, took it from where we had it, and they’re doing a major percentage of the work,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “We just did a test a couple months ago on a wet track. We’ve done a couple of other tests as they were ramping their program up. Now their car is good, tested and running. We’re still involved and here to help. The Hendrick guys have taken the reins, and Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus are a thrill to work with and doing a much better job. It’s more NASCAR than prototype racing.”