Photo courtesy of IMSA

IMSA: Michelin GT Challenge provides second GT-only showcase in ’17

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Three race weekends remain in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, but not three races for all four of its classes.

While the Prototype and Prototype Challenge classes are off until Monterey and Road Atlanta, respectively, this weekend’s two-hour, 40-minute Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway provides the GT Le Mans and GT Daytona their second of two GT-only standalone showcase events this season (Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET).

Like last race at Road America, variety has been the spice of life among GTLM winners. Risi Competizione, Porsche North America and Corvette Racing have won at VIR the last three years with the No. 62 Ferrari F458 Italia, No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR and No. 3 Corvette C7.R, respectively.

Each of those three car numbers is somewhat intriguing to note this weekend for different reasons.

Photo: Risi Competizione

Risi’s No. 62 Ferrari 488 GTE is back after a several-race hiatus, the team having withdrawn temporarily after an expensive, crash-laden first half of the season through Le Mans. Out of the championship and with nothing to lose, the capable duo of Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella can properly play spoiler.

Engineer Rick Mayer describes the challenge of picking the best Michelin tire compound for VIR depending on the temperatures: “Michelin tire selection might come into play here as the track is dark and if its sunny will get very hot, maybe favoring one tire compound over another. All GTLMs have Michelin options that span the temperature window. Predicting weather and the best tire compound could be important if the track temperature is variable.”

The No. 911 Porsche, driven this year by Patrick Pilet and Dirk Werner, remains on the fringe of title contention in GTLM at 22 points back in fifth place and look to complete a sweep of the two GT-only races this year, having delivered the new mid-engined car’s first overall win at Lime Rock Park a month ago.

“I have fond memories of this storied racetrack deep in the heart of America. In 2015, we celebrated one-two finish there with Porsche. It’s an old school circuit with many fast curves where you can’t afford to make one mistake. If you end up on the grass, you might as well drive straight back to the pits to get the radiator cleaned,” Pilet said.

Meanwhile it’s No. 3 Corvette C7.R of Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen that, having weathered the storm of a few tough races where the Corvette has not had the Balance of Performance in its favor, maintains the points lead and looks for an encore of its win here last year. Magnussen has matched Garcia as one of the series’ best GT drivers really since this race last year. With Corvette having been given a bit of BoP help this weekend (a 0.5 mm air restrictor increase and an increased fuel flow restrictor), it should help the team get back to its usual race winning contention.

Two sets of pairings – Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand (No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT) and Bill Auberlen and Alexander Sims (No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM) – remain within striking distance in points at eight and nine points back (239-231-230) of the lead. The second Ford pairing of Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook needs a bit more help at 14 points back.

Consistency has kept the Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen (No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3) pairing atop the GT Daytona charts despite not winning a race yet this year. At 15 points clear (254-239) of closest rivals Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating (No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG Mercedes AMG-GT3), it’d take a poor finish in the 16-car GTD class to see them lose their grip.

Paul Miller Racing won this race last year, the first and thus far only IMSA win for the Lamborghini Huracán GT3 in the hands of Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow, but its post-qualifying technical violation has all but killed any championship hopes here.

Elsewhere Patrick Long is back alongside Daniel Morad in Alegra Motorsports’ No. 28 Porsche 911 GT3 R, as he was at Lime Rock, while the WeatherTech team continues with its Porsche for a second straight race, 3GT Racing keeps its revised Road America lineups, Michael Shank Racing keeps its revised Road America liveries (albeit with a new frame needed to replace the damaged No. 93 Acura NSX GT3 after accident) and Lone Star Racing continues with its Mercedes-AMG GT3, hoping to start its second race after being unable to with various mechanical niggles at Road America.

Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The layout at VIR is an excellent track that makes you feel like you’re really driving somewhere when you’re going around,” explained Mike Skeen, one of Lone Star Racing’s drivers, in this week’s Continental Tire pre-race advance. “It feels like someone just meandered through some fields on a tractor to plan the layout. The result is a great combination of technical corners and flowing, high-speed sections with over 130 feet of elevation change.

“There is plenty of runoff area for the drivers to work with, but all of that beautiful grass proved to be an issue last year for many people that went off course and then had to pit to clean out the grill to avoid overheating. There are also many curbs that we have to use to improve lap times, but they can cause problems if taken too aggressively when the air pressures in our Continental tires are too low.”

Cautions are generally a rarity here with only eight total caution laps over the last three years. Additionally, Lime Rock went caution-free, so it’ll be interesting to see if that cleanliness keeps up.

OTHER NOTES

  • While Tequila Patron ESM with its Nissan Onroak DPi (Pipo Derani) and Team Penske with its Acura ARX-05 (Juan Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron) have kicked off the IMSA driver market silly season, Mazda Motorsports’ John Doonan provided an update on the Mazda Team Joest status in this week’s Sportscar365 podcast, linked here.
  • In the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, a 31-car field heads to VIR for this weekend’s race as well. The GS class points standings are particularly tight with points leaders Dylan Murcott and Dillon Machavern just four points ahead of Cameron Cassels and Trent Hindman, and eight clear of Marc Miller and Till Bechtolsheimer. Miller, who with Danny Burkett took CJ Wilson Racing’s first GS win at this race last year, and his new teammate will have a revised Andy Blackmore Designs livery this weekend with new partner Unit Nutrition adorning the team’s No. 33 Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport.
  • Military appreciation at race tracks is always a good thing, and will be part of this weekend at VIR. Operation Motorsport is partnering with the USO of North Carolina this weekend at the Michelin GT Challenge at VIR, with the organization hosting 11 wounded soldiers and veterans from the surrounding Raleigh, Ft. Bragg area and embedding them within a few teams so that they can be part of a motorsports experience as a recovery activity. The organization’s website is linked here.

MRTI: Road America preview

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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All three series of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires were last in action on the same day – May 25 – though at separate venues. The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Freedom 100, where Colton Herta emerged victorious.

Meanwhile, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda were at Lucas Oil Raceway for the Freedom 90 (Pro Mazda) and Freedom 75 (USF2000) – Parker Thompson and Kyle Kirkwood dominated their respective races and claimed victories to extend their championship leads.

All three series reunite at Road America for double headers this weekend, with a close title fight developing in Indy Lights, while the championship leaders in Pro Mazda and USF2000 (the aforementioned Thompson and Kirkwood) look to build on already strong leads.

Previews of all three series are below.

Indy Lights

  • Colton Herta enters Road America as the hottest driver in the Mazda Road to Indy, having swept the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – he won both races on the IMS Road Course and outdueled Pato O’Ward, Dalton Kellett, and Santi Urrutia to win the Freedom 100. He leads O’Ward by six points, while Urrutia is 21 out of the lead, but don’t think that they’re the only ones who may factor into things.
  • Victor Franzoni had been getting better with every race, and had two podiums on the season entering the Freedom 100, but multiple problems saw him finish eighth and drop him to 50 points out of the lead. Franzoni appears to have the speed to challenge for wins, and he’ll need a win soon if he is to get into title contention.
  • Wisconsin native Aaron Telitz looks to rebound at his home track after a down weekend in the Freedom 100, in which he finished sixth. Teltiz had a run of fourth, third, and second in the three races prior, so the speed is most certainly there to steal a race win, and doing so at his home track would be a massive thrill for him.

Pro Mazda

Parker Thompson has been showing the way in Pro Mazda in 2018. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Parker Thompson has been the dominant Pro Mazda driver in the first half of the season, with three wins, five podiums, and a worst finish of fifth through seven races. As a result, Thompson holds a sizeable lead of 40 points over second-place Carlos Cunha. It’s way too early for anyone to start playing “prevent,” but Thompson is most certainly the man to beat at the moment.
  • Given that his Juncos Racing teammates, Rinus VeeKay and Robert Megennis, came into the season as perhaps slightly more heralded, it may surprise some that Cunha is the closest rival to Thompson at this point. Though he doesn’t yet have a win, he has back-to-back second place finishes, and also has a pair of third-place efforts this year as well. The 18-year-old Brazilian has made a big jump from last year, and a win may be beckoning for him this weekend.
  • Harrison Scott and David Malukas look to rebound after they crashed in the Freedom 90. It leaves them 68 points (Scott) and 78 points (Malukas) out of the lead. It will be tough for them to get back into title contention, but race wins and/or podiums at Road America would certainly be a big help regardless.
  • The aforementioned VeeKay looks to get back on championship form at Road America, which he swept last year, while teammate Megennis looks for back-to-back podiums after finishing third in the Freedom 90.

USF2000

Kyle Kirkwood currently has a huge USF2000 points lead. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Kyle Kirkwood is starting to run away with the USF2000 championship, with a staggering 59-point lead over second place Alex Baron. The 19-year-old from Florida has things far from wrapped up, but he certainly has a stranglehold of the championship at the moment, and if he can keep things clean, it will become harder and harder for drivers to make up ground.
  • Interestingly, title rival Baron is perhaps the faster driver of the two, but Baron’s season is plagued by a 22nd-place effort in Race 1 on the streets of St. Petersburg, and a 21st at the Freedom 90. He’ll need a string of race wins to get back into contention, and Road America would be a good place to start.
  • Jose Sierra sits third, only five points behind Baron, and looks to add to his two podiums this year (second in St. Pete Race 1, and third in Race 1 on the IMS Road Course). And, if both Kirkwood and Baron falter, he could be primed to steal a win.
  • Igor Fraga sits fourth and looks to continue a consistent effort from the opening five races, with fifth place drivers Lucas Kohl and Rasmus Lindh (tied on 74 points apiece) looking to do the same.
  • Kaylen Frederick got his first podium of the year in the Freedom 75, finishing second to Kirkwood. It is only his second finish inside the Top 10 this year (ninth in St. Pete Race 2 is the other), and he’ll look to build off that effort moving forward.

Pro Mazda has practice and Race 1 qualifying on Thursday, with Race 1 on Friday and Race 2 on Saturday. Indy Lights and USF2000 practice on Friday, with their races on Saturday (Race 1 for both) and Sunday (Race 2 for both). A full weekend schedule can be viewed here.

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