Long and Parente last year in Monterey. Photo: PWC

PWC: Long, Parente square off for overall, sprint GT titles

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After thePirelli World Challenge SprintX (and also GTS) championships were decided a week and a half ago at Circuit of The Americas, it’s the overall GT championship that will get decided in this week’s doubleheader round for the series at Sonoma Raceway.

World Challenge has four races, with the two GT races Saturday at 2:15 p.m. PT and Sunday at 10:15 a.m. PT, and the two GTS races Saturday at 5:15 p.m. PT and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. PT. The second GTS race is the last on-track activity before the Verizon IndyCar Series crowns its champion.

The full preview from the series is below.

The battles between Patrick Long and Alvaro Parente over the past two seasons in the Pirelli World Challenge have comprised one of the best duels in all of sports car racing.  The two factory drivers have raced wheel-to-wheel and win-for-win in their quests for the 2016 and 2017 PWC championships.

Last year, the duel went right down to the final lap at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca before Parente, K-PAX Racing and McLaren took the coveted driver, team and manufacturers titles.

Since that thrilling day, Parente has accumulated another four race wins, as has Long, and both will be all out for the top step of victory lane at Sonoma Raceway to secure this year’s championships.

Now, after 17 rounds of competition, the two veterans come down the PWC Grand Prix of Sonoma this weekend (Sept. 15-17) to determine several series crowns including the GT Sprint (9 rounds) and the Overall GT (19 rounds including GT Sprint and GT SprintX) championship.

Last year, Parente, in the No. 9 K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S, led Long by two points entering the Monterey finale. This year, Long, in the No. 58 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R, leads Parente by five points (157-152) in the GT Sprint standings and by 28 (320-292) in the Overall GT points entering the two 50-minute GT sprint races at the 2.22-mile, 11-turn Sonoma Raceway road circuit.

In addition, the coveted GT Sprint and Overall GT manufacturers’ championships are close and coming down to the wire with Porsche at 113, Cadillac at 107 and McLaren at 106.

“The COTA races (on Labor Day weekend) were points days that we needed,” said Long, the 2011 PWC GT champion from Manhattan Beach, Calif. “I’m going to Sonoma with my head still down, 100% full throttle and completely focused because, as we learned last year, it’s never over until it’s over. We just have to push to close this out for the manufacturers, drivers and year-end championship.”

Parente, the Portugese star who won six races last year, has captured all four of his 2017 victories in the 50-minute GT Sprint format with triumphs at St. Petersburg, Long Beach and Mid-Ohio (twice). Does the GT format favor Alvaro at Sonoma?

A couple of factors could be in his court this weekend.  His K-PAX Racing team is based at Sonoma Raceway and Parente has already tested at the home track, plus Parente took second and fourth in last year’s Sonoma doubleheader while Long placed fourth and eighth.

“We got two fourth place finishes (at COTA), but it didn’t go as planned that weekend,” said Parente. “But look, it’s racing. It was the maximum we could get out of the car, and we did all we could. For me, fourth place was great. This year, [Ben Barnicoat, Parente’s teammate in SprintX] and I had some pretty good races and some really tough ones where I think we still maximized the potential of our car. Now, I’m looking forward to the two rounds at Sonoma with the McLaren.”

While the Long and Parente battle will take center stage for the Pirelli World Challenge this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, other drivers could throw a wrench into the point leaders’ march to championships.

Young Michael Cooper of Syosset, N.Y., driver of the No. 8 Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.R., has already clinched the GT SprintX drivers title with co-driver Jordan Taylor of Orlando, Fla., but Cooper is still in the mix for the Overall GT crown, just 32 points out of the lead.

The driver to watch this weekend in the GT Sprint division has to be four-time GT series champion Johnny O’Connell of Flowery Branch, Ga., who captured both Sonoma Raceway GT Sprint races last year in his No. 3 Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.R. O’Connell is seeking his first 2017 PWC victory and Sonoma could be the course for “Johnny Red” after his 2016 showing.

Among the other top contenders for the Sonoma Raceway GT doubleheader are Italy’s Daniel Mancinelli, a three-time SprintX winner in the No. 31 TR3 Racing Ferrari 488 GT3; veteran Bryan Sellers of Braselton, Ga., in the No. 6 K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S; college student Alec Udell of The Woodlands, Tex., in the No. 17 Euroworld Motorsports/GMG Porsche 911 GT3 R; Scotland’s Ryan Dalziel, a two-time SprintX winner, in the No. 2 CRP Racing/DeVilbiss Mercedes-AMG GT3; Ryan Eversley of Atlanta and Peter Kox of The Netherlands in the two all-new RealTime Racing Acura NSX GT3 cars (No. 43 and 93 respectively); veteran Jon Fogarty of Bend, Ore., in the No. 99 GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R and Germany’s Pierre Kaffer in the No. 4 Magnus Racing Audi RS 8 LMS.

Action for the PWC Grand Prix of Sonoma begins Friday (Sept. 15) at 9:15 a.m. PDT with GTS practice and 11:00 a.m. PDT with GT/GTA/GT Cup practice.  The two GT races are set for Saturday (Sept. 16) at 2:15 p.m. PDT and Sunday (Sept. 17) at 10:00 a.m. PDT. The GTS events begin at 5 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

All of Saturday’s races, and Sunday’s GTS race, will be live-streamed for free on World-Challenge.com and MotorTrendOnDemand.com. Sunday’s GT race will be broadcast same-day on CBS Sports Network – check your local listings for broadcast time.

Bourdais hopes last year’s crash turns into Indy 500 Cinderella story on Sunday

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Sebastien Bourdais has relived his May 20, 2017 crash during Indianapolis 500 qualifying over and over in his mind, day after day, week after week and month after month.

He would think of the worst crash of his open-wheel racing career at least once — if not several times — a day, particularly when he’d experience a slight twinge of pain.

“I think about it every day,” Bourdais told MotorSportsTalk. “Even though I’m functionally 100 percent now, it’s still very rare that during the day that there’s not a little pinch or something that reminds me of what happened.”

But this past weekend while qualifying for this year’s 500, one year later, the French driver said he was finally able to work past the mental roadblock that just would not leave his mind.

The solution was simple: complete the task he wasn’t able to do so last year, namely, qualifying for the race – and qualifying well.

Bourdais will start fifth in Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, in the middle of Row 2.

“(Last year’s crash is) still in my mind,” Bourdais said. “But I think the biggest hurdle, at least mentally, was qualifying last weekend, putting yourself back in the same set of circumstances, going back on the line there.

“It felt a little bit the same, chances of rain, some rain, delays, you get back in line, conditions change, everything gets harder because it gets hotter, but that’s the biggest hurdle to overcome. After that, it’s back to business.”

Bourdais has already won once in 2018 – the season-opening race in his adopted hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida.

It helped jump start him to a strong overall run in the first five races of the season, including a fourth-place showing two weeks ago at the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Indianapolis, coupled with entering the 500 third in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings.

Now, he wants to win the biggest race of his career. If he does so, he’ll feel as if he finally and completely has come full circle from last year’s devastating wreck that shattered his pelvis, going head-on into the Turn 2 wall at a reported 228 mph.

“Well, it’s the Holy Grail of IndyCar, it doesn’t really get any bigger than that,” Bourdais said of the 500. “It’s the biggest achievement that you can accomplish in IndyCar.

“I don’t think I’m any different than anybody else: we all want to win it pretty bad, but I’m sure after what happened after last year, it’d be a Cinderella story.”

But there’s a caveat to Bourdais writing that story: “There’s 32 other drivers that want to accomplish the same thing, and it’s a one day event. We’ll give it our best shot … you can only give your very best and see what happens on that given day.”

Bourdais has a lot going for him heading into Sunday. First off, he’ll start from the highest qualifying position he’s ever had in what will be the seventh Indy 500 of the 39-year-old’s racing career.

Second, his confidence and comfort level are higher than they’ve ever been coming into the annual classic at the 2.5-mile Brickyard oval.

Third, he’s forgiven himself – not IMS – for what happened last year. He has no ill feeling towards the racetrack, nor does he seek revenge. If he were to start thinking that way, it would serve no positive purpose.

“No. I’m not really that way,” he said when asked if he wants revenge over the racetrack. “The track didn’t beat me up, I beat myself.

“The bottom line is there were a couple of reasons why it happened, but I got more comfortable and more confident and confidence and comfort at some point just bite you at Indy.

“You just do your laps, you get into such a rhythm and the week had gone perfectly with an awesome car and there was not a doubt in my mind it was going to stick (going into Turn 2), and that’s when it happened – and I paid the price.”

So, Bourdais is simply going to go out and race, again, hoping to complete what he started last year before being so painfully derailed.

His best finish to date in the 500 has been seventh (2014). He just needs for his Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser – Sullivan Honda to finish six places higher on Sunday.

And if he does, his move to Dale Coyne Racing last year – he’s competed in 13 of 23 races with two wins, 3 podiums and one pole – would only serve to make what already has proven to be a great move into a potentially brilliant move.

Because, yes, Bourdais isn’t just thinking Indy 500 win, he’s also thinking of a potential championship this season.

“I sure hope so,” Bourdais said when asked if his team’s success will continue. “I like to say it’s (the success that the Coyne camp has had since he came there) a little bit of my baby, bringing in Craig (engineer Craig Hampson) and Olivier (race engineer Olivier Boisson) and reinforcing the existing crew.”

Bourdais is no stranger to winning championships. He won four straight combined titles in CART and the Champ Car World Series from 2004 through 2007 (he also won 28 races in that four-year span).

“Obviously, it’s one thing to get into a winning team and basically meet expectations,” Bourdais said. “It’s another thing to try and build something and change the status of the underdog and turn him into a contender week in and week out.

“We got a glimpse of that last year, and this year, we’ve been competitive every weekend so far, and that’s a great feeling. Once you’re able to be competitive on street course, road courses, short ovals and superspeedways, then you can start saying and thinking championship.”

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