Photo courtesy of IMSA

IMSA: Parity, title battles, some sign-offs as Petit Le Mans turns 20

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In a roundabout way, the season finale for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship – and the championship-within-a-championship Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup that goes with it – is fortunate that all four of its class championships are all but decided headed into Motul Petit Le Mans, the 20th edition of the early October endurance classic.

While the race was long the stalwart for extra international entries in years past – namely the Audi and Peugeot LMP1 beasts – it’s been through a bit of a tough slog the last four or five years in the absence of high-profile guest stars. But with an incredible batch of extra drivers and a few key additions to the field, the spotlight may go back on the battle for wins this weekend with the titles nearly cinched.

Brothers Jordan and Ricky Taylor will wrap the Prototype title in what could be their final race as co-drivers in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R, thanks to a 29-point lead entering this race. They positioned themselves for the title right out of the gate with an incredible run of five race wins in a row to start the year, and a 30-point lead after those five races. Cadillac has also sealed the Prototype Manufacturer’s title with a 27-point lead over Nissan.

Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia can make it a double title for General Motors as they enter in GT Le Mans with a 19-point lead of their own in that class, driving the No. 3 Corvette C7.R.

Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen can go back-to-back in GT Daytona in their No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3, on the heels of a win last time out at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and with a 26-point lead there.

These three pairings merely need to complete the minimum drive time requirements (45 minutes base drive time in P and GTLM and two hours base drive time, and two hours, 45 minutes for Silver/Bronze drivers in GTD) to ensure they score points for the race and confirm their crowns.

The final Prototype Challenge championship has already been cinched, James French and Pato O’Ward having done so for Performance Tech Motorsports their last race at Road America.

There are still plenty of titles on offer for the weekend, between manufacturer titles and Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup titles, but the good part about the driver titles being settled is the battle for class wins across the board should take priority in the 10-hour race.

Here’s what to look forward to:

TITLES STILL TO GET WRAPPED

Beyond the four season-long class titles, here is the state of play for other championships heading into the weekend:

  • GTLM Manufacturer’s Championship: Chevrolet 316, Ford 312 and BMW 307. Porsche at 297 is too far back to win.
  • GTD Manufacturer’s Championship: Ferrari 327 and Mercedes-AMG 318. From third on back (Porsche 313, Acura 310, Lamborghini 305, BMW 303) they’re too far back to win.
  • TPNAEC titles: In Prototype, the No. 5 Cadillac trio leads the No. 10 Konica Minolta pairing by two points, 38-36. Cadillac will win that Manufacturer’s title. In GTLM, No. 911 Porsche pairing leads the No. 66 Ford pairing by two points, 32-30. Ford leads Porsche by three in Manufacturer’s, 36-33. GTD sees the No. 63 Ferrari trio on 30,the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG trio on 29 and the No. 86 Acura pair on 27. The Manufacturer’s battle sees Mercedes-AMG with a three-point lead over both Acura and Ferrari (33-30). Performance Tech Motorsports’ trio has the PC title clinched.

PROTOTYPE: PENSKE, REBELLION SET TO PLAY SPOILER

Photo: Rebellion Racing

Confirmation of Team Penske’s late but welcome entry, along with the return of Rebellion Racing with a revised livery and a revised lineup (Mathias Beche, Nick Heidfeld, Gustavo Menezes), spices up the Prototype field with a 10-car entry. Both teams won their last Petit Le Mans starts; Penske with Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe in LMP2 in 2008, Rebellion overall – twice in a row – in 2012 and 2013. Heidfeld was part of the 2013 win.

After the Taylor brothers’ runaway in the opening five races, since the Taylor’s last win in Detroit, four different other cars have won the four races since.

The Nos. 5 and 31 Action Express Cadillacs got their own wins in Watkins Glen and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the No. 22 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi broke up the Cadillac seven-up of wins at Road America, and the No. 90 VISIT FLORIDA Racing Ligier JS P217 Gibson became the first LMP2-spec winner at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Factor in the hungry No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson and No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson cars, each of which has been close to winning this year especially at similar type tracks to Road Atlanta, and there should be a thrilling scrap for the overall win in this year’s Prototype field.

There’s a guaranteed new winner in Prototype this year, as Michael Shank Racing won last year with its Ligier JS P2 Honda in the hands of Ozz Negri, John Pew and Olivier Pla. Pla and PR1 can repeat – Pla is in the PR1 Ligier and the PR1 team won PC last year – but otherwise it’s wide open.

GT LE MANS: NO CLEAR FAVORITE AT PETIT

GTLM often wide open at Petit Le Mans. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The beauty of GTLM at Petit Le Mans is that there is parity in winners. Last year, it was the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE in a popular and overdue triumph with Giancarlo Fisichella, Toni Vilander and James Calado. Porsche claimed its famous overall win in the water-logged 2015 deluge with Nick Tandy, Patrick Pilet and Richard Lietz.

The former Team Falken Tire won back-to-back in 2013 and 2014, in 2013 with an old car (the 997-spec Porsche 911 GT3 RSR) and in 2014, as the first customer winner in the new Porsche 911 RSR, which is now another previous generation model (the new mid-engined Porsche 911 RSR has debuted this year). Extreme Speed Motorsports won in 2012 with the Ferrari F458 Italia, AF Corse (Ferrari) won in a guest entry over Flying Lizard Motorsports (Porsche) in 2011 and Corvette snatched a dramatic last gasp victory in 2010 when Risi ran out of fuel in the final minutes.

Extra weight added to the Ferrari before this race (+15 kg) is the notable class Balance of Performance change coming into the weekend. Even with that, all five manufacturers in class should be in the mix. Ford in particular seeks its first win here and enters after a test at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course last week.

GT DAYTONA: HOPING TO AVOID DRIVE TIME DRAMA

Last year witnessed an epic scrap for the GTD win between Jeroen Bleekemolen in the final race for the Dodge Viper GT3-R and Andy Lally in what proved to be the final race for the No. 44 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS in IMSA. But while Lally won it on the road, the car was dropped to the rear of the class post-race for a drive-time violation; the wrong Silver driver in Marco Seefried, rather than John Potter, had been the driver to achieve the time required. Potter and Lally were paired as full-season drivers and despite Lally and Bleekemolen’s drive on track, the race was decided by officialdom.

Nos. 29 (above) and 23 Audis join regular GTD entrants this week. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Beyond the 15 regular entries in GTD and their assortment of cool guest stars as third drivers, two extra cars come in the form of a pair of Audi R8 LMS entries. Alex Job Racing’s Townsend Bell, our NBCSN IndyCar analyst, and Bill Sweedler won the GTD championship here two years ago for Scuderia Corsa. They’re joined by Frankie Montecalvo as they look for their first big result of the year. Also back in action for the first time since Sebring is the No. 29 Montaplast by Land-Motorsport Audi of American star Connor De Phillippi, Chris Mies and new third driver Kelvin van der Linde, a talented young Dutch driver who figures to be one to watch this weekend. De Phillippi will have back-to-back U.S. races, as he’ll also be in the eight-hour SRO Intercontinental GT Challenge race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with the same team and Mies and Christopher Haase as co-drivers.

PC: THE FINAL RACE, AND FINAL SHOT AT PERFECTION

IMSA’s Prototype Challenge class signs off this weekend but still with one final story line: can Performance Tech Motorsports complete a perfect season? With seven wins from the first seven races, the trio of James French, Pato O’Ward and Kyle Masson are the favorites (Masson having driven only the endurance races) at Road Atlanta. Brian Alder’s BAR1 Motorsports has a couple solid pros within its two cars, and has one last chance to see if they can topple Brent O’Neill’s bunch.

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after qualifying for the KOHLER Grand Prix

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Here’s what the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers had to say, courtesy of IndyCar Media Relations, after Saturday qualifying for the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It’s nice when you have the car to do it. We had the speed on Friday, so to finish it off today is nice. It’s only goal one. Two races; one for pole, one for the race. We need to close it out. Verizon has been very good to us, and Team Chevy as well. Engine package has been phenomenal to get the most out of it. You see how well we work together with Team Penske and Team Chevy. We just have to be smart and get through the first couple laps. Save the tires, save some fuel and be smart if a caution comes out in the middle of the race. We’ll see what we have for tomorrow.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Tough qualifying today. We’ve been struggling a little bit finding the best setup for the car. We need to concentrate for tomorrow so that we have a great car for the race. It’s a long race and you never know what can happen. We will keep working, improving and doing our best and will try to have a top 10 tomorrow.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “We’re struggling a little bit with the reds (Firestone alternate tires) – we just didn’t find the gain like everybody else did. I’m not entirely sure, honestly. Obviously, Robbie (Wickens) is doing well, so it’s a bit of a mystery for us. We went more towards his (Wickens’) setup and the balance kind of went out the window for me. It’s weird because we’ve been able to copy and paste setups all year long between the two of us and it just didn’t work here. I feel bad for the Arrow Electronics boys – obviously, the car’s capable of more. We just didn’t get it today.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “Overall, it’s been a good weekend – we’ve still never been out of the top five in every session. Hopefully, me and the Lucas Oil boys can keep chipping away and come up with a slightly better car for the race tomorrow.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): 
“I just didn’t think we had great space to work in out there on the track. There were about five other guys before us and they are all trying to get their spacing right, as well. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just there’s a tight window for everything. Maybe we should have waved off a third lap on the black (Firestone primary) tires and got ourselves better time on the reds (Firestone alternate tires). It is what it is, though, and we only really had one lap to try and get something going. Then, we had people starting to back up in front of us and never got to show our speed. I think the PNC Bank car had enough for the Firestone Fast Six, but we’ll have to show that speed tomorrow in the race.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda):
 “The guys on the First Data car made some great changes today after we struggled a little bit early on in the weekend here at Road America. That was the most confident I’ve felt with the car so far this weekend and I felt we were going in the right direction. We were capable of being in the Firestone Fast Six today, but we got held up a bit. On the upside, we have a really fast First Data car and something we can use to improve on up the grid for tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “That was close. We were off the whole time. I gave it everything the last lap. A surprise front row. I keep getting front rows every weekend. Not the pole, but yeah, I’m pretty happy. But only five hundredths off, come on. I think I did a really neat lap. Josef (Newgarden) did a great lap. That was all I had.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): 
“I got traffic on my fast lap, but it would have just put us in the top 13, not enough to advance. The car is understeering all weekend. We tried something overnight that didn’t work, so it put us behind a session and we’re back to the car we had yesterday. It was the same car, so we were going to do the same lap time as yesterday when we tried the reds (Firestone alternate tires), but getting traffic didn’t help. But it wasn’t going to change a lot – maybe a few positions, which always helps, but we’ve got a little bit of work to do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “We wanted to be further up and get the GEHL Honda in the top six. We’ve started in the top six every year, but there was nothing more in the car today. For maybe the first time this year, I’m confident saying that; there was nothing more. We only lacked one-tenth (of a second) over four miles from fourth (place), but that’s what Indy car racing is now. Yeah, we qualified ninth, but when you think that a tenth of a second over four-plus miles can move you five spots, it’s crazy, but that’s the reality of Indy car. We’ve just got to try to find a little more improvement for tomorrow, make the car a little more consistent for the race, and hopefully, we can go out there and attack. I think a lot of people have a lot of questions for the race. There is no warmup this year, so we’ll see how it goes.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda): (About if he feels he’s in a good position to win tomorrow): “Yeah, I don’t know. I’d like to say so, but I’m not sure I believe it myself. It’s been a bit of a tough day. I thought after yesterday we thought we had everything under control, and things were looking good, and this morning we rolled out and struggled with grip and then we went into qualify and really struggled for good. I think I only did one good lap to be honest with you in Q2 on that new set of option tires. Everything was really scrappy and really difficult to put anything together. In (the Firestone Fast Six), I really didn’t get anything done properly. We tried one lap on both sets, but I’m not convinced it was the right thing to do – hindsight 20/20. Just one of those where you come out of the car and you’re not quite sure what else you should or would have done, but not super happy with the way things have gone. The guys did a really good job, but I just — yeah, I’m struggling to read anything that’s happening out there, it’s up and down, making a lot of mistakes, so don’t really feel great about it.

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “It’s so competitive out there. I thought we had a really good chance at doing better in qualifying, but we ended up on the wrong end of the timing sheet. We just missed making it to the second round by a few tenths, so that’s a bit disappointing. That said, tomorrow is a long race and a lot can happen. I’m confident we can move up the field and get that good result we’ve been chasing the last few races.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “We’ve been making progress throughout the weekend, little steps at a time and qualifying was our best session yet. The car is now performing within that half-second window of the front of the field. There’s always that last hundredth of time left to get, so I’m a bit annoyed that we didn’t get it, but it was still a pretty good lap. I got as much as I could out of the car. There was just a little bit of oversteer out of Turn 12 and that’s probably the half a tenth that we needed to transfer. I would have liked to have got through to the next round, but it was still a decent effort considering how much progress we’ve made.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “Qualifying was definitely a solid improvement. It’s nice to have the Direct Supply car in the top 10 to start the race tomorrow. We’ve been making pretty big changes every session and we hadn’t really found anything that worked until qualifying. We were struggling with the front of the car in some places and the rear of the car in other places, we just had to try and tack it down a little bit. Obviously, it helped being on new tires and the reds (Firestone alternate tires), but the car has come alive – certainly a step in the right direction. To only be a tenth or so off the Firestone Fast Six, compared to where we were in practice, is a really good improvement. I’m happy with that, but we want to be higher up and we’ll try for that tomorrow.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “That’s not the result that we’re all here for, obviously, and I think everyone here at Carlin is disappointed with that qualifying result, but at the same time I know Max (Chilton) and I both have a lot of confidence in this team and our engineering staff. We’ll look at all of the data tonight and learn from each other and try to come up with a plan for tomorrow’s race. The nice thing is that we’re still learning and we’re still constantly making progress, so it’s not like we’re out of options. We still have a lot left to try and a lot left to learn, so we’ll just keep moving forward.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “This weekend so far has been really good for us just confidence-wise. To show the speed that we have, I think we deserve to be in the top six – the car definitely does. I just made a mistake and just overdrove the reds (Firestone alternate tires) in the top 12 trying to make into the Firestone Fast Six. I calmed myself down and gathered it up, but I could only get us up to 11th. We have a great race car and I’m excited to see what we can do on race day.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “We can do a lot from fourth. It’s always disappointing when you lead your two groups and miss out on the pole, but it’s so close. It’s amazing that around a four-mile track, it’s so tight. It’s just a testament to get to the championship, but huge hats off to the whole NAPA Know How team. We really struggled yesterday afternoon and made some good decisions overnight that paid off.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “We didn’t test here, so we were a bit behind the 8-ball, but we made the right changes and I think we put a good effort out today. I was hoping to go one better at practice and be P2, but starting third is somewhere we can work from tomorrow in the race. It’s going to be interesting with no warmup tomorrow and trying to get the right setup on the race car, but it’s the same for everybody. We have an idea with where we are with older tires, so we’ll try and estimate where we need to be with the setup and put our best effort out there. To fight at it from third is a good thing, so we can do it from there.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “It was definitely a good day. The entire team worked extremely well. The No. 30 boys always have, but it is great to give them back a nice position in qualifying. We were just four hundredths (of a second) off from the top six (in Round 2) and that shows how competitive the field is. I’m extremely happy to start seventh, which is the best position here so far. It’s a long race. We believe we have a strong car for the race, so I’m looking forward to having a strong result.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “Today we had no issues, which was important. Yesterday was for sure a setback, as we needed to run the whole day so that we could experiment with the red (alternate) Firestone tires and the softer compound. So not being able to run on the red tires yesterday really did not help our qualifying effort today. It is what it is at this point, so we will come back tomorrow and be ready to run a good race.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “Even though the results might not have shown it, I think we made a lot of progress here today at Road America. We definitely closed the gap from the beginning of the weekend and I really felt like I got everything out of the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet that I could. With us starting where we are tomorrow, we’ll have the freedom to try a completely different strategy, and hopefully, we can come away from a track I love with a decent result.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Yet another tough qualifying session for us as we search to find the speed we need to get. We’re going to take a look overnight, and hopefully, we can figure something out for the race. Hopefully, we set ourselves up for a fun race and get to pass a lot of cars.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “We’ve been slipping backward ever since Practice 1 on the time sheets and just missed it. We’re a little bit loose there. I don’t think I got the most out of Lap 1 and we’re outside looking in by three tenths (of a second), so it’s not like we were that close. Hopefully, we’re better with (tire degradation) than we were with new tires. The race is obviously a different pace, but you still want to start further up than 15th.”

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