Petit Le Mans winners. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Winners of 20th Petit Le Mans all hit notable milestones

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Saturday’s 20th Motul Petit Le Mans from Road Atlanta was a milestone event for the fall endurance classic, the brainchild of Dr. Don Panoz in tandem with the race organizers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest.

And for the race winners, it was a case where each race winner achieved something of note in their careers.

PROTOTYPE: DALZIEL, HARTLEY BREAK THROUGH WITH SHARP AT ESM

Hartley, Dalziel and Sharp. Photo courtesy of IMSA

While Extreme Speed Motorsports had won at Petit Le Mans before – in the GT class in 2012 with a special chrome livery for one-off sponsor Ultimat Vodka and a lineup of Scott Sharp, Johannes van Overbeek and Toni Vilander in the team’s No. 01 Ferrari F458 Italia – it hadn’t won overall in the race.

Surprisingly, despite racing for the team for four years, Tequila Patron ESM veteran Ryan Dalziel hadn’t either. Some notable near-misses – mainly the 2014 Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring – stuck out as the Scot had managed to miss a win for the team by no fault of his own. Even when ESM went back-to-back at Daytona and Sebring in 2016, Dalziel was racing for the VISIT FLORIDA Racing team in IMSA, as he raced for ESM in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Either the No. 22 or 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi was the class of the field on Saturday at Petit Le Mans, and while the No. 2 car was lucky to inherit the win once the sister No. 22 car driven by Pipo Derani got assessed a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact, it didn’t dampen the spirits of the Patron team to ensure at least one of the two cars won.

The No. 2 car survived in spite of an alternator issue that nearly defeated them again, but in the end former Starworks Motorsport teammates Dalziel and Hartley got on the board for ESM.

“When we lost the lead in the pits from the alternator issue, I thought the race was over,” Dalziel said. “Sometimes things are meant to work for you, and today was one of those days. The No. 2 definitely car needed it. I’m bummed we didn’t get a 1-2 finish.”

GT LE MANS: AUBERLEN’S 400TH BMW RACE SENDS M6 GTLM OFF IN STYLE

Special signage for Auberlen’s 400th BMW race. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Bill Auberlen celebrated his 400th start in a BMW in grand style, winning the GT Le Mans race in the final start for the M6 GTLM with co-drivers Alexander Sims and Kuno Wittmer. This was Auberlen’s second (2001) and Sims and Wittmer’s first Petit Le Mans victories.

“Obviously I’m the most fortunate person in the world, its been a privilege driving for BMW for 21 years, and on my 400th race to win,” Auberlen reflected. “I’m amongst a lot of great guys here, a lot of great teammates. A lot of the smartest people in the world here working for BMW. I’m very thankful and so happy.”

There were no nerves with Sims finishing the race, as Auberlen hailed his co-driver. The only downside, he said, is that the M6 GTLM has reached its zenith at the time it ends its career before the new M8 GTE comes online next year.

A couple other tough races limited the pair in the No. 25 BMW Team RLL entry to second in points, namely a late-race mechanical at VIR that dropped them from a sure win to fourth. But Auberlen was still thankful to Sims for making their first year as co-drivers a good win.

GT DAYTONA: CDP BACK ON TOP IN U.S., AS LAND’S YOUNG TRIO BREAKS THROUGH

De Phillippi’s star shone brightly. Photo courtesy of IMSA

In a 17-car class, European regulars Montaplast by Land-Motorsport toppled the establishment with its No. 29 Audi R8 LMS in just its third U.S. start of the year. The team’s usual full-season pairing of Connor De Phillippi and Christopher Mies featured teenager Sheldon van der Linde as its third driver, who starred along with them. Track support and strategy from Peter Baron’s Starworks Motorsport operation helped aid Land’s charge to the top.

“We had an amazing car. I can’t believe how strong it was,” said De Phillippi, who won his first race in the U.S. since a Star Mazda race at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis in 2012. “My teammates did a flawless job. We proved our young guys can do it. A lot of teams don’t give a guy like Sheldon a chance to do it.”

De Phillippi, who’s since become a GT star with Porsche and now Audi since moving to racing in Europe full-time – even as he would welcome racing more in America next year – also noted the significance of winning at Road Atlanta. It’s been a banner year for him and Land, having won the Nürburgring 24 Hours as well.

“It’s huge! My first major Star Mazda win was here in 2010. It was a special point in my career then. Now it’s seven years later with my first big GT win. It’s awesome.”

PROTOTYPE CHALLENGE: BAR1 ENDS CLASS’ TIME ON TOP

BAR1 won the final PC race, pictured here ahead of GTLM field. Photo courtesy of IMSA

BAR1 Motorsports foiled Performance Tech Motorsports’ perfect season with a 1-2 finish in the final race for the Prototype Challenge class, as Brian Alder’s team took its first win in four years and young Canadian driver Garett Grist emerged on the sports car scene in just his third start.

A Silver-rated driver who like De Phillippi was a regular race winner in Pro Mazda in the Mazda Road to Indy, Grist was entrusted as the lead pro in Brian Alder’s second Oreca FLM09 with PC class veterans John Falb and Tomy Drissi. That he was as quick as he was in a car down on outright pace compared to Performance Tech spoke volumes about his potential for the future, with driver coach Charles “CR” Crews helping aid his development.

“We tested a couple weeks back. We were fast then, but we didn’t have the same pace here,” Grist said. “We dug deep and improved as much as we could under the circumstances. I did a triple stint towards the end and then pulled out a big lead.”

Falb has been a regular winner this year in an LMP3 Ligier JS P3 car in the European Le Mans Series with United Autosports and Sean Rayhall, while Drissi has been a regular in PC off-and-on since the class inception in 2010. Falb closed the race out behind the wheel, while Drissi, whose primary business is in Hollywood and often has his movies he’s working on adorn the car, explained what it meant to close the class out on top.

“To be racing in IMSA and on the same track with Indy 500 winners and sports car stars is an honor,” Drissi said. “You do your dance out there, you work to get your tires up to temperature, and you work with the factory cars in a give-and-take. We’ve had podiums before here, but not the win; so in the last race of the PC cars, to win it is pretty darn cool.”

Rahal determined to regain winning touch in 2019 IndyCar season

Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher, INDYCAR
INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Graham Rahal entered the room with a smile on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

It was IndyCar “Media Day” and Rahal wasn’t happy with the way last season went at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He was less happy with the fact some aren’t considering him a serious threat in 2019. He playfully chided with one media outlet for failing to mention his team as one to watch in 2019.

“We use that as motivation to show everybody how we are viewed,” Rahal said. “We are here to win.”

Rahal just turned 30 in January but is entering his 13thseason in big-time Indy car racing. He entered the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he was just 17. He missed his high school prom because he was racing at Houston.

“That was the luckiest day of my life,” Rahal said. “I didn’t have to go to the prom. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Plus, I got my second career podium that weekend.”

Rahal drove to victory in his very first race in the combined IndyCar Series in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He was hailed as the “Poster Boy of Unification” and a future star. What followed was a seven-year drought before he captured his second-career win in a thrilling race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

He won two races in 2015, one in 2016 and two in 2017. He was expected to contend for victories and possibly the championship last year but struggled through a disappointing season and finished eighth in the standings.

“I’m looking forward for chance this year,” Rahal said. “Last year was a tough one for me and for the team. I’m looking forward to what my new engineer, Allen McDonald, has done so far. He is an accomplished engineer and brings a different mindset to our program this year from what we had last year. He and (fellow engineer) Eddie Jones are very close friends and that will help us from the standpoint they are on the same page.

“We needed a bit of life brought back to the team.”

Rahal believes his challenges are to get everything in order before the season starts. The team has defined the areas where it was lacking in 2019. The team needed to improve in research and development after starting behind last season.

“I’m excited for what I see, and I know in the end it will all pay off,” Rahal said. “It’s just a matter of when.

“There is a lot to be excited about for us. We are in a great position as a team. We have great sponsorship and that will allow us to push forward and do the things we need to do.”

Rahal believes at 30, he has a long time ahead of him to win races and championships and maybe even the Indianapolis 500. In order to reach those goals, however, Rahal’s team needs to regain the competitive level he displayed prior to last year.

“We’ve been fortunate to win six times,” Rahal said. “A lot of people come into this sport and never win. I fully recognize there is no reason we can’t win a lot. I don’t care what anybody writes, what anybody thinks – I really feel that when it comes to race day, we perform better than 99 percent of the other people out there.

“As a team and for myself, we have to qualify better. If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. We know the rear of our cars just aren’t good enough. When we need to find that extra tenth or two, it’s just not there but absolutely, we want to win.

“I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to not see us win. We feel that. But our cars aren’t good enough and we know that.”

Rahal believes the team has identified the problems with the setup of its car. It has a deep engineering staff but hasn’t had a chance to develop the damper program and other important areas that provide a competition setup.

Takuma Sato, the winner of the 101stIndianapolis 500 when he was with Andretti Autosport, scored the team’s only victory in 2018 with a win in the Portland Grand Prix. The two are back this year and have built a respect for each other.

“He’s a good guy,” Rahal said of Sato. “Other than Helio Castroneves, Takuma is probably the happiest man on the planet. He’s a great guy and fits in well with our organization. We pride ourselves on being a family and he fits in extremely well to that.

“We need to do a better job for him as a team. He won a race last year, but we can both do better to win with both cars.

“The Andretti cars are the best right now and the Penske cars will be good. We have a lot of space to close up on those two teams but hopefully, we can do it.”