IMSA Preview: Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix featuring America’s Tire 250

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Only two events remain in the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship: this weekend’s Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix featuring America’s Tire 250, and October’s Petit Le Mans.

With both events featuring all three classes – Prototype, GT Le Mans (GTLM), and GT Daytona (GTD) – the final two events will have everything to play for in terms of championship implications.

None of the championships are wrapped up in any of the three classes. In fact, none of them are even close to being wrapped up, meaning all three will likely go to the season-ending Petit Le Mans.

The title prospects in all three all three classes are a little mouth-watering. There are powerhouses – ones that “should” be title contenders every year –  and plucky underdogs – those who may lack the clout and/or resources of their counterparts, but have found ways to manufacturer strong results, or even wins, to put themselves in contention.

There’s a lot to look forward to as the IMSA season nears its conclusion, and it all begins this weekend at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

A look ahead at all three classes is below.

 

Prototype

Erric Curran and Felipe Nasr have Action Express atop the Prototype championship, but only 12 points separate the top four. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The top four in the Prototype class are surprisingly close as the series heads to its final two races.

Eric Curran and Felipe Nasr lead the way in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R, seven points ahead of Filipe Albuquerque in the sister No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac.

The Action Express team has been 1-2 for much of the year, with each car having a win. However, since the Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen, they’ve appeared very vulnerable – Curran and Nasr have finishes of seventh, third, and third in the three races since then, while Albuquerque has finishes of sixth, fourth and seventh.

As such, the door was left open for challengers to close in, and the CORE autosport duo of Colin Braun and Jon Bennett have stormed into contention. With a second-place and two wins in their last three races – the two wins have also been back-to-back – Bennett and Braun are within 10 points of the lead and have all the momentum on their side.

Colin Braun and Jon Bennett have on a role this summer, winning back-to-back races. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The Oreca 07 Gibson they pilot sees a BoP adjustment in that 10 kilograms of weight were added, and the fuel capacity reduced from 75 liters down to 72. However, they still may be poised to make a genuine run at the Prototype crown in the final two races, despite the BoP changes and despite being a genuine underdog – in addition to running an LMP2 chassis, not a manufacturer-backed DPi platform, they’re a true Pro-Am lineup (Braun is the “Pro,” with Bennett the “Am”).

Yet, they remain a prominent force in the Prototype ranks, and with two races left, they could well take home a Prototype championship.

Not to be forgotten, though, is Wayne Taylor Racing. Jordan Taylor and Renger Van Der Zande sit fourth, only 12 points out of the lead despite not having a win in 2018. But, their three podium finishes show that they have contended for wins at various points this year, so a win could beckon at any time.

Jordan Taylor and Renger van der Zande sit 12 points out of the lead despite being winless so far in 2018. Photo courtesy of IMSA

They’ll need at least one win to defend the driver’s championship – they won the 2017 title with Jordan and Ricky Taylor – but they’re not out of it by any means.

Acura Team Penske is perfectly positioned to play the role of spoiler. Dane Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya rank sixth (in the No. 6 Acura ARX-05), with Helio Castroneves and Ricky Taylor in seventh (in the No. 7 machine). At 25 and 32 points out of the lead, their title chances are all but gone, but the ARX-05 has plenty of speed for them to be factors in the final two races.

And, if you’re looking for another underdog in the fight, Misha Goikhberg and Stephen Simpson sit fifth, 22 points out of the lead. That’s far enough back that they’ll need some help to get in the hunt, but they are race winners this year – at Watkins Glen – and they could also play a pivotal role in things over the final two races.

The Prototype class has a seemingly endless amount of angles in play, and they all may factor into things, beginning at Laguna Seca.

 

GTLM

The No. 3 Corvette C7.R of Jan Magnussen and Antonio leads the way in GTLM, but does not yet have a win in 2018. (Richard Prince/Chevrolet photo).

As close as the Prototype class is, it pales in comparison to the GTLM class. Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia lead the standings, despite not having a win in 2018, in their No. 3 Corvette C7.R for Corvette Racing, but they are a scant four points ahead of Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook in the No. 67 Ford GT for Ford Chip Ganassi Racing.

The sister No. 66 Ford of Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller ranks third, nine points out of the lead.

The two Fords have been the fastest of the GTLM cars this year, yet the Corvette remains the battle-tested “old reliable” that just won’t go away, and the two brands are surprisingly equal as IMSA enters the final two races of the year.

Ford Chip Ganassi has had the speed to dominate the GTLM class, but trails Corvette Racing in the driver’s championship with two races left. Photo courtesy of Ford Chip Ganassi Racing.

The sister No. 4 Corvette of Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner sits fourth, but at 17 points back, they’re better positioned to act in a support role for the the No. 3 entry.

Playing the role of spoiler are Porsche GT Team and BMW Team RLL. Both teams have won this year – RLL won the last race at Virginia International Raceway while Porsche won the 12 Hours of Sebring with Nick Tandy, Patrick Pilet and Frederic Makowiecki.

Tandy and Pilet, in the No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR, and Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor, in the sister No. 912, have more than enough clout to battle for the win at Laguna Seca.

The BMWs of Jesse Krohn and John Edwards (No. 24 BMW M8 GTE) and Alexander Sims and Connor De Phillippi (No. 25) are the underdogs of the GTLM class. However, Sims and De Phillippi stole a win at VIR in August, and another upset would royally shake up the GTLM apple cart.

GTD

Paul Miller Racing’s Madison Snow and Bryan Sellers have a somewhat health GTD championship lead entering Laguna Seca. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The GTD title picture is far simpler. Paul Miller Racing continues to lead with Madison Snow and Bryan Sellers in the No. 48 Lamborghini Huracan GT3. And at 13 points up on second-place Katherine Legge, in the No. 86 Acura NSX GT3 for Meyer Shank Racing, their lead is comparatively healthy in comparison to the Prototype and GTLM leaders.

The 13-point lead isn’t exactly big, and Legge – and co-driver Alvaro Parente – could put a dent in the lead with a win, but they’re in a must-win scenario to have a realistic chance at the GTD crown.

However, there are multiple race winners behind the top two who, while not in the title picture, could rock the boat. Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating, in the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3 for AMG Team Riley Motorsports – winners at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park – and Patrick Long and Christina Nielsen, in the Wright Motorsports No. 58 Porsche 911 GT3, might be the most prominent names who could factor in.

However, 3GT Racing could also be a major player – Kyle Marcelli and Dominik Baumann have won twice this year, including last time out at VIR, so their Lexus RCF GT3 easily has the pace to run up front at Laguna Seca.

Rest assured, even though only Paul Miller Racing and Meyer Shank Racing are in the title hunt, there are plenty of others who could battle for the win this weekend.

Qualifying begins Saturday at 3:35 p.m. ET, with Sunday’s race rolling off at 5:00 p.m. ET.

An entry list for the Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix featuring America’s Tire 250 can be viewed here, and a weekend schedule here.

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Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
Mirco Lazzari / Getty Images
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.