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[1-Oct_20_McLaren_76.jpg] October 2020

Corey Fergus got his second GTD pole of the season at VIR but not the result he hoped for on race day.

Photo by Jake Galstad, LAT Images

Sprint and Endurance:
IMSA Heads Southeast

by Bruce Vild

IMSA served up two very different races in August and early September at two very different racetracks. There were reversals of fortune within each event and from one event to the other, and a mixed bag of results for British GT cars and for the AER-powered Mazda prototypes.

The Michelin GT Challenge at VIR, as in Virginia International Raceway in Danville, Va., was the sprint. Two hours and 40 minutes of racing, and two classes of GT cars only — no prototypes present.

In one of those classes, GT Daytona, stood two British machines — the #76 Compass Racing McLaren 720S GT3 that is pursuing the WeatherTech Sprint Cup, and the #23 Heart of Racing Aston Martin Vantage GT3, back after withdrawing from Road America at the last minute because of a fuel cell leak.

Road Atlanta in Braselton, Ga., was host to the endurance race, the Grand Prix. This year it substituted for the Six Hours of the Glen when IMSA decided to scrub its two events in the Northeast, at Watkins Glen and Lime Rock Park, and locate them elsewhere. Still six hours long, the event brought the prototypes back, and the Aston was there but not the McLaren as this was not a Sprint Cup race.

Part of IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (IWSC) series, these were the main events on weekends that included Michelin Pilot Challenge (IMPC) races and a couple of single-marque events.

Returning to IMPC both times were two Aston Martin GT4 teams, KohR Motorsports and Automatic Racing, and, with their #3 McLaren 570S GT4 fresh from a victory at Road America, Motorsports in Action.

The weekends were unusual in that IWSC was on Saturday and IMPC on Sunday, rather than the other way around, to allow the drivers and teams to work around scheduling conflicts with other major events to which they were committed, such as the Indy 500 in August.

VIR overview

Virginia International Raceway is a stunningly beautiful track. From the air it resembles a world-class golf course with its broad, grassy runoff areas, perhaps to be expected as it was redeveloped about 20 years ago as a motorsports country club. The track follows all the contours and topography that came with the site, and portions have intriguing names like “the Climbing Esses” and “the Roller Coaster.”

It’s also very challenging. The three-and-a-quarter-mile course has 17 corners. Automatic Racing’s Charlie Putnam calls it “frighteningly fast” and “incredibly technical.”

You might think all the grass between the track and the tire walls is very forgiving when a driver has an off, but after a few days of rain (as they had prior to the race) it becomes quite slick. If you don’t slide into the tire wall, as a hapless Hyundai Veloster driver did in the first hour of the IMPC race, you’ll have a hard time getting back on the track because your wheels will be spinning like mad.

[2-Oct_20_Aston_23.jpg] Returning to the IWSC after a COVID-conscious hiatus, Heart of Racing brought their #23 Aston Martin to a respectable top-10 finish at both VIR and Road Atlanta.
Photo by Jake Galstad, LAT Images

The Michelin GT Challenge (IWSC)

The weekend started very well for Corey Fergus and Compass Racing. He took the McLaren to pole in a very tight GTD qualifying session that saw but a 0.074-sec. gap between Fergus and 2nd-placed Robby Foley in a BMW. (The session was so tight, only 0.334 sec. separated Fergus from the Acura NSX in 8th place!)

Come race day, however, it was all downhill. Foley passed him right at the start line and Fergus dropped to 3rd by the time of the first full-course yellow, less than two minutes into the race. After a return to green Fergus lost another position when a Lamborghini moved to the inside of the McLaren and passed successfully.

Subsequent yellows and pit stops did not help. Fergus continued losing ground that he never made up and by the time he was ready to hand the McLaren over to his partner, Paul Holton, he was running 11th in class.

Holton took the helm with a little more than an hour left to the race. Another pit stop lost another position as the car just seemed not to be “spooling up” as expected. Sadly, the race came to an early conclusion for Holton when the right rear suspension appeared to drop (or the right tire went flat, depending on whose report you were following) with less than 15 minutes to go.

Holton pulled the car into an off-track safety area, taking it out of harm’s way and allowing the race to conclude without another full-course caution. The move was duly noted by IMSA radio commentators, who in turns called it “smashing” (in the Brit sense) and “showing very great respect for everybody else.”

Compass Racing finished 12th in class, the McLaren a non-runner having completed 74 laps in what for the top GTD cars was an 83-lap race. “What a disappointing day for them,” it was said, “after a brilliant qualifying yesterday.”

For the Heart of Racing team and their Aston, it was “steady as she goes” the whole weekend — with a middle-of-the-pack qualifying session and a strong and consistent middle-of-the-pack race, landing them the first top-10 finish of their shortened season.

Driver Ian James qualified #23 10th in class, 1.155 sec. behind pole-sitter Corey Fergus. Come race day, James gained a couple of positions and at one point was running as high as 7th, but track incidents and cautions had him settling back to 9th before handing the Aston over to Roman De Angelis. The stop moved the car back a bit more but De Angelis made up lost ground, finishing 9th and still on the lead lap.

“Learning continues and so do the results,” smiled DeAngelis after the race.

And what was the effect of the lack of traffic from the prototypes, which this writer thought might lead to faster lap times for the GT cars?

If you watch a video of the race, it seems all the cars are going faster, but the stats don’t bear that out. The fastest lap times recorded at VIR actually were slower when compared to the races at Road America and Road Atlanta, where prototypes were included. The difference was not significant, only about 2mph, but this does beg the question: Do the prototypes wind up setting the pace for everyone?

[3-Oct_20_McLaren_3.jpg] Virginia may be for lovers, but for McLarens not so much — at least at VIR. Motorsports in Action’s #3 GS contender, like its IWSC counterpart, had to retire before the checkered flag.
Photo by Jake Galstad, LAT Images

Virginia Is for Racing Lovers Grand Prix (IMPC)

The IMPC Grand Prix was also a two-class affair, with Grand Sport (GS) and Touring Car (TCR) entries. On their respective class poles were Russell Ward’s Mercedes-AMG in GS and Max Faulkner’s Audi RS3 in TCR.

Michelin Pilot Challenge races typically start with a burst and this one was no different. Ward’s Mercedes went wide at Turn 1 and lost several positions. A BMW stormed past 2nd-seated Nate Stacy in KohR Motorsports’ #60 Aston Martin and suddenly was leading the pack. No collisions — yet — but within two minutes two TCR cars were off at the Climbing Esses, one buried in the tire wall. Out came the first full-course caution.

Faulkner’s Audi meanwhile had made two trips to the pits with onboard computer problems and re-entered the race nine positions down — ahead only of the two cars taken out on the first lap. The Audi eventually joined them, retiring after completing just four laps.

Automatic Racing fielded their familiar #09 and #99 Astons, Charlie Putnam qualifying #99 right in the middle of the pack — just behind Sheena Monk and the #3 Motorsports in Action McLaren GT4.

At the yellow Putnam was running 14th, and Ramin Abdolvahabi, in #09, 18th. Shortly after the race went back to green, Putnam was hit from behind and knocked off the track between Turns 4 and 5. He recovered after waiting for traffic to clear, spinning his wheels a tad on the wet grass. No further contact, and no yellow flags.

Monk’s McLaren, now running 9th, was holding position. Stacy passed a Mustang and regained 2nd, posting the fastest lap time for the race so far. He kept gaining on the BMW that still led while widening the gap between himself and the Audi R8 now running 3rd.

The second yellow came after Ward pulled his Mercedes off course. Pits opened for the GS cars, and all the leaders took advantage. Positions shuffled as soon as the pit cycle began, along with driver changes.

Kyle Marcelli was now in the #60 Aston, running 8th Corey Lewis in the #3 McLaren, running 12th Charles Esplenaub in the #99 Aston, running 16th and Rob Ecklin in the #09 Aston, running 19th.

We were now halfway through the race, and then some. The race returned to green with 50 minutes to go, and teams began strategizing for their final pit stops — all for fuel, some for fuel and tires. Cars began pitting while the McLaren was still on the track, boosting Lewis to as high as 3rd and then 2nd place. Of course when it was his turn in he fell back quickly.

But within three minutes of his planned stop Lewis was back in the pits. The McLaren’s back panel was off for a while but then reinstalled. Lewis returned to the track. That did not last long, however. With a little more than ten minutes to go before the checkered flag, Lewis was called back in and #3 retired due to an undisclosed mechanical failure.

This had to be heartbreaking for the team that had such a brilliant finish at Road America.

As to the Astons, Marcelli did manage to get #60 past a Mercedes he had been chasing in the last five minutes of the race, but a podium or even a top-five finish was not to be. He brought the car home in 6th, but, with his partner Nate Stacy, proud of having set the fastest lap times for the entire race.

Esplenaub moved as high as 5th when the final pit cycle began, but finished mid-pack, which is more or less where he and Putnam started. Ecklin might have done the same had he not had to serve a stop-and-go penalty for a pit lane speed violation. He wound up three positions behind Esplenaub.

And who won? The BMW that jumped to the lead at the start. It was co-piloted by Bill Auberlen and Robby Foley, who, incidentally, won the IWSC race in GTD the day before in their team’s sister car.

Not that this has anything to do with British cars, but you have to admit it’s newsworthy.

[4-Oct_20_Mazda_55.jpg] The AER-powered Mazdas and other prototypes returned for the Road Atlanta race, and #55 finished 2nd overall and in class.
Photo by Richard Dole, LAT Images

Road Atlanta overview

Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta is 2.54 miles long with 12 turns and a history of endurance racing that goes back decades. It is the home of Petit Le Mans, the annual 10-hour race that typically closes the IMSA WeatherTech season. Although Petit is still on the schedule this year — October 15-17, counting the support races as well as the main event — the closing race will be the 12 Hours of Sebring, postponed from March to mid-November.

At Petit the teams generally take on a third driver to share the wheel, and many did so for this six-hour enduro. Mazda Motorsports brought back Ryan Hunter-Reay to co-drive with Jonathan Bomarito and Harry Tincknell, and Olivier Pla to back up Oliver Jarvis and Tristan Nunez. In GTD, Heart of Racing recruited long-time Aston Martin factory driver Darren Turner to assist regular drivers Ian James and Roman De Angelis.

And Corey Lewis (yes, that Corey Lewis) lent a hand to Paul Miller Racing’s co-drivers Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow in their GTD Lamborghini Huracan. Lewis would also be driving that weekend in a Lamborghini-only support race, and as Sheena Monk’s partner in the Michelin Pilot event in the McLaren.

The Grand Prix (IWSC)

Once again the Mazda-AER DPis proved a force to be reckoned with. Both cars, #55 and #77, qualified in the top five in their class — but #77 had to start four positions down, at the back of the DPi grid. The engine used in qualifying suffered a cracked block and a new unit was substituted at the last minute. The rules say you have to run the same engine you qualified with or incur the penalty, even if you really have no choice.

Lost positions, of course, can made up. The bigger issue was having to rely on a new-out-of-the-box engine without any practice or warm-up opportunity. Happily, it seemed to work. Fortune smiled on both cars as they deftly moved through the field on race day, helped in no small part by Mazda Motorsports’ crack pit crew.

Olivier Pla proved the engine trustworthy by setting the fastest lap of the race in #77. Tristan Nunez, also in #77, led the race for 37 consecutive laps before being sidelined — not by the engine, but by suspension and front brake problems.

The Tincknell-Hunter-Reay-Bomarito trio took #55 to a podium finish in style, one step below winner Helio Castroneves’ #7 Acura DPi. The only glitch seemed to be when Tincknell clipped a GT Le Mans-class BMW in the first 20 minutes of the race. The BMW lost a door mirror and out came the yellow flag for debris on the track. Both the Mazda and the BMW continued on their way with no other apparent damage, and no penalty assessed.

Over in GTD, a disappointing qualifying session had Ian James and the #23 Heart of Racing Aston Martin at the back of the field. On race day, however, the team worked its way up to a strong and steady middle-of-the-pack result that bested their performance at VIR. Roman De Angelis brought the Aston home 6th in class, avoiding the spins, nudges and off-course excursions that plagued many of his colleagues and actually boosted him a position at the end.

[5-Oct_20_Stacy_KohR_on_Pole.jpg] Nate Stacy, #60 KohR Motorsports Aston Martin, on pole in the IMPC race at Road Atlanta.
Photo courtesy IMSA

Winning GTD was the #48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini — the one co-piloted by Corey Lewis. Lewis led a total of 39 consecutive laps, tying for the honor of the most in the race with his teammate, Bryan Sellers.

Coming out near the bottom, unfortunately, was the team that had such a glorious time at VIR, claiming victories in both IWSC and IMPC — Turner Motorsports, with co-drivers Bill Auberlen and Robby Foley joined at Road Atlanta by Dillon Machavern in their GTD #96 BMW.

Foley started and was running in the middle of the GTD field, a few places down from where he started at VIR, when an Acura NSX tapped him and sent him into a spin in Turn 10. Both cars dropped several positions, wound up in the back and never really recovered.

An issue with the brakes sent #96 “behind the wall” (back to the paddock garage) twice, the second time with less than half an hour left to the race. Machavern and Auberlen had their chances at the wheel, but by this time it was a lost cause so the team withdrew as a non-runner more than 40 laps down.

One final word. This was not a “clean” session by any stretch of the imagination. There were incidents literally from the very beginning to almost the very end and five yellow flags in total, with lots of penalties. Even winner Castroneves had to face two back-to-back penalties for pit violations — pit-lane speed and running the light at the pit exit.

With Michelin Endurance Cup championship points tied to the results, it could be argued that as many points were squandered as won in the Grand Prix.

VP Racing Stay Frosty Coolants 240 (IMPC)

It all started well enough for Nate Stacy and the #60 KohR Motorsports Aston, Stacy winning his second pole in three races. His co-pilot once again was Kyle Marcelli, and the two were looking forward to their first outright victory after finishing in the top six in the four races so far.

Marcelli told IMSA’s Shea Adam before the green flag dropped that as long as they could “stretch the fuel and have clean pit stops,” such a thing could happen. Those words were prescient as it turned out.

In keeping with the endurance theme of the weekend, this was a four-hour race — 240 minutes, as indicated by its name. Ashley Freiburg, Ryan Nash and Don Yount brought a second McLaren into the mix, M1 Racing’s #20 Corey Lewis and Sheena Monk were there in their Motorsports in Action #3. Automatic Racing was back with their #09 and #99 Astons.

In contrast to the start at VIR, this one was clean and without surprises. Stacy kept his pace and the rest of the pack in his rear view mirror for the first 28 laps, then pitted for tires and fuel about 40 minutes into the race. The Aston dropped to 5th as the cars still on the track jumped positions by default, but rebounded when they pitted too. Even under a full-course caution Stacy was back to 1st again by lap 33 (still under caution) and stayed there to lap 60.

The next pit stop, 20 minutes shy of the halfway point and for fuel only, dropped Stacy nine positions, but soon enough he had worked his way up to 2nd — the pit cycle again doing its thing. The third time in, at precisely halftime and under the race’s second yellow flag, it was tires, fuel, and handing the car over to Kyle Marcelli. This time they dropped to 5th.

Brilliant driving by Marcelli — plus an untimely pit stop for the leading car to replace a punctured tire — advanced #60 to 2nd and then, with a skillful pass, to the lead. With an hour and 10 minutes to go, debris on the track (“quite a sizable piece of carbon fibre,” said the IMSA commentators) led to the third yellow flag. The pits opened minutes later and Marcelli was the first in for fuel and tires — an eight-position drop this time, still under yellow.

[7-Oct_20_Aston_99.jpg] Michelin Pilot Series veterans Automatic Racing had electrical problems with their #99 Aston Martin that finally led to the car’s retirement.
Photo by Richard Dole, LAT Images

Marcelli’s words about clean pit stops came back to haunt him when a drive-through penalty was leveled against KohR Motorsports for driving away from the pits with the fuel hose still attached. It was just a lurch forward, but that was enough. The penalty dropped Marcelli from 6th, where he was when the race returned to green, to 14th.

A double-digit deficit is tough to turn into a podium finish, and so it was that Marcelli would bring the Aston home in 7th, boosted one position on the very last lap when a Mercedes that had been running 2nd ran out of fuel and came to a stop.

Marcelli’s was by far the best finish for a British car in this race. Automatic’s Astons would finish 13th (#09) and 18th in class (#99). The latter car was bedeviled by an electrical issue that required driver Kris Wilson to keep hitting the computer reset — slowing down, stopping, then starting again. Eventually #99 would be towed out of the race, the team having had enough.

Inboard radio failure on the #3 McLaren had drivers Lewis and Monk literally watching their fuel gauges to determine their pit stops, no doubt a daunting distraction, and finishing 12th in class. The #20 McLaren, which qualified 6th but had to start from the back, wound up 19th in class.

There were championship points up for grabs in this race, too. Stacy and Marcelli started the weekend in 2nd place and remain there, despite their disappointment at Road Atlanta. The points leaders had their own setbacks, and now the gap between the two teams is a single point — and it’s on to Mid-Ohio.

[This report was sourced from IMSA commentaries, team blogs and Lee Driggers’ Pit Notes. Thanks to all.]

[1-Sept_20_55_Mazda.jpg] September 2020

A pretty reflection of the #55 Mazda-AER prototype in standing water at Sebring.

Photo by Jake Galstad, LAT Images

Weather or Not
Rain, Lightning, Red Flags and Yellow Flags Complicate IMSA Races

by Bruce Vild

Two tracks, two very different parts of the country, four races altogether — and weather bedeviling them all in one way or another. Two are to finish under full course cautions, one is to be red-flagged for 55 minutes, and one is to end in a gamble not to lose position with a last-minute pit stop — where the gambler loses.

Actually, make that two ending in a gamble, same intention, though not the same motivation — and ironically, the same gambler. That would be Mazda Team Joest, whom no one after Sebring and Road America would deny was daring.

But one race would yield wonderful news for British car fans: pole position for an Aston Martin, and an outright victory for a McLaren. Both cars would suddenly become “the ones to watch” in the Michelin Pilot Challenge series.

Sebring overview

As the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) valiantly tries to salvage its 2020 season after the COVID-induced hiatus after the Rolex 24 at Daytona, mid-July saw a return to Sebring not for the usual 12-hour race but for a two hour and 45 minute one. It was the first run for the Michelin Pilot Challenge (IMPC) since the Rolex 24 weekend, and LMP2 cars rejoined the line-up in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (IWSC) race.

Once again this reporter’s eyes were focused on Mazda Team Joest in IWSC, campaigning a chassis made in Japan and a drivetrain developed in Great Britain by AER. There was some other British interest in the form of Compass Racing’s McLaren 720S GT3 in the GT Daytona (GTD) class, but those looking for Aston Martins like the ones that ran in the Rolex 24 would have to arrive a day earlier for the IMPC race. There were three to be found there, two run by Automatic Racing and one by former Ford Mustang campaigner KohR Motorsports, a relative newcomer to the marque.

There was also a McLaren running in IMPC — Motorsports in Action’s 570S GT4. They have a new partner that calls themselves (rather interestingly) Porsche Prestige.

The LMP2 cars deserve a mention as they were once combined with the Daytona Prototype International (DPi) cars, such as the Mazdas, in a single class, which I think made for some great racing. They started on the same grid as the DPis, positioned by qualifying times, rather than behind the DPis as they are now. This meant that an LMP2 car could claim an overall win in a race, and a few of them did.

It was all the more exciting because LMP2 cars, though they may come from different chassis manufacturers, are all powered by Gibson V8 engines — which are developed and manufactured in the U.K.

“LMP2” stands for Le Mans Prototype 2. It corresponds to a class present in ACO/FIA racing in Europe, and the drivers proving themselves in IWSC could wind up at the most prestigious endurance race in the world, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But here they are essentially competing with themselves in a spec race, without a real shot at besting the DPis — and, to this writer, race fans are all the poorer for it.

But that’s just my opinion. On to the racing.

[2-Sept_20_60_Aston_IMPC.jpg] Lightning in the area prompted a red flag in the Michelin Pilot Challenge race at Sebring after only five laps. The #60 Aston Martin Vantage started moving up on the return to green, but then — yellow flag, and follow the leader.
Photo by Richard Dole, LAT Images

The Advent Health 120 (IMPC)

First up at Sebring, on Friday, July 17th, was IMPC. This is a two-class series — Grand Sport (GS) and Touring Car (TCR). The entire British compliment is in GS, with Aston and McLaren represented the MINIs, which distinguished themselves so well in the recent past, were in a class that has been discontinued. TCR is where only Hyundais, Hondas and small Alfas and Audis dwell, so no further mention here.

As in IWSC, the higher-horsepower class (here, GS) always comes out on top, but in a large-enough field there can be missteps that lead some of those cars to finish behind entries in the lower-horsepower class (TCR). Also as in IWSC, the slower cars present moving obstacles to the faster ones that may find themselves working their way through traffic to keep or gain a position.

The race at Sebring started with an Audi R8 on pole and Nate Stacy in 2nd in the KohR Motorsports #60 Aston Martin. In 3rd was a BMW M4, and further down the list were the McLaren and Automatic Racing’s two Astons. It was cloudy, with rain evident in the distance, and race control was eyeing the satellite images closely.

The battle for 2nd place, and perhaps a set-up for victory, began immediately. The BMW overtook Stacy early in the first lap and it was Audi-BMW-Aston in the first 12 minutes of the race. Then contact between a GS Camaro and a TCR Hyundai led to an off for both and a full-course caution.

The skies at this point were black. Lightning was reported in the area, which red-flagged the race as marshals and corner workers were ordered to seek shelter. With no one left to monitor the race trackside, the race could not continue, and the cars returned to pit lane.

A “lengthy pause” was predicted. This turned out to be an understatement as there was no racing for the next 55 minutes, and the cars were held under strict parc fermé conditions, meaning no work could be done on them — no tire change, no fuel splash, nothing. Race control ordered the drivers to get out of the cars and take shelter. The few fans who were allowed to attend under social distancing restrictions were advised to do the same.

The rain started about a half hour after the red flag. The clock was finally stopped with one hour and 10 minutes to go of what was supposed to be a two-hour race.

But eventually the safety car came out and the racers began leaving pit lane in procession under a yellow flag. Fortunately for some and unfortunately for others, it was a split-race restart, meaning all the GS cars were grouped in the front and all the TCRs in the back. The race returned to green shortly afterward (with only five laps having been completed since the start).

[3-Sept_20_99_Automatic_IMPC.jpg] Automatic Racing’s #99 car, which spun in the rain but fortunately without a collision resulting.
Photo by Jake Galstad, LAT Images

Both Automatic Racing Astons spun, on separate occasions and luckily not causing collisions, which effectively removed them from any contention even for a top-ten finish. Stacy remained in 3rd for about 15 minutes, moved to 2nd behind the still-leading Audi — and then took advantage of the Audi’s going wide around a TCR Alfa, sweeping in between both to take the lead with 46 minutes to go.

The rain started falling again. Stacy pitted for a driver change to Kyle Marcelli and re-entered the race in 4th position, with the Audi yet to pit for tires and a driver change. That happened a few minutes later, and as other cars pitted Marcelli moved briefly to the lead, but standing at a minute and 21 seconds behind the Audi. “This has got to be a cracking pit stop for the Audi,” one of the race commentators remarked, which would involve a driver change, four new tires and a fuel splash.

Well, it was — the Audi’s pit stop was so brilliantly d that the car re-entered the race a few seconds within the 1:21 gap and, helped by a bit of lapped-car traffic Marcelli had to deal with, wound up five seconds ahead of the Aston and back in the lead. The Audi seemed to grow new legs, too, and from that moment on it stayed comfortably ahead of Marcelli’s Aston.

And then came another yellow flag, with less than 17 minutes to go in the race, in response to another take-cover warning for marshals and corner workers due to lightning in the area though no “weather” on the track. The cars lined up behind the safety car once again, this time right to the checkered flag. It was waved at the last moment by someone who ran up the stairs to the tower at the start/finish line. The result? Audi-Aston-Porsche and a nice podium finish for KohR Motorsports, though I’m sure not terribly satisfying for anyone.

The Motorsports in Action #3 McLaren, co-driven by Corey Lewis and Sheena Monk, failed to feature in this race, but Road America was soon to follow.

[4-Sept_20_76_McLaren.jpg] The sole British car in the IWSC race, Compass Racing’s #75 McLaren 720S, ran and finished mid-field in GTD.
Photo by Jake Galstad, LAT Images

Cadillac Grand Prix of Sebring (IWSC)

With an event title like that, it would be almost embarrassing for Cadillacs not to sweep the podium. They did, but with help, unwittingly, from Mazda Team Joest’s playing a desperate game at the very end.

Was the weather a factor in this one? No, not really, although there were some ominous clouds on Saturday, July 18th, and rain did fall in the two hours and 40 minutes it ran.

The race got off to what one commentator said was “a lovely, clean start.” Tristan Nunez and the #77 Mazda started 4th but a moment after the green flag fell he leapt into 3rd, behind two Cadillac DPis. Teammate Jonathan Bomarito started 8th in the #55 Mazda but was running 5th by the time the first round of pit stops began, some 28 minutes into the race.

Compass Racing’s #76 McLaren started 5th in the GTD class, where co-drivers Corey Fergus and Paul Holton would pretty much stay for the duration of the race, give or take a position or two (they would finish 6th, mid-pack and one position off the lead lap).

The first bit of drama began when the #7 Acura, which had to retire with engine problems at the Daytona 240 a couple of weeks earlier, pitted after noticeably losing pace. The engine cover came off and commentators began their speculating. About the same time, one of the LMP2 cars stopped on the track, a victim of fuel pump failure. This resulted in a full-course yellow, and another pit cycle with a little more than two hours to go.

Whatever was wrong with the Acura was apparently made right because soon enough one of its drivers, Helio Castroneves, had brought the car up to 2nd — though it would not finish there. Oliver Jarvis, now driving #77, moved up to 3rd, and Harry Tincknell, now in #55, was in 4th.

The two Mazdas would maintain these positions almost till the end, doing so at their peril. The team made the decision to go for the podium and not for a last-minute splash of fuel, which would have dropped Jarvis a couple of positions in the run to the finish. This meant trying to save fuel while setting the excellent lap times they continued to do.

They almost pulled it off. Almost. Jarvis lost a position right just before the line as his engine coughed its last. Sebastien Bourdais, in the #5 Cadillac DPi, wound up 3rd. Tincknell also crossed the line on fumes, giving the Mazdas a top-five finish, but not the podium.

More drama was to be had among the LMP2 cars. DragonSpeed USA’s #81 ORECA came 1st in class, but after the checker it was discovered that the time spent behind the wheel by one of its drivers, Henrik Hedman, was just shy of the required 45-minute minimum. The #81 ORECA was dropped to the bottom of the class and the runner-up, PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports in the #52 ORECA, was handed the win.

So, no lightning in the area this time, but a lot of entertainment.

[6-Sept_20_3_McLaren_IMPC.jpg] Motorsports in Action’s #3 McLaren 570S, moving smartly at Road America in the Michelin Pilot Challenge.
Photo by Jake Galstad

On to the Road America 120 (IMCP)

Next came IMSA’s trip to Elkhart Lake, Wisc., for an IMCP race on Saturday, August 1st, that started with a bang — several, actually — and ended with a great big bang, the cars coasting to the checkered under yellow. No injuries, thankfully.

That, for the cars involved, was the bad news. The good news was the 1-2 finish for British cars, particularly the victory of that #3 McLaren of Corey Lewis and Sheena Monk.

Everyone especially took notice of Monk, who had qualified 3rd behind Nate Stacy in the #60 Aston and Tyler McQuarrie in the Audi that sat on pole in the Sebring race. She was Motorsports in Action’s starting driver, making only her third IMCP start, but what a start it was. Within seconds of the drop of the green flag, she pushed past McQuarrie, a far more experienced driver and currently the leader in IMCP championship points. She kept him behind her for many laps to come.

No one can say Sheena Monk is not a fast learner. She joined Motorsports in Action this year and would pilot a car that was new to her, the McLaren, with her co-driver Corey Lewis as coach and mentor. While she had raced before at Road America, this weekend was her first doing so in the McLaren.

The program was to start well, race clean, and hand the car over in a good position to Lewis sometime midway in the race. That Monk did, in a performance a commentator would later call “immaculate.”

That took some doing, as in the first 15 minutes of the race there were numerous offs and even contact between cars in both IMCP classes. One of the earliest involved Automatic Racing’s #99 Aston and the sister car of McQuarrie’s Audi, dropping both cars to the bottom of the pack. However, none of these brought out the yellow flag, and drivers just had to keep on their toes, not go wide on the track’s radical turns, and not crowd out their competitors.

The top three cars (all GS entries, as expected) did so, and when McQuarrie finally overtook Monk toward the end of her stint there were no complaints to make. The battle for 2nd place had shaped up right at the start. Meanwhile Stacy outpaced everyone, sometimes seeming almost leisurely, widening the gap between himself and the car running 2nd to a full six seconds or more.

[7-Sept_20_Corey_Sheena.jpg] Co-drivers Corey Lewis and Sheena Monk celebrate their IMPC victory.
Photo by Michael L. Levitt, LAT Images

With about an hour and 20 minutes to go of the two-hour race, the pit cycle began for the GS cars for tires, fuel, and driver changes. Stacy was first in the box, followed by the Audi, then the McLaren. The lead shuffled briefly as the field completed its lap before pitting, and when the cycle concluded and the cars were back on the track, it was Aston-Audi-McLaren once again. Now the drivers were Kyle Marcelli, Jeff Westphal, and Corey Lewis.

As the second hour of racing proceeded Lewis’ McLaren began narrowing the gap with Westphal’s Audi, and Marcelli was still out in front. The second pit cycle began with a little more than 40 minutes to go, no driver changes this time but fuel and tires. The Audi was first in, followed by the Aston. Lewis’ team decided to keep him out for another lap before pitting, giving him the lead if only briefly.

The Aston maintained its advantage over the Audi as it returned to the race but was behind the McLaren, thanks to that extra lap while the other cars had their pit stops. If Lewis could conclude his stop quickly enough to re-enter the race still ahead of the Aston and Audi, he would maintain the lead.

He did, coming out of pit lane literally right in front of the Aston. But now, who really had the advantage? The Aston’s new tires, benefiting from a lap, were already up to temperature, and would that make the difference in a race where we already saw cars sliding off the track by misjudging the curves and the grip of their tires?

Apparently not. The gap between #3 and #60 widened and the line-up would not change for the remainder of the race. With a minute and 13 seconds to go the McLaren got the white flag.

But the excitement was far from over. A Mercedes-AMG that was running 4th took Turn 7 wide, hit dirt, skidded across the track as it turned backward, and slammed into unprotected concrete, strewing debris all over as it lost its hood and other pieces of its front end. The car limped to a nearby run-off area to be retrieved by a tow truck. The driver, Billy Johnson, got out and walked away from the wreck, to the relief (and applause) of several fans who watched the accident happen.

And so the race wound up, quietly, with its only yellow on the last lap. Lewis, Monk and Motorsports in Action took home a victory, and Marcelli, Stacy and KohR Motorsports 2nd place. The Audi rounded out the podium.

The weather? No lightning, no rain, no worries. That would change.

[8-Sept_20_77_Mazda.jpg] Mazda Team Joest’s #77 car had very interesting finishes at both Sebring and Road America.
Photo by Jake Gastad

Road America 240 (IWSC)

“Pretty decent weather,” IMSA Radio commented — dry conditions above and on the track, and a pleasant 75° for the start of the two-hour-and-40-minute main event at Road America on Sunday, August 2nd.

“But some rain may be in the future.”

Fans of British cars were in for some disappointment. Heart of Racing had brought its #23 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 to Road America with the intention of rejoining the series after opting out of the last two rounds due to COVID-19 concerns. They made both practices and qualifying in GTD, only to develop a fuel cell leak that forced them to pull their entry on race day. The Compass Racing #76 McLaren would be the only British car in the IWSC contest. The silver lining was that Corey Fergus had qualified that car 3rd in class.

The starting grid had two Acura DPis in the front, followed by Harry Tincknell and Tristan Nunez in the #55 and #77 Mazdas respectively. Four pit stops were expected of the race leaders, as Road America is a four-mile course and fuel supply is a crucial concern. (Listening, Mazdas?)

The excitement began soon after the start as Tincknell made his move to 2nd, splitting the Acuras, but losing ground moments later. Lap times increased for both Mazdas as they worked their way through GT traffic, but went down well below one minute once the traffic cleared and the DPis could set their pace.

Tincknell and Nunez swapped places, the #77 Mazda now running 3rd. Tincknell pitted about 30 minutes into the race for fuel and tires, starting the cycle for the DPi cars, and Nunez followed him two minutes later.

Shortly after rejoining the race, Tincknell and one of the Acuras touched, with rear-end damage to the Acura resulting along with a punctured tire. It seems the Acura was trying to block the Mazda on the course’s Uphill, and a penalty was assessed against its driver, Dane Cameron. The Acura lost the lead lap but Tincknell continued, apparently none the worse for wear, and within eight minutes found himself running 2nd and Nunez 3rd.

Fergus at this point was running 4th in GTD, and as the pit cycle opened for the GT cars he was up to 2nd. Fifty-two minutes into the race he pitted for the usual fuel and tires, plus a driver change to Paul Holton. As the cycle worked its magic, Holton briefly held the class lead.

Meanwhile there were reports of a thunderstorm heading in from the northeast. Light rain was also seen in the course’s Canada Corner and at Turn 7, where the Mercedes-AMG lost it on the final lap of the IMPC race.

The DPis pitted again with about an hour and a half left to the race. The leading Acura was first in, followed by Tincknell, making Nunez the overall leader until he pitted to hand #77 over to Oliver Jarvis. In the next pit cycle, it was Tincknell who enjoyed being the leader until he went in for his fuel and tires, and for a driver change to Jonathan Bomarito.

Soon there was an hour left to the race, and cars in the pits were changing to rain tires. Smart, as a downpour ensued, and cars were sliding off the track. Bomarito pitted for fuel and tires, and opted for rains. A Cadillac briefly held the lead, then Jarvis when the Cadillac pitted for fuel and rains. The first yellow flag of the race came out after a Porsche and other cars had horrific offs — then a red flag ten minutes later, for lightning in the area. The cars holed up in pit lane, parc fermé.

There were 35 minutes left in the race. The red flag was replaced by a yellow. Cars moved back onto the track. Pits were opened for the prototype class, but Mazda Team Joest kept Jarvis, who was enjoying a huge gap between himself and the 2nd-place car, out on the track. This would be the way to win the race.

But it was not to be. The race went green with about 18 minutes to go, so Jarvis would not just coast to victory behind a safety car. The continuing downpour left him no alternative but to lose time and duck into the pits for rains.

The race ended seven minutes early under another yellow. Jarvis had fallen to 6th place, the gamble a failure. Teammate Bomarito ended 5th. Holton’s McLaren came home a disappointing 9th in a class of 12.

And everyone was soaking wet.

[From IMSA reports and Lee Driggers’ Pit Notes.]

[1-Aug_20_Mazda.jpg] August 2020

AER’s turbocharged four-cylinder MZ-2.0T engine took the #55 Mazda DPi to victory and its #77 sister car to 2nd place in IMSA’s first race since the Rolex 24.

Photo by Jake Galstad, LAT Images

Mazdas on Top at Daytona, McLaren on Pole

by Bruce Vild

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., July 3-4 — It was the first summertime IMSA race at Daytona in ten years, and the first since the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to the Sebring 12-hour and events scheduled for April, May and June.

It was a clean race, no full-course cautions, green all the way — a spin here, a nudge there, but no “incidents” or penalties.

And it was a race where two prototypes powered by British-sourced engines grabbed the top two podium steps, and a McLaren GT3 took class pole — though it suffered a setback before the race even began from which the team couldn’t recover.

It was the WeatherTech 240 at Daytona, the name reflecting the two hours and 40 minutes the race ran. Three WeatherTech championship classes were represented — Daytona Prototype International (DPi), GT Le Mans (GTLM), and GT Daytona (GTD), distinguished from each other by style, horsepower, and driver experience.

Weather a factor from the start

The absence of yellow flags did not mean this event was a stroll in the park. A huge rainstorm had run through the area between the morning qualifying sessions and the early-evening start of the race. The storm cell still hovered nearby though the rain had paused, and the threat of lightning was enough to delay the start and clear the grandstands of the few fans that were permitted to attend.

When race officials gave the go-ahead to begin the required recon lap, the track was damp enough for many teams to start with “wet” tires rather than slicks. When the race went green, their cars did a better job sticking to the track, but after five laps several of them begin to pit for a tire change as the track got warmer and dried. Slicks became the order of the day for speed and fuel economy though the threat of more rain hadn’t passed.

McLaren misfortune

Missing from the recon lap was the #76 car, Compass Racing’s McLaren 720S GT3, taken to pole that morning by Corey Fergus. A fuel-pressure problem that was rectified only after the pit gate had closed prevented Fergus from joining the recon lap, forcing him to start the race from pit lane and run a drive-through penalty. Instead of leading the GTD field, he and co-driver Paul Holton wound up following it for most of the race.

The McLaren, the only British car in the line-up, finished the race 11th out of 12 in class, down two laps from the winner.

But the weekend’s news was not all bad for Compass Racing. First, there was practice the day before, with results that foretold a brilliant qualifying session for WeatherTech first-timer Fergus. He slotted the second-fastest lap in practice, less than half a second behind leader Aaron Telitz’s Lexus and ahead of GTD entries from Ferrari, Porsche and Acura.

Then, the next morning, after running much of the qualifying round in 7th place, Fergus suddenly shaved three seconds off his best time and vaulted to the top of the field. The performance instilled such confidence from his teammates that the McLaren was parked with four minutes remaining. He would later explain that it wasn’t so much confidence that the result would hold as it was to save the tires.

Fergus’ coup was remarkable on many levels. True, he is an experienced McLaren driver, placing 2nd in the Michelin Pilot Challenge championship last year in Compass Racing’s GT4 car — but the car in the WeatherTech series is another animal entirely, with its aero effects, enhanced braking, and learning curve even for those very familiar with its smaller sibling. To take it to pole on the first try was an amazing achievement, even for a guy like Fergus who’s made podium in one out of every three races he’s run.

Co-driver Paul Holton, who is perhaps better acquainted with the GT3 — having helped the factory develop the car through long stints with it in Europe — predicted great things to come in the race.

“This is definitely our track!” he exclaimed about Daytona, adding that the “sprint” nature of the race made the qualifying result that much more important. Not having run in the Rolex 24, this was the kind of contest he and Fergus were used to. Holton predicted the race would likely “go green for the entire time” with its smaller-than-usual field, and as mentioned before, it did.

[2-Aug_20_McLaren.jpg] Paul Holton during practice in Compass Racing’s McLaren 720S GT3.
Photo by Richard Dole, LAT Images

When Holton took his turn at the wheel that evening, he set the second fastest lap in GTD at 01:47.331, just slightly slower than Fergus’ qualifying time. Other than the glitch before the race started, the McLaren had no mechanical issues. If it hadn’t been sent to the back of the pack for not making the recon lap, it’s quite possible the team would have added another podium result to Fergus’ and Holton’s record.

Summer magic for the Mazdas and AER

As there was no British representation in the GTLM class (except for drivers Oliver Gavin for Corvette and Nick Tandy for Porsche), this report will skip right to the prototypes.

It is interesting to step back a moment and look at the different approaches to power that the contenders are taking. Mazda Team Joest continues the partnership Mazda established nearly 15 years ago with Advanced Engine Research Ltd., Basildon, England, to fabricate engines based on an inline four-cylinder, turbocharged platform. At 2 liters, their MZ-2.0T powerplant is the smallest in the class.

Next is Acura Team Penske’s Honda 3.5-liter V6, boosted by twin turbos, and finally there is the Cadillac teams’ GM 5.5-liter, naturally-aspirated V8. We don’t see the hybrids that nowadays dominate Le Mans, but the diversity in IMSA makes for interesting debates among fans and strategies among teams. It keeps officials busy, too, revisiting weight and induction allowances to keep the playing field relatively level.

Which scheme works best? In the races run so far this year (admittedly, only two), the smart money is on Mazda-AER — which proved itself under two radically different conditions at the same track, the Daytona International Speedway, in the Rolex 24 enduro and the Daytona 240 sprint.

In the Rolex 24 in January, Team Joest’s Oliver Jarvis grabbed pole in the #77 Mazda DPi, and he and co-drivers Tristan Nunez and Olivier Pla were constantly in contention for the win. They led 190 laps of the 833-lap race and finished 2nd to a Cadillac DPi.

Lest you think it was the four extra cylinders that made the difference, in the Daytona 240 the #55 sister car was brought to the win by Harry Tincknell and teammate Jonathan Bomarito, who had started 3rd, while Jarvis and Nunez followed right behind after starting 2nd. A Cadillac DPi had to settle for 3rd.

Bomarito also ran the fastest lap in the race at 01:35.446, with Jarvis nipping at his heels at 01:35.470. The Mazdas are fast.

IMSA commentators have observed that the month of July seems a charm for the four Mazda drivers — they have not lost race in July for three years running. Last year, Tincknell and Bomarito (with Pla) won at Watkins Glen and, the following weekend, it was Nunez and Jarvis at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. “Midsummer magic,” they called it.

Magic or not, the Daytona 240 was not kind to its three pole sitters. The Compass Racing McLaren had its problem in GTD, and in GTLM, the top-seeded #4 Corvette struggled at the end as it tried to stretch its fuel supply by doing a lot of coasting, finishing 5th in class out of six.

In DPi, it was the #7 Acura, one of two cars fielded by Acura Team Penske. On its 43rd lap (about halfway through the race) the car began losing pace, and before long flames were coming out of its exhaust pipes, the car blowing unburnt fuel out both sides. Driver Ricky Taylor dove into the pits and quickly exited the car. The team took the car behind the wall and back to the garage, game over.

The WeatherTech series will return to Florida — Sebring, this time, for another sprint race, not the 12 Hours — later in July, after deadline for this issue. We’ll see if Mazda’s summer magic continues if the McLaren can get the good result it seems to deserve and, later on, if other cars (namely the Aston Martins) that made the Rolex 24 but opted out of both the Daytona 240 and the July Sebring race will return, or sit out the rest of 2020.

Stay tuned.

[This article was developed mainly from IMSA reports and Lee Driggers’ Pit Notes. Many thanks.]

[1-Jul_20_23_Aston.jpg] July 2020

Heart of Racing’s #23 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 at Daytona earlier this year, in the Rolex 24. The U.S.-based team has said they are in it for the entire season, but this could not be confirmed at press time.

Photo by Tom Murray

IMSA: ‘Real’ Racing Back in July at Daytona

by Bruce Vild
From IMSA Sources

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., June 4 — After featuring several weeks of “virtual” racing with professional racecar drivers on simulators, the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) announced today it will be returning to actual racing on Independence Day, close to its home base.

The scene will be Daytona International Speedway on Saturday, July 4th, with two hours and 40 minutes of WeatherTech Sports Car Championship action with prototype (DPi), GT Le Mans (GTLM) and GT Daytona (GTD) cars. This will be the first midsummer IMSA event at Daytona since 2010, and the first since the 2020 season was suspended due to COVID-19 concerns just before the 12 Hours of Sebring.

The event will be known as the IMSA WeatherTech 240 at Daytona.

The season so far has consisted of but one race, the Rolex 24 (also at Daytona). Mazda Team Joest, running two AER-developed Mazda DPis, finished 2nd and 6th and was looking forward to Sebring when the 12 Hours was red-flagged because of travel and crowd-size restrictions under the pandemic.

Also of British interest at the Rolex 24 was a new Aston Martin Racing partner, Heart of Racing, which anticipated participating in the full WTSCC season. The card was completed by Automatic Racing, Stephen Cameron Racing and KohR Motorsports, all running Astons in the Michelin Pilot Challenge support race, along with M1 Racing and AWA and their McLarens.

“We are all ready to see sports cars back on the track and racing,” commented WeatherTech founder and CEO David MacNeil. “I think that the IMSA staff and the Speedway have done a great job to pivot on the schedule so we can get back to on-track competition.”

It was originally announced that this race — and one at Sebring later in the month, which will be accompanied by the restart of the Michelin Pilot Challenge series — would be conducted without fans in attendance. Now plans are in place to allow up to 5,000 fans, Florida residents only, face masks and social distancing required.

A total of 11 races this season

The new WTSCC/MPC schedule has shaped up as an 11-race season that runs through the now-rescheduled 12 Hours of Sebring November 11-14:

January 25-26 — Daytona International Speedway (Rolex 24).

July 3-4 — Daytona International Speedway (WTSCC only).

July 17-18 — Sebring International Raceway.

July 31-August 2 — Road America.

August 21-23 — Virginia International Raceway.

September 4-6 — Watkins Glen International (Six Hours of the Glen MPC race four hours).

September 11-12 —Lime Rock Park.

September 25-27 — Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

October 14-17 — Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta (Petit Le Mans).

October 30-November 1 — WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

November 11-14 — Sebring International Raceway (12 Hours of Sebring).

[Note: The above schedule includes revisions to the schedule made by IMSA since this article was originally printed.]

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