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[1-Dec_20_MINI_Lineup.jpg] December 2020

The MINI JCW Team line-up, with Mark Pombo’s #61 in front. Pombo took the car to 2nd place in the Friday race and 3rd on Sunday, helping cement titles for himself and the team.

Photo courtesy MINI JCW Team

Now It’s MINI’s Turn
MINI JCW Team Takes Manufacturers’ Title in SRO TC America,
also Two of the Top Three in Driver Standings


From Marque Combined Sources

WOODCLIFF LAKE, N.J.,  Oct. 5 — Right on the heels of Aston Martin and the win at Le Mans, another British marque gained serious motorsport bragging rights — this time at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

MINI USA and the MINI John Cooper Works (JCW) Team captured the Manufacturers’ Title in the 2020 SRO TC America series, for the second year in a row.

 

In addition, drivers Tomas Mejia and Mark Pombo finished the season 2nd and 3rd respectively in the Driver standings, giving the team much to celebrate in the series’ finale weekend at Indy.

The team also won the Manufacturers’ Title and five total race victories during the successful debut season in TC America in 2019, making this year’s finish a back-to-back triumph.

Actually, make that back-to-back-to-back, as MINI also won the Manufacturers’ Championship in the final season of the Street Tuner class of IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge series back in 2018.

The MINI JCW Team came to Indy, the home track for the Brownsburg, Ind.-based outfit and its owner/operator, LAP Motorsports, with a 64-point lead in the Manufacturers’ Title standings, and maintained that lead to take home the trophy.

Three cars in two races

The team, competing in the TCA class, fielded three cars for the finale, with Tomas Mejia piloting the #60 MINI, Mark Pombo in #61, and Clayton Williams in #62.

TCA teams had to compete in two races that weekend. Race 1 on the Friday found a cold road surface that caused many cars to have difficulties staying on the track, but Pombo persevered in #61 and skillfully crossed the finish line to take 2nd place.

Teammate Mejia was not so lucky. Early in the race he made contact with another car that sent #60 upright on two wheels for several seconds. The car was so high up that the impact back down on the racing surface broke the clutch, ending the race for Mejia after only seven laps.

Clay Williams meanwhile finished 9th on Friday in #62.

The MINI crew was able to repair Mejia’s vehicle in time for him to race again on Sunday, where he finished in 4th place. Pombo placed 3rd in this one, and Williams helped round out a top-five finish in 5th.

The results, even with Mejia’s disappointment in Race 1, assured a 2nd-place finish among Drivers for himself, a 3rd-place for Pombo, and ultimately the Manufacturer’s Title for MINI.

A great year for the team

The MINI JCW Team has had a strong season. They opened at the Circuit of the Americas with Pombo and Mejia in a 1-2 finish in the first race, and Mejia winning the second race. At Virginia International Raceway in early July, the team took home six podiums in three races, including two wins by Pombo and a 1-2 finish with teammate Mejia. The team then took home five podium spots at Sonoma Raceway.

Here’s looking forward to 2021!

[From a press release from MINI USA and the MINI JCW Team, and reports from the SRO TC America website.]



[1-Nov_20_AMR_at_Le_Mans.jpg] November 2020

Aston Martin Racing finished 1st and 3rd in GTE Pro in their latest-generation Vantage GTEs.
Photo courtesy AMR

Astons Win Le Mans
GTE Pro and Am Victories for AMR and TF Sport,
and Plenty of Action Across All Classes


by Rajan Jangda
Special to the Marque

The 88th running of 24 Hours of Le Mans finally took place this September, following a seemingly eternal three-month delay.

Unfortunately it had to happen without one of its most important ingredients — the fans. However, it was extremely understandable that the organisers could not take any chances with safety in the midst of a global pandemic, and so the race was conducted ‘closed doors’.

Nonetheless, Le Mans still delivered the goods in terms of on-track action, with an impressive new qualifying format and three of the four classes being highly competitive.

The takeaways: Aston Martin edged Ferrari in a fierce, race-long GTE Pro battle. TF Sport doubled down for another win for Aston in GTE Am. Toyota dominated again, but a British-engined challenger called Rebellion Racing gave them a run for their money.

New for 2020: Hyperpole

New for this year was the ‘Hyperpole’ qualifying format, where a first 45-minute qualifying session would take place on Thursday evening, the top six from each class then going to a 45-minute Hyperpole session on Friday.

This arrangement had the potential to create a few shocks in the shape of hotly-favoured teams failing to make the cut for Hyperpole, and to an extent that was exactly what happened in the heavily-subscribed LMP2 prototype class, with several strong contenders missing the cut for Hyperpole.

The overall and LMP1 Hyperpole was claimed by the #7 Toyota hybrid of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López with a time of 3:15.267. However, to the surprise of many, the non-hybrid, Gibson-powered #1 Rebellion of Gustavo Menezez, Norman Nato and Bruno Senna was able to bring itself within half a second, splitting the two Toyotas at the front — the #8 Toyota hybrid of Sebastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Kazuki Nakajima setting a 3:16.649.

In 4th was the sister #3 Rebellion of Nathaniel Berthon, Louis Deletraz and Romain Dumas. Coming a long way off the pace in 5th was the #4 ByKolles of Tom Dillmann, Bruno Spengler and Oliver Webb, with many joking that they had claimed the LMP2 pole.

There were only five cars in this class, as opposed to 24 to LMP2. All LMP2s were Gibson-powered, and their class was extremely competitive, with the top 11 cars within 1.5 seconds of each other during the first qualifying session. For context, that means you figuratively (not literally) had 10 cars within 0.7% of the fastest time — a 3:26.648 set by the #29 Racing Team Nederland Oreca of Frits van Eerd, Giedo van der Garde and Nyck de Vries.

In the next session the LMP2 cars gained well over a second in lap time, with the fastest being a 3:24.526 set by the #22 United Autosports Oreca of Filipe Albuquerque, Phil Hanson and Paul di Resta. Again to provide some context, in terms of ultimate pace the LMP2 class was now on-par with the first generation Audi R18 from 2011.

Qualifying 2nd was the ever popular #26 G-Drive Auris of Roman Rusinov, Mikkel Jensen and Jean-Eric Vergne, followed by the aforementioned #29 car.

GTE Pro saw a promisingly competitive showing from Aston Martin Racing’s two latest-generation Vantages, locking out the second row with the popular Nicki Thiim’s #95 “Dane Train,” shared with Marco Sørensen and (non-Dane) Richard Westbrook, edging the #97 of Alex Lynn, Maxime Martin and Harry Tincknell.

The class pole was taken by the #91 Porsche of Gianmaria Bruni, Richard Lietz and Frederic Makowiecki, followed by the #51 Ferrari of James Calado, Alessandro Per Guidi and Daniel Serra.

An interesting sidebar to the GTE Pro class was that three cars entered featured past and present drivers of Jaguar’s Formula E team, the #97 Aston Martin’s Lynn, the #51 Ferrari’s Calado, and the #71 Ferrari’s Sam Bird.

There was also another former Jaguar driver in the GTE Am class in the shape of Tom Blomqvist, who was co-piloting a Ferrari with Morris Chen and Marcos Gomes.

GTE Am might be described as “extremely deep” with 22 cars contending, including two Astons — the #98 AMR Vantage of Paul Dalla Lana, Augusto Farfus and Ross Gunn and the #90 TF Sport Vantage, in Turkish flag livery, of Jonathan Adam, Charlie Eastwood and Salih Yoluç. Both made it through to the Hyperpole session, #98 taking 4th in class, narrowingly ahead of #90.

[2-Nov_20_Winning_Pro.jpg] The #97 Aston during a night stint, where it could be argued the race was won.
Photo courtesy AMR

The race

Come Sunday, and the somewhat adjusted start time of 1:30 p.m., we at last got to see 65 cars blast down the start-finish to the bellowing sound of Also Sprach Zarathustra to begin the 88th running of the greatest endurance race of them all.

As in the IMSA races reported on these pages, entries are ranked in overall position and class position. The LMP1 class is the fastest, so the three top finishers in the class typically occupy the podium overall. However, LMP2 and the two GTE classes have their own podiums, essentially running their own races within the race.

LMP1/Overall — Straight from the get-go Bruno Senna in the #1 Rebellion went on the aggressive, trying to make a move for the lead pulling alongside the pole-sitting #7 Toyota, but he was on the outside heading into Turn 1 and could not make the move stick. The Gibson V8s in the Rebellions were thought to have the edge over the Toyotas through Sectors 1 and 3 of the circuit, but the acceleration zones around the entirety of the track gave the Toyotas plenty of opportunity to deploy their hybrid boost.

The Toyotas proved to have the predicted comfortable margin over the Rebellions over the course of the long stints, in spite of the #8 Toyota being forced to make an early stop due to a puncture. The pause left the #7 Toyota virtually unchallenged, and many were beginning to think that Conway, Kobayashi and Mária López would finally score their maiden win. Unfortunately, drama hit them at night. On what appeared to be a routine stop, #7 disappeared into the garage for 30 minutes with an exhaust issue. Any hopes of a recovery drive were then scuppered by floor damage.

This left Rebellion with a chance to claim a double-podium with a realistic threat no longer coming from the #7 Toyota. Unfortunately the #3 Rebellion wouldn’t claim 3rd — an off into the wall at Indianapolis and a six-minute repair stop cost them and allowed #7 to salvage a podium.

This was Rebellion Racing’s last Le Mans 24 Hours. The team was originally set to enter a partnership with Peugeot Sport, but has called time on their involvement in motorsport and its R13 LMP1 cars are set to be run/grandfathered by Alpine in 2021.

The #4 ByKolles entry, also Gibson-powered, continued its run of bad luck at Le Mans, with a spectacular rear-wing failure ending their race on Saturday.

This was a complete contrast to the #8 Toyota. Following the problems of its sister car, the crew went completely unopposed on their way to claim Buemi and Nakajima’s third-straight victory (this was Hartley’s second, following his triumph for Porsche in 2017).

LMP2 — LMP2 was a much fiercer battle, with the top two cars finishing within 33 seconds of each other. In what was initially set to be a multi-car battle for class honours, two teams surfaced as leaders as their rivals gradually dropped out of contention.

Both the #36 Signatech Alpine and #29 Racing Team Nederland Oreca suffered water leaks early on, the #36 able to recover to 4th place but the #29 losing a lot more time.

G-Drive Racing’s stronger #26 entry suffered a throttle-sensor problem whilst fighting for the lead of the class, possibly on course to win. Rather bizarrely, the #37 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca firstly suffered a broken alternator, and then, in a ‘what rulebook?’ moment, was found to have illegally passed a component to the driver at trackside, resulting in an overnight exclusion.

Another car that had led at some point and then lost time was the #32 United Autosports car after it had a cracked oil line.

All of those left us with a straight fight during the closing stages between the #22 United Autosports Oreca of Hanson, Alburquerque and di Resta vs. the #38 JOTA Oreca of Anthony Davidson, Antonio Felix da Costa and Roberto Gonzales. The #38 car was on the lead lap throughout the race and they were able to keep the #22 car within striking range, but gradually dropped back following an issue with their seatbelts coming undone.

It would take the safety car during the final hour, plus a surprise splash-and-dash for the #22 and Hanson running wide at the Dunlop Chicane, to turn the race on its head. The gap came down to five seconds and we looked set for a straight wheel-to-wheel fight for the win, but Davidson in the #38 ultimately needed one more stop.

This would give the #22 the ability to cruise to the win, capping off a remarkable run for the United Autosports team who has now won its last three LMP2 races. JOTA’s #38 would take 2nd, while the final podium place went to the #31 Panis Racing Oreca of Nico Jamin, Julien Canal and Matthieu Vaxiviere.

A side note. Although LMP2 is entirely Gibson-powered, teams have a choice among a selected group of chassis manufacturers. The class was largely dominated by Orecas, with the three Ligiers and sole Dallara never posing a realistic threat for the win.

GTE Pro — The contest here would be the show stopper, despite the absence of several Pro entries thanks to COVID (mainly Corvette Racing and Porsche North America).

[3-Nov_20_TF_Sport.jpg] Privateer team TF Sport won GTE Am handily in another Aston Martin, also thanks to well-performed night stints.
Photo courtesy AMR


As mentioned, the #91 Porsche had claimed Hyperpole, but their lead would only last till halfway through the first lap and Porsche would not really be a fixture in the fight for the win. Both Porsches in the Pro class suffered a bizarre lack of pace. Visibly losing to their rivals on drives out of corners, they eventually found themselves rooted to the back of the class in what must have been an incredibly tedious outing for them.

That left us with a thrilling battle between Aston Martin and Ferrari, with all four factory cars being involved in an almighty scrap for the lead in the opening hours of the race. Initially it was Ferrari who had the edge, with the #51 of Calado, Pier Guidi and Serra taking the lead on the first lap, but by the end of the first hour the #97 Aston of Lynn, Martin and Tincknell would be in front.

These two cars, along with the #95 Aston of Thiim, Sørensen and Westbrook and the #71 Ferrari of Bird, Molina and Rigon, would literally be playing hot-potato with the lead while the Porsches continued to drop back.

We’d see the first of the quartet eliminated from contention in the shape of the #95, who, thanks to bad luck with safety cars and a series of time penalty-inducing infractions, would drop back on Saturday evening. They would ultimately bring home 3rd place for the Aston Martin team, but there were still the other three cars duking it out for the lead.

That is, up till around the halfway mark when the #71 Ferrari dropped out of contention. After suffering a puncture, #71 would soldier on and looked set to salvage 4th place, but a moment of terrible misfortune would ensue when a driveshaft failure on the very last lap of the race would resign them to being unclassified.

That set up a head-to-head between #97 and #51 — and two key factors would contribute towards the one minute, 33 second gap that would separate the two cars by the end of the race and hand Aston Martin their first win in GTE Pro since 2017.

Firstly, the #97 car had managed to last the entire duration of the race without requiring a brake change. Secondly, and perhaps the decisive blow, was Alex Lynn’s outstanding series of overnight and early morning stints that extended their advantage over the Ferrari to a point of no return. At one point Lynn had incredibly set the fastest lap of the race for five consecutive laps, pretty much adding an exclamation mark to their victory.

GTE Am — Here Aston Martin would double-up on GTE wins, as the #98 AMR car of Dalla Lana, Farfus and Gunn and the #90 TF Sport car of Adam, Eastwood and Yoluç seemed pretty much to be in a different playing field to the rest of the class. The two cars fought against each other for the lead right up until dawn, when #98 unfortunately suffered a suspension failure.

This left #90 with an undisputed run to the win thanks to a very clever allocation of time where they saved their faster drivers for the night stints. It was simply just a case of whether they could avoid misfortune, and thankfully that’s exactly what they did.

The GTE Am podium was rounded off by the #77 Porsche of Matt Campbell, Riccardo Pera and Christian Ried in 2nd and the #83 Ferrari of Emmanuel Collard, Nicklas Nielsen and François Perrodo in third. The #98 Aston would recover to 8th following its suspension dramas.

Postscript

Aston Martin’s 1st and 3rd place finishes in GTE Pro secured for them the FIA World Endurance Championship GTE manufacturers’ title for the 2019-20 season.

Hopefully next year’s 24 Hours will see the return of the fans, and with the introduction of the much anticipated Hypercar class around the corner it will be interesting to see what British machinery will surface in the new top tier. Although currently postponed, perhaps we will eventually see the Aston Martin Valkyrie at the famous race joining an already growing list of entries that includes Alpine, ByKolles, Glickenhaus, Peugeot and Toyota.

[Rajan resides in London and is a frequent contributor to this publication. He covered this year’s Le Mans remotely.]


[5-Nov_20_Nate_Stacy.jpg] Qualifying driver Nate Stacy.
Photo by Michael L. Levitt (LAT Images)

Aston Martin is Looking Good

by Bruce Vild

September was a great month for Aston Martin — in Europe, where they cemented their FIA World Endurance Championship manufacturers’ title win by grabbing a trio of podiums at Le Mans, and in the USA, where they celebrated back-to-back victories in a first-ever Michelin Pilot Challenge (IMPC) double-header at Mid-Ohio.

The honors belonged to Aston Martin Racing, the factory team, which finished 1st and 3rd in Le Mans’ GTE Pro class TF Sport, which took the win in GTE Am and KohR Motorsports, which just kept turning up on top at Mid-Ohio.

Another Aston team, Heart of Racing, proved itself a contender in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (IWSC) series with a solid 4th-in-class finish in the Acura Sports Car Challenge, the same weekend at Mid-Ohio. Their good news would continue in early October, when a GT-only race at Charlotte Motor Speedway produced their first podium finish — under extremely rainy and wet conditions.

The Le Mans result put Aston Martin 76 points ahead of Porsche and 97 ahead of Ferrari in the run for the manufacturers’ title, and the company’s CEO, Tobias Moers, could not have been happier with the announcement.

“I am extremely proud of everyone who has played a part in this momentous victory today,” he said. “To win both GTE classes and the WEC manufacturers’ title is testimony to the quality of both the team, the Vantage GTE, and the Vantage road car that is the basis of the racecar.”

Mid-Ohio 120

As with all other aspects of our lives, COVID-19 has played havoc with racing schedules on both sides of the pond. On this side, IMSA has had to rebook and relocate its races according to applicable CDC guidelines. Trying to play catch-up to satisfy the fans, the sanctioning organization decided to have two races in IMPC at Mid-Ohio, though the main event, the IWSC Acura Sports Car Challenge, remained at one.

Each race would have its own practice and qualifying sessions — the winner of the first race was not awarded pole in the second. That was one thing that made the performance of KohR Motorsports’ car, the #60 Vantage GT4, and drivers Nate Stacy and Kyle Marcelli so remarkable — the men and the machine had to prove themselves again and again that weekend.

IMSA commentator John Oreovicz summed it up brilliantly: for KohR Motorsports, it was a “race of firsts.” They started first, finished first, and had their first win of the season in the first race, then did it all again in the second.

Stacy and the pole are not strangers. He qualified 1st in two of the previous three IMPC races, the most recent at Road Atlanta (the substitute venue for Watkins Glen). In the first race at Mid-Ohio he would start just ahead of championship contenders in an Audi R8 GT4 and a Mercedes-AMG GT4.

Pit rotations and full-course cautions had his partner, Kyle Marcelli, running 3rd with about 35 minutes left to the race and dicing with the Audi, swapping positions until the Audi was in his rear view mirror and a credible run could be made for the lead, at that time held by Eric Foss in a Mercedes that had qualified 4th.

Wrote Oreovicz, “Marcelli then got a tremendous run out of a corner and outbraked Foss into Turn 1 with a little under 15 minutes remaining. He pulled away to win,” with a margin of victory of 1.51 seconds over the Audi that was still doggedly chasing him.

[4-Nov_20_60_Sideview.jpg] KohR Motorsports’ Vantage GT4 in profile.
Photo by Jake Galstad (LAT Images)

Marcelli would later comment how good it was to get a win, finally.

“Today, we d near-perfect,” he said, acknowledging his frustration with having gotten so close to victory in previous races but just having “simple things go wrong.”

Marcelli had to make up several positions after “a hiccup in the pits” dropped the Aston down to 7th. “It was a dogfight, a game of chess, and every lap I was thinking about where to place the car and how to move forward.

“What made it more challenging was that our championship rival, the Audi, was in that battle with us. The goal was always to be in front of them.”

Well, in front of them they stayed. Nate Stacy took #60 to the top of the grid again in the qualifying session for the second IMPC race, with the Audi once again placing 2nd. Stacy reported “no issues with the car whatsoever. It was on rails.”

This time it was Stacy who brought the car to victory, almost, however, as an afterthought. The team was forced to make an unplanned driver change from Marcelli to Stacy so that Stacy could meet IMSA’s minimum drive-time — but they had to make a fuel stop anyway, so they took advantage of the opportunity.

Stacy’s win was the product of good driving and strategy, but also contact between two Mercedes with 26 minutes left to the race. At that time he was running 3rd. One of the Mercedes had been leading the race and spun off, and the other had taken the lead but later was assessed a drive-through penalty for the incident. Stacy had passed the offender beforehand, and the penalty assured he would no longer be a threat.

After Mid-Ohio, Aston Martin could claim it is the first manufacturer to win two IMPC GS class races in the 2020 season. The victories also meant that Stacy and Marcelli pulled into the lead for the GS Championship, seven points ahead of the guys in 2nd place. You guessed it — the drivers of that Audi.

[From IMSA and team reports.]




[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 TireRack.com 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 TireRack.com 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 TireRack.com 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.]





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