Laguna Seca is as old as it is exciting and last Sunday’s 160-minutes-long race, the second to last in this year’s Weathertech Sportscar Championship, proved just that with all three battles going down the wire and providing unexpected winners at least in GT-LM and the Prototype class.
Even without Mazda on site, busy testing with their new partners Joest Racing on Germany’s Hockenheim, the Prototype class was exciting and what seemed like a done deal after qualifying wasn’t really that on race day. There were, also, battles down in the GT divisions as it always happens with the production-based machinery. All in all, it made us a bit sad that there is only one more racing act left of the 2017 season… but next year should be even more of a show-stopper!
Ricky Taylor was once more unstoppable in qualifying, for a while looking like he’ll take pole by a one-second margin. His 1:16.853 was so far away from anyone else that the best that Christian Fittipaldi could do with a last gasp effort was a 1:17.682. VisitFlorida.com Racing’s Marc Goossens was third thanks to a 1:17.730 aboard the No. 90 Ligier, enough to beat the No. 31 Cadillac. The back end of the Prototype field was made up of the second Ligier, the yellow JDC/Miller ORECA, which was dead last, and the two ESM Ligier-Nissans.
Risi Competizione achieved their first pole in three years on the return of the chassis that was wrecked at Le Mans. Toni Vilander clocked a 1:21.914 to beat Dirk Mueller and the two M6 GTLMs which seemed bound to take pole early on in the 15-minutes session. Corvette and Porsche both struggled for speed occupying the final four slots in the top Grand Touring category. The Ferrari was also the only car to put a sub 1:22 lap on the board!
Madison Snow again showed that Lamborghini was the car to have for one fast lap around the track – almost any track. The Paul Miller Racing driver was fastest piloting the No. 48 Huracan, his 1:24.469 being enough to edge out both the Park Place and the Alegra Motorsport Porsches. It was the second biggest pole margin after that for the overall pole. BMW, Acura and Lexus were just behind but Mercedes and Audi were sensibly slower than the benchmark time.
The race was great to watch in all three classes. We also got a surprise winner, the No. 90 Ligier, alas with some „help” from its rivals. It was, anyway, the first win in 2017 for a non-DPI prototype. However, it was Ricky Taylor who led from the drop of the green flag and he did so for the entirety of his stint. He then gave the car over to brother Jordan and he survived a post-safety car restart but not a slow pit stop during the second hour. At fault was the right-front wheel and that lugnut dropped Wayne Taylor’s car down to fifth.
With the two ESM Nissans encountering problems, such as a a couple of off-course trips apiece, and also a troublesome run for the PR1/Mathiasen Ligier which dropped a lap down, Taylor only had to worry with what was ahead of him. Indeed, Pla gave his best to get back on the lead lap in the No. 52 but he also spun twice more in the process, the fact that he put the fastest race lap thus becoming irrelevant. Taylor managed to pass the No. 85 JDC/Miller car, which also moved up thanks to the problems that befell other entries, and the No. 5 AXR Fittipaldi/Barbosa Cadillac. The latter suffered from poor driveability towards the end.
So, with third settled – in favor of the Taylors – it was a question of who will win this Monterey Grand Prix. It was between the No. 31, which gained track position by only changing two of its tires during the last stop, and the No. 90 which received new tires at all four corners. With aid from a driver error in traffic and also fading pace (in part because of the rear bodywork getting loose), Renger van der Zande managed to slash through a eight-odd seconds gap and be in with a chance to win. That was the case with six minutes left and, after three more minutes, the Dutchman made his move after having a better run up the hill towards Corkscrew.
In a move that almost echoed that of Zanardi over Bryan Herta in 1996, Renger passed Dane Cameron and never looked back, winning by 2.2 seconds ahead of the Whelen driver. After all was said and done, Ricky and Jordan hold a lofty 29-points advantage that only give Cameron and Curran mathematical hopes of an upset at the season finale at Road Atlanta.
It was one BMW in the gravel and another out in front after the first lap in GT-LM. The black No. 24 M6 was spun around and had to get back up from the very last position. In the meantime, the Sims/Auberlen car held its own until Auberlen beached it just after its sister car did what would be its last stop. The ensuing safety car helped John Edwards who, from then on, nursed the fuel consumption until the end. As the leading Risi Ferrari peeled into the pit lane for a late splash’n’dash with 36 minutes left, the BMW took the lead.
He never looked back, although the Ferrari rebounded and finished 0,152 seconds behind with fresher rubber that helped Vilander make his way through a seven-seconds gap. The No. 911 Porsche also did not pit in the last 75 minutes of the race and finished third ahead of the No. 3 Corvette which also was a fuel hero, doing the race on virtually one stop. The sister car was practically taken out of the running in the first corner when it was rear-ended by the No. 48 Paul Miller Huracan. It would have to undergo a diffuser change later on. The Lambo was also kneeled by that incident.
The only other car that made it to the finish line on basically one stop was the No. 63 Ferrari. This was also the GTD winner, Balzan going himself over one hour on a tank of fuel, followed by two more cars which also stretched their fuel. The No. 96 and the No. 54 Porsche (which led for the most part of the race), couldn’t do so sadly. With that being said, Bennett and Braun still scored a season-best fourth behind the No. 73 Park Place Porsche and the No. 93 Michael Shank Racing Acura of Lally and Legge.
The results almost make Garcia/Magnussen and Balzan/Nielsen respectively mathematical champions because all they have to do is finish at Petit Le Mans to become class champions. I’ve explained the Prototype class situation previously but, there as well, the job is almost done for WTR.
Photos via AXR, LAT, Acura, Scuderia Corsa, Porsche Motorsport