USCC Road America: ESM Nissan’s victory ends Cadillac dominance

USCC Road America: ESM Nissan’s victory ends Cadillac dominance

And it ended at seven – Cadillac’s streak of victories in the IMSA Weathertech Sports Car championship that is. The sterling run was axed by Extreme Speed Motorsport’s win in Sunday’s two-hours-and-40-minutes sprint around Wisconsin’s famous Road America circuit.

Elkhart Lake was home to the ninth round of the current season of IMSA-sanctioned sports car racing action. The whole train of cars, ranging from the razor sharp Cadillacs in the top Prototype division to the familiar GT3 bunch in the GT-D category were on site this time by. Ricky Taylor proved in qualifying that even with Le Mans-level downforce he could get the pole in the No. 10 championship-leading Dallara-built Caddy and he did it in grand style: by over a second from Jose Gutierrez’s Ligier entered by PR1/Mathiasen. For the first time, this wasn’t the only Ligier JS P217 on the grid, as Racing’s Riley was scrapped in favour of an OnRoak product of the kind that PR1 already utilizes.

Wayne Taylor’s winless streak at Road America continues…

It proved quite fast, starting from P4 – sandwiched by the two sister Ligier-Nissans of Extreme Speed Motorsport. The two remaining Cadillacs were at the back of the pack, separated from pole by a dreadful 1,5-seconds margin. Still, Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa were looking for a podium finish come Sunday to better their championship hopes. Mazda wasn’t present, as the Japanese manufacturer’s decision to pick Joest to run their team over SpeedSource meant that we won’t see the Riley/Multimatic-based prototypes until Daytona next year when they’ll show up in new clothes – probably. Ralf Juttner was, however, present and, I might add, took some time to rekindle memories of the mighty R10 tearing apart the four-mile road course. He also took notes on his future rivals.

There’s not much write up to do on LMPC. The same inviolable combo of James French and Performance Tech took pole – the No. 38 also being the only ORECA FLM09 to beat the whole of the GT-LM field. Talking about the top GT category, there it was all about Ford. Dirk Mueller found buckets of pace in the No. 66 and was almost 0,8-seconds quicker than team-mate Ryan Briscoe, while BMW and Porsche filled up the Top 6. Corvette Racing was, yet again, at the back of the cue, looking for clever strategy to turn their race day around.

Barbosa and Fittipaldi salvaged a sixth place finish following a poor weekend

After a serious practice crash in Canada Corner, Acura’s No. 93 car (which sat in the first three in the standings) missed qualifying, as did the Lone Star Racing Mercedes which kept leaking its coolant on whatever surface it was pushed across. It was a Lamborghini which was fastest, precisely that of Jeroen Mul who had never been to Wisconsin or, more relevant for this piece, Road America. Another Lambo team, Paul Miller Racing, who were in the title fight, were given a harsh penalty after failing the post-qualy tech check. The No. 48 Huracan was sixth but its times got deleted and the team got a $7,500 fine and a 15-point cut from their grand total. All that was for using certain (unknown) non-homologated parts as well as a dubious ECU which was confiscated by IMSA’s stewards. It was a strange situation as those must’ve been some sort of performance-enhancing mods, but they seem to be to no avail as the “bone stock” Change Racing Huracan was significantly quicker…

Now, onto race day. After rain had put a spin on FP1 on Friday, it was all clear skies on Sunday afternoon, although some doomsday predictors were present to announce rain in the latter stages of the event. And they were right, after all, but it did not impact the race as water started pouring from the clouds just after the end. If only the race would have run to its previous 500-mile length – one can only dream.

Velocity Yellow Corvettes finished 4th and 5th

Anyway, Ricky kept his lead at the start and went on to build a healthy gap of four seconds after just a couple of laps. The gap then kept growing – as if the rest of the pack was taking the scenic route around the course – and it ended being as much as 10 seconds by the time of the first caution period. The Konica Minolta-sponsored car sailed through it nicely but its inability to bring tires into temperature quick enough – due to the lack of downforce – did come back and haunt it.

That took place after the second restart with 38 minutes left on the clock, when Pipo Derani moved past Jordan Taylor on the outside to put the No. 22 ESM car in P2. It soon turned into P1 as the banana-yellow JDC-Miller ORECA stopped under the ensuing third caution period for fuel. It must be said that the bulk of the Prototype runners had pitted during the previous yellow flag period, but the No. 85 elected not to. Sadly, the next caution had them running out of fuel and they had to make an emergency stop before a proper one could take place once the track went back to green.

BMW Team RLL finished sixth with the three-wheeled M6 of Sims

This took Stephen Simpson and Misha Goikhberg out of the fight at the top, the duo ending up P8. Derani, however, put no foot outside of the grey stuff and went on to claim the maiden win for the Ligier-Nissan DPi program, the first for ESM since the Sebring 12 hours last year and the first non Cadillac at the eighth try (Lime Rock was all GT, remember).

The Taylors still crossed the line second, in spite of the pressure applied by Ryan Dalziel in the sister Extreme Speed Motorsport prototype. Dalziel finished third, making it a double podium finish for Scott Sharp’s outfit while Wayne Taylor’s team increases its advantage in the championship battle. That’s because Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi had an awful weekend. The No. 5 lost over a lap after sustaining rear deck damage which needed to be attended. They then managed to claw back to the lead lap and finish sixth.

Ford scored a 1-3 which puts’em one point ahead of Chevy in the Manufacturer’s battle

James French and Pato O’Ward wrapped up their championship with another win in PC while Don Yount, the only mathematical rival went out in a crash. Gustavo Yacaman finished second, just 22 seconds adrift thanks to a late pit stop by the No. 38 car.

Porsche and BMW couldn’t do too much to counter Ford’s advantage in GT-LM. Messrs Hand and Mueller won – but it wasn’t all plain sailing. Joey took the lead for the final time with less than an hour left to go from the No. 912 Porsche which again failed to park in victory lane. It was, though, a great effort by both Gimmi Bruni and Laurens Vanthoor and their reward was a second consecutive runner-up finish. Their sister car, which had won at Lime Rock, took a much shorter stick.

Championship leaders Balzan and Nielsen finished fifth and increased their advantage

After the second caution, Tommy Milner (who benefited from an alternative strategy that saw the No. 3 stop during the first hour) and Dirk Werner were fighting for P4 in close proximity and the American’s Corvette pushed the German’s Porsche off the road on the approach to T1. The No. 911 car spun backwards into the sand pit, Milner being the guilty party in all of this. He had to serve a penalty and, while Werner returned to action, his day ended short due to the sudden death of the gearbox.

BMW weren’t too lucky either. The No. 24 went through an engine change between Saturday and Sunday and that meant that Tomczyk and Edwards started from the back. Unabated, the two carved their way to second before frustratingly running out of fuel merely meters before the pit lane entry. This left only one bullet in the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s gun and that too was derailed. It took, though, much longer as it all happened during the dying moments of the event. Alex Sims was fighting with the same Tommy Milner for the same P4 when the No. 25 BMW followed much too closely an over-exposed Senna quote and crashed into the side of the Corvette. The M6 GTLM – which will meet the grim reaper at the end of 2017 as it’s being replaced by the M8 next year – lost a wheel and Milner drifted off the road – all in favour of the other Corvette of Antonio Garcia. The Spaniard happily gained two spots to finish fourth, behind the untroubled No. 67 Ford. This increased his and Magnussen’s championship advantage by two points (211 p.) while Mueller and Hand moved up to position number three on the leaderboard (196 p.) behind Sims/Auberlen (204 p.).

Bleekemolen finished just ahead of Balzan and became the main title rival with this result!

Will Turner made sure to turn the frowns of BMW’s fans into smiles as his own No. 96 GT3-spec dominated the GT-D class in the hands of Jesse Krohn and Jens Klingmann. The first passed Jeroen Mul on the opening lap and went on to claim a win by over 15 seconds ahead of the No. 73 Park Place Motorsport Porsche (Bergmeister/Lindsey) and the No. 57 Audi (Aschenbach/Davis). The No. 33 Bleekemolen/Keating Mercedes-Benz was fourth and the Dutchman managed to keep Alessandro Balzan honest in the latter stages of the race despite running out of fuel. The Italian was, however, rather unconcerned himself as the No. 63’s top 5 finish ensured that last year’s champions were even closer to another title. Their closest pursuers, after the disaster in Paul Miller’s camp, are – with three races left to run – Keating and Bleekemolen. They are 17 points behind, while Lally and Legge are a further six points adrift in third.

The picturesque Virginia International Raceway (VIR) is next in late August, while the full grid (minus PC) is back at Laguna Seca in September and, again, at the season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta in October.

BMW won en fanfare in GT-D

Full race results here

Photos from: IMSA, BMW, Scuderia Corsa, Corvette Racing/GM, Riley Motorsport, Ford CGR