Corvette Racing’s Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia played the safe game and cruised through when rivals faltered to bag an unlikely win in the 10th round of the IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship, the Michelin GT Challenge at Virginia International Raceway.
The last GT-only race of the season was a true rollercoaster all the way through its two-hours-and-40-minutes duration. Akin to the track’s layout, there were many up-and-down moments during the Virginia-bound race, although no caution periods broke the rhythm. The tenth round of the 2017 season also marked the return of Giuseppe Risi’s fan favorite team whose programme was put in jeopardy by a heavy race-ending crash at Le Mans. That accident all but took out their newly-received chassis and, with the budget strained, Risi decided to sit out a number of rounds. This race, again, the team campaigned their older 488 while the Le Mans chassis will return to action at Laguna Seca following a full rebuild by Michelotto.
The red No. 62’s comeback showed promise from the get-go, Fisichella and Vilander getting up to speed in no time, the Italian being quickest in FP3. The Fords, though, got their game together in qualifying and Joey Hand was untouchable in the No. 66 GT. He managed a 1:40.211, 0,2s quicker than what the BMWs could muster. The Rahal Letterman-Lanigan Racing cars were, though, quick enough to start from second and third, ahead of the Risi Ferrari and the two works Corvettes. The No. 67 Ford was a dismal seventh while the Porsches were even worse off, starting from the back end of the GTLM field.
Jesse Krohn seemed poised to put Will Turner’s M6 GT3 in pole down in GT-D, but Jeroen Mul again showed everyone the way, although this time he did it with only 30 seconds left on the clock. His 1:43.391 was sensibly quicker than Krohn’s 1:43.621 but the Finn still started from P2. Right behind was Andrew Davis in the No. 57 Audi with the rest of the GTD field following suite.
BMW’s Alex Sims made a blisteringly quick getaway and passed the No. 66 polesitting Ford before entering in T1. Sims then upped the ante even more and distanced himself from the field in the blink of an eye. His gap grew lap by lap, from three seconds after just two laps to over six after a couple more. It was as much as 10 when the other BMW, No. 24, went behind the wall and into the garage with terminal problems (reported to be linked with the power steering).
Behind the No. 25 M6 GTLM much was going on. The No. 62 Ferrari of Fisichella (and Vilander) went up and down the order, losing ground on a couple of occasions after short off-track excursions. The Fords were also battling hard as well as the two Corvettes while the Porsches showed no pace in the race either. It was so bad that, in the first few laps, Laurens Vanthoor was stuck behind GTD leader Jeroen Mul and had a hard time going by due to the Huracan’s immense top speed down the straight bits of road.
With less than 15 minutes left out of almost three hours of racing, it all went wrong for the BMW camp. Their lone bullet went astray as Alex Sims, back in the car after a faultless stint by Bill Auberlen, reported pressure loss in the front-left tyre. The team quickly called the car in and they took the opportunity to also give it a splash of fuel. The incident happened almost simultaneously with another which involved (yet again) the No. 66 Ford and the No. 4 Corvette. This time, Mueller and Milner were leaning on one another, the American even putting two wheels on the grass, until they put each other out. Milner locked his tires and spun into Mueller, which resulted in both cars going off the track. The winner in all of this was Milner’s team-mate, Antonio Garcia who’d been running around P5-P6 all day. He and Jan Magnussen also benefitted from more bad luck that befell the Risi crew. Apparently, while running second, Giancarlo Fisichella was muscled off the road by the No. 96 GTD-class BMW which lost him buckets of time.
This meant that Garcia went on to become the race winner with a 12-seconds cushion over second-placed No. 67 Ford. The Risi Ferrari claimed P3, making up ground thanks to that same Milner/Mueller crash. The two “wrestlers” crossed the finish line fifth and sixth respectively, both behind the No. 25 BMW. Porsches rounded up the GTLM class after a lackluster weekend.
Jeroen Mul was in a class of his own, much like Alex Sims, in GTD. The Change Racing driver kept the lead at the start then went about increasing it in his double stint. This meant that, by the time Silver-rated Corey Lewis got onboard the No. 16 Huracan, their lead was over 10 seconds. The competition wasn’t sleeping and Turner had their quicker driver suited and booted for the final 50-minute stint. Indeed, works driver Jens Klingmann did much of the job, slashing through that 10-second gap but he couldn’t make a move stick. Ultimately, Lewis won by just a second over Klingmann, with the No. 33 Mercedes-Benz in third. The Riley team ran a good race with Jeroen Bleekemolen charting as high as second in class. He and Trent Hindman, who subbed for Ben Keating, took advantage of other crew’s misfortune.
There was quite a big level of attrition in GT-D. For starters, both Lexuses and both Acuras retired, some with accident damage (like Scott Pruett’s RC-F or Legge’s NSX) and some with other mechanical problems. There were also punctures for the No. 48, while the No. 57 Audi wasn’t given a much more lucky draw. As it happened, championship leaders Balzan and Nielsen avoided all the mayhem (including a first lap, first turn spin for one of the Lexuses) to finish fourth and extend their lead in the title fight.
Talking about fighting for the title, Garcia and Magnussen go into the second to last round of the season (Laguna Seca) with an eight-points advantage over Hand and Mueller, while Sims and Auberlen are still very much in the fight, a further point behind the Ford duo. Down in GTD, Nielsen and Balzan might be even more relaxed as they have a 15 point gap to second-placed Bleekemolen and Keating. Davis and Aschenbach are third but that’s 14 more points further back – a virtually unsurmountable gap with two races left (although Petit Le Mans is longer so you get more points there if you run and finish well).
Before Petit Le Mans, however, we have the highly popular trip to Monterey’s Laguna Seca between the 24th and the 25th of September. That’s also when the GT cars will be rejoined by the Prototypes and the Prototype Challenge cars.
Photos via IMSA, Ferrari Races, Michelin Alley