Even with over a dozen yellow flag periods, the 20th running of the legendary Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta thoroughly delivered with some of the closest racing we’ve seen all year, so much so that the 2018 season cannot arrive soon enough.
For the 20th running of Petit Le Mans, champions-elect Ricky and Jordan Taylor were looking to achieve what their father, Wayne, managed in 1998 at the first 10-hour enduro around Road Atlanta. Aboard Doyle-Risi’s 333SP, Wayne teamed up with Eric van de Poele and Emmanuel Collard, winning in front of Porsche’s works effort. That event led to the birth of the American Le Mans Series, one of the two series that made up the IMSA Weathertech Sports Car Championship we enjoy today. Granted, Jordan and Ricky did not need to win to become the 2017 Prototype class champions, just to take the start – but you can’t blame for wanting to win every race, can you?
Unfortunately for the three Caddies, all the aero and other performance penalties came back to haunt them on the twisty Georgia track and they did not feature in qualifying. Team Penske, coming here to warm up for a full season effort alongside HPD next year, did however and Helio Castroneves was unbeatable in qualifying aboard the No. 6 ORECA. The Brazilian veteran clocked a 1:11.314 to beat fellow countryman Pipo Derani in the No. 22 Ligier-Nissan entered by Extreme Speed Motorsport. Pipo, though, waited no second invitation at the start and swiftly moved past Castroneves, although the IndyCar star didn’t let Derani get away.
The two battled until Castroneves was involved in an unfortunate incident going down into Turn 10, Matteo Cressoni spinning into the back of the Penske ORECA after clipping the grass on the outside with his rear-right tire. Both cars were damaged and lost time – one lap to be precise for Penske. That’s how much of the race actually ran, close door-to-door moments and enthralling overtakes combined with dull safety car-led sections. That’s because there were plenty of incidents and drama hit most of the champions. First in trouble were, as mentioned, Scuderia Corsa. After that incident in Hour 1 their hopes to clinch both the IMSA bucket of titles and the NAEC titles were dashed. Next up with troubles was Wayne Taylor Racing. The No. 10 Cadillac had gone up the order significantly, even leading at a certain point, when the engine failed – the first failure for the Cadillac unit.
Then it was time for the PC champions, Performance Tech, to suffer a blow. It also took out a clear contender for race victory – Rebellion Racing. The No. 38 ORECA, on its last race in IMSA competition, collected the No. 13 prototype of Nick Heidfeld as the German was exiting pit lane. The ex-F1 driver was sent into the right-hand wall and into immediate retirement. The ORECA was dragged back to the pits and managed to finish, although behind both BAR1 Motorsports entries. There were other big shunts as well: the No. 14 Lexus crashed after going straight at the final corner, but Robert Alon emerged uninjured. One of the Acuras was also trashed in the Esses, as was the No. 52 PR1 Ligier which was put at an almost vertical angle on the tire wall by an unlucky Jose Gutierrez.
All these incidents, though, helped many contenders gain back lost laps thanks to the wave-by rule. That’s how the No. 2 Ligier-Nissan got back in the game after losing a lap due to a tangle with the No. 85 ORECA at T10. ESM would go on to take the win after 10 hours but it could have easily been a 1-2 finish. Pipo Derani was in the lead with just half an hour left to run and was looking like he had the better of rivals Filipe Albuquerque in the No. 5 Cadillac and Brendon Hartley in the No. 22. The Brazilian, however, ruined his chances after clipping the No. 67 Ford down through the Esses in a sketchy passing manouver. The GT was sent barreling into the wall and ESM’s star had to take a drive-through. Action Express couldn’t enjoy the moment, as they had a bigger penalty looming over their heads. Albuquerque swerved in a dangerous manner at the restart, forcing team-mate Dane Cameron to go off-roading in the No. 31. This was deemed to by a much graver offense, so the No. 5 had to sit in pit lane for a full minute. With the No. 90 Ligier of VisitFlorida.com Racing also retiring very late in the race after its gearbox died, this meant that the No. 2 of Hartley retook the lead with 12 minutes left ahead of the No. 31 and the No. 6 Penske ORECA.
Porsche’s works driver never looked back and crossed the line ahead of the Whelen Cadillac which proved too wide for Montoya to try any overtaking moves in the dying minutes. The result sealed the NAEC title for Action Express but WTR were still the full season champions.
The race was everyone’s to lose in GTLM apparently. Each manufacturer had a shot at it during the up-and-down-and-up-again event. Ferrari’s lone entry kept its head above the water, but poor acceleration and inferior top speed meant Pier Guidi, Vilander and Fisichella had to give themselves pats on the back after finishing third – two places lower than last year. Just ahead of them was the No. 3 Corvette of champions Magnussen and Garcia. The Corvette Racing boys miraculously found pace at Road Atlanta and both C7.Rs were in the hunt, the No. 4 finishing fourth after some off-course moments. It could’ve been lower, though, if the No. 67 wouldn’t have been thrown off the road by Derani.
Porsche also had some good pace but its quicker crew was set back by an almighty fire in pit lane. Bruni and Vanthoor rebounded to finish sixth. Ahead of everyone was, though, a BMW – the only one to finish. No. 24 was out after steering problems so it was all down to No. 25 and the white M6 GTLM did it on its last ever outing. Bill Auberlen, Kuno Wittmer and Alex Sims executed to perfection to bring the victory on Bill’s 400th start for BMW (151 of these being wins). Rahal-Letterman Lanigan Racing will keep being part of the IMSA scenery in 2018, as it is tasked with debuting the M8 GTE at Daytona and doing the full season with it as well.
Land Motorsport had a day of days last Saturday. The German outfit returned to American soil the same day two other Montaplast cars tackled the Nordschleife and Hockenheim. Both of those crews were victorious and, as incredible as it may seem, Sheldon van der Linde, Chris Mies and Connor De Philippi finished first in their class as well!
Again, just like in GTLM, everyone had their chances in GT-D. The No. 63 Ferrari started from pole but never recovered from Cressoni’s off. The No. 96 Turner BMW was also quick but retired. The Lexus and Acura entries were bang on the money for a while too, but crashes and penalties took them out of the game. In the end, the green and white Audi R8 finished ahead of the Daytona-winning Alegra Porsche and the Park Place Motorsport Porsche. Sadly, the No. 50 Weathertech Porsche retired so we didn’t get to see a Long vs. Bergmeister duel on track. Riley wasn’t all frowns though because the No. 33 clinched the NAEC title with Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen.
After the courtain has fallen on 2017, all we have left is to look forward to 2018 and it’s surely something worth waiting for. We’ll have probably over 10 Prototypes for every race and many more at Daytona. We still have some confirmations on the way (both in cars and seats needed to be filled) but what we know is this: Cadillac will return with three cars, two for AXR and one for WTR. JDC/Miller will field at least one ORECA, if not two. PR1/Mathiasen and VisitFlorida.com Racing are poised to return with their Ligiers. Mazda will debut their Joest partnership which they hope will bring them victory atop of victory and, also in DPI land, HPD and Penske will bring two cars and Nissan the same two for ESM. Also, both PC teams will step up with a P2 car each and we might have one-off entries from some top European teams like Rebellion at Daytona, Sebring or Petit Le Mans.
Full results here
Photos: Tony Di Zinno, ESM, Corvette Racing, JDC Motorsports, BMW