IMSA of course has several Marquee events, including the Daytona 24-hour, Sebring 12-hour, Watkins Glen 6-hour, and the Petit Le Mans. The Petit Le Mans is a hold-over from the ALMS series of Don Panoz in years gone by, and in the years since the merger (Grand-Am series and ALMS), is the last race on the schedule at the end of the season. It is always run over a 10-hour distance at one of the best tracks in the USA, the Road Atlanta Circuit in North Georgia. Michelin who are the IMSA spec tyre, have recently signed as the track sponsor and have made several improvements including a very nice brand-new race control and media tower. The track is about 100 miles from their US headquarters in Greenville, South Carolina, so fits well for them.
This year there was added pressure on the teams, as practically all the championships were still up for grabs, both driver and manufacturers. So, going into this 10-hour race with the knowledge that you must deliver, just added stress and pressure! The race started at noon and ran until 22h00 at night. Night at this circuit is very dark, with much of it not well lit at all.
The Road Atlanta circuit is one of the best in the nation, especially for spectators and it usually draws a large crowd. This year was said to be a record, as campers and motor homes started showing up the weekend before and setting up shop with tents, awnings and large motor homes. There are quite a few spots on this circuit where the viewing is superb, and the fans are enthusiastic here. The weather was perfect this year with no rain and comfortable temperatures.
The circuit is a challenging one for drivers, with a lot of elevation changes, hills, famous Esses, a long straight and a few blind corners thrown in. Drivers seem to love the circuit for the challenge it offers. One of the Porsche factory drivers commented in an interview, that to “go fast here, you need to take risks.” Having been around this track in a Ferrari Challenge car with Didier Theys, I can attest that it feels like a very fast roller coaster ride! Traffic is always an issue, as there are places where you just cannot pass and must be patient.
Practice started on Thursday and there were immediately some interesting developments. Several cars and teams did very few laps, as they were conserving their tyre allotment (the allotment here was 24 sets for DPi and GTLM, and 22 sets for GTD (GT3)). That is the total number of sets you can use for the weekend. Michelin has an elaborate RFID setup with telemetry, so they know exactly who is doing what with tyres at all times. Notably Felipe Nasr did only nine laps in the first session in the Whelen Cadillac-Dallara but set the fastest time. The Corvettes also did not run many laps either, conserving the tyres. The championship leading GTD Lamborghini crashed in the Esses with Marco Seefried at the wheel, leaving the crew with a lot of repair work to get ready for Friday qualifying.
There were only three Porsches in this race, the two factory cars in GTLM and the Pfaff racing GTD RSR. The Park Place GTD car could not be repaired in time after Laguna Seca to make the race. Porsche created quite a marketing coup, by painting the factory cars in the Coca-Cola livery made famous by Bob Akin in IMSA in the 1980s with his 935s and 962s.
Qualifying resulted in Nasr on the pole in DPi, James Calado on pole in GTLM with the Risi Ferrari (making a rare appearance), and Corey Lewis rewarding his crew’s repair efforts with pole in GTD with the Miller Racing Lamborghini. The only real casualty was one of the Corvettes. It was caught with a rear wing out of homologated measurement, so was relegated to the back of the grid.
The race started under clear skies, and immediately Nasr started to pull away from the rest somewhat. However, there were bound to be some yellows to negate any large leads, so there did not seem to be much point in it. The goal was to survive to the last hour, then push for the victory. Helio Castro Neves received a penalty for putting off one of the two LMP2 cars in the Esses. Only five of the 34 starters did not finish, so the DPi cars were constantly battling traffic. With about three hours to go, the #77 Mazda of Jarvis, Nunez and Bernhard seemed to have the upper hand, but a faulty injector started to cause them to lose power, and they faded to an eventual sixth place.
With some 25 or so minutes to go, the #5 Cadillac of Barbosa, Albuquerque and Conway had the point and seemed on the way to victory when they pitted with what was thought to be a flat tyre, but turned out to be a disintegrated front brake disc, so they were done as it was not repairable in the time remaining. A great battle to the end then ensued between Pipo Derani in the #31 Cadillac, Jordan Taylor in the #10 Cadillac, and Ricky Taylor in the #7 Acura. This was won by Derani, but just by 0.9 seconds over the #10, with the #7 a further 10 seconds back. GTLM was won by the Risi Ferrari of Calado, Pier-Guidi and Serra, but by only 7 seconds over the Ford GT of Briscoe, Westbrook and Dixon.
However, those were the non-close finishes! GTD (FIA GT3 cars) was a battle involving four cars nose to tail for the last 20 minutes. The Mercedes of Keating, Fraga and Bleekemolen started the last lap a likely winner with the other three right behind but ran out of fuel half-way around the lap and coasted to a stop. Bill Auberlen, in the Turner BMW he was sharing with Foley and Machavern, then beat the Land Audi of Mies, Feller and Morad to the line by 0.5 seconds to win. The Porsche of Robichon, Hargrove and Kern finished third, a mere 2 seconds back. This was Auberlen’s 60th victory in IMSA (all classes), tying him with Scott Pruett for the most, and at the grand old age of 51! Well done.
Lost in all the excitement of the racing action, several championships were decided. Cameron and Montoya (assisted by Simon Pagenaud) finished fourth (in their Penske Acura) which was enough to clinch the championship for them even though Nasr and Derani won the race. In GTLM the Porsches were fifth and sixth which clinched both the manufacturer trophy and the drivers’ championship for Vanthoor and Bamber. GTD of course also came down to the last lap. The Lamborghini of Lewis, Sellers and Seefried finished sixth beating the Acura NSX of Legge, Figueirado and Nielsen by all of one second to claim the manufacturer championship for Lamborghini by 2 points. With the third-place finish by the Pfaff Porsche, they almost stole the championship, finishing only 3 points back. The Acura pairing of Farnbacher and Hindman won the driver championship by finishing 12th having a large lead coming into the race.
It was a great race, enjoyed by the large crowd present, as well as the National TV (NBC) audience. Some big off-season changes are in store for IMSA. Scott Atherton, President of IMSA is retiring (he will be replaced by John Doonan, recently the director of Mazda Motorsports USA); the factory Ford GT program is stopping (although rumours abound that privateers may take up the cars and continue); the Corvette C7R has run its last race, and is to be replaced by the C8R; rumours abound that Jan Magnussen is being replaced in the Corvette squad by Jordan Taylor, but nothing concrete has been announced; Jon Bennet is retiring from DPi racing and will no longer run the Nissan DPi car (although rumours abound that someone else will take up this car as well); it looks as though the #5 Action Express Cadillac will no longer run, as the sponsor, Mustang Sampling, has pulled out. But all this will be sorted out by the next race, the 2020 Daytona 24-hours!
In the meantime, the 2020 season starts this Monday. One of my friends on the factory Porsche team tells me they are staying in Atlanta and start testing Monday with the new car. No rest for the weary!
Written by: Martin Raffauf
Images by: Martin Raffauf