IMSA visited the iconic Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for the penultimate race in the 2017 championship. The Laguna Seca circuit has been around since the 1950s and is one of the most enjoyable tracks to visit in the USA. The circuit is a demanding one, with the famous corkscrew corner (a hard left, hard right combination corner that drops 59 feet in 450 feet of track). It has changed somewhat over the years, as in 1988 the track was lengthened from 1.9 miles to 2.238 miles to allow MotoGP and FIM superbikes to run here. Due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, weather conditions are sometimes unpredictable, with frequent fog and cool temperatures quite probable. The race being the standard IMSA 2-hour 40-minute variety, and due to the tight nature of the course, strategy comes into play as passing is difficult on the course.
There were eight prototypes entered, but the usual pair of Mazda cars were not running, as the Joest team is doing development work on the cars for the 2018 season. The GTLM field consisted of nine cars, and included the normal contingent of two Corvettes, two Porsches, two BMWs, two Ford GTs, and just the one Ferrari 488 of the Risi team. The GTD class (FIA GT3) consisted of 16 cars, four of them Porsche 911 GT3Rs. Points wise, the Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac has a big lead in the Prototype class, and basically, they just need to finish the last two races to gain the championship.
Point standings prior to Laguna Seca in the GT classes were as follows:
GTLM Manufacturers (GT Le Mans – GTE)
GTD Manufacturers (FIA GT3)
1). The recent death of Bruce Leven, a long time IMSA team owner in the 1980s. In fact, on the 30th anniversary of the 1987 race, it was noted that Bruce’s Porsche 962, driven by Klaus Ludwig, had won this race on that occasion. It held some special memories for me, as I was part of his team back then. He was one of the iconic IMSA Porsche team owners of the 1980s, along with guys like Bob Akin, Jim Busby, Preston Henn, Rob Dyson and Al Holbert. They all added a lot to the sport, and will be missed. Note: Rob Dyson and Jim Busby are still (very much) with us!
2). It was announced a few days before the race that starting in 2019, Michelin would take over as the IMSA tyre supplier, replacing Continental. How this would all work remains to be determined – i.e. would there be a spec tyre for all cars, or would GTLM class continue to be open for tyres. The prevailing thought was that GTLM would continue to remain open for tyres but everyone else in the Prototype and GTD classes, would run a spec Michelin tyre.
3). There was some talk of the recently announced 2019 IMSA/WEC Sebring double-header. The general thoughts were that the idea seemed to be ‘logistically challenged’. There will be a lot of issues to solve if it is to have any hope of success. An interesting fact that I was unaware of, in order to be classified as a ‘world championship’, the FIA requires races on a minimum of three continents. So, the WEC was desperate to have some sort of race in North America, as apparently, the Mexico and Texas races are off the schedule.
The weather on Friday was cool, breezy, and sunny. The two practice sessions seemed crowded and the traffic was heavy, but that is the way it would also be in the race. The teams went about their business, and there were no major dramas. The times from the afternoon session, which would most likely match the weather for the race on Sunday, were interesting. The two Nissan DPI cars were first and third and the Cadillacs were second and fourth. Actually, the fastest LMP2 car was the relatively new Ligier of VisitFlorida Racing driven by Marc Goosens and Renger van der Zande, in fifth position.
In GTLM, the Risi Ferrari was easily the quickest by almost 0.5 second, as the car seemed to run effortlessly on this circuit. The two BMWs were also running well, while the two Porsches were eighth and ninth (last), a full 1.2 seconds behind the Ferrari.
In GTD, Oswaldo Negri in the Acura was quickest, but three of the four Porsches were in the top five. To me, it is always difficult to discern anything from practice times in relation to outright speed, as you never know who is doing long runs testing tyre compounds and who is putting on new soft tyres just to go out and set a time.
Tyres, in any case are a black science. In the Prototype and GTD classes it is quite simple because they use a spec Continental tyre. In GTLM it is quite different, as the tyres are open. These are the rules of this class as agreed by IMSA and the Manufacturers in GTLM. Currently all the GTLM cars in IMSA run on Michelin tyres (although this has not always been the case). Each team has the choice of several compounds to use at each race. Sometimes picking the right or wrong ones, relative to weather and track conditions, leads to unanticipated performance differences.
Saturday’s weather was much the same as it was on Friday. It was quite cool for the early morning practice FP3, then breezy, sunny and cool for the mid-day qualifying sessions. In IMSA, each class qualifies individually, which helps with traffic and getting clear laps.
In the Prototype class, Ricky Taylor was well clear of the rest and set a record time in the Wayne Taylor Cadillac Dallara. Interestingly, the Gibson Powered Ligier LMP2 of Marc Goosens and Renger van der Zande qualified third.
In GTLM, the Ferrari, driven by Toni Vilander set the pole time. The Porsches were sixth and eighth, but all nine cars were basically within one second of each other.
GTD pole was set by Madison Snow in a Lamborghini Huracan, while the Porsches of Allegra Motorsports and Park Place Racing were second and third. However, GTD qualifying is not usually indicative of the race, as it is usually the second driver (amateur) who qualifies the car.
Race day dawned much warmer than the previous two days, and the race would be run under hotter temperatures than the teams had seen up to this point. Tyres could prove to be an issue, as in IMSA you must start on the tyres you qualified on. Wayne Taylor’s team did not even run in the warmup. Having to basically just start and finish the two remaining races to win the championship, they did not want to risk any damage in the warmup.
The race started as a typical Laguna Seca race, with not much passing (due to the nature of the course) as it settled into a procession of sorts.
In GTLM, as the first stint wore on, the Porsches seemed to be getting stronger, or more probably, the others ahead were burning up their tyres. The #911 car was started by Patrick Pilet, the #912 by Laurens Vanthoor but after 32 minutes Pilet had gone from sixth to third, with Vanthoor right behind him. Amazingly, the #24 BMW had been punted off at the first corner by his teammate and came around dead last on the first lap but he was slowly working his way back through the field, to eventually reach the back of the GTLM field. It was a good job by Tomczyk to get the car back into the race, after his early excursion through the gravel.
In GTD, the leading Lamborghini pitted early with front end damage, and the Allegra Motorsports RSR driven by Daniel Morad took the lead, although he was never able to get too far ahead of a variety of pursuers, which included most of the field. The GTD cars were well matched and no one seemed to have any big advantage over another.
After the first pit stops, the leaders were shuffled and the #31 Action Express Cadillac Dallara took the point which saw the Taylors shuffled back to fourth after the pit stops. The Ferrari led GTLM for most of the race but with about 1 hour 15 minutes to go, the #25 BMW spun off and got stuck in the gravel which necessitated a full course yellow to pull him out. His teammate, the #24 car, took this opportunity to jump into the pits before they were closed to take on fuel and tyres. The #911 Porsche did the same around this time. No one thought much about it, because they would have to stop again. The #912 Porsche of Bruni dropped from the lead group at this time, by pitting out of sequence when the pits were closed. This earned them a drive through penalty which put them a lap behind.
The race continued and the cars began to close up. Dane Cameron now led in a Cadillac Dallara, but was being closely pursued by Renger van der Zande in the Ligier LMP2 car. In GTLM, the Ferrari led from the BMW #24 (now second after being dead last on the opening lap) and the #911 Porsche of Werner. In GTD, the Core AutoSports 911 now driven by Colin Braun, led with the Turner BMW, the Ferrari of Balzan, the Acura of Andy Lally, and the Bergmeister Porsche close behind. They circulated en masse for quite some time.
The Risi Ferrari made their final stop with about 35 minutes to go, and Vilander took fuel and tyres, dropping them to fourth. Everyone assumed the BMW and Porsche would stop next, but would they? They continued to circulate first and second, albeit running a few seconds a lap slower than the Ferrari but soon it became apparent they would try to make the distance without stopping. The Ferrari came on strongly as it had new tyres, and a full fuel load. Vilander caught and passed Dirk Werner in the #911 with two laps to go, and then set off after John Edwards in the BMW. He ended up just short, losing the drag race from the last corner to the finish line. So, the BMW won ahead of the Ferrari with Werner a few seconds behind. The BMW and the #911 had run some 1 hour 15 minutes on one tank of fuel. I asked Bobby Rahal (team principal of the BMW team), “Running on fumes at the end?” and he answered, “yes, pretty much.”
In GTD, the leading Porsche of Colin Braun, ran out of fuel with four laps to go and had to stop. The Turner BMW of Klingmann and Krohn, also ran out of fuel. The Ferrari of Balzan barely made it, running well over an hour on one tank and won, just barely, from the Acura of Lally and the Porsche of Bergmeister.
The real excitement came in the Prototype class. As the race wore down, Dane Cameron in the Cadillac Dallara, seemed to slow, as no doubt his tyres were wearing. The Ligier closed, and they went nose to tail through the lapped traffic. As they came to the famous corkscrew turn with less than two minutes to go, van der Zande made his move to the inside and got through cleanly, taking the lead on the next to last lap. It was a well-deserved win. It was good to see the LMP2 car win its first race in IMSA, having led several others and not being able to complete the ‘deal’.
IMSA put on a good event and I am sure the live TV audience got a good show. The final race of the season is in two weeks, the Petite Le Mans at Atlanta, which is a 10-hour race.
Written by: Martin Raffauf
Images by: Martin Raffauf