IMSA once again came to Laguna Seca for the penultimate round in the 2019 Championship. There was a buzz of excitement in the air at Laguna this year, as the track has scheduled a motorsports extravaganza in the back-to-back weekend events of IMSA, then the INDY car finale on 22 September, the week after. This all followed the Monterey Historics in August which, this year, featured IMSA cars of old where around 80,000 spectators were treated to some great sights over the span of that event. This week though, in the Laguna Seca IMSA 2019, we saw the current generation of cars.
Laguna Seca is a unique venue, in Monterey California. It is quite near the Pacific Ocean, and the weather in September can be cool and foggy early in the morning, but it rarely gets too warm (a drastic contrast to some of the earlier IMSA events this summer). The track is built on an old US Army base, and there is a lot of sand and dirt around. Although the track was extended in years gone by to 2.25 miles in order to accommodate the Moto GP, it is still a difficult place to pass, and the IMSA races in recent years have turned into a battle of strategy and tactics. The fastest car does not usually win, it is tyre management, pit strategy, and keeping your nose clean that usually rules the day here.
From a championship perspective, the battles were mostly still wide open. In the DPi (Prototype) category, Dane Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya held a slim seven-point lead over the Cadillac duo of Nasr and Derani. Jonathan Bomarito of Mazda is 17 points behind, so not totally out of it. The manufacturers battle is even closer with Acura holding a five-point advantage over Cadillac, and an 11-point margin over Mazda. While Mazda has won the last three races in a row to close the gap, it will be a longshot for them to win the title due to poor showings at earlier races.
In the GTLM category (basically Le Mans GT Pro), Porsche drivers Laurens Vanthoor and Earl Bamber had a commanding 11-point lead over their team-mates, and a 21-point margin over the Corvette of Garcia and Magnussen. The title was basically theirs to lose. Manufacturer wise, Porsche, due to the good finishes of BOTH their cars has already clinched the manufacturer title in GTLM. Quite a few pundits are bemoaning the BOP, as being in favour of Porsche this year. However, having observed many, if not all the races this year, my opinion is slightly different. What I have seen is almost a change in focus this year by the Porsche squad. They don’t always (in fact rarely) have the fastest car. However, they have worked hard at consistency across all tracks, finishing without problems, keeping tyres under the car for the full fuel stint and execution. Although they have won six of the nine races so far, they have won several by taking advantage of opportunities presented, and other’s mistakes. But that is what it takes to win championships. Last year (2018) they seemed to lose races that they should have won due to tyre woes or lack of execution. That is the BOP world of today, you will not have an advantage at every circuit. At the ones you do, you need to execute and take the wins. At the others, you need to get the best you can do on the day, and then move on.
In the GTD (FIA GT3) category the Acura pairing of Mario Farnbacher and Trent Hindman has a commanding 37-point margin over Porsche driver Zach Robichon. They have done this via consistent finishes, having won only one race this year compared to Robichon’s two. The GTD manufacturers standings are much closer with the top four, Acura, Lamborghini, Porsche and Lexus separated by only a twelve-point total, so this will go down to the wire at Petit Le Mans next month.
Day one – Free Practice 1 & 2 (FP1 & FP2)
Everyone who had prepared for the ‘normal’ Monterey weather, was in for a rude awakening as FP1 started. It was very hot, over 90º Fahrenheit, which is abnormal for Monterey. There had been some slight BOP adjustments in the DPi category, so all were waiting to see what the effect would be. Mazda, who had won the last three races in a row, got a little weight added, Cadillac got a slightly larger restrictor and a little more fuel capacity, while Acura was unchanged.
The teams proceeded somewhat conservatively in the first session, as there was no grip (no rubber laid down), and of course there was the normal Laguna sand blown all over the track. One of the Mazdas hooked a tyre on a kerb and wrecked some body work but that was about the only casualty. The Acuras were quick, and the Cadillacs were much closer than before. In GTLM, the Porsches were slowest and in GTD, the two Porsches were not quick at all, not even making the top five.
After FP1, I noticed the Porsche squad was hard at it changing tyres, taking some back, getting some new ones. In the DPi and GTD classes, there is a spec tyre at each race and Michelin decides what that is depending on the circuit, and that is what you run. There is a limit on the number of sets you can use per weekend, so it is straight forward, get your car to run on the tyre provided. The GTLM class (Le Mans GT Pro cars), is however, a different story. This class, consisting of the two Porsches, two Corvettes, two BMWs, and two Fords (all factory teams) have a choice of three compounds each race (soft, medium and hard). It is a constant chess match for these guys to see (a) which tyre works best; and (b) will this tyre stay under the car for the length of a fuel tank. Laguna Seca is notorious for lack of grip and tyre issues, so it becomes even more of a battle. The added component complicating things is that they also have a set limit for the weekend. So, for example, if you use a several sets of soft tyres, then decide they are no good, you are out of luck. Those then count towards your allocation as they have been used. Only UNUSED tyres can be taken back and exchanged for something else. This is tough work for the engineers and tyre men, made especially difficult at Laguna this year, as it was hot at the start, but the forecast was to cool down to normal temperatures by race day.
FP2 in the afternoon was even hotter, in the low 90s Fahrenheit. The Porsches went from last to third and fifth, so whatever was done, seemed to help. The #6 Acura of Montoya and Cameron set a time that was quicker than last year’s pole time in the heat of the day, although the Cadillacs and Mazda were not far behind. But it is hard to read anything into these times, as some teams were doing long runs to gauge the tyre wear and performance degradation. Others had a different agenda.
Day two – FP3 and Qualifying
Saturday was a little cooler, but still warmer than normal for Monterey. Ricky Taylor broke the track record in practice and the other Acura was second, so it seemed the Penske squad had things figured out.
GTD qualifying started ominously, as Patrick Lindsey crashed his Porsche GT3 heavily, which cut the session short on time. It was too damaged to repair, and the Park Place team was done for the weekend. The Miller Racing Lamborghini got the pole ahead of the Acura of Hindman and Ferrari of MacNeil, while the remaining Porsche of Hargrove was fourth.
In GTLM, the BMW of Jesse Krohn took the pole ahead of the Ford of Mueller with the #912 Porsche of Vanthoor in fourth place. The #911 with Tandy was last, as he had a spin and came down the hill towards the pits backwards at one point. Someone said, hey he is going counter race, then no he is going the right direction, just backwards! Critically for that car, the tyres were basically wrecked, but by rule, they would have to start on them anyway.
In DPi, the two Acuras led by Ricky Taylor qualified 1-2, well under the track record. But most of the top cars were under the record, so the margin was not large. However, track position is important at Laguna, so Penske would at least start with that advantage.
Conditions changed drastically on Sunday, race day. The day dawned with heavy fog, and with temperatures about 25 degrees cooler. The warm-up was delayed for some time due to impaired visibility. All drivers who were interviewed seemed to say the same things, citing concerns of tyre degradation, lack of grip, sand and dirt. However, the cooler temperatures were a relief, as it was thought, this might help the tyre wear.
The race started at noon and went off without any issue, and the two Acuras took the lead overall. Everyone just seemed to circulate waiting to see how the tyres would last, and probably hoping for a caution to come in and change the tyres. All the prototypes stopped at around 35 minutes as that is their fuel window. There were no yellows.
The Corvettes stopped early at about 31 minutes into the race and took on new tyres and fuel. The rest of the GTLM field went longer ranging up to a 52-minute stint for the lead #24 BMW. After the stops the Porsches were sixth and eighth. No doubt, the #911 struggled with the bad tyres from qualifying for 48 minutes or so before having a chance to change, as there were no yellows. The GT cars, except for Corvette had to be prepared to make the race on only two stops if there were no yellows.
In GTD the lead Lamborghini slowly pulled away from everyone else and went the furthest on fuel at 56 minutes, so it did not bode well for the rest, at that pace. The #86 championship leading Acura seemed to be running very conservatively, dropping to fourth, more concerned with finishing and points than winning. The Porsche of Hargrove and Robichon ran third as they had to finish in front of the #86 Acura to clinch the IMSA Sprint Championship (all races other than the four endurance races).
After the stops, the #6 Acura took over from the #7 which had led the first stint. The #6 Acura, being the championship leader, had the advantageous first pit, while the team car was further down the line.
With no yellows, it became clear, the DPi cars would try and make the race on three stops, while all the GT cars would try to make it on two stops, except the Corvettes who had stopped early. The Corvettes led the GTLM race in the middle section as they were on a different strategy and would stop twice more, whereas the Fords, Porsches and BMWs would try and make only one more stop. By this time, the Ford of Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller ran third, not far behind the Corvettes, so was in effect, it was the leader on the road if it stayed green to the end, as the Corvettes would have to stop twice more, the Ford only once. Both Fords in fact ran longer than one hour on their second fuel tank, so the writing was on the wall so to speak. The #66 Ford would not be beaten if the race went green as they made their stop with 55 minutes left, after running 63 minutes in the second stint. The #67 Ford went even further, running 67 minutes on one tank. If that car had not spun earlier and had to stop early, they would have been running 1-2. The two Corvettes made their third stop with about 40 minutes left and took new tyres and a shorter load of fuel, rejoining in fourth and fifth. However, with newer tyres, they then got back to third and fourth by race end, dispatching the #25 BMW. The Porsches ran seventh and eighth, the last two cars in class. The #912 of Vanthoor and Bamber edging out the Tandy and Pilet car, to increase their driver point lead slightly going to the last round. They will just need to basically finish there to get the driver championship, while Porsche has already clinched the manufacturer championship in GTLM class.
Overall, the two Acuras duly ran off the laps and won easily. Pipo Derani, despite a massive off-road excursion wiping out a bunch of track signage, but still managed to pass Jordan Taylor near the end to take third overall in his Cadillac, with some bits of signage still hanging from his left side pod!
GTD for once was a non-race. The Miller Motorsports Lamborghini Huracan won by 32 seconds over the Ferrari 488 of MacNeil and Vilander. The Porsche of Robichon and Hargrove finished fourth, ahead of the Acura to clinch the IMSA sprint championship for Robichon. Possibly the drive of the race was by the Magnus Racing Lamborghini which came from last to third in class. By finishing first and third, Lamborghini has taken the manufacturer points lead by just one point. They just need to finish ahead of Acura at the Petit Le Mans to win the championship.
The Penske Acura team has increased their point advantage both in driver and manufacturer points for Prototype class.
The live television audience (NBC TV), as well as the crowd on hand, was treated to a well-run and driven race, with not one caution, which is rare for this circuit! One more round in the championship at the Atlanta Petit Le Mans remains in early October.
Written by: Martin Raffauf
Images by: Martin Raffauf