IMSA Wire: WeatherTech Championship GT Classes Bring High Speed Southern California Traffic Jam

WeatherTech Championship GT Classes Bring High Speed Southern California Traffic Jam

April 4, 2017

Staff Report

IMSA Wire Service

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Southern California is legendary for its traffic, and with a 35-car IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship field that includes 25 GT cars on the tight, 1.968-mile Long Beach street circuit, it’s going to be a 100-minute, high-speed traffic jam. Saturday’s BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix at Long Beach will be televised live on FOX at 4 p.m. ET.

The influx of GT machinery at Long Beach this year comes via the addition of the GT Daytona (GTD) class, the largest WeatherTech Championship class, with 16 cars on the Long Beach entry list. GTD replaces the Prototype Challenge (PC) class, which competed in this event last year after two years of Prototypes and GT Le Mans (GTLM) cars only.

Both the GTD and GTLM classes feature makes and models that would be equally at home on the Long Beach street circuit as they would be on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, some 30 miles to the northwest, or on the many scenic and twisty roads throughout Southern California. But make no mistake, the WeatherTech Championship GT cars are full-fledged racing machines, and they mean business.

For evidence of that, look no further than the end of last year’s GTLM race at Long Beach. With only a few minutes remaining, Tommy Milner – who came into the race riding a two-race winning streak with victories in the Rolex 24 At Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida – led the race in the No. 4 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R with Frederic Makowiecki right on his tail in the No. 912 Porsche and Nick Tandy in the No. 911 Porsche right behind Makowiecki.

In the famed Long Beach hairpin, Makowiecki attempted a pass but contacted the right rear of Milner’s car, sending the yellow Corvette spinning and leaving his own Porsche with too much damage to continue. Meanwhile, Tandy slipped past both cars, going on to lead the remaining four laps to secure the victory for himself and teammate Patrick Pilet.

Undoubtedly, Milner and co-driver Oliver Gavin – who went on to take the 2016 WeatherTech Championship GTLM title despite the disappointing conclusion to the Long Beach race – will be looking to complete some unfinished business this weekend.

“The kindest thing I can say about last year’s race at Long Beach is that the finish was very unfortunate,” Milner said. “So this weekend is a race I’d very much like to win. It has been a rough start (to the 2017 season) on the No. 4 Corvette side – all chalked up to bad luck – and a good result at Long Beach would help start our turnaround. Oliver and I have complete confidence in the team at Corvette Racing to get us headed in the right direction.”

They’ll have their hands full, however, with a deep and talented field of other GTLM machines, not to mention a stout challenge from their own Corvette Racing teammates, Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen, in the No. 3 Corvette.

Garcia and Magnussen head for Long Beach as GTLM winners last month at Sebring thanks to a stellar final driving stint for Garcia. The No. 3 duo also has been successful on the past at Long Beach, taking GTLM honors together in 2014 in addition to a 2008 American Le Mans Series win for Magnussen.

Pilet, meanwhile, returns to Long Beach with a new, mid-engine Porsche 911 RSR that was introduced to the world last November just up the road at the Los Angeles Auto Show. He also has a new co-driver in the No. 911 Porsche GT Team entry, Dirk Werner, who won the GTLM class at Long Beach two years ago as part of BMW Team RLL. Kevin Estre and Laurens Vanthoor make up the other half of the Porsche GT Team entry in the No. 912.

For many of the first 36 hours of WeatherTech Championship racing this season, one of the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs have been running at the head of the GTLM pack. No. 66 Ford GT co-drivers Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand won at Daytona and finished second at Sebring, making them the points leaders heading to Long Beach. They won this event in 2011 together as co-drivers with BMW and Mueller also earned a class win in 2008.

Based on all of that, Hand and Mueller must rate among the favorites this weekend, as do their teammates, Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook in the No. 67 Ford GT.

A recurring theme among the drivers mentioned as previous Long Beach winners is that they’ve done it racing BMWs. And while it’s been a bit of a tough start to the season for the two-car BMW Team RLL program, Long Beach may be just what the doctor ordered.

No. 25 BMW driver Bill Auberlen has been attending the Grand Prix of Long Beach for decades, and the Redondo Beach resident has celebrated a couple of hometown victories, in 2013 and 2015, in addition to GTLM poles each of the past two years. He’ll go for a third win with new co-driver Alexander Sims, while John Edwards and Martin Tomczyk look for a little California love in their own No. 24 BMW.

Realistically, though, the GTLM race is wide open for any of the nine cars to win. The No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE finished on the podium at both Daytona and Sebring, and when you add a 2016 season-ending victory at Petit Le Mans to the equation, co-drivers Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander clearly have momentum. Risi has won at Long Beach before too, back in 2007.

If GTLM is a pick ‘em among five different manufacturers, pre-determining a GTD winner among the 16 cars from eight different marques is even tougher in an unpredictable season to date.

Alegra Motorsports opened the year with an improbable victory in the Rolex 24 At Daytona. The team originally planned a part-time WeatherTech Championship program this year, but found itself third in the GTD point standings after Sebring.

Based on that – and the fact that the Dream Racing team that originally committed to the full season elected to sit out Long Beach – Alegra’s No. 28 Porsche will be on the grid this Saturday in the hands of Canadian standout Daniel Morad – a 2016 Ultra 94 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Canada by Yokohama champion – and Danish Porsche works driver Michael Christensen.

They’ll look to close the gap to current GTD points leaders Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen, who earned the first WeatherTech Championship victory in history for Mercedes-AMG in their No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG entry at Sebring. Keating and Bleekemolen represent one third of the Mercedes-AMG attack and are joined by Cooper MacNeil and Gunnar Jeannette in the No. 50 WeatherTech Mercedes-AMG GT3 and the No. 75 SunEnergy1 entry for Frenchman Tristan Vautier and fan favorite Boris Said from Carlsbad, California.

Just behind Alegra in the GTD standings is the No. 57 Stevenson Motorsports team of Lawson Aschenbach and Andrew Davis. Stevenson is the lone GTD team flying the flag for Audi in Long Beach. Also alone in representing their manufacturer in the class is Turner Motorsport with the driving duo of Bret Curtis and Jens Klingmann in the No. 96 BMW M6 GT3 and 2016 GTD champions Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan in the No. 63 Ferrari 488 GT3 for Beverly Hills-based Scuderia Corsa.

Porsche, meanwhile, has four GTD entries in addition to the pair of GTLM race cars, which seems fitting since Porsche Motorsport North America headquarters is just up the road from Long Beach in Carson, California on the same campus as the new Porsche Experience Center that opened last fall. The four Porsche GTD teams include the Alegra program, the No. 54 CORE autosport Porsche 911 GT3 R for Jon Bennett and Colin Braun – winners of the PC class in Long Beach in 2013 – the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche of factory driver Joerg Bergmeister and Santa Barbara, California’s Patrick Lindsey, and the No. 991 TRG Porsche for Wolf Henzler and Jan Heylen.

The BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix field also will include a pair of Lamborghinis, the No. 16 Change Racing machine of Corey Lewis and Jeroen Mul, and the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Huracán GT3 shared by Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow.

And two new GTD manufacturers – both with strong Southern California ties – will be making their Long Beach debut. Acura, with U.S. headquarters in Torrance, California, has a pair of Acura NSX GT3 race cars fielded by Michael Shank Racing. The No. 86 Acura will be co-driven by Jeff Segal and Ozz Negri, while Andy Lally and Katherine Legge – who first made a name for herself in the U.S. motorsports landscape by winning an Atlantic Championship race at Long Beach in 2005 – share the No. 93 Acura.

Lexus, which also currently resides in Torrance, has a pair of entries, which is fitting at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The cars are fielded by Michigan’s 3GT Racing and include the No. 15 Lexus RC F GT3 for former IndyCar racer Jack Hawksworth and Los Angeles native Robert Alon, and the No. 14 for rising star Sage Karam and the winningest North American sports car racer of all time, Scott Pruett.

Pruett is a two-time IMSA winner on the streets of Long Beach, taking a Prototype victory in 2014 and a GRAND-AM Daytona Prototype win in 2006. The IndyCar veteran also won the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race in 2001 and a Trans Am race on the streets of Long Beach back in 1987.

On-track activity for the WeatherTech Championship this week begins with a two-hour practice session at 7:40 a.m. PT on Friday, followed by a second practice and qualifying session that runs from 4:45 to 6:15 p.m. local. will offer live streaming of qualifying in addition to IMSA Radio coverage from all on-track sessions.

The green flag flies on the BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix Saturday at 1:05 p.m. PT.

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