Heading into this weekend’s Michelin GT Challenge at Virginia International Raceway, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Le Mans class standings are very tight.
The No. 3 Corvette of Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia, the No. 66 Ford GT of Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller and the No. 25 BMW of Bill Auberlen and Alexander Sims are only separated by nine points with three races remaining.
Each arrives at VIR having taken two wins in the first eight races.
With the GTLM class closely bunched, an off-track excursion, penalty, or mechanical issue will likely cost a big chunk of points.
The Risi Factor
The welcome return of the Risi Competizione Ferrari team to the paddock at VIR after a four-race hiatus is a happy blessing for fans, but a mixed bag for its GTLM rivals.
The Houston-based team has wins at all three remaining circuits, with two wins at VIR (2013 and 2014) and three including 2016 at Petit Le Mans. Good finishes mean taking points away from someone, or possibly everyone.
After taking podiums at the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring to open the season, the Risi team returns free of any championship concerns. They can fight for wins and podiums and take tactical chances that others may not consider.
VIR Recent History
Everyone seems to run well at VIR. Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin clinched the 2012 American Le Mans Series GT Championship with their win at the track.
Olivier Beretta and Matteo Malucelli, of Risi, took the class win in 2013 and Giancarlo Fisichella’s storied pass under braking gave Risi its second consecutive win, this one overall with Pierre Kaffer, in 2014.
In 2015, it was Porsche’s Nick Tandy and Patrick Pilet at the front as they mounted a successful second half surge to the championship.
Last year, Garcia and Magnussen took the victory and helped Corvette in the Manufacturer standings while aiding their championship-leading teammates Gavin and Milner.
It doesn’t take long for the championship picture to change. The seemingly quiet Saturday morning VIR practice in 2014 saw Magnussen and Porsche’s Richard Lietz both injured and subsequently missed the race when they spun into each other at the Turn 2 wall after they hit fluid dropped on the race line seconds earlier by a GT Daytona car.
Atop the Box
Each GTLM team has incredibly creative and experienced championship veterans making the strategy calls. Watching the tactical chess match unfold can be like watching a high-speed cage match.
The traditional two-hour 40-minute races at VIR and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca don’t offer the variables of the 10 hours of the Motul Petit Le Mans, but still open some wiggle room on race strategies.
GTLM cars are capable of running 60 minutes or even a bit more on a full load of fuel. That makes it possible for teams to split strategies and pit one car early, close to the 40-minute mark, and leave the other car out for a full hour.
The earlier pitting car may assume the lead if a yellow appears and the balance of the field pits. The later pitting car will need less fuel and may use one of its two stops to short fill and gain track position on the 3.27-mile circuit where race laps are in the 102 second range.
This year’s other GT-only race, Lime Rock Park, ran caution free.
There are many ways, seen and unseen, for race teams in any class to assist or favor one team car over another in championship battles.
Testing, race strategies, car setups, tire choices, the timing of pit stops and releases, courtesy to the higher ranked car in traffic and the selection and deployment or non-deployment of a third driver in the 10-hour season finale at Road Atlanta can all come into play.
Race team leaders are not conspiracy theorists, but through the years a few eyebrows have been raised at some of the more fortuitous “coincidences” involving same make GTD cars or conveniently timed stops off course by teammates to bring out a full course caution.
The introduction of telemetry was said to be a small step in making honest men of race cars drivers. Perhaps the installation of onboard data recorders may reduce temptation for final hour gamesmanship.
Hopes are high in every pit box when each WeatherTech Championship season kicks off. Everyone thinks this could be their year. Over the next seven months, the reality police arrive.
After 23 and a half grueling hours, Corvette Racing had no hesitation in telling Antonio Garcia that “you are free to race” as he set off on an inspired charge to catch teammate Oliver Gavin in the 2016 Rolex 24 At Daytona. That would be an unlikely message to Gavin in the final hour at Road Atlanta.
With their teammates a bit down the road; the No. 67 Ford of Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe stand fourth in the championship standings, the No. 24 BMW of John Edwards and Martin Tomczyk seventh, and the defending champions, No. 4 Corvette of Gavin and Tommy Milner are eighth.
Each team can be expected to use its second car as a chess piece to support its championship contender.
Porsche Wild Card
Porsche continues to gain experience and momentum with its new car and driver pairings as it builds the foundation and results for a WeatherTech Championship run in 2018.
Pilet and Dirk Werner led a big 1-2 finish at Lime Rock and a strong run by Gianmaria Bruni and Laurens Vanthoor at Road America make clear that a big late season Porsche surge is certainly possible.
Manufacturers Keeping Score
In the manufacturer title fight, Ford leads Chevrolet Corvette by a single point.
Manufacturer points are tabulated in a slightly different fashion than driver points. Each manufacturer scores points for its top finishing car.
When BMW finished 1-2 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the German brand earned first place manufacturer points, but second place points went to Ford which finished third. A manufacturer finishing in the last two positions would get 5th place points.