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COOPER: Punching Above Our Pace in Long Beach

Michael Cooper files his latest Sportscar365 column following Long Beach…

Photo: Halston Pitman/Blackdog Speed Shop

I always enjoy going out to California to race, be it Sonoma, WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca or Long Beach. So everyone at Blackdog Speed Shop was understandably excited about going back to the Long Beach Grand Prix.

Early in the week I was optimistic that the layout of the Long Beach circuit would suit our McLaren really well.

The GT4 America weekend started off well too. We were in the top-three or four in both practice sessions. My engineer Mark Weida came up with some really solid ideas for the weekend and gave me a McLaren I could place just about anywhere each time we went on track.

I felt we had even more speed than practice showed, if we could just get a clean run in qualifying, which we did. I laid down a couple of laps that were really solid… or so I thought. It was a shock to find out we only managed the eighth quickest time.

For the start, I was moved up one spot to seventh due to another competitor’s penalty. I had hoped to be in the outside lane because the inside lane stacked up under braking one lap 1 the last couple of times I raced in Long Beach.

Photo: Brian Cleary/SRO

Luckily for me, I found myself heading into Turn 1 with nobody ahead on the inside line. A late braking move and I was past two or three cars, right behind the KTM.

Headed to the fountain, passing on the entry really isn’t on your mind unless you are already side by side. I breathed the throttle early going in to order to get a better run out.

The guys ahead stacked up and I was on the power and passing the KTM ahead into Turn 4. Although Nicolai (Elghanayan) tried to set me up for an over-under and then made an attempt up the inside to get back by into Turn 5.

I left just enough room for him not to get clipped and maintained the position, but it was a risky move in one of the quicker corners on the track.

Photo: Halston Pitman/Blackdog Speed Shop

I kept on pushing and by Turn 10 I was on the bumper of the Am-class Panoz. Normally I wouldn’t commit to a pass into the hairpin without getting to study the car ahead but fortunately for me, I had followed this particular Panoz through the hairpin during practice, so I had an idea of what to expect.

I also knew urgency was key and if it wasn’t then, it might be never. I sent it up the inside and made the pass without any hiccups. From P7 on the grid to P3 in one lap at Long Beach… you don’t see that too often.

A few laps into the race a caution came out, followed by a restart after a short clean-up.

Ian James in the other Panoz left a pretty large gap to the leader on the restart, which you only do when you’re concerned about the guy behind you. I put some pressure on Ian through the first section of track and was thinking about a pass into Turn 6 when another caution came out. Rats…

The series got us going again pretty quickly after that yellow.

Ian left the same gap to the leader and was more prepared for the challenge, so I wasn’t able to put any pressure on in the first green flag lap. The race went caution-free from then on and after a few laps the two leaders starting to gap me by quite a lot.

Photo: Brian Cleary/SRO

I didn’t really see another competitor for the remainder of the race. As much performance as I could extract, the car just didn’t have the pace to pressure the Panoz or the race-winning GT4 Cayman which both had ideal lap times – about three-quarters of a second quicker than the McLaren.

My teammate Tony Gaples had a similar struggle to keep pace with the other makes, which have improved or introduced all new cars.

We’re also carrying 36 kg more in the No. 10 than McLaren had at Long Beach last year. Needless to say we were all absolutely thrilled to punch above our current pace and get on the overall podium.

So we have some work to do in the days before our next race at VIR. It’s back to a two-race weekend on one of the best tracks on our schedule. Blackdog Speed Shop is one of the best teams in racing, and I know they’ll do all they can to have Tony and I ready to go.

Michael Cooper (@MSCooper1) is a three-time SRO Motorsports America champion and McLaren Automotive factory driver, driving for Blackdog Speed Shop in Pirelli GT4 America Sprint competition.

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