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O’CONNELL: St. Pete Debrief

Team Cadillac’s Johnny O’Connell files his first Sportscar365 column…

Photo: Richard Prince/GM

Photo: Richard Prince/GM

All of the off-season rumors came to fruition at the St. Petersburg Pirelli World Challenge Series opener. You often hear a lot of talk of who is coming into the series over the winter. I don’t put too much stock in it until I actually see the cars leaving pit road for the first practice. Well put some stock in it now!

The grid at St. Pete looked like the floor of the North American International Auto Show. Great looking cars including two McLaren 12C GT3s, four Porsche GT3s, six Audi R8 Ultras, four Ferrari GT3s, a BMW Z4 and two Lamborghini Gallardo FL2s.

The three World Challenge spec entries include our two Cadillac CTS.V.Rs, and the Nissan GTR. A great looking field of cars. On top of the great hardware is a group of new of drivers like Tomas Enge, Tim Bergmeister, Anthony Lazzaro and Dane Cameron.

New for the 2014 Pirelli World Championship is that there are two GT classes. One for professional drivers, GT, and the other, GT-A, for “gentleman” drivers. Another significant change is the insurgence of FIA GT3 specification cars into the series. FIA GT3 is an international race car specification that allows manufacturers to build their cars so they can run in multiple series around the world. At St. Pete, 21 of the 24 GT entries are FIA GT3 spec.

Our Cadillac CTS.V.Rs are in the fourth year of running to the World Challenge spec. The GT3 cars are significantly different to our Cadillacs. They will generate a lot more downforce with their rear diffusors and front dive-planes. The series will have their hands full keeping the balance of performance close with the different makes and models on the grid.

We missed P.D. Cunningham on the grid with his new Acura TL-X, but he will be there come Detroit in May. Give credit to series director Scott Bove and his team for opening the rule book and allowing the FIA GT3 cars into the series.

In qualifying my teammate Andy Pilgrim, and I, ran exactly where we thought somewhere between fifth and eighth. Andy was fourth and I was fifth. I had a slight bobble with my fuel pick-up on my fastest two laps and left a little on the track, but it was in no way a pole run. The pole sitter Enge had a second on us in his Lambo.

We had the first of what was going to be a double race weekend in St. Pete cancelled due to weather. On Sunday we lined up the 49-car field for the season’s first standing start. I couldn’t see the lights from where I was lined up due to the positioning of the lights and the large BMW wing. As it turns out, neither could the pole sitter Enge.

When the lights went out some learching and braking went on and I ended up going into Turn 1 after losing about seven positions. I was in a good position on the track going through Turn One, but then got clobbered on my right rear by one of the Lamborghinis.

I knew the car was damaged as my steering was off about 45 degrees and I had to pit my Cadillac CTS.V.R for repairs, losing five laps and eventually being classified in tenth.

It’s a shame as I was confident I could have been battling at the front, but that said I’m proud of the work the guys did to get me back out. Every point will matter this season and they saved me a bunch.

All was not lost for Cadillac as Andy was having a great race. He led most of the 50-minutes before Enge caught back up in his Lambo running a half-second faster to take the win. Andy is a great teammate, and if I can’t be up front I’m glad to that see he was.

As we head to Long Beach there is one thing I know. This will, for the fans, be the best season in the history of World Challenge racing. I’m in a bit of a hole points wise, but anyone that knows me will tell you I love a challenge, and am looking forward to getting the win that I was denied at Long Beach last year.

Johnny O'Connell (@JohnnyOConnell1) is a three-time American Le Mans Series champion and four-time class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, driving for Team Cadillac in the Pirelli World Challenge.


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