The third round of the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge season took us from the opening races in sunny Florida all the way across the country to scenic northern California, and the aptly named Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca circuit.
Like most drivers, I’ve always enjoyed racing at Laguna Seca. The track boasts a great layout with lots of elevation changes and some really iconic corners, along with some truly spectacular scenery.
Positioned right on the Monterey peninsula, the area around Laguna Seca has got ocean, beaches, forests and mountains all converging to provide a bit of everything, no matter your tastes.
Like the Monterey area, the circuit also has a bit of everything to sample, from the tight and technical 90-degree corner leading onto the front straight, to the high-speed banked turn-five, the steep climbing hill after Turn 6, and the infamous plunging ‘cork-screw’ complex into the unforgiving Turn 9.
In comparison to the opening rounds of the season, Laguna Seca couldn’t be more different from the wide-open high banks of Daytona International Speedway or the punishing bumps of Sebring’s aging airport runways, and that’s fine by me!
The opening races hadn’t gone exactly to plan for us at Team Sahlen, so we were hoping that our trip to California would give us some fresh air and a fresh start to the season.
Though Sebring had been a good step forward in terms of our speed and race performance when compared with our struggles at Daytona, we knew that we needed to find a bit more speed to be able to run up front at Laguna Seca.
To that end, the team worked tirelessly to push the development of our Porsche Caymans, logging countless dyno hours and really leaving no stone un-turned in the quest to unlock more performance.
Feeling confident that we might have closed the gap to the leaders, everything was loaded into the trailer for Laguna Seca, but not before a last-minute package arrived courtesy of IMSA, delivering us a shiny new restrictor to be installed on our engine intakes for this race. So one step forward, and two steps back, then…
When we arrived, we could see right away that the restrictor had a detrimental impact on our car’s performance, but what was even clearer to see was that the circuit wasn’t named Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca without good reason!
The MX-5s appeared to be in a league of their own from the opening practice sessions, and as it turned out, they would maintain that healthy advantage over the field through qualifying and the race as well.
Of course, there will always be certain circuits that suit some cars more than others, and the foundations of a successful championship effort are built on making the most of the races where you really aren’t in a position to fight for the win, instead fighting to salvage whatever points you can get.
It seemed pretty clear from practice that without some misfortune, the MX-5s would have a pretty solid lock on the podium positions, but we tried to maximize the potential of our car to be sure that we were well positioned to be ‘best of the rest.’
Qualifying showed that we had achieved just that, as we ended up fourth on the starting grid. More importantly, we were the fastest Porsche Cayman in the field, which was a good reward for all of the team’s efforts back at the shop. That said, we were still over one-second from the pole-sitting MX-5, so we can’t sit still just yet!
As was the case in the opening two races of the year, the plan was for me to start the race in Team Sahlen’s No. 43 car, and then jump into the No. 42 car to finish the race. So far, I had actually run every lap of both races, and I was looking forward to keep that streak going.
On the race start I was really aggressive into the first corner and made a try at passing the leading pack of Mazdas around the outside of the corner.
The brakes on our Porsche Cayman are probably our strongest trait at the moment, and I was really hoping I might be able to use that to make up a spot or two, but in the end I had to back out and settled back into fourth position.
Coming out of Turn 5, we start to climb a steep hill, and one of the Honda Civics got a great run and exploited their healthy torque advantage to pull to my inside as we approached turn six.
Turn 6 typically requires just a light tap of the brakes in our cars, but the line is critical and there isn’t much margin for error, so it wouldn’t be classified as a good passing zone.
The Honda and I approached the turn-in side by side, and though I knew it was inevitable that I would have to cede the position, for some reason he continued to squeeze me towards the outside and the edge of the track before we began to brake.
We made contact just before turn-in, and though it wasn’t a very hard touch, it was totally unnecessary in my opinion, and it was just enough to dislodge my front bumper cover. This subsequently blocked the airflow to my car’s radiators, requiring an emergency pit stop to bring the engine temperature back into a manageable range.
Not a great way to start the race, but we didn’t intend to give up easily. We rejoined the race without losing a lap, and set about climbing back through the field with strong race pace.
We were almost back into the top-ten in ST before eventually succumbing to terminal suspension damage, likely a culprit of the lap-one contact.
While it was very disappointing to have our No. 43 car retire from the race, the No. 42 car was having a strong race inside the top-ten after a compromised qualifying effort, and after a slick pit-stop, driver change, and some exciting wheel-to-wheel battles (including a much cleaner fight with the same Honda which had taken me out in the no.43 on the opening lap) I brought the car to the checkered flag in eighth position.
Once again, it was not the result that we were hoping for, but once again there were some positives to take away.
Team Sahlen had the top-finishing Porsche Cayman in the race, so we can be confident that we are well placed for a strong finish whenever we get back to a track that allows the Porsche Cayman to compete fairly with all of the other models.
Let’s hope that upcoming Watkins Glen proves to be one such place!