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TAYLOR: Giving It Everything We Had

Ricky Taylor files his final Sportscar365 column of the year after dramatic Motul Petit Le Mans title fight…

Photo: Mike Levitt/IMSA

The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship has become one of the most competitive championships in the world. The quality of the competitors is extremely high and to win one of these championships feels like a lifelong accomplishment.

This year was no exception to that example. The competition in the DPi category featured six teams and 12 of the best drivers in the world.

No team in the class has a weak link and it takes an extreme attention to detail to find any advantage on or off the racetrack.

Petit Le Mans this year saw us coming in to the race in a dead heat with the 31 Action Express Cadillac, whoever finished ahead of the other would be crowned the champion.

All weekend the 31 had shown to be the dominant car, fast in all practice sessions and qualifying on the pole for the ten-hour race.

We were on the other end of the spectrum, in one of the most dire/ fraught weekends we had faced in recent memory.

The team and drivers were having a very difficult time getting the car into the performance window. We were towards the bottom of the sheets all weekend and ultimately qualified in the 7th and final position for the race. It was a major struggle.

Going into the race, Filipe, Alex and I were planning to do our best, but at the end of the day, without any misfortune for the 31, we were expecting to them to cruise to the championship.

Photo: Mike Levitt/IMSA

The team never gave up, we all worked together all weekend with long meetings to try and come up with solutions. The guys had to put in some major time with very intensive setup changes to the car. Everyone was all in to give us a shot at this championship, and everyone had trust in each other that we could find our way out.

The race started and Filipe had a very strong first triple stint where we were all impressed at the pace and that he was able to make ground in the field.

The 31 was saving fuel at the time so we were still a bit reserved about our chances, but things were looking more positively than the rest of the weekend.

Fast forward to the around the four-hour mark on a restart. The team says “There’s been a massive crash on the restart, lots of debris on the back straight. Jordan was involved, but he is OK and out of the car.”

We sometimes lose track that what we do can be dangerous, but especially when it comes to our own danger, we don’t really seem to care so much. But when it comes to a family member on track, a message like that hits a lot harder.

When I came around to a field of debris and smoke I instantly picked out Jordan’s yellow Corvette in the middle of it all and scanned around to see if I could see him. But I just saw his helmet laying on the ground and a medical team huddled around what I assumed was Jordan.

Image: IMSA

As I pulled alongside, Jordan made an effort to make eye contact with me, I almost came to a stop to see if I could see him. He gave me a little thumbs up but he clearly looked in a lot of pain. That was hard to see but at least he was OK.

The next lap I came through he was standing and we gave each other a thumbs up and all was good, I think he was acting tough just so I wouldn’t worry. Jordan has a very high tolerance for pain (he once raced at Long Beach within a week of having his appendix removed) but it really put me at ease to see him up at least and that I could go back to focusing on driving.

With about three hours to go Filipe was on a tear. He was flying. The team had made a call to try and beat the Mazda out of pit lane by short filling the fuel in the car.

It was very tight on pit exit with the Michelin bollards on pit exit so Filipe was forced to brake to not hit one. This meant there was overlap with the Mazda which IMSA ruled should be awarded the spot. So, we were now P4 and with the penalty of short-filling the car, we had less fuel than the competitors.

Filipe was angry and didn’t waste any time, passing the Mazda on the restart, immediately! He then set off and also passed the 31 car putting us in a fantastic position for the championship, although we still had that fuel deficit to the 31 and 55.

I got in the car on the next stop, one lap after the 31 and the Mazda pitted. Went up the hill to Turn 3 and made a misjudgment on the cold tires, which were far colder than my previous stint, and went off the track, cutting through the esses.

While I was still working to get the tires up to temperature, the two leaders came past and pulled out a 15+ second gap. At that point I felt that we had a lot of work to do over the final 2.5 stints to win the championship.

Photo: Rick Dole/IMSA

The car was fantastic in those stints and all of the work by the team was paying off. But the only thing working against us was that time deficit to the leaders. The final stint came and the gap had closed to under ten seconds, I knew we could catch the leaders.

The Mazda had overtaken the 31 so there was nothing between us and it was a head-to-head battle to the end of the championship.

In the 1.5-month break after Long Beach these scenarios had gone through my head hundreds of times. The amount of work that goes in to building and developing this Acura ARX-05, all of the work that everyone at HPD does on a daily basis, the guys at WTR from getting the car in November working the craziest of hours and not questioning it because they want to win.

There are literally hundreds of people who have had a hand in putting Filipe and I in this position to win this championship, giving everything so we just have a shot. These things motivate us as drivers to do everything we can.

The gap was down to next to nothing with about ten minutes to go but the small gaps in traffic were not falling to where we could get within striking distance.

The final two laps came and the gap was under a second. As you do, you keep your eyes up the road to see what traffic could be coming and when we took the white flag I knew there were two cars that could give me a shot. It was just a matter of whether or not he’d catch them in the right spot.

Luckily, he caught the GT just in the perfect place to allow me to get closer coming out of T7. I was not very close but it was the final lap and the final corner of the championship. I was far back, maybe 3-4 car lengths, but I had to make an effort to win the championship.

Instantly out of T7 he began weaving to break the draft and I put all of my tools inside the car in place give myself the best chance at a late lunge into the last corner. There was a lane on the inside, this was not about using our brake references, I simply waited for him to brake and did everything I could to get my car next to his.

Photo: Jake Galstad/IMSA

The gap closed as we approached the corner and sent me flying through the grass on the inside and straight across the gravel on the other side and back onto the racetrack under the bridge before the final flat-out corner.

I was inside the car just trying to get back on the track, downshifting enough times to hopefully get some momentum going, but he came flying past before I could gather the car up.

That was it, the last chance and we finished second in the championship.

After the race it was such a let down that we came so close and didn’t win the championship but we all gave it absolutely everything we had to win.

At the banquet the next day, I had a driver from another class come to me and say “cool move, but I wouldn’t have done that.” And I thought about that, and similarly to why I don’t go on social media to read people’s responses.

Nobody knows other peoples’ experiences and situations. I am going to fight my hardest to win a championship for MY team. These guys sacrifice a lot throughout the year to put us in this position. Nobody can judge me for trying to give us a chance.

Was it a desperate move? Yes, that was the definition of desperate.

Would I have made it? I’ve thought about that too, I doubt it. I might’ve been closer had I not gone through the grass. But even if I had kept it on the pavement he probably still would’ve gone by.

People asked afterwards if I thought he moved in reaction? I don’t care, we are racing for the championship in the last corner of the last lap. I think it would be disappointing if he didn’t do everything, he could to keep me behind.

Congratulations to the Action Express team on a great season and to Pipo and Felipe on their season.

We can’t wait to get to Daytona to start the 2022 season! Filipe is an amazing driver and teammate; he brings so much to the team. Our team will be stronger than ever and we will be very difficult to beat next season.

Photo: Mike Levitt/IMSA

Ricky Taylor (@RickyTaylorRace) is the 2017 and 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype champion, driving for Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Autosport and Acura Motorsports.

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