In what could be considered a David vs. Goliath kind of story, PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports and CORE autosport head into this weekend’s American Le Mans Series title-deciding Petit Le Mans in a dead heat for the Prototype Challenge championship.
With 128 points apiece, deciding the final ALMS Prototype Challenge team champion will come down to a battle on the track Saturday, after a season of ups and downs for both organizations.
The Bobby Oergel-led PR1 squad kicked off the season with a breakthrough class victory at Sebring, featuring the all Silver-ranked driver lineup of Mike Guasch, David Cheng and David Ostella, while two-time and defending class champions CORE bounced back from a troublesome opening round to win at Long Beach with drivers Jon Bennett and Colin Braun.
Guasch and Luis Diaz, drafted in for the second and third rounds, scored victory at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. However, as the season unfolded, the two teams took significantly different approaches, with PR1 often relying on two funded drivers for its Oreca FLM09, which was still able to fight with the top dogs.
A win at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for CORE’s Bennett and Braun helped propel them into the lead, although the team’s title quest came crashing down at Circuit of The Americas, when they were stripped of third place points after the car flunked post-race tech.
It handed a comfy lead to PR1 and season-long driver Guasch, who could have clinched the drivers’ title one race early at VIR but was involved in an early race accident and finished fifth in class with co-driver Dane Cameron.
Now, entering the ALMS finale, the pressure is on for both teams.
“We showed to some extent that we’ve got more to lose than gain, in some respects,” Oergel told Sportscar365. “For us, it’s just taking what we can get. It’s all we can do. Shooting for guts or glory in this thing is not going to work.”
While PR1 and CORE are tied in the teams’ title race, Guasch holds a 11-point lead in the drivers’ championship over BAR1 Motorsports’ Chris Cumming, with CORE’s Bennett one further point behind.
A fourth place finish or higher would seal the title for Guasch, but not necessarily the teams’ title for PR1, if CORE’s entry of Bennett, Tom Kimber-Smith and Mark Wilkins finishes ahead of the Guasch, Cameron and Cheng-driven PR1 machine.
“Really, it’s all about finishing the best we can. I feel confident we’re there,” Guasch said. “We just need to be smart and look at the overall championship. I was probably a little more focused on trying to clinch it at VIR than I should have been. Now it’s just about getting to 70 percent of the race [to score points] and then go forward the best we can.”
With CORE going through its own late-season driver shakeup, with Kimber-Smith replacing Braun, who moved to the team’s Porsche GT entry, there’s no doubt been a lot of dynamics in this year’s championship chase. What’s more, two costly drive time mistakes stripped the CORE owner/driver of points at Sebring and a sure-fire win at Baltimore, which would have put Bennett well ahead in the title race.
“The championship is important, but what’s most important is getting each event done to the best of our abilities,” Bennett said. “The points are a reward for doing a good job, so for me, it’s unnecessary to get updates on the points lap-by-lap. If we do the best job we can at Petit, the points will take care of themselves.”
For the small, but tight-knit PR1 squad, they never anticipated being in championship contention this season.
“We started the year with the plan of it being a prep year for ’14,” Oergel admitted. “That was something we knew throughout the season. This is our first season with one driver that’s done the whole year.
“It’s kinda neat. We didn’t start out looking at points championship for a driver or for the team. In the event of where we’re at, we’re very proud of it and the fact of being able to go to all of the races and not running a pro [driver] for a lot of the races.”
As for what’s more important, a drivers’ championship or the teams’ title, Oergel made no hesitation of their focus for Saturday.
“Realistically, the drivers’ championship to me is more important,” he said. “As a team, we revolve around the drivers. It’s very simple for us: Focus on the drivers [title]. In all reality, it’s only down to taking the best of what we could get.”
As to how it will all unfold, it’s anyone’s guess, especially when factoring in the unpredictable nature of the class seen this season.