Leaving a famed Paris restaurant after a spectacular three-hour dinner, a group of American auto dealers and their wives were about to return to their hotel when one of the ladies noted the gift shop across the street featured the restaurant’s tableware and trinkets.
The shopkeeper was turning out the lights when the wives tapped on the store window.
Twenty minutes and a few thousand dollars later, the Americans happily emerged and boarded their private bus for the slightly delayed return to their hotel.
The next morning, their French hosts recounted the spontaneous moment and noted its French essence; “Ahh, there is a plan…Ahh; there is a NEW Plan…”
Which brings us to Long Beach, the third stop on the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where everyone has a New Plan.
Hours to Minutes
Everything at the first two stops of the WeatherTech Championship is denoted in terms of days or hours; the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.
In early January, the three day “Roar Before the Rolex 24” offered teams 11.5 hours of track time. Race week provided another four hours of practice followed by 24 hours of racing.
Sebring hosted a two-day test in February with a massive 15 hours of track time, followed by 4.5 hours of race week practice sessions, in addition to qualifying and race day warm up for the 12 hour race.
To help teams prepare for the WeatherTech Championship, Daytona and Sebring offered a combined 71 hours (4,260 minutes) of track time.
The New Plans
Things are a bit different at the third stop, Long Beach, with 145 minutes of practice, no warmup and a race length of just 100 minutes. Each minute of track time is precious.
“Long Beach is like playing Russian roulette,” said Dan Binks, crew chief of the 2017 Sebring GTLM winning No. 3 Corvette Racing entry driven by Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia. “You can’t afford any problems or mistakes because you can’t make up the lost track time.”
Prior to an event, each GTLM team prepares a highly detailed pre-race plan which can run 10 to 30 pages in length.
The plans detail when team members and drivers will arrive, when the car will be unloaded, go on and come off the set-up pad, and roll to the IMSA inspection station.
A detailed schedule of meetings for the drivers and team engineers is included along with the aerodynamic, chassis and tire set-up for each car’s first run, and which driver will be aboard and a progression of set-up options.
“The first practice at Long Beach is very early, 7:40 a.m. on Friday morning. The track is cold and dirty so it’s difficult to use that as your reference for car set up,” said Dave “Beaky” Sims, the legendary team manager for Risi Competizione.
The Streets Change
While the physical layout remains the same, the racing surface on the streets comprising the downtown Long Beach circuit will change significantly throughout the race weekend.
When the WeatherTech Championship cars return to the circuit for their second practice, a brief 25-minute session, at 4:45 p.m. Friday afternoon followed by qualifying, the track surface will have warmed.
Cars from other series will have laid down a few thousand laps worth of varying tire compounds.
The GTLM teams will typically choose their Michelin “cool temperature” range tires to maximize grip and starting positions. The “medium” temperature range tire is also an option, especially if track temperatures are high, or teams look to run a deep opening stint.
With a race start time of 1:05 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, the race will likely take place at peak track temperatures.
LIFO and FIFO Options
“Race strategy at Long Beach is certainly a little bit different,” says Sims, with a traditional British understatement.
Two approaches used by accountants to track inventory can also apply to pit stop strategies; they are called “FIFO” and “LIFO”. FIFO stands for First-in-First Out. LIFO is the opposite, Last-in-First-Out.
FIFO can be the preferred option for cars stuck in traffic or looking to make a set-up change.
Teams will pit as soon as the window to make the finish on that stop opens 35-40 minutes into the race, or even earlier if they gamble on later caution periods.
The advantages of FIFO are a clear pit lane in and out, and hopefully, a clear chunk of race track to put down quick laps while other cars are in traffic.
By being the first to pit, teams hope to gain track positions when other cars pit or if a yellow flag follows their stop.
The alternative strategy is LIFO, last in-first out. This approach sees other cars pit first, and then undercuts them by taking advantage of a clear track or making a quicker pit stop.
Ford Chip Ganassi Racing played this strategy to perfection by double stinting tires for its GTLM win at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in 2016.
The risk to a LIFO strategy is especially high on a street circuit like Long Beach, where a caution period after the other cars have pitted will put a later pitting car at the end of the pack with little time to recover lost positions.
The Pit Stop
The Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT driven by Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller made 23 pits stop to win at Daytona, while the Sebring winning Corvette made 14 stops.
At Long Beach most GTLM teams plan to make just one pit stop.
“Long Beach is a tough race, probably a one-stopper. Everything has to line up at the right time to get to the end first,” said CGR’s managing director Mike Hull.
“You only get one chance to get the car right on the pit stop. In other races if you have a problem you have the chance to get back on the next stop, but not at Long Beach.”
“Pit stops and driver changes are always important, but here the pit stop is mega-important,” said Sims.
“When you pit is critical. It is very hard to pass,” said Binks. “A couple of years ago, BMW won when they spun early and had to pit and change tires.
“They were able to make up time on a clear track while everyone else was fighting in traffic, but with the additional cars this year it will be much harder to make up spots.”
“There are a lot more cars this year,” agrees Hull, noting that the addition of the GTD class has expanded the WeatherTech field at Long Beach from 25 cars in 2016 to 35 entries for this year.
“Everything changes if there is a full caution,” said Sims.
“This year there are a lot more cars. I asked IMSA about a split start. If not, the first corner could get messy, having early incidents in the corner, but they indicated that a split start was unlikely.
“If you get a full yellow early, I think the inclination will be to pit and change the driver immediately.”
“Sometimes the yellows play out so that you can win with a late splash for fuel, but you can’t go into the race thinking that a splash will win it,” said Binks.
The question is will someone have the winning plan, or will a tap on the shopkeeper’s window at just the right moment bring the (yellow) lights on?