When the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season kicked off in January, the Ford GTs from Chip Ganassi Racing were the early favorites for the GT Le Mans class titles with the new Porsche 911 RSRs expected to figure prominently as the season progressed.
Despite five team wins and a sweep of the 2016 WeatherTech GTLM manufacturer, team and driver titles, Corvette Racing’s C7.Rs, now in their fourth season of competition, were seen as perhaps a bit long in the tooth.
And, bless their hearts, the BMW M6 GTLMs, which were winless last year, were starting to look a bit like the proverbial box that the Ford GTs and Ferrari 488 came in.
Those views seemed right when Ford’s Dirk Mueller, co-driving with Joey Hand and Sebastien Bourdais, held off a brilliant charge by the No. 911 Porsche of Patrick Pilet to take the season-opening victory at Daytona.
Corvette Still Strong
Then things got a bit curious.
Corvette is always strong in the early season, especially at the long races. Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen, with Mike Rockefeller, scored the win at Sebring aboard the No. 3 Corvette when, all three Ford GTs stayed out when a caution flag set up the end game.
Costly Traffic Jam
Long Beach also appeared to be headed Garcia’s way until a road block on the final corner saw Corvette Racing teammate Tommy Milner scoot through to take the victory as Garcia dropped to fifth place in the final few hundred yards of the race.
Justice came quickly at Circuit of The Americas as Garcia and Magnussen gained their revenge with a victory that vaulted them well ahead in the championship.
But the No. 25 BMW of Bill Auberlen and newcomer Alexander Sims claimed the second spot ahead of teammates John Edwards and Martin Tomczyk as the BMWs started to step forward.
Off to Le Mans
With Ford CGR, Corvette Racing, Risi Competizione Ferrari, and the Porsche GT team’s WEC compatriots focused on Le Mans, BMW and the Team RLL and Michelin engineers worked here to unlock the deep mysteries of the M6 GTLM.
BMW Breaks Through
Back at Watkins Glen, Ford’s Joey Hand and Mueller claimed the pole. The BMWs qualified second and third. In the race, Auberlen and Sims scored the first win for the M6 GTLM car.
The No. 67 Ford of defending race champions Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe came home second and Magnussen and Garcia were third.
Meanwhile, the long awaited arrival of Gianmaria “Gimmi” Bruni gave the Porsche camp a noticeable boost.
In the post-race presser, Auberlen, a veteran of more title fights than Don King, responded to a question about their rise in the championship by noting, “It isn’t the guys that start the season strong, it is the guys who build momentum and carry it to the end that win the championships.”
Backing it Up
From Watkins Glen, the GTLM teams headed north from Watkins Glen to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
There, No. 912 Porsche of Bruni and Laurens Vanthoor led the first two practice sessions and teammates Pilet and Dirk Werner topped the third and grabbed the pole as the Porsches and BMWs appeared to put some daylight between themselves and the Fords and Corvettes.
In the race, it was Auberlen and Sims leading a BMW 1-2, with Ford’s Westbrook and Briscoe third. The win vaulted the BMW pair to within three points of Magnussen and Garcia with five GTLM races remaining.
Porsche Moves Goal posts
Last year, Corvette Racing‘s Garcia turned a lap of 1:15.198 to win the GTLM class pole at CTMP.
In 2017, the goal posts moved. “We were nearly four-tenths of a second quicker than last year and ended up in P7 and seven-tenths off the pole,” said Magnussen.
GTs for the Win at Lime Rock, VIR
With the GTLM championship fight in full song, two of the next three races; Lime Rock and VIR, are GT exclusives. The dynamics of the race thus change a bit, especially at Lime Rock, the bullring of sports car racing.
Dan Binks of Corvette Racing sees it through the eyes of a crew chief.
“The pit lane will be a little less crowded, maybe bigger pit boxes,” he said. “And you don’t have to deal with the PC cars. We are often about the same speed, especially with the Ams in the PC cars, so it helps with traffic.”
Auberlen notes another factor: “The strategy changes if you are the overall race leader. It is such a short lap that it is very easy to go a lap down at Lime Rock and very hard to get a lap back.”
Last year’s Lime Rock GTLM pole lap was 50.7 second by No. 67 Ford of Westbrook. In race trim, a full green flag stint could mean as many as 65-70 laps in making tire choices and consistency especially important.
“If a car is a little bit off in even one corner it will be vulnerable over that long a stint as sooner or later you will catch traffic at that one area,” said Ken Payne, technical director, motorsport, Michelin North America.
New Champion Likely
As the season heads into the championship stretch, the defending GTLM Champions, Milner and Oliver Gavin, currently stand tied for sixth, a distant 31 points behind their title-leading teammates.
“Tommy and I seem to have a year where everything goes our way (2012 and 2016 GTLM championships) and then a year where nothing goes our way,” said Gavin after they fell out early at Sebring.
When Gavin and Milner struggled to defend their titles in 2013, teammates Magnussen and Garcia rose up to take the glory. Will history repeat?
Everyone is Fast
With fast, flowing circuits like Road America, VIR, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Road Atlanta comprising the post-Lime Rock schedule, it will take some serious pace to prevail.
The new Porsches are unmistakably quick and will certainly feature in the final five races. Can Pilet and Werner stage a second half rally like the Frenchman and Nick Tandy pulled off in 2015, to make up the current 23-point gap?
BMW has certainly shown new pace, especially on the big, flowing circuits. The latest BoP should trim the BMWs a bit and offer the Corvettes bit of help.
After a relatively quiet first half, the Ford CGR’s Hand and Mueller currently stand third, just ten points adrift of the leaders and only seven point down to the rising BMW.
Westbrook and Briscoe, who scored three wins in 2016, are just a further three points back.
If Auberlen is right that the late bloomers ultimately prevail, that could still mean BMW, Porsche or Ford.
Can Garcia and Magnussen hang on? Will BMW continue its surge? Will Ford use CGR’s vast experience in IMSA and IndyCar title fights to squeeze out the title?
The Wild Card
The wild card in predicting how wins and points may fall is in the anticipated return of the Risi Competizione Ferrari of Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander.
The team has wins at each of the final four venues and is the defending class winner at Petit Le Mans, where it has won three times.
A Little Help from Friends
As the GTLM championship run reaches the “pushy shovey” stage, the factory teams can usually count on their trailing teammates’ support in adjusting pit and race strategies to support their title contending teammates.
Nothing blatant, just subtle adjustments on pit schedules, traffic courtesy, and taking points away from rivals without, you know, like crashing them.
“At this point it is still anyone’s championship,” said Payne. “The pressure is not only on the drivers, but the crews and the people making the calls on the pit boxes.
“At Road America, VIR, and Monterey you usually get pretty much what you earn and Road Atlanta adds the endurance factor. But, first you have to survive Lime Rock.”