The 2016 Pirelli World Challenge season will mark five years since Patrick Long last raced in the series full-time, and it will also mark five years since someone other than Johnny O’Connell won the GT driver’s championship.
That someone was Long, in what was then a Porsche 911 GT3 with TruSpeed Autosport in 2011.
Long will return to the championship in 2016, still in a Porsche, but now in the 991-spec Porsche 911 GT3 R as the series evolution to FIA GT3-spec machinery has been completed, and with a much higher depth of field than in that previous time period.
Taking down O’Connell, Cadillac and the rest of the manufacturers in the series will be no small feat.
“Back then it was an eye opener. There was a ton of potential, but there weren’t GT3 cars yet,” Long told Sportscar365.
“I’m under no illusion that this championship hasn’t changed a tremendous amount since then.
“Johnny has been on top the last four years. The last time he wasn’t, it was me. So I have to come back and arm-wrestle him. I have tons of respect for him, Steve Cole and that whole organization. But I revel in this chance.”
Long’s reunion with the series also reunites him with engineer Stefan Pfeiffer at EFFORT Racing, which will mark the third time the two of them have been together in a stretch spanning more than a dozen years.
Starting in 2004 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Pfeiffer and Long worked together, with what was then the Petersen/White Lightning team. Long, Joerg Bergmeister and Sascha Maassen claimed class victory that year.
He also won two ALMS championships with Petersen and two more with Flying Lizard working with Pfeiffer.
“We have a long relationship with a lot of trust, and a lot of open communication,” Long explained. “He’s an engineer, but he’s a real leader, who understands American and German cultures.”
There’s another element of familiarity too as Long, a Thousand Oaks, Calif. native, will partner with fellow Californian Michael Lewis of Laguna Beach in the team.
Long grew up watching Lewis’ father Steve Lewis, a legendary sprint car/midget team owner, and said he “grew up idolizing his team.”
Michael Lewis, 25, overachieved in his first season in World Challenge as he finished eighth in points with nine top-six finishes. He won four races in GTA to open the season but due to two overall top-fives, was bumped up to GT after Long Beach.
“He’d only done his first test with Porsche North America at Barber, when we did our second Young Driver Assessment (in 2013),” Long said.
“He transitioned to GT3 Cup Challenge, then the World Challenge team last year. I thought he did a phenomenal job against tons of veteran pros, and stiff competition.”
Long, who’s been accustomed to running primarily endurance events the last several years, doesn’t think there will be much of a mindset change in adapting back to sprint racing.
“These days all racing is a sprint race,” Long said. “Tire development and the car’s strength and reliability demand that you drive that hard.
“I’ll still have as many endurance races as sprint races, so a 20-plus race season.”
The aforementioned endurance element is an intriguing one, because there’s two weekends where World Challenge and the FIA World Endurance Championship clash, as Long will have a WEC program component with Abu Dhabi Proton Racing.
The first comes the weekend of April 15-17, when the WEC season opens at Silverstone and World Challenge races at Long Beach. A second is from Sept. 16-18, albeit in the same country with the WEC at Circuit of The Americas in Austin and World Challenge at Sonoma.
Ironically, and unfortunately, it was two weekend conflicts between the WEC and World Challenge that cost EFFORT’s previous full pro driver Ryan Dalziel a shot at clinching the 2015 championship.
Sonoma substitute Renger van der Zande scored 266 points with second and first place results, and with Dalziel only losing the championship by 100 points despite missing three races, scoring that same amount or close would have put him on top.
“The goal is to bring home the championship in PWC,” Long said. “Frank Walliser (Head of Porsche Motorsport) has said we’ll all be busy in 2016, but we’ll have the chance to bring home a championship.”