Two longtime sports car stars will go head-to-head for the Pirelli World Challenge GT class championship this weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
Johnny O’Connell leads Olivier Beretta by 26 points, 1625 to 1599, heading into the 20th and final round of what’s been a frequently tumultuous but still mostly entertaining on-track 2015 World Challenge season.
Beretta, driver of the No. 61 R. Ferri Motorsport Ferrari 458 Italia GT3, led the points most of the season and posted three early round wins at the season opener at Circuit of the Americas back in March, Round 4 on the streets of St. Petersburg and Round 5 in Long Beach.
The two street race wins saw a flood of cautions and, as it’s turned out, one of the year’s most dramatic moments when Beretta collected O’Connell and Kevin Estre at Turn 8 in an accident when battling for the lead.
Even though Beretta was docked 40 points for the incident, after that race, he still led O’Connell by nearly 200 points, 522 to 333.
O’Connell’s season was further derailed when his primary new No. 3 Cadillac ATS-V.R chassis burned to the ground in the second race at Barber Motorsports Park, forcing the Cadillac Racing team to build up its backup car ahead of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
The three-time defending series champion promptly swept the CTMP weekend as he began to right the ship on his season. In those two races, he gained back 163 points on Beretta.
It’s been fairly back-and-forth since with neither driver really taking command of the championship battle, although O’Connell completed a pivotal weekend sweep at Miller Motorsports Park three weeks ago.
That saw O’Connell score 303 of a possible 304 points, and gain a further 189 points on Beretta in just those two races.
A pre-Sonoma Balance of Performance adjustment, however, saw the Cadillac’s boost get reduced and O’Connell struggle to fifth and eighth place finishes. With fourth and third, Beretta clawed back 32 points to enter Mazda Raceway just 26 down.
Beretta’s best shot to overtake O’Connell would come with a win or runner-up finish. If Beretta were to finish third, fourth or fifth, O’Connell could win the title with a lower level top-10 result.
A win in World Challenge nets 140 points, with second getting 110, third 95, fourth 85 and fifth 80. It decreases by four down to 10th, by three down to 15th and by two from there. There are also up to 12 bonus points available (seven for pole, three for most laps led, one apiece for leading a lap and fastest lap).
There’s another intriguing subplot here in that both were once teammates under the Corvette Racing awning, albeit never in the same car.
O’Connell drove with Corvette from 2001 to 2010, with Beretta on board from 2004 to 2011.
Their one major moment of drama came when they crashed into each other at pit out at Mid-Ohio in 2008, both penalized for running into each other and nearly taking out the marshal in the process.
If O’Connell and Beretta were to take each other out and score no points, it would open the door very slightly for either James Davison or Ryan Dalziel to steal the title with a win and bonus points. But those odds are very slim, at best.
Both GTA (Frankie Montecalvo) and GT Cup presented by MOMO (Colin Thompson) class titles are settled, and Porsche, by way of Dalziel, Michael Lewis’ and Renger van der Zande’s seasons with EFFORT Racing, has won the GT Manufacturer’s Championship.
But the battle royale for the GT driver’s crown will see O’Connell look to continue his streak as World Challenge GT champion, or Beretta unseat him in his first full season in the series.