After a rollercoaster of a year that’s seen him make an mid-season team switch, Patrick Long is hoping to end the Pirelli World Challenge season with a fairytale championship in this weekend’s title decider at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
The Porsche factory driver heads into Sunday’s 50-minute season finale nearly in a dead heat with championship leader Alvaro Parente of K-PAX Racing, with only nine points separating the two drivers.
With a maximum of 117 points still up for grabs, including a crucial seven points for pole, Long admits there will be no holding back, despite having taken a calculated approach to the season up until now.
“Track position and the points are just how I race,” Long told Sportscar365. “But at this point, I’ve got to go for it.
“There were times this year that I maybe had my points championship in the front of my application of the race and there were times that I maybe raced a little too hard for a position or a win.
“But this weekend, we have to go for a championship.”
Long’s 2016 season has been anything but straightforward.
A start-line accident in the second race of the season-opening weekend at Circuit of The Americas in March put EFFORT Racing in a race to repair its Porsche 911 GT3 R for the next round at St. Pete the following weekend.
While having made the race and having salvaged crucial points, Long was left without a ride altogether less than two months later, when EFFORT suddenly withdrew from the series.
He found refuge with his former engineer John Wright and Wright Motorsports, which stepped up to field Long’s Porsche for the remainder of the season, and went on to claim a sweep in their debut weekend together at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
“I didn’t imagine any of it,” Long said. “After we won the first race from pole at COTA [with EFFORT], I thought we’ll be a player in this.
“Then racing has a very unique way of humbling you quickly. Little did I know that was only the start of it.”
With a consistent run through the summer months, that saw him swap the championship lead with McLaren GT factory driver Parente, Long now stands with a chance of becoming a two-time series champion, following his 2011 title.
But considering the ups and downs this season, the 35-year-old Californian feels fortunate to just be in the position of fighting for the championship.
“We’re happy to be in the running after a championship season that’s had all kinds of storylines. And that’s not sugarcoating it,” Long said.
“No matter what, the fact we’re here and in the showdown is cool.
“Normally I’m the guy that says second place sucks. In this situation, I’m proud that we’re in this hunt.”
Long credits Wright for not only stepping up in a time of adversity, but having made the most of its limited resources, compared to likes of their full factory or works-supported competition.
“I think what I’m most proud of is the raw, pure example of a customer team,” he said.
“We have a modest budget. We had to go out, in two different teams, to work with some partners and find some sponsorship. Our testing has been limited and our resources are modest.
“Forget all the other reasons we had a season full of adversity.
“But we’re here against some of the powerhouses on the right and left of us in multiple pro car entries. We’ve got that underdog grit and I like that.”
While going up against the likes of Cadillac and the McLaren-supported K-PAX operation, Long feels it has shown the strength of Porsche’s new-for-2016 GT3 contender.
“Porsche wants to produce a car and an infrastructure that would give anybody a chance to come into this championship and race against factory drivers and factory teams,” he said.
“I don’t take pity of it; this was our plan: to showcase this new 911 GT3 R with a customer team.
“Whether I have a three-car team or a big wham-bam budget, I think it says something about the way GT3 is going and Porsche’s technical infrastructure to support it.”
With only a one-point gap between McLaren and Porsche in the manufacturers’ championship, as Porsche seeks back-to-back GT class titles, Long is anticipating a hard fight this weekend, and not just in the race.
“Qualifying has brought all kinds of surprises through this championship season,” he said.
“Alvaro is a guy that’s won a lot of championships in a lot of really serious series. He has the speed and racecraft and the team, as I know well, behind him.
“They’re doing a great job. We just have to hit our marks and see where it all comes out.
“As cliche as it may sound, I walked into this place on Wednesday night with a smile on my face, shook everyone’s hand that I saw because I’m just excited we’ve got a shot.”