Fans watching the Pirelli World Challenge season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca from the track or at home on their couches could hardly believe what they saw when the final lap restart turned the race, and the season-long championship, on its head.
Neither could the driver who most benefited from the absurd last lap of 2016.
Speaking on Sportscar365’s Double Stint Podcast, newly-minted series champion Alvaro Parente recalled the madness of the final minutes of his championship-winning campaign.
“That last lap, I thought it was over, then suddenly it was a little bit of a confusing time when the race got started again,” Parente told Sportscar365.
“That last lap, when Pat [Long] went for the pass in Turn 5, he didn’t clear [Cadillac Racing driver Johnny O’Connell] before he did the corner so Johnny still had a half a car there.
“Johnny had a great race weekend. In my opinion he was the fastest one out there and he wanted to win the race.
“He didn’t want to let Pat by so he fought for his position, he touched, Pat risked the move, and it didn’t go so well. Pat went wide and I took the opportunity and passed him.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw them, and then I crossed the finish line and found out I had won the championship. I don’t know how to explain it. It was a crazy moment.
“I thought the race was over before that and to have this happen on the last lap, what drama!”
The championship put an exclamation point on a masterful first year for Parente in North American sports car racing.
A veteran of European single-seater and GT competition, the Portuguese ace was something of an unknown commodity in the U.S. prior to coming to join K-PAX Racing in World Challenge.
That changed when a string of four podium finishes in five races, including two wins, between St. Pete, Long Beach, and Barber (Rounds 3-7) put him right in the thick of the championship fight.
To hear Parente tell it, that was his expectation from the beginning.
“When the season kicked off, I said to my guys from race one that I’m here to fight for the championship,” said the McLaren GT factory driver.
“When we found ourselves in a good position and started to win races and really getting a look at the championship, it was very good until the Utah weekend where unfortunately Michael Cooper took me out of the first race where I was in position two.
“But from then onwards, it was a lot more close. We lost a lot of points that weekend which would have made my position a lot more comfortable for the last rounds of the season.
“But it wasn’t the case so it was a last-lap thing, so what can I say?”
The contretemps between Parente and Cooper in Utah helped Long close the point gap going into the final two race weekends, and set the table for the showdown between the pair in the final round in Monterey that boiled down to which driver would finish ahead of the other on Sunday.
For most of the 50-minute race, it appeared the answer to that question would be Long.
“I was trying to put some pressure on Pat the whole race but he had good pace,” Parente said. “There was really one or two chances where I could have risked a bit more, but there would have been some contact and I like to race clean.
“There wasn’t a very clear opportunity and Pat defended well all race long.”
When the opportunity arose on the final restart, Parente did not let it slip by, capping off one of the most memorable races, and seasons, of his career.
“I talked to [Pat] a little bit [after the race], but I didn’t know what to say!” Parente said. “Pat is a racer, a hard racer. What a great fight we had all season. He went for the win there.
“Maybe he also didn’t know where my car was, I could have been closer and Johnny took the inside line. But at the same time, what a great competitor. Pat Long, Johnny O’Connell, my teammates, all the guys.
“Just a very, very hard-fought year and I’m very proud to win this championship.”