While Pirelli World Challenge is roughly halfway through its offseason, it’s apparent the GTS class is about to undergo a transition in its machinery for the 2016 season.
New cars such as the KTM X-BOW GT4, SIN R1 GT4 and Maserati GranTurismo MC are entering, while the 2015 field that featured Camaros, Mustangs, Kia Optimas, Porsche Caymans, and Aston Martin Vantages have not been confirmed to return to the same degree.
That makes the 2015 GTS season – which was perhaps overlooked and underappreciated in the face of some of the more macro issues that faced the series both as a whole and in the GT ranks – begin to stand out more in retrospect.
With that as a backdrop, it’s all the more remarkable that past World Challenge Touring Car champion Michael Cooper delivered a come-from-behind effort to secure the GTS driver’s title this past year, up against a host of GTS veterans including past title contenders Jack Baldwin and Mark Wilkins.
For one, Cooper was a GTS rookie. He’d won the 2012 Touring Car class title but had a difficult 2013, and a year mostly outside of the cockpit in 2014, only running in GTS in a one-off appearance with Blackdog Speed Shop at Miller Motorsports Park.
A promising weekend to end 2014 led Cooper to replace outgoing two-time defending champion Lawson Aschenbach at Blackdog. Upon doing so, he was thrust into an even deeper GTS class than the one Aschenbach won in 2013 and 2014.
He had to fend off not just Baldwin and Wilkins, but Wilkins’ teammate Ben Clucas, Phoenix Performance’s pair of aces in Andrew Aquilante and Kurt Rezzetano, and TRG-AMR’s Kris Wilson, who starred in sporadic appearances.
“The higher horsepower, rear wheel drive cars were a lot more fun to drive than a Touring Car,” Cooper told Sportscar365.
“The competition was awesome. I came to race against Wilkins, Aquilante, Clucas, Baldwin and so on. Knowing you could race those guys hard and clean, every weekend was a fight. If you left a couple tenths in qualifying, it could put you back four-five spots.”
An opening weekend win at Circuit of The Americas in the rain was a major confidence boost for Cooper, but it wasn’t a sign of things to come necessarily during the season.
“That was a huge for me and for them as well, with a new car and driver, and me going into a new class,” Cooper said.
“There were a lot of unknowns. I didn’t know how competitive I could be. But dominating that race opened my eyes that I could win the championship, if we had the speed.”
GTS seemed a category that either everyone – or no one – wanted to win depending on the weekend.
By Road America and the summer break, after 10 of 17 races, Cooper hadn’t added a second win while Wilson, Baldwin, Aquilante, Rezzetano, Spencer Pumpelly and Lou Gigliotti had won. There were already eight winners in 10 races, from four manufacturers.
It was only at Mid-Ohio, as it had for Aschenbach a year earlier, when the tides turned. A win at the first race at Mid-Ohio was Cooper’s first in the dry, and launched him into a streak of six straight top-six finishes through Sonoma, including two more wins, which gave him a huge points edge going into Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
“I don’t know at what point we felt we could come back and fight,” Cooper said. “We were consistent in the early part of the year, and we were still close in points even though we couldn’t win races.
“Once we won races, we knew we’d be in it for sure. It was a question of if we’d have a chance to win in the dry.”
Cooper solidified the title with a trouble-free run to 10th in Monterey, avoiding a stalled Kia off the standing start. It was enough to secure his first title and the third straight for Blackdog, led by teammate Tony Gaples and team manager Ray Sorenson.
“This championship feels different than in Touring Car. This came after two years of being in and out of racing,” Cooper said. “It’s definitely sweet.
“After I won the title in 2012, I thought I had a ride but things switched. And I changed my focus too. I was getting some calls but nothing on a regular basis.
“I was getting in and out of a car about every six months for a year and a half was tough going. Just getting in a car cold is hard, and especially something that’s faster than you have driven is a challenge. Clearly I did well enough to get this ride this year.”