What to Watch For: Northeast Grand Prix
Thursday, July 18, 2019

A cozy, 1.474-mile permanent road course in picturesque northwestern Connecticut awaits the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Le Mans (GTLM) and GT Daytona (GTD) machines as Lime Rock Park hosts this Saturday’s two-hour and 40-minute Northeast Grand Prix.

It’s the first of two GT-only races on the annual WeatherTech Championship schedule – the other being the Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway on Aug. 25 – at the venue which first hosted racing back in 1957 and has ever since.

Television coverage of the Northeast Grand Prix will air at 9:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN, with live streaming available on the NBC Sports App and NBCSports.com beginning at 3 p.m. ET.

IMSA Radio also will have live coverage throughout the weekend on IMSA.com and RadioLeMans.com, with the race call also airing on SiriusXM Radio. Tickets for the race are still available via LimeRock.com.

Here’s what to watch for this weekend:

Heat is On in Championship Races

We’re past the halfway point in the 2019 WeatherTech Championship season, which means it’s time for the contenders for season-long championships to make their moves as the summer stretch of races continues.

In the GTLM class, it’s currently a battle among teammates, with No. 912 Porsche GT Team 911 RSR co-drivers Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor – on the strength of three wins in their last four races – leading No. 911 RSR co-drivers Nick Tandy and Patrick Pilet by just four points, 186-182. Tandy and Pilet are winners in two of the last five races.

“After our recent five successive wins, we’re feeling optimistic but also totally focused,” Vanthoor said. “Our great run can only continue if we make the absolute best out of the possibilities once again in the upcoming race. We want to stay at the lead.”

However, it would be a mistake to count out No. 3 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R co-drivers Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen. The two time and defending GTLM champions are currently third, nine points behind the leaders, and their remarkable consistency over the past two-and-a-half seasons would indicate they’re very much still part of the championship picture.

In the GTD class, No. 86 Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 co-drivers Trent Hindman and Mario Farnbacher have a somewhat more comfortable lead in the WeatherTech Championship standings, currently sitting 19 points ahead of No. 12 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 co-drivers Frankie Montecalvo and Townsend Bell heading into this weekend.

But the No. 86 squad is as aware as anybody that it’s not over yet. One “off” weekend and it’s a whole new ballgame.

“We can’t be [conservative],” said Hindman. “Because while we sit back, other teams are going to be getting even more aggressive. We need to stay on the front end of the curve. The answer for us is to keep doing what we’re doing, keep being aggressive, keep taking chances. Keep it calculated but be aggressive.”

In the race for the inaugural, seven-race IMSA WeatherTech Sprint Cup – featuring the seven GTD races that are two hours and 40 minutes or shorter – it’s considerably closer. How close? Try one point between first and second, and 12 between first and fifth.

Jack Hawksworth and Richard Heistand, who co-drive the No. 14 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus, lead the way with 89 points. Patrick Long is second with 88 points in the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R, followed by Montecalvo and Bell, who are third in Sprint Cup with 89 points. Farnbacher and Hindman are fourth with 84 points, with No. 9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche driver Zacharie Robichon fifth with 77 points.

High-Speed Musical Chairs

The Northeast Grand Prix field has some different drivers in different places this weekend. In the GTLM class, the big difference is Marcel Fassler standing-in for Tommy Milner in the No. 4 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R alongside Oliver Gavin. Fassler is in for Milner – who injured his left hand in an early crash in the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen – for the second consecutive race.

“Lime Rock is another track where I haven’t raced before,” Fassler said. “It’s a different type track than any other at which I’ve competed. Things will happen very quickly on such a short lap, so this will be another new challenge.”

The GTD class is where the majority of differences will be seen. Robichon will be joined in the No. 9 Pfaff Porsche at Lime Rock by Dennis Olsen, a Porsche Young Professional. Another driver with that distinction, Matt Campbell, is in the No. 91 Porsche with Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama graduate Anthony Imperato with Wright Motorsports, which is returning to WeatherTech Championship competition for the first time in 2019 this weekend.

Incidentally, Campbell and Olsen will swap rides for the next WeatherTech Championship race, the IMSA Road Race Showcase at Road America on Aug. 4.

Other changes include Marco Seefried teaming up with Long in the No. 73 Porsche in place of regular driver Patrick Lindsey, and Christina Nielsen reuniting with Katherine Legge in the No. 57 Heinricher Racing with Meyer Shank Acura NSX GT3 after sitting out the Mobil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix presented by Acura at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park on July 7. Bia Figueiredo took Nielsen’s place at CTMP.

Full-Course Cautions Can Be Rare at Lime Rock

Over the past two years of GT-only WeatherTech Championship racing at Lime Rock, there only have been seven laps of full-course caution. All seven of those laps were in the early going of last year’s Northeast Grand Prix.

Two years ago, all 181 laps were run without a FCY. So, in total, there have been 352 of a possible 359 laps run at Lime Rock under green-flag conditions.

With that in mind, pit strategy will be important. It will be interesting to see how each team attacks it, and don’t be surprised if two-car teams (which is everybody in GTLM) adopt different strategies for each car to maximize their opportunities to win.

“We know the races are won by making smart decisions and executing the race as best as possible - not necessarily having the quickest car,” said No. 25 BMW Team RLL M8 GTE driver Tom Blomqvist. “We’re ready and we’re confident we can again fight for the podium.”

Southpaws are Scarce, but Good for Racing Action

The 1.474-mile Lime Rock Park circuit has a total of seven turns and six of them are right. The one and only left – appropriately dubbed, “The Lefthander” – is Turn 3. The Lefthander is preceded by the long front straightaway (the “Sam Posey Straight”) and the sweeping Turn 1-2 complex known as “Big Bend.”

“The Lefthander” is a decent place for passing, especially on starts and restarts, or in lapped traffic. Immediately after “The Lefthander” comes “The Righthander” (We see what you did there, Lime Rock), which leads onto the “No Name Straight.” At the top of the hill is a slight right turn known as “Uphill” followed by another sweeping right called “West Bend” and the last turn leading back onto the “Sam Posey Straight” is yet another right turn called “Downhill.”

“There aren’t many corners at Lime Rock,” said No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT driver Joey Hand, last year’s Northeast Grand Prix winner with co-driver Dirk Mueller. “But at the same time, managing traffic is really important. That and staying around until the end, putting yourself into a position to win, are the keys to it. We really like this track. It’s a fun, different kind of race.”