The world renowned Motul Petit Le Mans is a 10-hour endurance test that on Saturday was dramatically decided in the final seconds in the final three corners of the scenic 2.54-mile Road Atlanta road course nestled in the rolling hills of North Georgia.
The No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R. driven by Renger Van Der Zande, took advantage of the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac DPi running out of gas three turns from the finish line to take the victory in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale by 5.3-seconds over the No. 77 Mazda Team Joest Mazda DPi.
A little further behind on track, the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi benefitted from a different fuel situation – driver Felipe Nasr saving enough gas by a consistently slow and steady late race pace to finish eighth overall, one position behind the closest title contender. But that was still good enough to earn the season Prototype championship – the Action Express Racing Team’s fourth championship in the last five years.
“Literally down to the wire, it was unbelievable,’’ said Eric Curran, co-driving the No. 31 with Nasr, who celebrated his first IMSA Prototype title. It was Curran’s second championship trophy in the last three years. “Why did it have to be so close? But it came out in our favor. Just an unbelievable day. Hats off to Felipe Nasr, my teammate. We had a fast car all day long, but we had to go slow at the end to not pit again.
“So,’’ he added breaking into a grin. “We went slow to win the championship.”
“Just a great season. All the Action Express guys do such a great job and thanks to Sonny Whelen for 11 years of sponsorship for me. First year with Felipe and he’s such a top shelf guy and thanks to [co-drivers] Gabby Chaves and Mike Conway.’’
The Wayne Taylor Racing team was equally as excited to close out the season in such an iconic race in such dramatic fashion. Van Der Zande was still smiling widely – partially in disbelief – as he celebrated with his teammates, Jordan Taylor and former Indianapolis 500 winner and IndyCar series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay.
“I was asking over the radio and they said he’s not going to make it and I said we’re on the last lap now, it’s not going to happen guys,’’ Van Der Zande animatedly recalled. “Then at the end, I saw he (driver Felipe Albuquerque) was running kind of slow and I thought, is he really going to run slow or is this a dream? It wasn’t a dream and I saw the move and just went for it.
“I’m super happy. This is just unbelievable. I was screaming on the radio.’’
Cadillac also clinched its second consecutive manufacturer title in the Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup. And the No. 31 team of Curran and Nasr earned the Prototype team title.
The No. 7 Acura Team Penske car co-driven by Helio Castroneves, Taylor’s brother Ricky and Graham Rahal led the most laps (128) on the day and finished fifth overall after overcoming a pit road violation late in the race. There were seven different leaders on the day.
The last lap victory was the first win of the season for the Wayne Taylor Racing team and extends a winning streak, that begin in 2004, for the championship organization.
“I’d say it was one of the toughest Motul Petit Le Mans I’ve ever competed in and I’ve been coming here for a long time,’’ Taylor said. “The Prototype category this year, I feel like it was an extremely strong grid and I feel like this year’s race, all 10 hours was extremely cut-throat, getting through traffic, none of the GT cars wanted to give way and there was a lot of bumping and banging.
“It was up to the driver to keep it clean on track and the team called the perfect strategy like you saw in the last few minutes. Every pit stop we made up a position. That’s what it takes to win a 10-hour race.
“He [Van Der Zande] drove a heckuva stint and it was one of the more spectacular finishes I’ve ever seen,’’ Taylor said. “For 10 hours of racing, the way it went, to have it come down to the last two corners is incredible. You never give up in these types of races, you never know what’s going to happen. You could win a race. And that’s what happened today.’’