By David Phillips
For the second time in six weeks, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship convenes at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta. Where the competitors’ initial visit featured a one-off, six-hour race, this time ’round it’s the traditional 10 hours of the Motul Petit Le Mans, a modern classic that has served as a keystone event on the IMSA schedule since 1998.
Typically, the Motul Petit Le Mans has been IMSA’s only annual visit to the track and thus something of an unknown quantity for competitors competing on the 12-turn, 2.54-mile roller coaster for the first time against that season’s competition with that season’s version of chassis, engine and tires.
Not so in 2020. Drivers, teams, manufacturers – and tire supplier Michelin – approach the event armed with reams of current data having run what amounted to a 60% version of the race just 41 days earlier. Who will make the most of that "dress rehearsal?" Will the driver/car/team/manufacturer combinations that triumphed in September’s TireRack.com Grand Prix at Michelin Raceway repeat? Or will those who were vanquished extract revenge?
No doubt about it, Acura is on a mighty roll in the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class, with three consecutive wins including the September race at Michelin Raceway that saw Acura Team Penske’s Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves edge the Mazda of Jonathan Bomarito, Harry Tincknell and Ryan-Hunter Reay.
But it’s not as if Team Penske has enjoyed a string of cakewalks. The margin of victory was less than a second and, lest we forget, the Konica Minolta Cadillac of Ryan Briscoe and Renger van der Zande was looking very strong before a "misunderstanding" between Briscoe and Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya on pit entry. With Penske exiting the series at the end of this season, every race is a job audition for Taylor, Castroneves, Montoya and Dane Cameron. Similarly, with Mazda paring its effort to a single entry in 2021, a similar dynamic applies to Bomarito, Tincknell and teammates Oliver Jarvis and Tristan Nunez – not that their DPi competitors at Whelen Engineering Racing and JDC-Miller MotorSports are going to cut them any slack.
Speaking of Acura, Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian’s Mario Farnbacher, Matt McMurry and Shinya Michimi piloted their Acura NSX GT3 to victory over Bryan Sellers, Madison Snow and Corey Lewis in their Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 at Michelin Raceway last month. However, the incredibly fierce competition throughout the GTD field means there are no guarantees they’ll return to the top – or even the second or third steps – of the podium this weekend.
The competition is just too deep to count anyone as a true favorite, and with the manufacturer, team and driver championships as tight as the proverbial drum, any one of the eight manufacturers represented could take home the laurels. Especially with the No. 23 Heart of Racing Team coming off Aston Martin’s first podium, the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 returning to action and the potent No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW squad making a late bid for 2020 GTD honors after a win last weekend on the soggy Charlotte ROVAL.
Eyes on the Prize
Last month’s Michelin Raceway event saw the BMW Team RLL of Connor De Fillippi and Bruno Spengler snap Corvette Racing’s four-race win streak, one that began on the Fourth of July at Daytona International Speedway. Since then, however, Corvette has gone two-for-two at Mid-Ohio and Charlotte. And while the bowtie bunch have a little (make that a lot of) extra work on their plate, thanks to the heavy damage suffered by the No. 4 Corvette C8.R in a crash late in the Charlotte race, they will be tough to beat at Petit Le Mans.
A win or a 1-2 Corvette finish will all but clinch the GTLM manufacturer and team titles, as well as the driver crown for No. 3 pilots Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor. Then again, BMW has nothing to lose this weekend; even more so a Porsche team still seeking its first win of the campaign and licking its wounds after both 911 RSR-19s exited the ROVAL within moments of the green flag.
Things Can Only Get Better
Things can only get better for the LMP2 class in its return to Michelin Raceway. In case you’ve forgotten, the class was decimated at the start of the September race, thanks to a melee triggered by a DPi competitor trying to win a six-hour race in the first 100 yards.
Thus, Era Motorsports’ Dwight Merriman, Kyle Tilley and Colin Braun finished 20 laps clear of their competition, namely PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports, which underwent a lengthy effort effecting repairs in the wake of the first-lap chaos. This weekend sees a two-car entry from PR1 Mathiasen (including the Inter Europol Competition squad), along with single entries from the Tower Motorsports by Starworks and Performance Tech Motorsports teams that should produce more racing action from start to finish.