Each of the Manufacturer’s Full-Season Entries Has a Win in 2021
By Mark Robinson
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s been an Audi kind of year thus far in the Touring Car (TCR) class of the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge. Whether that continues this week in the Mid-Ohio 120 remains to be seen but based on recent results at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, odds are good at least one Audi RS3 LMS SEQ will be in the hunt.
IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge: Mid-Ohio 120 Entry List
Each of the full-season Audi TCR entrants – the No. 17 Unitronic JDC-Miller Motorsports and the No. 61 Road Shagger Racing – has driven to victory lane once in the first two events. No. 17 co-drivers Chris Miller and Mikey Taylor came from two laps down to win the four-hour season opener at Daytona International Speedway and were poised to make it two in a row when, while leading with just over 30 minutes remaining, the notorious punishment of Sebring International Raceway’s bumps took their toll on the No. 17, vibrating loose some rear axle bolts.
Forced to pit for repairs, the No. 17 handed over the Sebring lead and win to the sister Audi, the No. 61 shared by Gavin Ernstone and Jon Morley. Heading into Saturday’s two-hour race at Mid-Ohio, Miller and Taylor sit fourth in the TCR standings, 40 points behind leaders Michael Johnson and Stephen Simpson (No. 54 Michael Johnson Racing Hyundai Veloster N TCR). Ernstone and Morley are just 10 behind Taylor and Miller.
“We’ve had a great start to the season,” said Miller, from Pretoria, South Africa. “The platform of the RS3 TCR is so well proven since TCR’s inception in the U.S. It’s done so well and been so reliable. That’s why we chose the platform.”
While the current RS3 platform is in its third and final season, teams had the option of going to a sequential transmission version (SEQ) this year in favor of the previous non-sequential (DSG) variety. Miller and Taylor have run the SEQ in both races, while Ernstone and Morley went to it at Sebring.
“There’s definitely some adapting going on,” admitted Morley, the veteran of the No. 61 driving duo. “It’s not night and day by any means, it’s subtle differences. Maybe we’re able to get on the power fractionally sooner. There’s just little differences everywhere that add up to the car being more competitive. If we’re talking two-tenths (of a second) a lap from the old car, that’s huge as tight as the TCR field is.”
Ernstone, Morley’s teammate in the No. 61 Audi, pinpointed where he felt the SEQ drew its advantages from the DSG.
“The car comes out of the corners so much more quickly,” Ernstone said. “It’s just really refreshing to not get your butt handed to you when you’re leaving a corner, and that’s really the biggest difference.”
Whether that advantage continues at Mid-Ohio isn’t a certainty. Taylor said the Audi RS3 is built for tracks with long straights and high-speed corners like Daytona. Tighter, more technical circuits like Mid-Ohio could favor TCR cars with a shorter wheelbase like the Hyundais. That said, Ernstone and Morley have made a successful run there, winning the second race of last year’s Pilot Challenge doubleheader.
“Historically it’s been an amazing track for us,” Ernstone said of Mid-Ohio. “Our worst finish in three races has been third, and our win last year, to be honest, was purely a strategy win.”
To which Morley – Ernstone’s driver coach for more than 15 years – added: “We’re going to be in the fight for the win and we’ll see how the sequential suits that track.”
John Staffi, technical director at JDC-Miller MotorSports, said it was a clearly stated goal to compete for the TCR championship this year. So far, so good – especially in light of the tremendous recovery at Daytona, where Taylor and Miller willed the No. 17 to the comeback win after dropping a pair of laps behind early.
“Everyone at JDC-Miller MotorSports has really put together a great package that is enabling us to set our sights on that championship run,” Staffi said. “It was an amazing performance at Daytona. It was kind of the perfect storm of situations that happened – two yellows (to get laps back) and then an amazing pass for the lead. And it turned out in our favor.”
Fifteen cars are entered in TCR at Mid-Ohio. Meanwhile, in Grand Sport (GS), a full 21 cars are in the grid. Bill Auberlen and Dillon Machavern, drivers of the No. 95 Turner Motorsport BMW M4 GT4, lead the GS standings after finishing second and third in the opening two races. Auberlen has a pair of Pilot Challenge wins at Mid-Ohio, in 2005 and ’06. The No. 95 duo is 50 points up on Kumo Wittmer and Orey Fidani, who won the GS season opener at Daytona in the No. 13 AWA McLaren 570S GT4.
The Pilot Challenge schedule this weekend shows a pair of Friday practices (9:15 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. ET) ahead of qualifying at 5:50 p.m. Live race coverage starts at 3:30 p.m. Saturday on TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold and IMSA Radio.