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What to Watch for: Michelin GT Challenge at VIR

Title Races Will Come into Better Focus for Both the WeatherTech Championship and Michelin Pilot Challenge

 

By David Phillips

 

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – This weekend brings us the second and final all-GT weekend of the 2021 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, namely the Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway.

 

Apart from the bucolic settings, VIR’s fast, flowing and spacious 3.27-mile road course could hardly be more different from the close confines of 1.5-mile Lime Rock Park, site of the season’s first GT-only weekend. Thus, the form sheet from July’s Northeast Grand Prix will likely bear little resemblance to that of VIR’s Michelin GT Challenge.

 

In addition to the physical differences, the championship environments in this weekend’s two headline events – Saturday’s Michelin GT Challenge for the WeatherTech Championship’s GT Le Mans (GTLM) and GT Daytona (GTD) classes and Sunday’s Virginia Is for Racing Lovers Grand Prix for the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge – are also much changed from when the competitors did battle at Lime Rock. The bona-fide championship contenders have emerged from the pack in the past three months and, in some instances, can mathematically clinch or at least put a stranglehold on the 2021 titles.

 

Case in point: Corvette Racing, the No. 3 C8.R in particular. Antonio Garcia and Jordan Tayler must only start the race on Saturday (and the Motul Petit Le Mans in November) to claim GTLM driver and team laurels. Similarly, Chevrolet has a virtual lock on the manufacturer title. And the fact that Garcia and Taylor are defending VIR race winners only solidifies their role as favorites.

 

Which is not to say stablemates Nick Tandy and Tommy Milner will not do everything in their power to put the No. 4 ‘Vette in victory lane this weekend as they’ve done in each of the past two races; or that Cooper MacNeil and Kevin Estre won’t be gunning for the third win of the campaign in the No. 79 WeatherTech Racing Porsche 911 RSR-19.

 

On the other hand, GTD – where Aston Martin, BMW, Lamborghini, Lexus, Mercedes-AMG and Porsche have all visited the winner’s circle this year – sees at least five teams and marques with a legitimate shot at this season’s championship silverware.

 

The No. 9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3R driven by Zacharie Robichon and Laurens Vanthoor leads the No. 1 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 and drivers Madison Snow and Bryan Sellers by 32 points and by 104 over the No. 23 Heart of Racing Team Aston Martin Vantage GT3 of Roman De Angelis and Ross Gunn. One hundred fifty points back comes the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 of Bill Auberlen and Robby Foley, while the No. 16 Wright Motorsports Porsche of Patrick Long is 207 out of the lead.

 

So much for 2021. Not only did the No. 96 Turner BMW take top honors at VIR last year, such was the attrition in GTLM (and the speed of the No. 96) that Auberlen and Foley placed fifth overall. Interestingly, Acura came home second in the 2020 edition at VIR, but the manufacturer arrives this weekend in search of its first win of the season in the hands of the Magnus with Archangel and Gradient Racing squads.

 

Perhaps even more intriguingly, Mercedes figures to be something of a wild card at VIR, given that the Alegra Motorsports and Gilbert/Korthoff Motorsports teams are running limited schedules, not in the championship reckoning and will not be racing with one eye on the points this weekend.

 

Speaking of, there is yet another factor in the GTD equation. The Michelin GT Challenge is the climax of the 2021 IMSA WeatherTech Sprint Cup. De Angelis, Gunn and the No. 23 Heart of Racing Aston Martin lead the Sprint Cup standings and, along with the No. 1 Paul Miller Racing and defending champions No. 14 Vasser Sullivan Racing Lexus RC F GT3 (with drivers Aaron Telitz and Jack Hawksworth), will be playing IMSA’s version of 3D chess – juggling Sprint Cup and overall WeatherTech Championship points all the while jockeying for the race win.

 

Then there’s Sunday’s Michelin Pilot Challenge event, where the evergreen Auberlen is in the mix for a Grand Sport (GS) driver title, along with No. 95 Turner Motorsport BMW M4 GT4 co-driver Dillon Machavern, to complement his potential GTD crown. Their chief rivals in the Michelin Pilot Challenge are teammates Foley and Vin Barletta in the No. 96 Turner BMW. Foley was a co-driver in both cars last year and DID come home first AND third!

 

Don’t count out Jan Heylen, who will reunite with Ryan Hardwick in the No. 16 Wright Motorsport Porsche Cayman 718 GT4 Clubsport this weekend and out to carry the winning momentum from WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca to VIR in hopes of erasing Auberlen’s 80-point advantage in the standings.

 

The team and marque likely to scoop up Michelin Pilot Challenge Touring Car (TCR) class hardware in 2021 is no secret, given that Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian occupies the top three places in the championship. Nor should it rank as a surprise that the smart money is on the BHA Hyundais this weekend since they finished 1-2-3 at VIR last year.

 

Michael Lewis returns to defend last year’s victory with new co-driver Taylor Hagler in the No. 77 BHA Hyundai Veloster N TCR, while Parker Chase (and co-driver Ryan Norman) and Harry Gottsacker and Mark Wilkins in the No. 33 and 98 BHA Elantra N TCRs, respectively, will be looking to move up a couple of places in the order over last year. However, BHA and Hyundai haven’t had things entirely their way this year, witness wins at Daytona and Sebring by the No. 17 Unitronic JDC Miller MotorSports and No. 61 Road Shagger Audi RS3 LMS SEQs, respectively.

 

Not to mention the No. 94 Atlanta Speedwerks Honda Civic FK7 TCR’s win at Watkins Glen and the No. 5 KMW Motorsports with TMR Engineering Alfa Romeo Giulietta Veloce TCR’s breakthrough victory at Road America. Rest assured those and other TCR competitors are not about to concede the win on Sunday.