By Jeff Olson
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Turns out the impossible was possible after all.
After missing the season opener, Jan Heylen took a most unlikely route to the drivers’ championship in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge Grand Sport (GS) class. That route wasn’t entirely clear, though, until the final turns of the final race.
Heylen and teammate Ryan Hardwick kept their No. 16 Wright Motorsports Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 Clubsport near the lead pack throughout the Fox Factory 120, the Nov. 12 season finale at Michelin Raceway Road America.
When points and race leader Bill Auberlen collided with Eric Foss with 26 minutes remaining in the two-hour race, Heylen was in position to claim it all: the race win, the drivers’ championship, the team title for Wright Motorsports and the manufacturer crown for Porsche.
It wasn’t your typical season. Not by any means.
“It was a crazy, fun year,” Heylen said. “These wins don’t come easy.”
Crazy, indeed. To illustrate just how unlikely the path to the championships was, start at the beginning. Heylen and Hardwick missed the season opener in January at Daytona International Speedway when the No. 16 Porsche was badly damaged in a crash during practice.
Hardwick sustained a concussion in the crash and didn’t return until Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in May. In September, he missed the race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca after testing positive for Covid-19.
Hardwick recovered both times and was instrumental in helping Heylen, the team and Porsche win championships.
“It’s truly like a storybook, childhood dream, right?” Hardwick said. “To be able to even have a chance to compete for a championship at this level of racing – whether you win or lose – is something that most people will never have.”
After sitting out the Daytona opener, Heylen arrived at Sebring International Raceway in March in an unusual situation: teammate out, new co-driver Max Root in, 320 points behind Auberlen and Dillon Machavern in the standings. Still, Heylen and Root finished second, beginning the unlikely comeback.
“We were always confident, or at least I was,” Heylen said. “There were enough races left, and it’s hard to have a perfect season. … We were always confident we could come back.”
They did. After Sebring, Heylen and Hardwick scored podium finishes at Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen (in the second of back-to-back races) and Lime Rock before a 22nd-place finish at Road America. Then, with Hardwick out at WeatherTech Raceway in September, Heylen and Root won. That was followed by a Heylen-Hardwick win at VIRginia International Raceway in October.
At the Michelin Raceway finale, it came down to basics. If the No. 16 Porsche won, Heylen had the drivers’ title, Wright Motorsports the team championship and Porsche the manufacturer championship. If Heylen and Hardwick didn’t win the race, Auberlen and Machavern had to finish several positions behind in the No. 95 Turner Motorsport BMW M4 GT4.
“I had to win the race,” Heylen said. “When I saw Bill get together with the Mercedes (driven by Foss), it certainly wasn’t the way I thought it would go down or anything I would wish for. Sometimes it comes to you that way.”
Even before the crash, as time ticked away and the BMW stayed ahead of him, Heylen had hope.
“We had everything to play for,” the 41-year-old Belgian said. “We were in the best position possible.”
And the impossible became possible.