Equal Parts Excitement and Nostalgia for the 2022 Season Finale
By David Phillips
BRASELTON, Ga. – Racing season finales like this weekend’s Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta tend to be bittersweet affairs. Although there’s often the excitement of championships on the line, there’s also a pervading sense that this is the last time around for some drivers and teams and other close working relationships that have developed over the course of a season or seasons.
Things will never be the same again, for better or worse. There’s also the inescapable fact that the checkered flag will signal the start of the offseason. A welcome respite for competitors (especially mechanics!) perhaps, but the signal of the start of an autumn and winter bereft of live action for racing buffs. Happily for sports car racing fans, however, just 81 days separate the final laps of Motul Petit Le Mans before the 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship kicks off Jan. 20 with Roar Before the Rolex 24 testing at Daytona International Speedway.
So, before we raise a glass for auld lang syne on Saturday evening, here are some things to watch for at Michelin Raceway this weekend:
Cornucopia of Championships
The team, manufacturer and driver championships for all five WeatherTech Championship classes will be decided this weekend. True, GTD PRO points leaders Matt Campbell, Mathieu Jaminet and the No. 9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R only need to roll off the grid to clinch the driver and team crowns. But all of the Daytona Prototype international (DPi), Le Mans Prototype 2 and 3 (LMP2 and LMP3), and GT Daytona (GTD) season-long hardware is very much up for grabs.
What’s more, Motul Petit Le Mans is the final long-distance event in the four-race IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup championship. With no more than five points separating the top teams and drivers in each class, those titles are also on the line. It’s been said many times before, but never will it be truer than this weekend: You’ll need a scorecard to keep track of all the various championship races. For a good start, click on this link to the Motul Petit Le Mans entry list notebook.
Call Me Ian
As in Hurricane Ian. Given the probability that the remnants of what is shaping up to be a strong hurricane will roar through parts of Georgia this weekend, all eyes in IMSA Race Control and on the pit stands will be on the weather. At last report, there’s a good chance of precipitation on Friday and Saturday. Given the likelihood of rain on race day, most competitors will be doing a rain dance on Friday, the better to sort out their rain setups for the race itself.
And though the oldest chestnut in all of racing may well be “rain is the great equalizer,” much depends on whether the precipitation is steady or not. A steady rain will, indeed, put the onus on the drivers to walk that fine line between aggression and over-aggression on a constantly slippery track.
Intermittent rain, on the other hand, will bring tire strategy into play in terms of when to switch to or away from rain/slick tires. In those circumstances, two-car teams (or manufacturers with multiple cars) will have a distinct advantage, in that they’ll be able to use one car as an experiment when switching tires in order to find the optimum moment to make the change on their primary car.
As for single-car efforts, intermittent rain will place a premium on communication between driver and crew to find the tire swap sweet spot based on a welter of information including (but not limited to) comparative lap times of other cars on rains and slicks, the competition’s tire choice, the weather report and, last but not least, the driver’s “seat of the pants” feel on track conditions.
Hail and Farewell
Although there will be five classes in action this weekend, by all means watch the DPi competition. It’s your last chance, after all, given the impending introduction of the new GTP (Grand Touring Prototype) class beginning with the 2023 Rolex 24 At Daytona.
Daytona Prototype international debuted at the 2017 Rolex 24 as the flagship class of the WeatherTech Championship. Through the years, four manufacturers (Acura, Cadillac, Mazda and Nissan) were represented. Production-based engines were mandated with Acura, Mazda and Nissan opting for small, high-revving turbocharged powerplants and Cadillac utilizing its thundering, normally aspirated V-8.
Although Nissan bowed out after the 2019 season, Acura (which joined in 2018), Cadillac and Mazda mounted factory-assisted efforts in association with powerhouse teams such as Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Wayne Taylor Racing, Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian, Whelen Engineering Racing, JDC-Miller MotorSports and Joest Racing.
Each marque enjoyed a level of success, witness the fact that Acura and Cadillac both captured manufacturers championships while Mazda scored more than half a dozen race wins including its swansong in the 2021 Motul Petit Le Mans. Although Acura has essentially clinched its third DPi team and driver crowns (to be decided between the No. 10 Wayne Taylor and No. 60 Meyer Shank entries), it still figures to be a memorable class finale between those two. And if Cadillac comes away with the pole and race win, the last DPi manufacturer title will end in an absolute dead heat.
While you’re at it, spare a thought for a pair of rival warhorses: the Ferrari 488 GT3 and Porsche 911 GT3 type 991.2. In addition to being a four-time class winner (GTD and GT Le Mans) at Motul Petit Le Mans, the Ferrari 488 GT3 captured the GTD manufacturer and team titles (Scuderia Corsa) in 2016 and ‘17. For its part, the Porsche 911 GT3 Type 991.1 has accounted for no less than 14 race wins and the 2021 GTD driver, team and manufacturer championships by the same No. 9 Pfaff Motorsports team expected to sweep them again this year in GTD PRO, while the No. 16 Wright Motorsports Porsche remains in the hunt for the GTD championship.
A hearty farewell to DPi, the Ferrari 488 GT3 and Porsche 911 GT3 type 991.2. And an equally hearty welcome to GTP, the Ferrari 296 GT3 and Porsche 911 GT3 type 992 in 2023!