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Friday favourite: America’s hidden gem with corners rivalling Spa

A lesser spotted destination for prototype drivers in IMSA, Virginia International Raceway is a popular venue for GT pedallers. Long-time Ferrari factory driver Toni Vilander has raced around the world and reckons the hilly grass-lined track is up there with the very best

Giancarlo Fisichella, Toni Vilander

Giancarlo Fisichella, Toni Vilander

Richard Dole

Its status as a GT-only round of the IMSA SportsCar Championship means that Virginia International Raceway doesn’t get the same attention as some of the calendar’s traditional heavy hitters. But to drivers who have sampled its 3.270 miles of narrow winding asphalt, the track commonly known as VIR is a highly respected one that rewards commitment and accuracy.

Although he has never won at VIR, stalwart factory Ferrari GT driver Toni Vilander puts it among a trio of circuits including Road Atlanta and Watkins Glen that he holds in the highest of esteem, as it demands “a lot of dedication” to nail the lap.

“It’s a great place to test, great place to race as well,” is the Finn’s verdict on VIR, a circuit he last competed at in 2020 which he says “takes your breath away” because the margin of error is so small: “When we see and hear it’s going to be in our racing calendar next season, it’s like ‘thumbs up’.”

The Esses, an uphill sequence of corners from the exit of Turn 4b until a fast left-hander prior to a tricky double-apex right at the top of the hill (where there once stood an oak tree after which the corner was named), places a huge premium on car placement and is, Vilander believes, on a par with the far more famous Eau Rouge-Raidillon section at Spa.

“At some point you need to decide either you do it [flat] or not,” says Vilander, who won the Bathurst 12 Hour in 2017 and has class wins at Le Mans (2012, 2014 GTE Pro) and Petit Le Mans (2016 GTLM) to his name. “It probably won’t change the lap time radically, but at least you can say at the bar that I did it flat! It takes confidence.

“It’s a track that you have a very narrow racing line and all these long, long areas of green grass so when you go off, you have a long time to think before you hit the barriers.” And Vilander recalls that its challenge caught him out early on in his very first visit to the track.

The Esses section at VIR requires huge commitment to carry speed up to the top of the hill

Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images

The Esses section at VIR requires huge commitment to carry speed up to the top of the hill

“I didn’t have a good start back in the day,” the 43-year-old admits. “First laps with Risi [Competizione], I actually went off and I did damage the car. I felt like I was not on it, I just took a wrong line a bit and I lost the grip. And I still remember our gearbox [technician], he was like ‘Toni, really, on lap six in practice?’”

From that early lesson, Vilander soon understood that there were “wrong ways” to go about finding lap time at VIR. He principally cites the oak tree double right where drivers are punished for trying to “force the matter”.

“If you have a tiny lock, front or rear, you’re in the barriers,” he says. “I already memorised before the race that this is a place where you can lose the race.

“You would need to carry enough speed from the entry that in the middle you don’t need to accelerate and upset the balance of the car. You’re basically entering as fast as you can and just after the entry is all about the exit. If you go 10, 20 metres earlier on throttle, you will be two to three tenths down in the end of the back straight.”

"Constantly the prototype drivers are being advised by their pitwall to be more aggressive with GT cars and I think the reason not to race multi-class there is just the nature of the track. Two-wheels off and it’s a big hit" Toni Vilander

While Vilander reckons VIR was “a very suitable track” for the Ferrari 488’s mid-engined layout, which was well-balanced and gave drivers plenty of confidence at high speed, Balance of Performance often hampered its grunt on the long back straight “so you would need to find other ways to find top speed”. Therefore right-foot braker Vilander favoured a stiffer anti-rollbar/spring set-up for VIR, focused on getting “really good control of the front” to reduce understeer and would also “set-up the rear toe on the limit that I have enough support from the rear to have a good speed on the back straight”.

Track limits at VIR are defined by the grass, and drivers are invited to ride the kerbs. Indeed, for the Esses Vilander says “there is no option” but to use the kerbs to pursue the ideal line and keep up momentum. “You need to have a good control, but stay flat,” he says.

However, as always, there is a fine line to tread as using too much kerb can unsettle the car and pull drivers offline from which there is little chance to recover.

“The last turn is the one that if you ride the left-hand side kerb too much, it bounces the car up in the air, you lose the control of the front-axle and you are off the track,” relates the World Endurance Championship’s 2014 GT drivers’ title winner. “Again, another place where in the race you could see drivers throwing away their race riding the kerb too much.”

The narrow racing line makes VIR an unforgiving circuit, but in equal measure rewarding to get right

Photo by: Richard Dole

The narrow racing line makes VIR an unforgiving circuit, but in equal measure rewarding to get right

Tricky challenges are never far away at VIR. As Vilander explains, “the lap itself starts with very, very hard braking”, making Turn 1 deceptively tricky in a GTLM car without ABS. At crunch late restarts, that meant “you would need to do the best braking of the weekend”.

The two-time GT World Challenge America champion first raced there in IMSA in 2016 and has notched four podiums between IMSA and GTWCA, with a best result of second in the latter series when it was known as Pirelli World Challenge in 2018 alongside Miguel Molina aboard the R. Ferri Motorsport 488 GT3.

Aboard Risi’s GTE-spec 488 in IMSA, he and Giancarlo Fisichella should have been on hand to inherit victory in 2017 when Alexander Sims in the leading BMW was forced into a late stop to replace a deflating tyre, but Fisichella had lost his spot at the head of the pursuing queue to a clash with Jens Klingman’s GTD BMW.

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The narrowness of the racing line explains why prototypes haven’t competed at the track simultaneously with GT cars since 2013 - the final season of the American Le Mans Series prior to its merger with Grand-Am that resulted in the present day IMSA championship. Vilander believes it’s a wise ploy.

“Constantly the prototype drivers are being advised by their pitwall to be more aggressive with GT cars and I think the reason not to race multi-class there is just the nature of the track,” he says. “Two-wheels off and it’s a big hit.

“So if a prototype car would hit a GT car, we have no option. Our racing line is our limit. You take us off the racing line, we don’t have any option and time to react is actually zero.”

Vilander reckons it's a wise move for IMSA to steer away from mixing prototypes and GT cars at VIR - which last occurred in the 2013 ALMS

Photo by: Dan R. Boyd / Motorsport Images

Vilander reckons it's a wise move for IMSA to steer away from mixing prototypes and GT cars at VIR - which last occurred in the 2013 ALMS

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