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Special feature
IMSA Petit Le Mans Road Atlanta

The winner takes all contenders for IMSA's first hybrid crown

Four cars from as many different manufacturers are split by 38 points heading to IMSA’s Petit Le Mans finale this weekend – not much when there are 385 up for grabs. We got the lowdown on their seasons to date

#6: Porsche Penske Motorsports, Porsche 963, GTP: Mathieu Jaminet, Nick Tandy, #31: Whelen Engineering Racing, Cadillac VSeries.R, GTP: Pipo Derani, Alexander Sims, Jack Aitken, start

Action Express Cadillac narrowly leads the way

Action Express heads to Road Atlanta with an excellent chance of a sixth IMSA SportsCar Championship title in 10 seasons. Its 2021 champion Pipo Derani and Alexander Sims lead both the regular points and the four-round Endurance Cup with third driver Jack Aitken, who rejoins the duo this weekend as the inaugural season for the GTP class’s hybrid cars draws to a close.

Yet Sims admits to feeling “somewhat surprised honestly” to be leading the points into the final round. The Briton, who after one season in the top division will rejoin Corvette Racing next year to campaign its new Z06 GT3.R in GTD Pro, concedes “we’ve left a lot of points on the table in quite a few races”.

At July’s Mosport round, where Sims set fastest lap, “things fell apart strategy-wise” to end up seventh, while shunting on cold tyres in the warm-up at Road America compromised a race they would start from pole.

“We had to put a spare rear end on that we didn’t have time to do set-up on – it was rear toe out and odd bits like that, so that was that race gone,” Sims laments.

A brake issue then scuppered first practice at Indianapolis last time out, putting AXR on the back foot to require a fightback from eighth to fourth.

“It’s probably just the reality for most if not all of us up and down the pitlane with the new cars that we just haven’t been able to execute a good solid weekend every time,” Sims says, adding that “consistency wouldn’t be something I associate with our season so far”.

Action Express avoided the late carnage at Sebring to take its only win of the year to date

Action Express avoided the late carnage at Sebring to take its only win of the year to date

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Sims acknowledges that there’s been “a bit more adjustment” to GTP than he anticipated, specifically citing struggles with overworking the tyres “for too many races before it really sunk home that I needed to adapt my driving”. But his Formula E expertise has “helped me when talking with the engineers and developing systems on the car”, and given him insights he could impart to Derani “to use all the possibilities of the car to his advantage”.

The team’s only victory to date came, Sims admits, in “fortuitous” circumstances at Sebring, when in the closing stages the tangle between Mathieu Jaminet and Filipe Albuquerque also eliminated Felipe Nasr, boosting Aitken from fourth to the lead. Further podiums at Laguna Seca and Watkins Glen have contributed to AXR’s haul, but Sims knows its grip on the lead is tenuous given the “ridiculously close” points situation.

"It’s anyone’s to win, because IMSA racing is like that. You start the race with the grid in one order and you can bet that by even half distance it’s reordered hugely" Alexander Sims

Victory for any one of the top three crews at Petit Le Mans would give them the crown, while the crew of the #25 BMW could also claim the title by winning with their top three rivals finishing third or lower. As such, Sims is taking nothing for granted.

“It’s the first time that I’ve come into the last round of the championship with four people so close on points,” points out Sims, a GTLM class winner at Petit with BMW in 2017. “It’s anyone’s to win, because IMSA racing is like that. You start the race with the grid in one order and you can bet that by even half distance it’s reordered hugely. But I would have taken a lead going into the last race, even if it was by a minute margin, at the start of the year.”

Can the bridesmaids finally do it?

WTR has yet to win a race in 2023, but has been a regular threat as it seeks to claim the title it narrowly missed out on in 2021 and 2022

WTR has yet to win a race in 2023, but has been a regular threat as it seeks to claim the title it narrowly missed out on in 2021 and 2022

Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images

Is this the year when the bridesmaid becomes the bride? Runners-up in each of the past two seasons, Filipe Albuquerque and Ricky Taylor are three points shy of the summit and have every chance of claiming the first IMSA title for Wayne Taylor Racing since Ricky and brother Jordan’s dominant 2017 campaign.

Ricky Taylor has since become a double champion thanks to his Penske-run Acura campaign in 2020, but his fellow two-time Daytona 24 Hours winner Albuquerque is still waiting for his first (although he does have the consolation of the Endurance Cup mini-series from 2021).

Finding himself back in the same situation a third year running “adds a pressure” to get it done, the Portuguese admits, after Taylor’s unsuccessful final-lap lunge on Felipe Nasr’s Action Express Caddy in 2021, and Albuquerque’s innocuous touch with a GT car while chasing Tom Blomqvist’s Meyer Shank Racing Acura in 2022 incurred suspension damage.

“People tell me, ‘At the third one you get it’, but it doesn’t mean that we get it,” Albuquerque points out. “It’s just another year and it can possibly be that I finish fourth even. Racing is not about deserving, it’s about doing it.”

Joined again this weekend by third driver Louis Deletraz, Albuquerque knows that a first win of the season at Petit Le Mans – scene of WTR victories in 2014, 2018 and 2020 – couldn’t be more timely. Valuable points were lost at Sebring in March, when WTR was classified fourth after Albuquerque’s bid for the lead ended in disaster, and likewise at Long Beach where Taylor found the Turn 1 wall after his ill-fated move on Mathieu Jaminet, with seventh the unrepresentative result. There was disappointment too at Watkins Glen, where a loose wheel and brake issues forced retirement when Albuquerque believes “we could go for the win”.

Acura’s only wins this year have been scored by reigning champion MSR, WTR following the pink car home at Daytona and Mosport, although the 200-point deduction for Blomqvist and Colin Braun at the former, after MSR was found to have manipulated tyre pressure data, has effectively counted them out of title contention ahead of what the team describes as a pause of its IMSA operation.

Bid for victory at Sebring ended in a multi-car crash

Bid for victory at Sebring ended in a multi-car crash

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

Albuquerque notes that Mosport is “exactly that combination of bumpy track and really high speed” where the car thrives, but says he’s unsure what to expect from Road Atlanta with opposition who weren’t as quickly on top of their packages now up to speed.

“The performance in the beginning of the year, it seemed like we were good everywhere,” he reflects. “As we go along, it was evolution for everybody. A good example is BMW; they started a little bit behind and now they are there with a great pace. By now we can expect great results from everybody.”

"People tell me, ‘At the third one you get it’, but it doesn’t mean that we get it. It’s just another year and it can possibly be that I finish fourth even. Racing is not about deserving, it’s about doing it" Filipe Albuquerque

Ultimately Albuquerque well knows that WTR has the ingredients to get the job done. And an asset that could play a decisive role is its new-for-2023 alliance with Michael Andretti’s IndyCar squad.

“The engineers have access to more help in case they need it,” Albuquerque explains, citing how Andretti’s group “had way more experience than us going to Indianapolis and they gave us some heads up”.

“The group of people that we have, we are doing a great job,” he adds. Now for the tricky part: “We need to seal it.”

The Porsche pair coming on strong

Tandy and Jaminet led home a Penske Porsche 1-2 at the most recent round at Indianapolis, and head in as the form team

Tandy and Jaminet led home a Penske Porsche 1-2 at the most recent round at Indianapolis, and head in as the form team

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

From the eight rounds to date in which GTP cars have participated, Porsche has the best hit rate with three wins, including a brace in the most recent two races. That explains why Nick Tandy says “confidence is high” in the Penske camp going into Petit Le Mans seeking to make up its five-point deficit.

Last time out at Indianapolis, the Briton and Mathieu Jaminet led a team 1-2 over Road America winners Felipe Nasr and Matt Campbell, following up the Tandy/Jaminet breakthrough win for the 963 in Long Beach. But Tandy reasons that the championship could already be out of sight had it not been for a confluence of circumstances that have cost healthy points.

Tandy was on a charge at Daytona before gearbox failure spelled retirement. Victory at Sebring with Dane Cameron – whose place as third driver will be taken at Petit by Laurens Vanthoor – slipped away with the late multi-car crash, but the one that really stung was Watkins Glen.

Jaminet had ambushed Connor De Phillippi’s BMW in the closing minutes, but the 963’s front skid wear was fractionally outside the legal tolerance and it was relegated from first to ninth. Tandy also points to a “freak puncture” at Road America that denied “at least a top two, if not a win there”. Instead, they finished seventh.

“It does go to show that we’ve always been in and around the front of the pack,” Tandy recounts. “We could have so easily been coming into this weekend just needing to start the race to bag a 10th-place finish to seal the championship. But that would be boring, wouldn’t it?”

Tandy, three times a Petit Le Mans class winner, including that famous outright victory in the GTLM Porsche 911 RSR in atrocious conditions in 2015, cautions that “we’re still going to Atlanta with a lot of unknowns”. He points out that the 963 “seems very strong in the braking zones of heavy braking corners, which Atlanta doesn’t really have a lot of”.

PLUS: When Porsche became a giant-killer

Jaminet and Tandy won memorably at Watkins Glen but had the result stripped, costing them valuable points

Jaminet and Tandy won memorably at Watkins Glen but had the result stripped, costing them valuable points

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

But in its favour, Tandy believes, is that his #6 crew has been “particularly strong” in race execution all year, after building on experience “in effectively all the different classes” aside from LMP3. Now in his eighth season of IMSA, Tandy (whose CV also counts LMP1 and LMP2 stints in the World Endurance Championship) is the most experienced of the line-up, all of whom have collected accolades in the GT ranks. Jaminet and Campbell scooped last year’s GTD Pro title and were joined by 2018 and 2021 Prototype champ Nasr to win the class at Daytona in 2022.

“We have experience of how to go racing in this series,” Tandy asserts, “and other relevant knowledge of the different class structures and how the racing interacts with each other, which is definitely an advantage to have.”

"We could have so easily been coming into this weekend just needing to start the race to bag a 10th-place finish to seal the championship. But that would be boring, wouldn’t it?" Nick Tandy

Another advantage is the luxury of having two WEC factory cars to exchange information with. Tandy acknowledges “we’re effectively doubling our learning” on unlocking performance, after largely focusing on reliability work pre-season. He stresses there’s not “any fundamental thing that we’ve found” in terms of hardware or software, but notes that the organisation has “improved massively” at optimising its processes in liaising with Weissach.

Now that the focus has switched from working on the car’s weak points to honing its strong suits, Tandy believes “we probably found more of a gain” to give Penske a shot at following up its 2007 and 2008 Petit successes in LMP2 with the RS Spyder.

The late BMW bloomers

Yelloly points to the Long Beach weekend as a turning point for the BMW programme

Yelloly points to the Long Beach weekend as a turning point for the BMW programme

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

Given the M Hybrid V8 only rolled out for the first time in late July last year, it was always likely that BMW’s long-awaited return to prototype racing would take longer to reap rewards than its rivals’. A hybrid system fault on its #25 car just one hour into the Daytona 24 Hours, which took over two hours to repair and consigned it to finish 131 laps down in 48th overall, suggested a long season lay ahead. But the turnaround since has been remarkable, with the Rahal Letterman Lanigan operation firmly in title contention in its first season of prototype racing, just 38 points down.

While the #24 BMW of Augusto Farfus and Philipp Eng has borne the brunt of reliability issues, the #25 crew of Connor De Phillippi and Nick Yelloly moved into the frame with an unrivalled haul of five podiums, including the programme’s first win at Watkins Glen in late June. That tally kicked off at Sebring, where Yelloly avoided the carnage ahead to claim second, though admits “we didn’t have the outright speed to challenge” the winning Action Express Cadillac at the final restart.

But after that “big uplift”, Long Beach was the turning point where Yelloly says “we started to show we were in the right direction”. From fourth on the grid, “our first decent qualifying”, the #25 BMW set the fastest lap and ended up second after Ricky Taylor’s late crash, regaining the position De Phillippi had lost with a trip down the escape road that dropped it back from the eventual victory fight.

RLL was unable to test prior to a disappointing Laguna Seca round in May, but that didn’t prove a hindrance at Mosport, where Yelloly and De Philippi followed the two Acuras to third. Learning on the fly has been a theme of the year – unlike Porsche and Cadillac, BMW hasn’t been able to benefit from another car running in the WEC, but will do next year when WRT arrives in the top class. And with GT stalwart RLL a newcomer to GTP, whereas its rivals at least have recent DPi experience “so they could guesstimate slightly better as to where they need to be with spring rates and stuff” early on, Yelloly has been impressed by its rate of improvement.

That was confirmed at the Glen, which Yelloly explains was “the first time we’d really shown good pace out of the box”. This year’s Spa 24 Hours winner admits it was frustrating to lose out on the road, but points out that he deliberately kept off the kerbs for the entirety of his triple stint to ensure the car would be safe on ride height.

“You don’t always win the race when you cross the finish line first,” he declares. “You’ve got to be legal.”

De Phillippi’s early crash at Road America was a costly setback, but third last month at Indianapolis as the best non-Porsche has given the team confidence for Petit, where third driver Sheldon van der Linde will rejoin the fold. Yelloly feels that Road Atlanta’s high-speed nature should suit the BMW package and, after a recent test “went relatively smoothly”, says he’s “confident that we should be in and around the mix”.

Should RLL pull it off, it would cap off one of the year’s best feel-good stories.

De Phillippi and Yelloly belatedly got to celebrate in victory lane at Watkins Glen after Tandy and Jaminet were disqualified

De Phillippi and Yelloly belatedly got to celebrate in victory lane at Watkins Glen after Tandy and Jaminet were disqualified

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt

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