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Opinion
IMSA Detroit

Why IMSA’s downtown Detroit GTP debut was divisive

OPINION: Saturday’s 100-minute IMSA SportsCar Championship super sprint was a wild, caution-punctuated affair, with opinion divided over whether its GTP monsters were a suitable fit for the bumpy 1.6-mile layout.

#10 Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti, Acura ARX-06, GTP: Ricky Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque, #6 Porsche Penske Motorsports, Porsche 963, GTP: Mathieu Jaminet, Nick Tandy - Start of Race

Thanks to the vision of Roger Penske and the Downtown Detroit Partnership, the event – which was a Formula 1 round from 1982 to 1988 – returned last year as a flagship IndyCar Series round in the shadow of General Motors’ imposing towers of its Renaissance Center that forms its global HQ. For now, at least.

The streets of Detroit are also no stranger to sportscars, with Trans-Am (which supported F1 in the mid-1980s and IndyCar from 1989-91) and the American Le Mans Series (in the late 2000s) gracing previous events.

After racing on another temporary Detroit track, at nearby Belle Isle from 2007-2022, IMSA’s premier series made its debut this weekend on the tight downtown circuit, after its second-tier Pilot Challenge series was the guinea pig for its resurrection last year.

That race was best remembered for a wild crash, where Robert Megennis’s BMW mounted Rory van der Steur’s Aston Martin at Turn 3 and vaulted over the top of it. You could see why IMSA’s teams didn’t want to risk their precious LMDh cars in their inaugural GTP season with the electrical hybrid system, as well as its GTD cars – especially for some with the 24 Hours of Le Mans just weeks away.

So it came as little surprise that this year’s 100-minute event was interrupted five times by full-course cautions for crashes or debris.

After an occasionally chaotic race, the response was mixed to say the least.

For instance, Porsche’s Felipe Nasr, who finished fourth after a sparkling comeback after his 963 was hit by another car under full-course yellow and had to change a tyre, purred: “This race offered everything a motor racing fan could wish for. It was a huge challenge for us drivers.”

But Richard Westbrook, who was punted into a track-blocking spin in his JDC-Miller 963, ranted: “The track is not suitable for racing with prototypes in the top GTP class. It was like being in a bumper car. The damage to the vehicles worsened lap by lap.

“It was unacceptable – simply unacceptable. I found it frustrating. I have such fond memories of the times we competed on the beautiful Belle Isle in Detroit.”

#85 JDC/Miller MotorSports Porsche 963: Tijmen van der Helm, Richard Westbrook

#85 JDC/Miller MotorSports Porsche 963: Tijmen van der Helm, Richard Westbrook

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

Detroit joins Long Beach as the second street track on IMSA’s 11-round schedule, and the long-established nature of the Californian venue means its suitability is unquestioned. The complaints about Detroit’s layout were focused on its bumpy surface, cramped layout and switchback turns, although the GTP cars were hitting 185mph on the long straight into Turn 3 – which at least allowed them to lap the GTD Pro class cars with ease with an overspeed of 35mph or so.

“It’s better than I expected to drive honestly,” polesitter Nick Tandy of the factory Porsche team told Autosport after practice. “Because our cars are quite big, physically, they are pretty dimensionally large vehicles for a racing car.

“We were a little bit worried about how they were going to be able to navigate through all the tight sections here, but actually it's not so bad. Although it’s short, the track feels fast, these cars accelerate a lot faster in first and second gear than they do in fourth and fifth gear out of a corner.

“So, you constantly feel this massive acceleration factor that we don't get anywhere else, really. Even at Long Beach, there's a lot more second and third gear stuff, but here almost everywhere here, each corner, is first gear for us. So, it feels fast enough, and the tight sections are actually quite manageable in our big GTP cars.

“The traffic situation is totally different thing, of course, but when you're by yourself driving around the layout, it's pretty good fun.”

#6 Porsche Penske Motorsports, Porsche 963, GTP: Mathieu Jaminet, Nick Tandy

#6 Porsche Penske Motorsports, Porsche 963, GTP: Mathieu Jaminet, Nick Tandy

Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images

The GTD Pro class made up the other half of the grid, and it too sparked some wild moments as the race was effectively decided when Corvette’s Nicky Catsburg and the Lexus of Ben Barnicoat collided at Turn 3, allowing the AO Racing Porsche 911 of Seb Priaulx and Laurin Heinrich to snatch the victory.

“I found it quite exciting,” said Heinrich. “I’ve raced at the Norisring in DTM, which is only four corners, and I’ve done Monaco in Porsche Supercup, which is actually a lot closer to this track.

“I think racing for two years at Monaco really prepared me quite well for this track, it’s quite bumpy, you run to the walls everywhere.”

Priaulx added: “I’m not really a track designer, but it’s a bit tight. We won, so it doesn’t really matter how the track is!”

Another dimension to IMSA’s pair street races is that Long Beach is Acura’s home race – it’s the title sponsor as its US HQ is in nearby Torrance – while Detroit is very much Cadillac’s turf.

#10 Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Acura ARX-06: Ricky Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque

#10 Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Acura ARX-06: Ricky Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque

Photo by: Brett Farmer / Motorsport Images

The irony of Caddy winning at Long Beach and Acura at Detroit was not lost on race winner Felipe Albuquerque: “I was thinking about that! Last year, we wanted badly to win in Long Beach, because that is missing for Acura and things didn’t go our way.

“It’s a bit ironic to come over to the home of Cadillac and win under their towers. We have these beautiful trophies, so it feels like we’re taking a Cadillac home! In racing, nothing is what you expect it to be, you go out there and things happen – nothing is predictable.”

The #10 Acura, which he shared with Ricky Taylor, is the fifth different GTP winner in as many races this season. Not bad in a field of only 10 entries!

Taylor – who agreed with Tandy in that the track was fun to drive despite it being so narrow – pointed out that the promotion and the volunteers who make this event happen were “spectacular” and “a difference maker from everywhere else we go”.

#10 Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti, Acura ARX-06, GTP: Ricky Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque

#10 Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti, Acura ARX-06, GTP: Ricky Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque

Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images

Conclusion

And Taylor’s last point hits the nail on the head of this event – like Long Beach, Detroit is a promotional vehicle for IMSA’s manufacturers first and foremost. They race to sell road cars, not just for racing’s sake.

Sure, the bump on the long straight – which almost launched Pato O’Ward’s Arrow McLaren IndyCar into orbit in warm-up – needs grounding down. Albuquerque is right that Turns 6 and 7 could do with resurfacing, just to smooth the ride so they can get their power down without risk of shunting.

“I actually think Monaco is smoother now than any track in America,” he quipped. “So, I think there’s a middle ground we could find. I respect the bumps and the characteristics, but if some spots could be improved, I think it could be a little better.”

As an event it’s an absolute must for the schedule. As a track, it would be great if organisers could make a few tweaks and ask the city to spend some bucks on resurfacing works ahead of next year.

But with brutal winters and steaming hot summers, it’s never going to be a smooth ride around Detroit…

Additional reporting by Joey Barnes

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