TUSCC: Oak Tree Grand Prix Preview

It may not be the most stylish or the most modern circuit design on the current slate of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, however Virginia International Raceway has produced two outstanding races in the last two editions of the Oak Tree Grand Prix. Even though the Prototype and Prototype Challenge runners will be absent this weekend, the door is open for the best of the GT Le Mans and GT Daytona classes to take center stage for the first time all season. With the summer part of the schedule nearing completion, both grand touring divisions enter the Commonwealth with a close fight for overall championship honors very much in the cards on both fronts.

In the professional driver, manufacturer controlled world known as the GT Le Mans class, a new member has joined the championship conversation this week, one that has largely had a backseat on the fight that has largely involved the Corvette Racing C7.R of Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen and the pair of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing BMW Z4s. That participant is Porsche North America’s Patrick Pilet, who in tandem with Nick Tandy crushed all their rivals in a worst to first charge at Road America two weeks ago with their Porsche 911 RSR. This was a car that was well off the pace for the first half of the 2015 TUSCC campaign, however a recent set of Balance of Performance adjustments by IMSA has turned their fortunes around. No one from BMW or Corvette could hang with the German straight six turbo-powered rocket ship on the long straightaways in Wisconsin, and with VIR representing a sort of mini-version of the Road America layout, the circuit has to place Porsche in the role of favorite this weekend.

Interestingly enough, it was not the two early season pacesetters who came the closest to stopping the CORE autosport-run duo. Much like they did in the second half of 2014, Risi Competizione’s Ferrari 458 Italia has once again become a contender and enters VIR as the defending champion, thanks to a last lap pass by Giancarlo Fisichella last year on the Team Falken Tire Porsche. Both the Italian and Pierre Kaffer are capable of breaking into the winner’s circle again.

The question now is how will BMW and Corvette respond? Entering VIR, Garcia and Magnussen lead the top BMW of Bill Auburlen and Dirk Werner by just four points, with now Porsche’s Pilet a further marker out of the lead. It was clear at Road America that the focus of the Doug Fehan-led Corvette squad was on defeating the BMWs, which they achieved as they placed fourth with the No. 3 C7.R, just ahead of Werner and Auburlen BMW in fifth. However, with Pilet in position to jump both entries with another victory this weekend, a two-front war will have to be dealt with from all parties in the Oak Tree Grand Prix.

While the limited numbers are tough enough in GTLM, in the lower GT Daytona division there are still many contenders in the running for the title. Based on a pair of podiums at Lime Rock Park and at Road America, TRG-Aston Martin Racing’s Christina Nielsen has vaulted to the top of the points table with three rounds remaining this season. The popular female Danish pilot has joined forces with reigning GTLM Drivers’ Champion Kuno Wittmer and results are starting to come for them since joining as teammates at the Six Hours of Watkins Glen. However, that charge could be tougher to duplicate at the Oak Tree Grand Prix. IMSA has introduced a set of Balance of Performance settings for GTD only this week that have hit the top two finishers at Road America. After placing second two weeks ago, the Kevin Buckler-entered V12 Vantage will be running at VIR with less power in terms of RPMs, a cut made bigger by the introduction of a one millimeter smaller air restrictor.

The other team struck by the lightning of the BoP adjustments was Riley Engineering’s Dodge Viper, a car that has won three times this season, including the first score for the driving tandem of Jeroen Bleekemolen and Viper Exchange boss Ben Keating. The presence of the supercar’s eight liter V-10 monster, will also be cut at the knees a bit this week. A three millimeter smaller air restrictor is the penalty for the non-factory supported squad, as well as also being cut in terms of RPM output.

The adjustments could be the break for Paul Miller Racing Audi R8, Scuderia Corsa Ferrari, and Alex Job Racing’s pair of Porsche GT Americas to gain ground in the championship. All of these contenders are well within range of Nielsen’s points lead and could vault to the top this weekend with a win. PMR’s Dion Von Moltke and Christopher Haase had held the top spot for most of the 2015 season, despite the fact that like TRG-AMR they have yet to win a race so far. The story is similar to 2014 for them, as the team finally earned their first victory at the season ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. The veterans enter VIR just two points behind Nielsen.

Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler are in the mix for the title for the second straight season.  Last year, it was with AIM Autosport, this time it is with Scuderia Corsa. Despite only claiming one podium finish in seven tries in 2015, consistency has kept the longtime co-drivers in contention, with only nine points being the difference between them and first. Running at the finish has also benefited the best of the AJR’ cars, featuring the talented Leh Keen and Cooper MacNeil. Among the top four, the WeatherTech-backed vehicle is the sole entrant to avoid a DNF to date.

What is ahead for all the entrants this weekend of course, is a challenging 3.27 mile circuit that is narrow and puts everyone on the edge, most notably at the difficult Esses section. This fast, curb riding section was the scene of a nasty crash two years ago involving a flipping Eduardo Cisneros-driven Porsche GT America. Porsche North America and Corvette Racing also got a taste of the challenge last year during practice when both teams suffered big accidents, which greatly affected their weekend plans and also greatly derailed each of their hopes for a series title.

With those concerns in play, it may not be the fastest cars that win on Sunday in the Oak Tree Grand Prix, it could be the team that survives the challenge of two hours and forty minutes that claims the big trophy.

Stay tuned to OnPitRoad.com for recaps of all the action at VIR this weekend.