TUSCC: Petit Le Mans Preview

With the final act of the 2015 TUDOR United SportsCar Championship on the cards this weekend at Road Atlanta, the ten hour event to be contested, known since its debut in 1998 as the Petit Le Mans has always provided a dramatic climax to sports car racing in North America every season. For most fans attending at the quasi-home track for IMSA, a more action filled event is the hope, as opposed to last year’s festivities which although were exciting, were also greatly plagued by extended periods of action behind the safety car. With the field size reduced to just 37 participants, the chances of that occurring again appear to have been reduced. Of course, with the final race in the balance, series championships will be determined likewise under the lights Saturday. which could lead to some wild moments and maneuvers prior to the finish.

One team looking to grab a title is the Daytona Beach based Visitflorida.com Racing team, who enters the Petit Le Mans with the Prototype championship lead having posted podium finishes in six of the first nine events this season. After coming on strong late two weeks ago at Circuit of the Americas to salvage a third place finish, the Chevrolet Corvette DP pairing of Richard Westbrook and Michael Valiante enter the final act clear by six points, as opposed to only being a single marker ahead of the pack at Texas.

The closest chasers in the hunt for the title both belong to Action Express Racing. While each of the Gary Nelson-run entries have found victory lane this season, the momentum for both of the team’s Corvette DPs appears stagnant after on course incidents cost both teams valuable ground in the championship chase two weeks ago. The most hurtful error, ironically came from perhaps their most impressive driver prior to Texas. Dane Cameron was in contention for a third win of 2015, only to come into contact with the Starworks Motorsport Prototype Challenge classed car just past the halfway, and would limp home to place fifth. The sister entry of Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa was also unable to avoid collisions and finished down the order likewise in sixth.

While the Chevrolets stumbled, the Chip Ganassi Racing-Ford brigade earned their first victory since their domination of the season opening Rolex 24 at Daytona. Unable to match the pace of the Corvettes following Daytona, CGR was mainly battling for best of the rest honors with the Ligier-Honda coupe of Michael Shank Racing for most of the season, until the strong output at COTA. With the future of the Riley-Ford EcoBoost DP unknown as Ganassi shifts its focus to the GT Le Mans division with the new Ford GT, the Petit Le Mans could prove to be the swan song for CGR’s prototype program, one that has secured seven wins at Daytona and multiple series championships. The team’s hopes to secure another win should be strong as regular drivers Scott Pruett and Joey Hand will be joined by IndyCar veteran Scott Dixon, who may have been the most dominant driver back in January at Daytona.

Road Atlanta also provides opportunity for Wayne Taylor Racing, who won the Petit Le Mans a season ago. The Taylor brothers, Ricky and Jordan, paired with the aggressive Max Angelelli all return to pilot the Konica Minolta-sponsored Corvette DP this weekend, in what could be followed by a crossroad period for WTR. Although the team is planning on continuing to run the Chevrolet prototype next season, the team is also looking to join forces with Larbre Competition of France to compete in the FIA World Endurance Championship’s GTE-Pro category with a Chevrolet Corvette C7.R. The effort this weekend at Road Atlanta, plus how things run in 2016 could influence what direction WTR takes when the new prototype regulations takeover in 2017.

In Prototype Challenge, CORE autosport looks to secure another championship after taking a giant step forward in the last race at Texas. With their second win of the 2015 campaign secured, Colin Braun and Jon Bennett enter Atlanta with a solid twelve point cushion on the PR1-Mathiasen Motorsports pairing of Tom Kimber-Smith and Mike Guasch. Although Bobby Oergel’s squad has two wins and a second in the first three major endures this season, the team will need help to bridge the gap between themselves and CORE when the checkered flag flies on Saturday. One team that could play into the equation for the PC race win however, is Starworks Motorsport. Renger van der Zande and company enter Road Atlanta with a large chip on their shoulder following the aforementioned incident at COTA, a race they felt prior to the situation that they were in prime position to win.

Despite a major setback late two weeks in Austin, Texas when they could not extend their fuel to the finish, Porsche North America nonetheless enters the Petit Le Mans with a small lead in the battle for the GT Le Mans division title. However, despite a clear pace advantage in the short, sprint races (the late fuel stop prevented the 911 RSR squad from winning a fourth straight race), the longer races have proven to be an Achilles’ heel of sorts. Although Porsche factory driver Patrick Pilet has the points lead, he has finished no better than fifth in any of the first three legs of the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup. By contrast, Rahal Letterman Lanigan BMW’s Bill Auburlen and Dirk Werner, who only trail Pilet by three points, have podiumed twice in those same events.

Also holding a glimmer of hope in the fight for the title is Corvette Racing’s Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia, who claimed wins at both Daytona and Sebring, yet have none since those triumphs. Hurt by extra weight and a shortage of pace, the Doug Fehan-entered cars have struggled just to earn podium finishes in TUSCC events. However, with a plethora of victories on their resume at Road Atlanta, including their first major endurance win in dramatic fashion in the year 2000, they certainly cannot be counted out.

Finally in GT Daytona, Christina Nielsen’s hopes to become the first female champion in grand touring competition in North America hit a snag two weeks ago in Austin, Texas, as she and co-driver Kuno Wittmer struggled to an eighth place finish in their TRG-Aston Martin V12 Vantage. By contrast, Dion Von Moltke and Christopher Haase’s third place effort made up for the ground they lost at Virginia International Raceway putting them within just one point of Nielsen entering Road Atlanta this weekend. The role of title favorite has to be on the side of the Paul Miller Racing Audi duo, who earned their only win of 2014 at this same event one year ago, and in similar form also enter Petit Le Mans this year without a win. However, Road Atlanta was the event where the North American sports car world was introduced to the talents of Nielsen, whose efforts in last year’s event played a role in her securing of a full time ride this year for Kevin Buckler in both IMSA and the Pirelli World Challenge in 2015.

Scuderia Corsa’s Bill Sweedler and Townsend Bell are also well within striking distance of the GTD title this weekend, as are the Riley Dodge Viper team of Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating. Both squads have won in the last two rounds, with the red Scuderia Ferrari holding on in Virginia, while the presence of the V-10 engine in the Viper overpowered the field at Circuit of the Americas. The long straightaways at Road Atlanta could greatly aid the Riley squad here on Saturday.

Stay tuned to OnPitRoad.com for full coverage of the season ending Petit Le Mans.