While a Ligier-Honda coupe won the opening two races of the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, the car-engine combination was not expected to win again, despite the full-time participation of Michael Shank Racing. With Daytona and Sebring winners Extreme Speed Motorsports now contesting the FIA World Endurance Championship in Europe, when MSR joins them to contest the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France next month they will now also feature a 2016 IMSA race win on their own resume. Thanks to an outstanding ten minute surge near the halfway mark of Sunday’s two-hour race by Brazilian sports car veteran Oswaldo Negri, Jr., MSR took the lead and never looked back to win Sunday’s Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix by a full thirty seconds on the remainder of the Prototype class field. The win is the first for Michael Shank’s Ohio-based squad and their co-drivers Negri and John Pew in sports car competition since winning the 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Entering Sunday’s action however, the focus toward a team making a breakthrough win was centered on SpeedSource Mazda Motorsports who had swept the front row in qualifying Saturday. Things got off to a solid start for the pair of Lola-Mazda coupes as Tristan Nunez and Tom Long held the top two positions, building as much as a ten second lead on the competition over the first thirty minutes. Add to that, the competition was not helping their own causes either.
Wayne Taylor Racing’s hopes of backing up their triumph two weeks ago at Long Beach were dashed when Ricky Taylor was collected in a turn ten accident with fellow Chevrolet Corvette DP runner Christian Fittipaldi of Action Express Racing. Although both entries would continue on to the finish, neither would challenge for the overall win. The incident also eased the early concerns for MSR’s hopes. The No. 60 Ligier-Honda coupe had qualified last among the Prototype class entries on Saturday, and held that position with John Pew at the wheel in the opening half hour. Once Pew pitted under the caution to hand off to Negri, the car had vaulted up to third place due to the result of the crash and other issues involving those ahead of them, most notably SpeedSource.
Handing off to teammate Jonathan Bomarito, Nunez’s well earned lead in the No. 55 Lola was lost when the team lost several seconds during their pit stop, struggling to establish a connection between the car and the team’s fueling rig to allow for refueling to occur. A further strategy move by Mazda late to take fuel only on their second and final stop would hamper the entry to the finish and the team would settle for a fourth place finish. The outlook would be even worse for the sister No. 70 Mazda once Joel Miller relieved Tom Long. Soon after the restart, the machine would grind to a halt on the track after the new I4 petrol-powered engine failed.
While Mazda and others gave way, Negri and MSR surged on the restart jumping from fourth overall to first overall in a matter of only three laps of the 2.268 mile Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca layout. Surrendering the lead only to make their final fuel and tire stop, the Brazilian continued to extend his lead on the remaining two Chevrolet Corvette DPs from Visitflorida.com Racing and Action Express Racing’s incident avoiding entry respectively.
Despite falling short of the win, the runner-up finish for Visitflorida.com Racing was a major bounce back from adversity suffered earlier in the race, when Ryan Dalziel was assessed a drive through penalty for jumping the initial start. Marc Goossens fought back and avoided further issues as trouble began to strike the remainder of the Prototype grid. As for the No. 31 Whelen-backed Corvette DP, it was a quiet third place result for Eric Curran and Dane Cameron who despite qualifying as the fastest DP on Saturday, were never able to match the pace of their rivals from the drop of the green flag, when Cameron fell from third to fifth on the opening lap.
While Jonathan Bomarito was able to salvage a fourth place result for Mazda, DeltaWing Racing also took advantage of attrition, even managing to hold the overall lead for a few laps due to clever strategy before settling for fifth at the finish.
In the GT Le Mans category, Chip Ganassi Racing completed an amazing three month turnaround by using impressive fuel and tire conservation to score their first victory in grand touring competition with their all-new Ford EcoBoost GT challenger. Running among the top three for a majority of the two-hour timed distance, the CGR Fords jumped to positions 1-2 just past the halfway point. Holding a sizable lead on the rest of the field, Joey Hand and Richard Westbrook slowed their pace slightly hoping to go the final 52 minutes of the event without having to stop for fuel. Taking over from teammate Dirk Muller, Hand pushed harder in the opening half of the final stint building a small gap on the sister entry, but would face greater tire wear and fuel concerns in doing so.
After replacing Ryan Briscoe on the first pit stop, Westbrook slowly began to reel back in Hand before taking over the class lead with just under 15 minutes to go. The question then centered on having the fuel to finish. With four minutes to go, Hand was forced to pit in emergency for fuel and two minutes later Antonio Garcia of Corvette Racing would also give up his hopes to make it to the checkered flag uninterrupted to make a stop. Despite noticeably slowing his pace, Westbrook managed to maintain power to his twin turbo V-6 Ford EcoBoost engine to cross the finish line twelve seconds ahead of Scuderia Corsa Ferrari’s Alessandro Pier Guidi.
The victory for Briscoe, Westbrook, and Ganassi is just a further step forward for the new Ford EcoBoost GT project that got off to a ragged start in January at Daytona International Speedway. After failing to get either of its two cars to the finish in the Rolex 24, the team claimed top five finishes at both Sebring and Long Beach, setting the stage for Sunday’s amazing victory.
Despite claiming the TOTAL Pole Award in GTLM qualifying on Saturday and leading the early stages of the race on Sunday, the varying fuel gambles would prove too much to overcome for Scuderia Corsa’s Daniel Serra and Alessandro Pier Guidi who would settle for second on the afternoon, with Long Beach winners Porsche North America completing the podium. Although their late pit stop cost them a runner-up finish, the Corvette Racing No. 3 entry of Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen would cross the finish line in fourth, with a second Ferrari 488 belonging to Risi Competizione’s Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella completing the top five.
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