Deepest blue: Grand Prix of Monterey Gallery…

Monterey

As always, Monterey provides a spectacular backdrop for sports car racing.  It may be a cliche, but standing at the bottom of the Corkscrew when the field comes through under green remains one of the great experiences in racing. Nestled between the mountains and the sea, it’s a natural theater for speed, and this year’s Continental Tire Grand Prix of Monterey Powered by Mazda did not disappoint. Enjoy some of our highlights…

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For the last few years, the prototype ranks have thinned out at the top level of North American sports car racing.  When Audi departed the scene, the ALMS was left with a handful of P2 prototypes led by Mazda and Porsche.  The merger of the ALMS and the Grand-Am Series ensured that Daytona Prototypes would become the top predator, with P2 loyalists soldiering on at Mazda and, now, Honda.

Enter Mike Shank and his French-built Ligier JS1 P2.  The Ligier is a handsome P2 prototype, designed by French engineers and powered by Honda. With so few entrants running innovative designs in IMSA, it’s reassuring to see a new prototype racing in North America. Michael Shank Racing has made the leap, but other than the Delta Wing and Mazda, most TUSC teams are waiting out any further investments until the new design rules are announced for 2017. One thing that is almost certain is that the ACO will authorize four builders to construct all of the P2 chassis, wtih a single engine supplier. IMSA may receive an exception to allow for other P2 designs, but credit Shank for continuing to push.

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The alternative to the Ligier is the venerable Daytona Prototype.  Chip Ganassi Racing is now supported by Ford rather than its traditional Target livery. Ford has struggled for results this season compared with the Corvette juggernaut.

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I had a chance to speak to Don Panoz after the Delta Wing retired with an exhaust system failure. The car is innovative and has grown on me over the last few years. The problem for the car is that it is like no other car in its class, making comparisons nearly worthless.

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In GTLM, the privateers have all but disappeared. Falken’s program is not a factory program but remains competitive against manufacturer support from BMW, Porsche and Chevrolet.

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Prototype Challenge cars remain an affordable option for prototype racing, as well as a great training ground for young drivers. Zach Veach, an up and coming open wheel racer, stepped into a JDC Miller Motorsports Oreca FLM09 for the first time at Mazda Raceway, and finished fourth.

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The Martini livery never disappoints.

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PC class winner Bruno Junqueira knows Mazda Raceway from his days as an open wheel driver.

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Count on Porsche to be at the front: Park Place Motorsports’ Porsche 911 GT America took top honors in the GTD class.

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An Aston Martin in blue? In the hands of Christina Nielson and James Davison, the car finished fifth.

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Some very obvious differences between Risi Competizione’s GTLM-spec Ferrari F458 Italia, and the GTD version below.

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Now compare Risi’s car with the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 458 GTD , as raced by Bill Sweedler and Townsend Bell. Similar, but not the same.

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GTD is the last truly competitive category for privateer racers.  With a decent selection of cars to choose from, and an affordable technical package, GTD racing was tight at Mazda Raceway.

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Second place in GTD for Paul Miller Racing’s Audi R8 LMS:

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IMSA at Mazda Raceway-Laguna Seca: Damn this traffic jam…

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The Tudor United Sportscar Championship returned to the Monterey Peninsula with one concern in mind: traffic.

Of course, Bay Area traffic is never a pleasure. But with the entire IMSA field together on track after last year’s split-class races, every driver knew that traffic would be an issue throughout the race.  This was also a shorter sprint race, leaving little time to waste behind backmarkers.

On Saturday, Jordan Taylor captured the second straight pole position for Wayne Taylor Racing in his Konica-Minolta Corvette DP.  With Michael Valiante’s Visit Florida Corvette DP lined up behind Taylor, and Scott Pruett by his side, Taylor knew that he would be harassed from the green flag forward.  Taylor showed early pace after a strong start from Valiante, and the pair of Corvettes took an early lead over Ozz Negri and his Ligier-Honda. When the inevitable traffic jam arrived, Valiante’s teammate Richard Westbrook finished off Taylor, giving Visit Florida Racing its first victory of 2015.

“It was clean [racing] for a while, but then we hit heavy, heavy traffic,” Valiante said.  “I got frustrated, I was really boxed in. I got by one PC with a little contact, going into turn 1 was a huge traffic jam. I made contact with a GTLM car, and I think it hit Jordan on the other side. We sort of forced him off the road and gave him a different line.”

After taking over from Valiante, Westbrook went on a tear to chase down Taylor.  He succeeded when Taylor ducked in for a pitstop and emerged in heavy traffic.

“When Ricky got in, we held the lead and then pitted,” Jordan Taylor said. “Richard (Westbrook) had clean laps while Ricky had traffic, and that’s where Richard made up his time. It was more a strategy and traffic race than anything.”

“The race was dictated by traffic,” Taylor said.  “Once we hit traffic we could gain a gap or lose a big gap. That’s what really changed the race today. We were leading by 10 seconds and then we’d lose the lead.”

Ozz Negri was persistent but couldn’t manage to keep pace with the leaders, his Ligier-Honda JS P2 a step behind the all-conquering Chevy power plants.  Mazda had a fantastic weekend, finishing sixth but most importantly, finishing – giving the marque a top 10 finish at its “home” circuit.

In GTLM, almost 40 years to the day after Hans Stuck won at Laguna Seca in a CSL, BMW Team RLL took a 1-2 sweep of the podium, with John Edwards and Lucas Luhr finishing ahead of teammate Bill Auberlen and Dirk Werner.  Porsche’s Patrick Pilet and Michael Christensen finished third on a day that saw an uncharacteristically subdued performance from both Corvette factory entries. In fairness, Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia’s yellow machine started from the back of the grid due to an engine change.

The larger question about BMW’s win is whether it’s pure pace or a generous balance of performance adjustment by IMSA. BMW’s minimum weight was reduced before the race, with its air restrictor enlarged, while Corvette didn’t receive any breaks.

In GTD, Park Place Porsche (Spencer Pumpelly/Patrick Lindsey) took top honors ahead of Paul Miller Racing’s Audi R8 LMS. Ian James and Mario Farnbacher finished third for Alex Job Racing.  In PC, Bruno Junqueira and Michael Cumming paired up for a class win over Colin Braun and Jon Bennett. James French and local racer Mike Hedlund finished third in the all-Oreca class.

Although their Corvette DP finished a modest fourth, it’s Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi who sit first and second in the driver’s championship, with Michael Valiante and Richard Westbrook just three points behind. The next round is at Belle Isle in Detroit.

More photos to come!

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