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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Postcard from Monterey (Pt. 2): Prototypes – Miracle at Mazda Raceway

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They said it couldn’t be done. Three races into the inaugural TUDOR United SportsCar Championship season, and no LMP2 prototype had seen the top step of the podium.

Leave it to politics, some said: IMSA’s balance of performance was hopelessly weighted in favor of the heavier – but more powerful – Daytona Prototypes. This was the natural outcome of the Grand-Am Series’ acquisition of the ALMS in 2012, said the critics.  On social media, many thought the ultimate goal was to eliminate LMP2’s from the series.

Johannes van Overbeek and ESM Patron Racing had other ideas.  Taking advantage of Mazda Raceway’s slow corners, and benefitting from a rare mistake by rival Jordan Taylor, van Overbeek brought his Honda ARX-03b home in first, ahead of Taylor and veteran Scott Pruett, racing a Riley DP with Ford Ecoboost power for Chip Ganassi Racing.

The race began with a scintillating dice between Jordan Taylor, driving a Corvette DP for Wayne Taylor Racing, and Gustavo Yacaman in an Oak Racing Nissan-Morgan LMP2.  The close racing tended to answer critics who had questioned whether the two divergent prototpes could race competitively.  After Monterey, the answer was an emphatic “yes”.

Yacaman’s efforts were blighted by an incident between his teammate, Alex Brundle, and an Action Express DP driven by Christian Fittipaldi.  But by that point, van Overbeek was ready to start reeling in Taylor.  An uncharacteristic bobble by Taylor coming out of Turn 3 was all the room that van Overbeek needed to take the lead, setting up a win that no one expected, and a victory that settled some old scores.

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Spirit of Daytona took an early lead from polesitter ESM, resulting in a great battle between Michael Valiante and OAK Racing’s Gustavo Yacaman.

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Yacaman stayed hard on Valiante’s bumper for his stint, but Alex Brundle tangled with the Action Express prototype of Christian Fittipaldi at the Corkscrew, leaving the Nissan-Morgan behind (and penalized).  At least its performance reassured those who questioned the future of the LMP2 category.

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Brundle damages his own car and, ultimately, the 07 Mazda, which retired.

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This is not the correct way to exit the Corkscrew.

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Starworks Motorsport won the PC class in a gorgeous Martini livery, just ahead of 8Star.

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It wasn’t a great day for Ford, despite Ganassi’s third place.

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Mazda finished P7 with its Skyactiv Diesel LMP2.  A modest result but huge progress for Speedsource, which has struggled with reliability.  Mazda thinks that it has finally gotten a handle on the vibration issues that previously plagued the four-liter diesel. In its home race, Mazda would have brought both cars home but for the Brundle incident.

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Buttoned up at Action Express Racing, for Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa.  Despite a chaotic race, the team came away with fourth place and the points lead.

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Third place for Ganassi’s Pruett and Rojas.

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Johannes van Overbeek earned pole, and then turned the wheel over to owner/driver Ed Brown.  Under intense pressure from the DP field, Brown managed to keep the car in contention long enough for “JvO” to return and score the win.

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Postcard from Monterey: TUDOR Championship at Mazda Raceway (Pt. 1 – GT)

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The Monterey debut of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship lived up to the tradition of close GT racing and Corvette dominance at Mazda Raceway. For Corvette, the GTLM win was its second of the season and its third victory in as many years at Laguna Seca.

Corvette’s driver pairing of Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen won at Monterey for the second consecutive year, just weeks after delivering Corvette its first TUDOR win in Long Beach. In GTD – which raced separately due to pit lane space constraints – Dane Cameron and Markus Palttala of Turner Motorsport took top honors in their BMW Z4GTE.

The race-long battle in GTLM between BMW and Porsche was a textbook example of hard racing, but it ended with a penalty against Nick Tandy and Porsche.  IMSA has seen three races end with penalties, all of which have caused controversy.  This remains an area of concern for the series, although both Tandy and Edwards are smart drivers who should be allowed to race each other. But with caution-free racing, pristine weather, and a sprint-to-the finish race format, both GT classes delivered the goods at Mazda Raceway.

And for Magnussen and Garcia, who seem to have claimed ownership of the Monterey Peninsula, the California sun shone a little more brightly.

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Magnussen (above) started in the lead Corvette, but Garcia set a lap record in qualifying.

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Krohn Racing returned from the World Endurance Championship to race as the lone privateer in GTLM.  The F458 looks fantastic in Krohn’s traditional green livery.

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Bill Auberlen and Andy Priaulx scored a podium for BMW, after tussling in the late laps with a factory Porsche driven by Nick Tandy. A post-race penalty against Porsche demoted Tandy’s car to ninth and elevated Giancarlo Fisichella’s Risi Competitzione Ferrari to third place.  The question that wasn’t answered is how much of BMW’s pace comes down to pure performance, and how much is down to performance breaks from IMSA.

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Dodge re-branded its SRT division just as the Viper arrived in Monterey, so this car may look slightly different at the next race.  The TUDOR-spec version features an 8.0 litre V-10 under the hood, putting out somewhere near 490 hp. Mated to a set of paddle shifters, the Viper can reach speeds of up to 185 mph. With its booming exhaust and aggressive styling, the Viper has always been a crowd favorite.

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The 458 Italia is a stunner.  The GTD version, shown below, was prepared by Scuderia Corsa.  The 64 car (below) finished 10th at Mazda Raceway, with its sister car finishing in seventh.

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The Porsche factory effort was cursed at Mazda Raceway; the lead 911 of Nick Tandy was penalized for contact with the BMW of John Edwards, and the 912 survived a few incidents to finish ninth (eighth after Tandy’s penalty).

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Porsche misfortune turned into a bonus for Risi Ferrari, which finished third after the penalty.

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Andy Lally’s Magnus Racing Porsche looked slightly worse for wear after a podium in Race One.

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Crowds continue to pack the grid walk.

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Monterey GP – TUDOR United Sports Car Championship debuts at Mazda Raceway

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The TUDOR United SportsCar Championship made its formal debut this weekend at Mazda Raceway, the first race in Monterey since the ALMS and Grand-Am fields were formally joined.  ESM Racing made it another first, becoming the series’ first LMP2 race winner, and reassuring (at least momentarily) those who questioned IMSA’s ability to balance Daytona Prototypes and ACO-based LMP2s.

More pictures to follow, but the photo above is the end result of an incident between the Porsche 911 of Nick Tandy and the BMW Z4GTE of RLL Racing’s Bill Auberlen.  Auberlen and Tandy made contact coming out of turn 11 and again on the last lap, leading IMSA to assess a penalty on Tandy’s car and demoting it to ninth place in GTLM.  Was the contact worth a penalty, or was it a case of hard racing in the waning laps of a race?