The first of two two-hour TUDOR United SportsCar Championship races today at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca came to a thrilling end as race strategy made all the difference in who won and lost in PC and GT Daytona.
The 8Star Motorsports entry of Luis Diaz and Sean Rayhall looked like the overall win was going to come with ease, but a crafty call on the final pit stop by Starworks Motorsport owner Peter Baron and a gusty drive by Renger van der Zande saw the Martini-sponsored No. 8 cross the finish line 12.234 seconds ahead of the No. 25 8Star car.
Despite building a comfortable lead, Rayhall pitted for four tires and fuel to make the spring to the finish, but with a gap to overcome for van der Zande, Baron carved crucial seconds off of their final stop by only replacing the right side tires. The cumulative time on pit lane between the No. 25 (2:03) and the No. 8 (1:43), along with some staggeringly quick laps by the young Dutch driver leading up to that stop, catapulted the Starworks entry to the lead – one he and co-driver Mirco Schultis would never surrender.
A late charge by Rayhall to catch van der Zande when G traffic slowed the No. 8 almost worked, but in his eagerness to clear the GTD cars, the No. 25 spun, dropping back to wider margin reflected at the finish.
“At the end, the left tires were completely gone,” said an ecstatic van der Zande. “Especially through the Corkscrew was one big drift. The team got me out with two tires which got me the lead. I have to say thank you to the team and to Mirco. It’s my first win in America.”
Rayhall reflected on the lost opportunity brought by the four-tire stop and the spin.
“We were in a good place, decided to take four Continentals instead of two,” he said. “We had a gap, we decided to go for it… I’m really proud of my guys and sorry we can’t take home a win.”
The pole-sitting car of Bruno Junqueira and Duncan Ende led at times, but lacked the pace to challenge for the win and settled for third.
If the race for the overall win was good, the final laps of the GTD race were the most exciting part of the contest.
Polesitter Spencer Pumpelly and teammate Nelson Canache led with ease from the start, with Canache pulling away at will, but with the short two-hour race, fuel strategy would play a major role. Handing over to Pumpelly, the team took a massive gamble by trying to complete the race on one stop.
The fuel economy offered by Pumpelly’s No. 45 Flying Lizard Motorsports Audi R8 was phenomenal, but to meet the ambitious single-stop goal, Pumpelly spent his stint saving fuel while those on two-stop strategies left nothing on the table. The Turner Motorsport team also gambled, but in an entirely different way, pitting the No. 94 BMW Z4 early – with an hour to go – which allowed Dane Cameron to go on the attack until the checkered flag.
FLM’s gamble almost paid off, but with Cameron on a charge and Pumpelly surrendering nearly five seconds per lap with the race nearing its final lap, the No. 45 Audi sputtered and died at the Corkscrew a half-lap from the checkered flag.
Cameron, with the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Audi R8 of Christopher Haase hot on his heels, swept by Pumpelly and motored to the first GTD win for Turner Motorsport, and for himself and co-driver Markus Palttala.
“They don’t tell me what was going on so I didn’t know if I was first or 10th,” said the Californian, who had just 0.168sec over Haase at the finish line. “That was good fun racing. We didn’t think [Pumpelly] would make it. Thank you to Turner Motorsport, Markus and [car owner] Paul Dalla Lana.”
Pumpelly was obviously disappointed to finish sixth after dominating all but the final lap of the race.
“The heart sinks; the guys worked so hard,” he said. “Trying to stretch an extra 10 minutes out of this stint was impossible.”
John Potter and Andy Lally finished third in the No. 44 Magnus Racing Porsche 911 GT America.
The race was green for less than two minutes before the full-course yellow flew to retrieve Patrick Dempsey’s Porsche from a gravel trap. The actor/driver/team owner appeared to out-brake himself into the Corkscrew on the opening lap, losing a lap while stranded, and later explained the team had been struggling with brake issues all season.
Once the race resumed and a rhythm was established, 8Star’s Diaz pushed his lead to 5.4 seconds over Ende after 20 minutes, lapping more than a second faster when traffic wasn’t an issue.
FLM’s Canache built a similar lead in his Audi R8 – 5.9 seconds – over Scuderia Corsa’s Stefan Johansson at the 25-minute mark.
30 minutes in, Diaz had his lead out to 11.8 seconds over Ende as the Mexican pro established a cushion over the American Pro-Am. Venezuela’s Canache had a lead of 8.8 seconds over Johansson at the same interval in GTD.
Spinners behind Johansson included Bryce Miller in the No. 48 Audi as he challenged for second, Palttala, who had his No. 94 BMW turned around by Ben Keating, and Keating also managed a spin in his No. 33 SRT Viper GT3-R.
The second yellow flew after 36 minutes for the hit, spun, and stranded No. 46 Audi R8 of Charlie Putman packed up the field, erasing the significant leads by Diaz and Canache. Contact between the No. 8 PC of eventual winner Schultis and No. 54 CORE autosport PC of Jon Bennett resulted in right-front suspension damage for Bennett requiring an extended visit to the pits. Schultis turned his car around and continued with the left-rear bodywork bouncing free. After two consecutive wins to open the season, the PC points leaders at CORE lost any hope of going three-for-three.
The caution allowed most teams to pit and make driver changes. Diaz handed over the No. 25 to Rayhall, and Canache stepped out of the No. 45 for Pumpelly.
Rayhall built an immediate lead over Junqueira, holding 4.9 seconds over the Brazilian 55 minutes into the race. Pumpelly sat on a three-second lead over Alex Job Racing’s Leh Keen in GTD, but as the race hit the halfway point, Cameron was pressuring Keen for second and Junqueira was making inroads on the point in PC.
Cameron’s Turner Motorsport team rolled the dice, pitting the BMW Z4 from third early with 59 minutes left to run to fill up the tank and make run to the finish without knowing if it would pay off.
Rayhall responded to Junqueira’s charge, motoring to a 8.6-second lead and pitted with 48 minutes remaining, but the No. 25 sat stationary for far too long as he waited for all four tires.
Pumpelly, with 9.6 seconds over Keen as the clock wound down to 30 minutes, was locked in a fuel-saving battle as the first- and second-place runners sought to make it to the finish without stopping.
Rayhall, up to fourth after more PC cars made their final stop, and lapping faster than the leader, sat 41.8 seconds behind Junqueira who had yet to pit. David Ostella, who triggered a car-destroying crash at Sebring, spun exiting Turn 3 and smashed his left-rear suspension. Attempts to return to the pits saw the Canadian spun by a GTD car at the Corkscrew. He’d pull off to the right side of the track and retire.
With concerns for a full-course yellow looming for Ostella’s parked car, some teams ducked into the pits, including race leader Junqueira, who returned to the track 6.3 seconds behind Rayhall in third. Starworks’ van der Zande, who was hammering away with fast laps and had a quick second stop, would be the biggest beneficiary, inheriting the lead from Junqueira. Rayhall pulled the gap down to two car lengths as GTD traffic slowed van der Zande, but an overambitious move by the 19-year-old saw the 8Star car spinning on the exit of Turn 10 as he tried to dive inside the GTD cars.
Sitting on a comfortable lead with six minutes remaining, van der Zande cruised home to a well-deserved to win for Starworks. At the same time, teams and fans waited to see how the GTD race would be settled. Ian James pitted the No. 23 Alex Job Porsche from third for a splash of fuel with six minutes left, followed by Leh Keen pitting the sister AJR Porsche from second a moment later. The shuffling promoted Cameron to second as the field watched to see if Pumpelly had enough fuel to bring home the win.
Pumpelly slowed his pace as much as he could with two laps to go without giving up the lead, but Cameron was in full attack mode. By pitting Canache one lap later, or saving more fuel while Pumpelly held such a large lead over Keen, it’s possible FLM would be celebrating a home win. Instead, Pumpelly, would sit stranded just a few car length from the finish line as cars streamed by. It was a cruel outcome after such a strong performance by the No. 45 entry.
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