Winning a championship is generally considered a happy occasion. That gets turned on its head when a championship is both won and lost at the same moment.
On the pre-grid before the final Pirelli World Challenge Championships SprintX race of the season at Circuit of The Americas on Sunday, Cadillac Racing’s Michael Cooper and Jordan Taylor practiced a driver change that never came. On the opening lap, Niccolo Schiro bounced off the curb and spun the No. 31 Ferrari 488 in COTA’s fast, off-camber Turn 2, pirouetting toward the outside. Taylor, in the No. 8 Cadillac ATS-V.R, went wide left in an attempt to avoid him, but the Ferrari speared the Cadillac in the side, creating a rather large carbon fiber void and damaging the suspension. As soon as Taylor attempted to put power down in the Esses, the Cadillac started crabbing sideways. The car was done for the day.
If there was a bright side, it was that Schiro’s co-driver in the also-finished Ferrari, Daniel Mancinelli, was the only one who could catch Cooper and Taylor in the SprintX Pro/Pro championship. With both cars sidelined, the Cadillac duo were the champions. But the SprintX title wasn’t Coopers focus. He wanted the overall World Challenge GT title.
“It’s so immediate,” a dejected Cooper said immediately after the race. “It’s more disappointment about the overall championship than to celebrate this one. I’ve never experienced a championship within a championship before, so it’s a lot of weird emotions going on.”
This is the first year that World Challenge has gone to a three-tier championship for its top GT class. There’s the SprintX championship, made up of 10 one-hour, two-driver races; the Sprint championship, comprised of nine 50-minute, single-driver races; and the overall, which encompasses all 19 rounds. While winning either of the sub-championships is nice, it’s the overall that is the focus of every full-time World Challenge driver.
While Cooper technically isn’t eliminated from the overall championship, it’s a long shot at best. He sits 32 points behind Porsche pilot Patrick Long and four behind the defending champion, McLaren’s Alvaro Parente. With two races and a possible 52 points available at Sonoma Raceway a little over a week from now, it’s possible to overtake Long, but it would require a perfect weekend for Cooper and a miserable one for Long. But, as Cooper experienced at COTA, where he earned 15 points for the weekend (not counting Friday night’s makeup race for the rained-out Round 4 at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park), a miserable couple of races is certainly possible.
For Taylor, it’s another story. He won the only PWC championship he could win. He’s the part-timer in the equation, the second driver for SprintX to Cooper’s full-season effort.
“It’s different for me obviously,” he said. “I’m happy to win the part that I was involved with, but at the same time, it’s kind of like when a driver comes and joins me for Daytona or Sebring – you’re just there to help your teammate succeed in the overall championship. For me, it was a success; but at the same time, this weekend was a bit of a failure. Speed-wise, we had no chance of racing for a podium, and to be taken out today by a guy that’s been dangerous all season long is frustrating. Especially when we’ve seen things racing around these guys that should be called as penalties or warnings, and they never get them from the series, so they probably feel like they can abuse that and this is the result you get.”
Schiro had previously been involved in incidents at the start of the second Lime Rock race, where he took out the No. 58 Wright Motorsports Porsche piloted by Marc Lieb and Long, and an incident with Ben Barnicoat’s McLaren at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park.
“If you look back at the 31 car’s history, crashes and spins at every SprintX track this year,” added Cooper. “Obviously, we just got caught up in his own incident. It was kind of a freak thing. He didn’t take us out through his racing antics, but when you make as many mistakes as he does, it’s easy to point the finger and say this guy shouldn’t be out there.”
Obviously at that moment, Cooper’s and Jordan’s emotions were raw. And as bad as they felt, they said they were most upset for the team.
“They’re at the shop 9 to 5 all year ’round, and longer than 9 to 5 when the job requires it, so it’s an even bigger loss for them,” Cooper said.
But even as they lamented the likely loss of a title, the pair couldn’t stop praising each other.
“Super-sub, plug-and-play, all those terms you hear … we stick him in the car and every race weekend he’s right there on it,” Cooper said of Jordan, who has had a stellar season in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship driving the Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R. He and brother Ricky (who co-drives in PWC SprintX with Johnny O’Connell in the other Cadillac) won the first five races of the season in the new car.
“Even if we’ve been testing on the track, within five laps he’s right there. I don’t know what more you could ask for. There’s a lot of give and take, there’s no real ego between us. If one of us has to conserve the tires for the other guy to get in, I think we’re both willing to do that. I hope I get the chance to team up with him again next year.”
Taylor, who won a championship in Grand-Am in 2013, notes the titles that Cooper has already won in Touring Car and GTS: “He’s the type of guy that I look at and compare myself to – similarities in driving style and racecraft. If he’s got a fourth-place car, he’s going to finish in fourth place. He’s not going to put the car at risk. Michael has the maturity as a driver, and obviously the speed, to win championships, and that’s why he’s got so many championships in such a short amount of time.”
Cooper and Taylor won SprintX Round 3 at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, and had podiums at VIR, Lime Rock and Utah. But missing from Cooper’s portfolio this year is a Sprint victory, something he achieved twice in 2016, his rookie year in GT. So that’s still on his to-do list at Sonoma Raceway in the final two races. If he could pull off the rare double – something only Parente has achieved in 2017 with a double win at Mid-Ohio – he might still have a shot at the overall title to go along with the first Pro/Pro SprintX championship.