Sunday’s AMERICA’S TIRE 250 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca was, in many ways, an “Instant Classic” for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. The headline race for the Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix weekend featured a thrilling, late-race pass for the overall victory in Mazda Raceway’s iconic Corkscrew turn; a last-to-first, “spin and win” victory in GT Le Mans (GTLM) and an emotional victory celebration in GT Daytona (GTD).
Here are “five takeaways” coming out of the penultimate round of the 2017 WeatherTech Championship:
1. “The Pass” Revisited
One of the most famous moments in Mazda Raceway history occurred in the Corkscrew on the final lap of the 1996 IndyCar race when rookie Alex Zanardi dove to the inside of race leader Bryan Herta as the pair made the left turn at the top of the left-right-left complex of turns at the top of the Corkscrew’s 10-story drop. Zanardi briefly skipped across the racetrack and off the course in front of a stunned Herta before coming back on course and continuing on his way to an improbable victory. It has become known as “The Pass” in Mazda Raceway lore.
Renger van der Zande stole a page from Zanardi’s playbook on Sunday, except he never left the racing surface. With three minutes left in the two-hour, 40-minute race, van der Zande got a great run coming up the hill to the Corkscrew in the No. 90 VISIT FLORIDA Racing Ligier LM P2 car, enabling him to pull alongside leader Dane Cameron in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi-V.R as the pair braked for the left hander.
The two cars made slight side-to-side contact as they made the turn, but van der Zande was perfectly positioned on the inside to take the lead and go on to win two laps later.
“What a move!” exclaimed van der Zande’s No. 90 co-driver, Marc Goossens. “That’s what it takes to win and Renger just did it. It was a great job!”
2. Taylors Preserve Championship Lead with Podium Run
Ricky Taylor’s TOTAL Pole Award-winning performance on Saturday in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R was impressive, as he outqualified his next-closest competitor, Christian Fittipaldi in the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi by more than eight-tenths of a second.
When the green flag dropped in Sunday’s race, he once again managed to pull out to a healthy lead early on before the field got jumbled up during a midrace pit-stop sequence. Following that sequence, Ricky’s younger brother and co-driver Jordan Taylor found himself back in fourth place and the team adopted a conservative approach to preserve the team’s substantial lead in the WeatherTech Championship Prototype standings with only the 10-hour Motul Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on Oct. 7 remaining.
“We obviously had a fast car, with Ricky getting pole and leading that whole first stint,” said Jordan Taylor, who brought the car home in third place. “But as the race progressed, with how the green was going and how the tires were dropping off through the stints, guys were taking risks with strategy to kind of play our hand. They were forcing us to pit when we didn’t really want to.
“They could take those risks with where they are in the championship, so every time they’d pit, we’d kind of have to spot it and pit off sequence for us. That’s what caught us out with the (No.) 31 to begin with. Once we lost the lead of the race, we didn’t want to take too much risk to get it back. It kind of turned it into a points race, and to come back with a podium finish, we’ve got to be happy with that at this point of the season.”
The Taylor brothers now lead No. 31 co-drivers Cameron and Eric Curran by 29 points, 288-259, and will clinch the season title by fulfilling their base drive-time requirements and earning points at the Motul Petit Le Mans.
3. Doing What They Had To Do, Part 2
The Taylors weren’t the only pair of teammates that were points racing on Sunday at Mazda Raceway. In GTLM, No. 3 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R co-drivers Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia came into the weekend with a 16-point lead in the season standings.
The team elected to forego altering its setup for Saturday’s qualifying session, instead focusing on a stronger car for the race itself. As a result, Magnussen started the race from seventh on the class grid but managed to move forward as the car’s race setup came in.
The team’s big break came when it pitted before the lone full-course caution period just past the halfway point in the race. That put Garcia second for the restart, but he quickly surrendered that position to eventual race winner John Edwards in the No. 24 BMW M6 GTLM, as the team opted to focus on keeping its championship rivals behind them rather than challenging for the victory.
Magnussen and Garcia ended up fourth, stretching their lead to 19 points, 302-283, over No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT co-drivers Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe. Like the Taylors, they only need to meet base drive-time requirements and score points to take the championship.
“We had a good plan for the race that was painful to execute, but it worked,” Magnussen said. “The painful part was in the beginning watching everyone drive away. Then things would turn around at the end of the stint where we would catch everything back and be in the mix. That’s great strategy that got us ahead of both Fords and the No. 25 BMW. It’s a great way to go to Petit Le Mans, where we can work on securing the manufacturer’s championship.”
4. Speaking of Manufacturers…
The AMERICA’S TIRE 250 offered several interesting post-race manufacturer nuggets. For starters, the victory for the No. 90 Ligier was the first in WeatherTech Championship competition for a new Gibson-powered global LM P2 race car, snapping a streak of consecutive victories for Daytona Prototype international (DPi) cars at eight.
The results in GTLM featured one of each of the class’ five manufacturers in the top five with BMW winning, followed by Ferrari, Porsche, Chevrolet and Ford.
Ferrari also became the seventh different manufacturer to win in the GTD class. In total, 11 of the 14 automotive manufacturers that have competed in the 2017 WeatherTech Championship now have won at least one race this season.
Cadillac has a commanding lead in the Prototype manufacturer standings, 312-285, over Nissan, and will clinch the championship by scoring at Motul Petit Le Mans. In GTLM, Chevrolet leads Ford by four points, 316-312, and needs to be the second-highest finishing GTLM manufacturer or better in the season finale to take the title.
With its GTD victory on Sunday, Ferrari went from a one-point deficit in the class manufacturer standings to a nine-point lead, 327-318, over Mercedes-AMG.
5. Ferrari’s Big Weekend
The Prancing Horse’s gallop into the win column at Mazda Raceway with Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa 488 GT3 capped an outstanding weekend for the manufacturer and was an appropriate way to honor the manufacturer’s long history on the Monterey Peninsula.
Nearly 60 years ago to the day, Pete Lovely won the first race to be held at the iconic California road course driving a Ferrari 500TR. For Balzan and the Beverly Hills, California-based Scuderia Corsa team, the victory came five years after their professional debut together at the circuit.
“I really wanted it,” Balzan said. “What special and better place to do it than Laguna Seca, where I had my United States debut five years ago?”
For Balzan and Nielsen, the victory represented their seventh podium result in 11 races this season, and gave them strong, 26-point lead over No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3 driver Jeroen Bleekemolen heading to Motul Petit Le Mans. They will need to make minimum drive-time at Road Atlanta to wrap up their second consecutive GTD championship together and the team’s fourth IMSA title.
Toni Vilander nearly gave Ferrari a GTLM victory as well. After qualifying on the pole Saturday, Vilander and co-driver Giancarlo Fisichella kept the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE in contention for the victory throughout the race. Coming off the final turn, Vilander got into a drag race with Edwards’ BMW and came up just 0.152 seconds short.
I gave everything I had,” Vilander said after the race. “I didn’t want to push him out in the last corner. It would have been nice, but that’s it. I just drove as fast as I could. The car was good in the corners and in the exit of the corners and a little bit less in the top speed. Today we were P2 and we’ll take it.”