Lawson Aschenbach took the advantage in turn one Sunday and held off all challenges to capture his second consecutive Pirelli World Challenge GTS 50-minute sprint race of the weekend – Rounds 1 and 2 – in the streets of St. Petersburg, part of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
The three-time and defending GTS series champion drove his No. 1 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R from the pole position Sunday and held off Gabriele Piana of Italy and 2017 PWC GTA Sprint/GT SprintX Pro-Am champion James Sofronas in a sensational duel in the 30-lap GTS feature at the 14-turn, 1.8-mile temporary street circuit near the St. Petersburg harbor.
“The Camaro has always been good in this kind of race as we showed that last year,” said Aschenbach. “The middle caution definitely helped us and then the red flag at the end too. I was definitely struggling for traction at the end and we still had a car that was capable of winning. But Piana was going to give me a good fight, and I can’t be happier than two first-places to start the season off right.
“I knew right away coming into the season that Porsche with their updates and Audi’s new car – it’s good for the series, the class and for GT4 globally. I think you’re going to see a ton of different winners this year. Fortunately for us, as long as we get to the lead here, this is a good track for us.”
Several times in the middle of the GTS event, Aschenbach, Piana in the No. 21 Muelhner Motorsports America Porsche Cayman GT4 CS MR sports car and Sofronas in the No. 14 GMG Racing Audi R8 LMS GT4 were less than one second apart as they battle wheel-to-wheel around the tight and trick course. The victory was Aschenbach’s 26th in PWC competition, listing him fourth in the series’ all-time wins.
Unfortunately, the GTS Round 2 race finished under a red flag when Vinnie Allegretta in the No. 10 PF Racing Ford Mustang GT4 and Steve Burns in the No. 43 VP Fuels/Lacy Racing Ginetta G55 collided on the back straightaway on lap 29.
Due to the large clean-up from the incident, PWC stewards called the event with five minutes remaining in the 50-minute event.
At the checkered flag, it was Aschenbach, Piana, Sofronas, Ian James in the No. 50 Team Panoz Racing Panoz Avezzano GT, Jake Buford in the No. 55 PF Racing Ford Mustang GT4 and teenager Harry Gottsacker in the No. 69 Racer’s Edge Motorsports SIN R1 GT4. The top six finishers were in six different car makes.
“Yesterday I felt like I lost second place, but today I felt like I won second place,” said Piana. “So, while the result looks the same on paper, the way the race developed is completely different.
“I had one chance at the start and I took it. The race was going exactly as I wanted it, apart from the fact that I was in second place. We managed to pull ahead. I felt like I could challenge a little bit more this time but after the first yellow the balance of the race changed a little bit. (Lawson) got a little bit of a break on the tires and that allowed him to pull away for three or four laps. At the same time, the Audi was really close, too.”
“With these big fields, you have to anticipate some cautions,” said Sofronas. “But the start went as I thought – the three of us going nose-to-tail. If you’re watching the race, you could tell by the springs of each car and how they came into play.
“Lawson (Aschenbach) obviously has a lot of experience, Piana has a lot of experience in Europe. Right now with the Audi R8 LMS GT4 being the first time in World Challenge, we love that car. The fans want to see a good race up front. We didn’t have any position changes but I was looking at it a few times. The GT4 class will be the dominant GT class in a couple of years because there are so many manufacturers involved, so many good cars, so much interest from everyone. I think this championship is going to come down to the wire with multiple players and multiple winners.”
Taking his second GTSA class win of the weekend was Drew Staveley in the No. 12 Ian Lacy Racing Ginetta G55 followed by GTSA newcomer Toby Grahovec in the No. 26 Fast Track Racing/Classic BMW BMW M4 GT4.
The next Pirelli World Challenge events will be held at the state-of-the-art Circuit of the Americas (COTA) on March 23-25 with the season opening races for the GT SprintX, GTS SprintX and Touring Car classes including the all-new TCR division.