Going into this weekend’s SprintX finale and penultimate race of the 2018 Pirelli World Challenge GT championship, there’s a clear three-way battle at the top between Toni Vilander (R. Ferri Ferrari), Scott Hargrove (Pfaff Porsche) and Michael Christensen (Alegra Motorsports). After a tough beginning to the season, it would have been easy to count Christensen and SprintX partner Spencer Pumpelly out of the picture. But the team found its bearings and came back strong, putting Christensen solidly in the hunt for the title, even if it’s a long shot.
The thing is, Alegra looked to have all the pieces to be strong from the beginning. Alegra was coming over from IMSA, with a Porsche works driver and the 2017 Rolex 24 At Daytona GTD win to its credit.
And Alegra’s competition had some unknowns. Ferri’s Ferrari had only run once after a big crash sidelined the team early in the 2017 season. Pfaff and Hargrove were new to the 911 GT3R, although certainly experienced with Porsche having won some Porsche Cup championships in Canada. Add in a new driver for CRP’s Mercedes, new Bentleys for K-PAX, and Alegra had the strongest continuity in the field.
All the elements existed for a solid run at the championship from the beginning, except for one thing: inexperience with the series’ Pirelli tires.
“You’ve got to understand your tires,” says Christensen. “That’s the key to every race series and racecar: Understand your tires and get the maximum out of that, and from there fine-tune your car. Looking back, it was definitely our struggle. You’re optimizing yourself all the time and trying to find your way from track to track, but it was definitely the big step. We have been strong the last few weekends – it’s all about the details.
“You want to have a chance to fight for the top, which we didn’t have in the beginning. We are there now and we are consistently fighting in the front. So it has been more fun, of course. And also what we expect – we expect to be in front. We expect to be fighting for victories,” the Danish driver adds.
Christensen didn’t even get a whiff of the podium until he and Pumpelly finished third in Round 7 at VIR. Then things began to fall into place. The pair took a win at Lime Rock, Christensen scored a solo victory at Road America, and then they won again at Portland. Combine those wins with a couple more podium finishes and Christensen has slowly worked his way into title contention.
Another hurdle besides figuring out the tires has been the importance of qualifying. In a 24-hour race, a bad qualifying time isn’t the end of the world. A bad – or no – qualifying time in World Challenge is tough to overcome.
“It’s a short race; you can’t do much in strategy,” he says. “You’ve got to be strong in qualifying. The main point is track position and you can work from there. If you have it the other way around, if you haven’t got the pace, then suddenly you’ve got the pace in the race and have it make up ground, it’s just such a harder way. You really can’t control anything. Pacing and qualifying is key to success in PWC, I think.”
Christensen now fights for the championship with an extra confidence boost, having won the world’s biggest sports car race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in June, along with Kevin Estre and Laurens Vanthoor as part of the factory Porsche squad. Driving the “Pink Pig” throwback-liveried 911 RSR, he and his teammates took the GTE-Pro class win ahead of the sister Porsche.
“It’s a dream come true for me,” he says. “It’s something I have been dreaming of since I started racing and suddenly it became a reality. I still now and then, driving myself to a racetrack or somewhere, simile and just think about it and being proud of myself. It doesn’t really get bigger for me than that. Le Mans is the biggest race for endurance race drivers and especially this year having such great competition with all the manufacturers and teams and drivers, it’s hard to beat.”
Of course, winning that and the Pirelli World Challenge championship in the same year would be quite the achievement. Christensen has his next opportunity to close the gap to Hargrove and Vilander at the Utah Motorsports Campus. Both SprintX GT races, along with GTS-X and Touring Car races, will be broadcast live on World Challenge’s YouTube channel.