The sense of relief was palpable in victory lane at Road America two weeks ago when Christina Nielsen and Patrick Long broke through for their first IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona (GTD) class victory of the season in the Continental Tire Road Race Showcase.
After all, expectations were high coming into the 2018 season. Nielsen had won the GTD championship each of the previous two years with co-driver Alessandro Balzan in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari, while Long and Wright Motorsports were returning to full-time WeatherTech Championship competition after taking the 2017 Pirelli World Challenge title.
But for a variety of reasons, it took some time for the whole program to gel.
“I think that, from a driver’s standpoint, both Christina and I have had to adjust,” Long said. “For her, it’s a different driving style, and for me, it’s a new tire.
“(Lately) we’ve made some pretty daring, wholesale changes after the first day of practice, which is essentially all of practice because of the way that the schedule works. You don’t have much time on Saturday. Where you roll off the truck Saturday morning, you’re going to race pretty close to that unless some unforeseen circumstances come your way.
“The time that you have to tune the car, you have to come off the truck pretty strong. For us, we have a lot of things to get through in that limited amount of track time that maybe some of the returning teams don’t. We’ve had to up our efficiency there and take a few risks.”
The risks have been delivering rewards, especially lately. Long has won the Motul Pole Award in qualifying for the last two rounds, for the Northeast Grand Prix at Lime Rock Park last month and at Road America two weeks ago. And while the Lime Rock race itself didn’t go according to plan, everything clicked at Road America, hence the strong sense of relief.
“It comes from having very strong expectations at the beginning of the season,” Nielsen said. “To go through a dry spell like that – and especially Lime Rock was heartbreaking for us, because we felt like that one was in our bag. That one should have been a podium. In our minds, we should have had two podiums, so it was a relief.
“It was really nice to be up there and show that we’re competitive. I mean, I’m a champion. I want to be up there. I want to be competitive. John Wright and Patrick Long are champions, so it’s a team of champions. We have one goal in mind and it was just so nice to finally get that one. Plus, one thing is that you’re always hoping for a podium, but to have the first podium with a victory, that was just a cherry on top.”
And now, with the proverbial “monkey off their backs,” Nielsen, Long and the No. 58 Wright Motorsports team head to Virginia International Raceway for Sunday’s two-hour, 40-minute Michelin GT Challenge looking to continue riding the wave of momentum.
Long knows what it’s like to win at VIR, as he partnered with Mike Rockenfeller to win a thrilling GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series race courtesy of a last-lap pass by Rockenfeller in 2006.
“That VIR victory was another, sort of, monkey off the back, albeit more than a decade ago,” Long recalls. “That’s the type of racing that VIR delivers. It’s tough to pass, so when you get a hole, you usually will take a more aggressive stance, because you might not get that opportunity again. It leads to lots of door-to-door racing. The track has only gotten better over the last few years.”
Long and Nielsen hope their season continues to get better over the last three rounds, starting this weekend in Virginia. With a 67-point deficit to GTD points leaders Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow in the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3, the championship is out of reach at this point. But there’s still plenty to fight for.
“Everyone wants to have a strong finish,” Nielsen said. “In some ways, it’s a little bit of a different situation for me compared to the last three years, because I was competing for championships the last three years. People always know that. They’ll try and take advantage of it, they know you’re not going to take the same risks. We are, because we’re in that situation where we can take the risk and we can go for the victories and just can go out there and give it our all.
“We don’t have that much to lose. We’re just trying to get as many podiums as possible and get good results, and hopefully create good momentum for next year. I’m very happy where I am. It would be great to stay with Porsche, stay with Wright and come back.”