BMW Team RLL took the overall win with Alexander Sims and Connor De Phillippi on a day where short fuses sent cars in IMSA’s GT Le Mans and GT Daytona classes spinning and crashing throughout the grassy Virginia countryside.
It would be easier to count the 18 GTLM and GTD cars that weren’t trailing bodywork than those who dealt with damage and off-track excursions, and even the winning BMW was unable to complete the 2h40m Michelin GT Challenge at VIR unscathed.
“This one’s special,” said De Phillippi, who watched as Sims drove the new twin-turbo V8-powered BMW into Victory Lane for the first time.
“Especially after the beginning of the race went. It’s basically my home race as well. Now to get the first win in the M8 is an honor for the entire group.”
A battle for third place early in the race between Ford’s Dirk Muller and the BMW driver resulted in Sims flying across the grass and sweeping across the track into the back of the GTD class leader. An innocent victim in the GTLM wars, 3GT Racing’s David Heinemeier-Hansson went from first place to having damaged bodywork and a flat right-rear Continental tire. His race ruined on the spot, the Dane and teammate Jack Hawksworth would go from earning the GTD pole and leading to finishing eighth in class.
If there was a positive to come from the adversity, the sister 3GT Lexus driven by Dominik Baumann and Kyle Marcelli captured the brand’s second win of the year as ragged intensity shuffled the GTD podium in the final stages of the GT-only event.
But up front, it looked like GTLM polesitter Richard Westbrook was cruising to a win after owning the first hour of race in his polesitting Ford Chip Ganassi Racing GT. It all went sideways toward the end of that hour as he pulled into the pits and drove into the paddock as gearbox problems required 40 minutes of service for the championship-leading entry.
The first yellow of the day came with just under 1h30m left to go as Nick Tandy felt the engine in his race-leading Porsche 911 RSR malfunction. The dejected Briton would trigger the fire extinguisher and climb from the car as all of the great work by teammate Patrick Pilet and the fast stop by their crew to take the lead went unrewarded.
Running strong from the start, the BMWs were in a prime position to strike as problems befell other manufacturers, and with a strong push leading into the final pit stop, Sims came in for a fuel-only visit with 24 minutes to go and a 52-second lead over Corvette Racing’s Jan Magnussen.
Once the BMW M8 GTE returned to the track and settled in, Sims had 8.8 seconds in hand over the Corvette and ably managed it to the checkered flag. Magnussen (+1.323s) and the sister M8 GTE of Jesse Krohn (+2.116s) rounded out the GTLM podium.
GTD went wild as the clock wound down to 30 minutes remaining as Andy Lally charged in his Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS and passed Lawson Aschenbach’s Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 for the lead. Lally, however, slowed himself while getting by and watched as Jeroen Bleekemolen took advantage and held first place for one corner in his Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3.
A pair of bumps from Lally turned the Mercedes around heading into the next corner, which left Bleekemolen sitting backwards on the grass.
But Lally was unable to benefit from dumping the Dutchman as Baumann’s big Lexus motored by as Lally lost time during the Bleekemolen exchange. After reviewing the contact, IMSA would also invite Lally to take a slow trip through pit lane to pay for the incident, which left the Magnus team with another poor finishing position at VIR.
As he’d soon find, Baumann’s lead was far from safe as Achenbach’s teammate Katherine Legge in the second MSR Acura and Road America GTD winner Patrick Long helped form a three-car train with his Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R with two laps to run. Legge would briefly lead down one of the straights before the Lexus won the horsepower war, and with Legge under extreme pressure from Long, the Porsche driver was able to pull off a brave pass into the final corner as the checkered flag awaited the trio.
The breathless Pro-Am race came to a conclusion with Long in second (+0.567s) and Legge (+1.314s) in Baumann’s wheel tracks.
“It was not an easy race,” 3GT’s Marcelli said of all he and his teammate experienced. “Dominik did a heck of a job to do a double stint at the end. Huge effort by him. The first win is always the most difficult to get, so [to also get the second] is great. Thanks to everyone at Lexus and 3GT. This has been a great day.”
The race got off to an aggravated start between Tommy Milner from Corvette and Porsche’s Earl Bamber. Despite making a blinding start, Milner was shuffled to the back and attempted to overtake Bamber’s 911 RSR, which swept from the right side of the track to the left.
With contact taking place between the C7.R’s left-front and the Porsche’s right rear, Milner went spinning across the grass and resumed. Bamber wasn’t as fortunate as the contact punctured his Michelin tire, which necessitated a pit stop. IMSA would double the Kiwi’s misery by assigning contact responsibility to his name, which came with a drive-through penalty that left his car nearly one lap down to the leaders.
Bamber and teammate Laurens Vanthoor would set a blinding pace while trying to recover lost time, and with the adversity elsewhere in GTLM, climbed back to fifth in the end. The real damage done came with the Ford GT shared by Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe after mechanical woes left the car next to last in class.
Ford’s four-race win streak came to an end in VIR, which their rivals surely enjoyed, and with a hit received to the Blue Oval’s points lead, the GTLM championship has been blown wide open with two rounds to go on the calendar.