IMSA’s traditional fireworks show on the streets of Long Beach delivered Saturday evening as crashes and atypical errors shuffled the outcome in both classes during the Bubba Burger Grand Prix.
Acura Team Penske led from pole with Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 ARX-05 as the No. 5 Action Express Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R driven by Joao Barbosa and Filipe Albuquerque sank like a rock. But over 100 minutes of frenetic WeatherTech SportsCar Championship racing, the AXR duo produced blazing pace while saving fuel, which helped seal back-to-back DPi wins on the southern California street course.
The drama for the No. 5 car started on the opening lap as the field piled into Turn 1. With heavy aggression coming from all sides, Barbosa fell from fourth to eighth after admitting he wisely “avoided chaos.” With Albuquerque installed, the No. 5 began clawing back lost ground, but more adversity hit when a slow puncture to the right-front tire while running fifth necessitated an early final pit stop.
Left with no choice but to pit prematurely, AXR made the brave call to save time by changing nothing more than the right-front tire, which allowed Albuquerque to leapfrog his rivals as they pitted a few laps later.
Under intense pressure from Castroneves’ teammate Ricky Taylor in the final sprint to the checkered flag, Albuquerque was able to keep the Cadillac pointed straight as worn tires allowed the Acura to live within inches of his rear wing. Traffic on the last lap sealed the impressive day for the No. 5 team as it motored from eighth to first while its drivers dealt with conflicting requests.
“I’m like, ‘What do you think I am, a magician here? Saving tires and saving fuel?’” Albuquerque said with a laugh as Cadillac celebrated its third consecutive win of the season. “I started to feel the tires [losing grip]. I said forget it, and pushed it. For the last 12 laps my rear was all over the race. The team did an amazing job on the strategy. This is the beauty of American racing. Everything can change and anyone can win.”
Taylor would come home 2.6 seconds behind the AXR car, and his teammate Dane Cameron completed the Acura 2-3 from 3.4 seconds back.
GT Le Mans was an all-Porsche affair as manufacturer led the majority of the race with the pole-sitting No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR, and closed with the No. 912 entry shared by Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor leading home a sweep of the weekend for the Porsche GT Team.
The No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing GT threatened to spoil the Porsche party as a fortuitous pit stop got Sebastien Bourdais in shortly before a caution period paused the action, which placed teammate Dirk Muller in the lead once the rest of the GTLM class made their stops.
Slow out of the hairpin, Bamber rocketed by and never relinquished the lead. A hit from behind, however, dislodged the No. 912’s diffuser, which dangled and fluttered to the end.
“The Fords did a pit stop before the yellow and managed to cycle ahead of us,” Bamber said. “It was a key strategy for them. After the restart we had a strong car. I could feel the diffuser bouncing so I was super worried about that. I was praying every lap. The Ford, I think hit the pit limiter one time and we got around there. It was just a manner of controlling the race from there and just hoping the parts didn’t fall off, like the exhaust was falling off and a few bits here and there.”
The finish behind Bamber appeared to involve the No. 66 Ford in second until Muller’s GT coughed and ran out of fuel in Turn 8 on the final lap. A hard-charging Jan Magnussen, on Muller’s tail, was unable to avoid the Ford as it lost power. The ensuing impact speared Muller into the wall and smashed the nose of the No. 3 Corvette Racing C7.R, but with Corvette teammate Tommy Milner directly behind Magnussen, the tandem completed the final corners to seal a pair of podium spots.
“The end was pretty crazy with the 66 running out of fuel ahead of me,” Magnussen said. “I thought I was going to get stuck behind him, so I had to get on the throttle full to push him out of the way to get that last half-lap back to the checkered flag. Corvette Racing did a fantastic job setting the car up and thinking about what we needed at the end of the race. I don’t know if we had the best car, but it was close. I’m super happy today. For sure we’d like to get a win soon. We’ve caught up in the championship so it’s a good day.”
In the early stages of the race, it looked like the polesitting sister AXR Cadillac of Felipe Nasr and Pipo Derani would emerge victorious. The No. 31 DPi-V.R charged away from its first pit stop with four new items installed. Unfortunately, it was one shy of the count the crew was looking for as Derani took over from Nasr and was dispatched with three Michelin tires secured to the car. Despite waving his arms, the right-front tire changer was unable to catch the attention of the team before the car was dropped and sent without his wheel nut unsecured.
It would come off the car while the field circulated under yellow, which kept the No. 31 from losing a lap, but more oddities awaited the Brazilian when he returned to pit lane to address the issue and was initially blocked when the No. 24 BMW M8 GTE stopped in the middle of the lane—in front of Derani’s pit box—as its right-rear wheel started to fall off. The AXR Cadillac would make its way around the beached BMW, which was jacked up and serviced, allowing Jesse Krohn to rejoin the field.
“It’s a shame. I could lead the race easily,” Nasr said. “I really hope we can score some points today.”
Derani would soldier home to finish sixth overall.
More mayhem followed shortly after returning to green as Wayne Taylor Racing’s Renger van der Zande clouted the Turn 9 wall with the left side of the No. 10 Cadillac DPi-V.R. The Dutchman would steer the crabbing Caddy to the top of pit lane and climb from the car where the No. 10 would be credited with 18th overall and next-to-last in DPi, ahead of only Jon Bennett, who clipped the Turn 6 wall and damaged the No. 54 Nissan Onroak DPi beyond immediate repair on the opening lap.
Despite leaving the crash-happy pro-am GT Daytona class behind, the all-pro lineup of DPi and GTLM cars was far from clean and orderly, but it was never boring. Costly, for some who met Long Beach’s unforgiving walls, but always entertaining.