In Blancpain GT World Challenge America, the current standings after six races over three weekends indicate that a team needs an absolute stellar line-up of drivers, car and crew to win. Wright Motorsports has that line-up with the latest Porsche 911 GT3 R driven by 2017 World Challenge GT champion Patrick Long and 2018 GT Sprint champion Scott Hargrove. Yet, while they have several podium finishes to show for it, and one that should have been, so far the victories have gone to the K-PAX Bentleys of Alvaro Parente/Andy Soucek and Rodrigo Baptista/Maxime Soulet, and the defending champion team of Toni Vilander and Miguel Molina in the R. Ferri Ferrari.
“Wright Motorsports has a very successful background and so does Pat, and we are out here pushing as hard as we can every weekend — but we are not top of the heap all the time,” says Hargrove. ‘It’s cutthroat up there. Everybody is pushing every weekend. It’s all about execution, because one little mistake, one second in the pits, it’s going to be the difference between a podium, a win or outside the top five.”
Long and Hargrove could have had four podiums in the first four races, a total of five. But running second under Soucek’s bumper in the final laps of the first race at Virginia International Raceway, Hargrove lost the grip on the front end and plowed into the tire wall at Oak Tree. The team came back from that to finish second the following day to the other Bentley. But the race Soucek and Hargrove were putting on was indicative of the quality of the racing, even if the Pro category in the series lacks for entries.
“You look at the factory drivers from Bentley, Ferrari, Porsche…” says Long. “It shows the focus of the manufacturers and the teams. And the racing is exciting, because you only need two cars to put on a hell of a show on TV. That’s what we are here to do and grow the sport.”
If the Wright Motorsport No. 58 — the team is also running a GT3 R in Pro-Am for Anthony Imperato and Matt Campbell — has a handicap, it’s that this is the first time that Long and Hargrove have raced together, while their chief competitors are on their second year of driver partnerships. It’s also only Hargrove’s second year of racing in the GT3 category — although he certainly proved a quick learner in his first season with Pfaff Motorsports, winning the opening Sprint rounds at St. Petersburg — and second in the two-driver format that he experienced in the SprintX races last year. But he’s also running endurance races this year, so he’s getting plenty of work in a multi-driver format.
“Last year we had a lot of success with Pfaff Motorsports here in World Challenge. We got the Sprint championship, which was phenomenal for a first year for myself in GT3 and the first year for the team. So now the goal is to basically one-up that. This year it’s just the one championship and that’s the clear goal, to try and execute and win that. For myself personally, it’s more about the off-track stuff, trying to grow in that respect and see where I can develop.”
This year the series has gone to an all SprintX format with two-driver, 90-minute races. Hargrove said that friends and family were confused last year about whether it was a Sprint weekend or SprintX and what that meant. Long echoes that the stability and consistency is a good thing for the series. Not only that, fewer race weekends with longer races is more sustainable, he adds. Aside from the format and the new driver pairing, there’s another new factor for the team this season — the latest edition of the 911 GT3 R.
“There’s not a lot of testing and these race weekends are pretty condensed, so we’re going to be learning about this car all the way through the season until the last lap of the last race,” Long explains. “That’s engaging and it’s interesting for the drivers and the team. Wright Motorsports is an engineering-focused team; you know they’re not on the map because of their marketing or branding or hospitality. They come at this as pure racers and hands-on guys. Bobby Viglione and John Wright are the engineers on both cars.
“We are pushing each other, even though one is a Pro-Am car. We have to operate as a two-car team because K-PAX is an amazing organization, but they also test a lot. There’s a little bit of envy in my voice in how often we see them on social media just pounding laps, so we have to be extra efficient with our time on track because we just don’t have that level of budget.”
Fortunately, according to both drivers, this iteration of the GT3 R is more user friendly, has more aerodynamic stability and is more predictable.
“I think 911s have a reputation of keeping the driver on edge, and I think that’s why you see a lot of Porsche drivers come out of 911s and have success,” says Long, admittedly a Porsche die-hard who just hosted the sixth and largest Luftkegühlt show for air-cooled Porsches. “The mass over the rear certainly gives the car a feeling of more movement, and I think that a lot of the work that Weissach has done on this car is building driver’s confidence and making that window of performance wider. It’s quicker and easier to get up to speed; we rolled off the truck [at VIR] having never been there with this car, and in the first session Scott and I were pretty content with the balance of the car. You’re not white-knuckling and turning the chest upside down between sessions trying to throw massive setup changes at it.”
Hargrove and Long will need more than consistency to make up the deficit in the points, led by Vilander and Molina. They’ll need wins, especially with the current points structure that places a real premium on finishing first.
Fortunately, that’s something of which both drivers and the team have proven capable. Their next opportunity comes at Sonoma Raceway on June 7-9.