There’s much to be said for continuity. Take a look at the top three teams in Blancpain GT World Challenge America — three driver pairings returning with the same team and same manufacturer. In the case of one — the one at the top — the drivers, the car, the team … little has changed from last year when Toni Vilander won the driver’s championship, and he and Miguel Molina won the SprintX title for R. Ferri Motorsport and Ferrari. The thing is, the chance for a repeat performance almost didn’t come together.
“The initial plan was that I was not supposed to do this championship,” says Vilander. “I was supposed to do IMSA, Le Mans and another 16 weekends of Formula 1 commentating. By the time we reach February, everything changes. Remo [Ferri] was hot on the telephone saying we need to do this and I needed to recontact the TV guys, when I agreed already in November; they were kind enough to free me for a few weekends.”
The Finnish Ferrari works driver and his Spanish partner have three wins from eight rounds so far in 2019 and lead the championship over the K-PAX Bentley pairings of Alvaro Parente/Andy Soucek and Rodrigo Baptista/Maxime Soulet. One of those wins was at R. Ferri’s home track of Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, where they had a relatively bad performance in 2018.
“It’s a good thing he decided to come back, because he loves the good results, and the result we had (at CTMP) was almost the value of a championship,” said Vilander. “A year before we had a struggle weekend with the rain and cold weather. He prepared everything for his clients and friends, and it was a little bit miserable. Now we had a one-two, so he was over the moon. He was so happy and it was a nice thing to see.”
That was one great part to what he sees as a pretty good start of his and Molina’s title defense. Especially since, although much has remained the same, there are also some changes. That includes a small one to the Ferrari 488 GT3 and a bigger one in the format of the championship as it moves from a mix of Sprint and 60-minute SprintX rounds to all 90-minute SprintX races.
“We got a larger front tire for this year. We thought it was going to bring faster lap times and better handling to our car. I must say the car is handling pretty well, but I don’t see a big lap time improvement. I think we are doing a better job fine-tuning the car, which comes down to experience,” he said. “You repeat the same racetracks, you have the experience from the previous year and you carry it over. We’ve been doing a similar, solid job like last year. Overall I’ve been happy, and it’s always easier to continue a campaign, a program that keeps going. I would say a solid 9.” he added, rating the season so far.
For Molina, 2018 was his first year racing in the U.S., his first time seeing many of the tracks Blancpain GT World Challenge America races on, and it ended up being his first championship since his karting days. The series’ recent visit to Sonoma Raceway was a case in point — the test day on Thursday were his first laps on the circuit, and he qualified on pole on Saturday morning. He clearly enjoys racing in North America with Vilander and R. Ferri.
“I really like to race here in America and I like to share the car with Toni, because Toni has always been a really good reference in Ferrari Competizione GT program because he has a lot of experience,” said Molina. “Last year, first of all, we had a lot of fun on the weekends, and with the team as well, and it was actually matching everything perfectly to have success. So when I had the opportunity to choose my program for this year, one of the requests was to repeat this one.”
This weekend Vilander and Molina are competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in different GTE Ferraris — Molina in an AF Corse Pro effort, and Vilander with Cooper MacNeil and Robert Smith in the WeatherTech Racing Am car. For Vilander — who by the time Le Mans is done will have spent 16 consecutive weekends on the road — that’s meant a very busy month so far.
After competing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race at Detroit, he and MacNeil flew to Le Mans for the test day, where Vilander set the fastest GTE-Am time. Then they flew back to Chicago, took in a Cubs game, and Vilander flew to Sonoma Raceway last Wednesday. Immediately after the Sunday race (where they finished second after a win on Saturday), Vilander and Molina, along with Porsche racers Patrick Long and Matt Campbell, took off in a helicopter to get to San Francisco International Airport for the last flight of the day to Paris in order to arrive before scrutineering on Monday. Except for missing his family, he’s OK with that.
“I actually do like when I have a busy schedule,” he says. “I feel like I’m more of a racer than a huge tester … I’m a little bit past that period in racing. If I think about the last 10 years, the best results have come when I do have a busy schedule. It’s a positive thing — you get a lot of seat time and everything comes more natural, everything comes … I won’t say easier, but once you are in the race car, you are in the right place and it’s comfortable.”