Blancpain GT World Challenge America teams have a tiny 10-minute window in which to execute any strategy, and that 10-minute window is smack dab in the middle of the 90-minutes races – barring any full-course cautions that might interfere. That’s not a lot of space to plan and execute strategy. In issue 300 of RACER, we spoke with several drivers and strategists about how the new format for this season has worked over the first half, and where there is room for strategy. Here are some more thoughts on race strategy when the rules keep the space for it to a minimum.
“They’ve made a very very small box to operate in, and for the most part you pit when you pit once the pit window opens,” says Andris Laivins, team principal for Gradient Racing, which fields an Acura NSX GT3 Evo for Am driver Till Bechtolsheimer and a couple of pros, Ryan Eversley and Marc Miller.
“Ultimately the strategy stuff here becomes more about how you optimize the one pit stop you have to make, and also about how you manage the tires that we are allowed to use over the course of the race weekend. Because the pit window and any pit stops you do are always going to occur under green the way the rules are written, you really, really have to maximize your driver’s performance on in and out laps.”
A new challenge this season is that the pit stop delta has shrunk. There is no more leisurely finishing the driver change, refueling and tire service and waiting around a few seconds to avoid being under the pit stop minimum. Now efficient pit work is a must for the teams.
“For some reason the championship decided to make it sort of a pit stop show,” says Toni Vilander, co-driver of the No. 61 R. Ferri Motorsports Ferrari with Miguel Molina and the 2018 overall champion. “Last year, the pit stop was chill. There was no refueling. This year they added elements and shortened the time. I think at Austin, the pit limiter was 5kph slower, and we added the refueling, but they took off seven seconds. Coming to the first event, we weren’t shocked, but we realized it’s going to be a hell of a job to make the pit stop in time. So you leave and you cut the line at the pit exit, closest to the pit window. Mosport race 2 was down to the pits. We pitted together with Bentley and did a similar pit stop, and they came out ahead.”
“Last year, the pit stop was chill. There was no refueling. This year they added elements and shortened the time. I think at Austin, the pit limiter was 5kph slower, and we added the refueling, but they took off seven seconds.” – Toni Vilander
A mid-season rule change to allow tire heaters and increase the tire allocation may have an interesting impact, as that was a key element of pit strategy – keep the driver out on hot, worn-out tires, or bring the car in for fresh, but cold, rubber? Tire warmers will help reduce the time to hot tires, but they still won’t be at optimum temperature for the first few corners or perhaps the first lap. But the new rule will play into over-cut and under-cut strategy.
“A typical way to keep the car at the front is, if the first driver is running strong in the session and laying down good lap times, well placed – say, in the top three – is to run him as long as possible,” explains Enrico Diano, team manager and strategist for R. Ferri. “To do what’s called the over-cut strategy, because if you consider stopping early, the car will come in and you swap to the other driver. The other driver will be going out typically on a new set of tires, cold, and you won’t really be able to set great times for the first couple of laps.
“In the meantime, his competitors that stayed on the track are circling on hot rubber. At this point, it will have been done 40-45 minutes and possibly another 15 minutes of qualifying, but the rubber is hot. They have momentum, so in the time that the guy coming out of pit lane on cold, new rubber is lapping around, these guys are able to shave significant time off that. The advantage of the guy who knows they are coming in shortly and they don’t need these tires anymore they are going to squeeze the last ounce of life out of them. They will take a little more risk in terms of controlling tire degradation, brake a little later, brake a little harder, trying to carry a bit more speed in there – not only to lay down good closing laps to their stint but also to take advantage of the last bit of life that is left in the tire.”
The Pro-Am category brings into play another factor, the lap time delta between the pro driver and the Am. By keeping the narrow pit stop window, that means the Am driver is going to be in the car for a minimum of 40 minutes, and that driver is going to have a much greater influence on the outcome than in some races where the minimum drive time is, relatively, much smaller. While some teams may want to have the Pro in the car for as long as possible, for some there’s room to allow strategy to play out.
“In a Pro-Am driver combination, the ability of our Am to influence the outcome of the race is really important and really critical.” – Andris Laivins
“What is really important for this program the way it’s run right now is that in a Pro-Am driver combination, the ability of our Am to influence the outcome of the race is really important and really critical,” says Laivins. “Historically in sports car racing in the USA there has been plenty of times where the Am, in whatever or however that’s measured, sometimes has a token presence on a race team. Their time in the car is minimized so that you know whatever pros are in the car can go do their thing. That’s not really what we want to do here. You know we want to give Till as much time in the car as he can have, and his pace and his ability to make the car and the program successful is something that we want to amplify, not minimize. So this format, particularly with the inverted driver orders in the two races, really lets him shine as a driver and also lets him grow as a driver because he’s not just driving the opening 30 minutes of a multi-hour race and then sitting and watching.”
Teams will have their first shot at seeing how tire warmers and the increased allocation affects both weekend and race strategy at the next event, Watkins Glen International this weekend.