Vilander reflects on back-to-back GT World Challenge titles

Image by Richard James

Vilander reflects on back-to-back GT World Challenge titles

SRO America

Vilander reflects on back-to-back GT World Challenge titles

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In 2018, there was a distinct GT World Challenge champion; with a mix of Sprint and SprintX races, indeed there would be only one overall champion.

In 2019, it could be co-champions with the series transitioning to an all-SprintX, two-driver format. But after winning the overall title in 2018, R. Ferri Ferrari driver Toni Vilander didn’t have a consistent partner this past season. Instead, he drove with both last year’s SprintX co-driver and co-champ Miguel Molina, and Daniel Serra as Ferrari moved its drivers around to accommodate various championships. Molina was racing for the WEC GTE-Pro title, so when dates conflicted for Watkins Glen and Road America, Serra joined Vilander for Blancpain GT World Challenge America competition.

It didn’t matter.

No matter which Ferrari factory driver was partnering with Vilander in the R. Ferri No. 61 488, it was just about as likely to be in the winner’s circle as not at the end of the race. Vilander scored wins with both partners, scoring six victories in 14 races and winning at five different venues.

“My teammates were like me or better than me the whole season,” Vilander says. “So I just need to put my driving together. I really like working with Roberto, our engineer; the chemistry is right. We both get sometimes excited, we both say bad things, but then in two minutes everything is fine again. I like the chemistry, I like the way we work and it’s a continuous improvement. Even now, for Race 2, we still change the race car like we did last year, so there’s feedback from the driver, he sees some stuff from the data and then we keep improving.”

On paper, Vilander should have had a harder time of it; yet he wrapped up the title in the penultimate weekend at Road America. K-PAX Racing rebounded in 2019 after a tough season the year prior, coming in with its strong driver lineup and new Bentley Continentals. Wright Motorsports was back in the series with a new Porsche 911 GT3R with former series champ Patrick Long and last year’s Sprint winner Scott Hargrove. That pair, though, only scored a single victory at Sonoma. K-PAX’s Andy Soucek and Alvaro Parente won four races, but two low- or no-points finishes left them with no real shot at the title. Their teammates Rodrigo Baptista and Maxime Soulet won twice. The two-Porsche effort from Alegra floundered all season with only one podium finish between them and skipped the final two race weekends.

Vilander had a revolving cast of teammates, but that proved to be no obstacle in his title hunt. Image by Richard James

“Porsche came with a new car … we were afraid,” Vilander says. “We were afraid that they were going to have a massive performance, and with the two teams that were there most of the season, that they are so clever that they can manage something. But they struggled. They struggled the whole year, which is quite strange. I would put it down to the race tracks you have in the U.S., because the car is fast in Europe, the car was flying at Spa 24, the car was fast in IMSA.

“We were afraid of Porsche, and same thing about Bentley – two-car effort and they have four times the amount of people in the team. We came to the first race; we we were on set one of tires and they were on set 25, so they did some serious testing, serious preparation for the season. But we still have the tools, and we came to the first race without driving the car; we had the car standing in the workshop. So I think you can really nowadays have results like we managed with the program, but it comes down to the knowledge of the car and then obviously you need to have drivers who who don’t need to discover the car; you just have to be on it.”

As for whether Vilander goes for three in a row, it depends on on what R. Ferri decides to do with the new championship structure of Pro-Am, Silver and Bronze classes. As well, the Finn has three kids and a restaurant at home, so he’s thinking about the amount of time he spends on the road. But he also likes winning and the contrast the GT World Challenge America format provides to the endurance racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where he drivers a Ferrari with Cooper MacNeil in the GTD class, and elsewhere.

“Like last year, I really enjoyed the championship,” Vilander says. “There is sometimes… I don’t know if it’s the frustration of it all, but some people talk a little bit like the championship’s not right there, but I enjoyed it. I had good battles, and we know that everywhere you go, the drivers that are fighting for the win are good. These drivers, if they go to IMSA – if Parente goes to IMSA, or Soucek, or Campbell… same thing here. We didn’t have a 30-car grid, but I still had strong fights. We need to execute and do a good job everywhere.

“Our car ran without an issue at all the races and that’s a good thing to keep in mind. We have limited resources, like the car we don’t have a crazy amount of parts and stuff, but the maintenance was perfect we didn’t miss a session.”

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