One of the closest battles for a championship that sports car racing has seen comes down to 10 hours. The outcome of the Motul Petit Le Mans will determine whether Ricky Taylor and Filipe Albuquerque in the Wayne Taylor Racing Konica Minolta Acura ARX-05, or Pipo Derani and Felipe Nasr in the Action Express Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac, take the 2021 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Daytona Prototype international title. It’s nearly as simple as whichever finishes in front of the other is the champion.
Each of the drivers has at least one title. Both teams have won multiple championships. Both cars have carried drivers to season victories. Both have scored a triplet of wins in 2021. But the way each team and driver pair has arrived at this point could not be more different.
Everything has changed for Wayne Taylor Racing in 2021. The team switched from Cadillac to Acura; Ricky Taylor returned to his father’s team after three seasons at Penske, and Albuquerque joined the outfit after doing the endurance races with Derani and Nasr last season. The team came out strong, winning the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the first sprint race of the season at Mid-Ohio and added another at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Whelen Engineering Racing, on the other hand, is the story of consistency. The same two drivers in the same Cadillac fighting for the championship the last three years.
In contrast to WTR’s season, the first two races of the year for the Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac were rough — a broken gearbox at Daytona and a crash early at Sebring put them on the back foot. But things began to turn around, and a win in the sprint race at Watkins Glen got their championship run rolling. They’ve since added victories at Road America and Long Beach.
Now it’s down to Petit Le Mans, a difficult race normally, but with extra challenges for the 24th running. More of the race will be in the dark thanks to the race being a month later than usual and after Daylight Savings Time ends. And, with a record 43 entries, traffic is going to be tough for the DPi drivers.
“Starting off the year with Daytona, it’s a tradition, and the last race of the year should always be this one,” says Albuquerque, the only driver among the championship contenders who does not have a Petit Le Mans victory. “To me it’s one of the most thrilling, challenging races in the world. This race is just super iconic and especially those last two hours, when it goes dark in and we go into all this traffic — especially this year it’s going to be more and because we are beating the record of entries on this small track. It will become a challenge at the end when overtaking traffic and trying to have an advantage to pass the other guy, so I just can’t wait to go for that.”
Albuquerque and Taylor are joined by Alexander Rossi — who along with Helio Castroneves helped them to victory at Daytona — for the 10-hour race. Derani and Nasr have the firepower of newly crowned World Endurance Championship driver Mike Conway. There’s not much to pick over between the two team’s strengths, but Nasr likes their chances, and based on practice sessions in which Nasr has consistently been among the quickest, his confidence may not be without merit.
“Here we are at the end of the season, it’s going to be a pretty close fight,” he says. “I can’t wait to get out there. I love this track — I love Road Atlanta; we’ve won a race here before in 2019, and nothing has to change. It’s all about getting there, understanding the car, see what the car needs for balance or to follow track evolution. I’m super excited about this one. Also having Mike coming back with us after winning the WEC — he had a pretty strong year. I told him, ‘One more to go!’ I’m really glad with the position we put ourselves in.”
Wayne Taylor Racing and Action Express have taken the last three runnings of Petit Le Mans, with WTR having two of those, and three overall. Both teams have also discovered how fortunes in an endurance race can turn in an instant.
“It’s really hard to finish a championship in an endurance race,” says Taylor. “Wherever you put it in a season, its going to affect it, but it just adds so much pressure to the situation — how much risk you take in traffic, and especially here this weekend it’s going to be extremely busy, So there’s that extra pressure in the air. It would be nice to have a little cushion. We’re going to fight our best for it, and hopefully it pays off in the end and we’ll know we really had to earn it.”
The 10-hour fight to the finish starts at 12:10 p.m. ET. The first three hours will be broadcast on NBC before switching over to NBCSN for the duration. You can also follow along on IMSA Radio, and check RACER.com for hourly updates.