The first two-thirds of this year’s Motul Petit Le Mans was a disjointed affair punctuated by frequent yellows and some frightening crashes, including one that took out a big junk of the GTD field on a restart. The last two hours, though, were a barnburner that highlighted the elements that have made the race a classic.
After 10 hours, the finish to the race, and the DPi championship, was as close as could be imagined. The No. 55 Mazda of Harry Tincknell, Jonathan Bomarito and Oliver Jarvis took a 3.297-second victory over the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac of Felipe Nasr, Pipo Derani and Mike Conway. In third was the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Konica Minolta Acura ARX-05 of Ricky Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque and Alexander Rossi. Between the second- and third-place finishers, whichever team finished ahead of the other would earn the 2021 WeatherTech SportsCar Championship DPi title for the full-time drivers – Taylor and Albuquerque, who came into the race with a tiny lead, or Derani and Nasr.
The Mazda had been quick all weekend, but looked out of the fight when they went three laps down replacing a spark plug. The yellows proved key – they allowed the Mazda to get back on the lead lap and, eventually, fight for victory.
Albuquerque had been leading before the penultimate round of pit stops, when he handed the No. 10 over to Taylor. But Taylor slid off track on cold tires, losing a couple of positions. Meanwhile, Nasr was attacking Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 60 Meyer Shank with Curb-Agajanian Acura that had led much of the second third of the race, When Montoya went defensive, it opened the door for Nasr to take the lead. The No. 60 eventually retired with less than an hour left due to floor damage.
When Nasr took the lead, that was the point where Mazda’s strategy came into play. Pitting off sequence, Jarvis handed the car to Tincknell. And although the move almost lost Tincknell a lap to Nasr when Tincknell emerged on cold tires, it proved critical to putting them into position to win, even though it required six seconds more fuel in the final stop.
“I was in the car at the time,” explained Jarvis. “We had been held up by the 60. And they looked at the time that was left, and they split the two stints right down the middle. It’s a bit of a gamble — it allows us to run in clean air and to push, but we knew we had the pace in the car. On the downside, if a yellow comes out, because you’ve stopped early, you have to fuel more. But in the end I think that it’s one of those fantastic strategy calls. We wanted to win the race, so we rolled the dice and we threw everything at it. There was definitely a period where we were vulnerable until we made that last stop, because if a yellow came out, we had to put seven, eight seconds more fuel in the car than the No. 31. It never materialized, so in the end I think it’s great call by the people on the pit wall.”
Nasr and Tincknell both made their final stop at he same time. The No. 31 team only put rear tires on the Cadillac, while the Mazda took four. That proved a critical decision, as Nasr got sideways in Turn 2 and had short off-track excursion. That allowed the Mazda, now out of touch with Nasr due to the extra fueling time, to close. Taylor pitted the No. 10 a lap later and emerged in front of the Mazda, but once again left the track on cold tires, letting Tincknell by.
With 22 minutes left, Tincknell had caught Nasr in traffic as they approached Turn 6. Tincknell saw an opportunity to make an aggressive move in Turn 7, and threw the Mazda inside. Considering the championship at stake, Nasr gave him the corner.
“We had to take slightly more fuel in the last stop so the gap widened back up to about six seconds,” said Tincknell. “I kind of said to myself, ‘Just keep pushing, never give up.’ Around here, the traffic, one lap to the next, you can gain three or four seconds. I just pushed as hard as I could – our car sort of likes to be dragged to the very limit, and it was just on the limit the whole way around. I managed to catch up with him.
“To be honest, I just had a feeling the whole race that the opportunity was going to open up through (Turn) 6 into 7. It’s a big dive-bomb into there — it’s not really a normal passing place, But I also knew in the back of his head he had a championship to think about as well. I just kind of set myself up through 6, and sent it super hard, super late. I think those moves you have to be 110-percent committed, otherwise they end in a crash. He turned out of it. At the end it was just as intense as it was the whole way through, I was just praying the traffic fell my way.”
Once Tincknell dropped Nasr to second, Nasr was now in danger of being passed by Taylor, and that would have reversed the championship. Taylor kept closing the gap, and on the final lap, although he wasn’t really close enough to make the move, he sent it in his final opportunity heading into Turn 10A as Nasr was defending heavily to the inside. Taylor went even further inside — had no chance of making the corner and cut across the gravel. He re-entered the track ahead of Nasr, but Nasr had the momentum and drive to get back around and cross the finish line ahead of him.
“I saw they were coming. Bad timing with traffic; nothing to do but defend myself. When I saw him going that deep I was like, ‘He ain’t gonna make it!’” said Nasr.
While Nasr and Derani shared the drivers’ championship, Action Express claimed the DPi team championship — its fifth since 2014 — and Cadillac claimed the DPi manufacturer title.
WHAT A FINISH FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP!
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) November 14, 2021
Taylor had no apologies for attempting the move that didn’t get the job done.
“It’s the championship and I’m always going to go for it,” Taylor said. “If you ever think I’m not going to go for it, you just have to look at the people behind us and how hard they work. I’m so thankful for the people that give us the car we have and the opportunity to do what we love.”
For Mazda, the victory was the culmination of a program that is fading into the sunset. To score a major victory in that fashion, in its final race, was incredibly satisfying for the drivers, who rated the victory with winning Sebring. But it was Tincknell who provided the perfect summation of the program’s history: “At the start of the program we were spraying fire extinguishers at it. Now we’re spraying champagne at Petit Le Mans!”
The frequent yellows kept the LMP2 battle close for the duration. Ben Keating and Mikkel Jensen had clinched the championship as soon as the green flag fell, but they still wanted the race win for the No. 52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA they were driving with Scott Huffaker. At the end it came down to the No. 51 and the No. 8 Tower Motorsport ORECA of Gabriel Aubry, John Farano and James French. The No. 52 double stinted tires with Jensen in the car to keep from losing the time on the out-lap on cold tires, but in the end they also had to save fuel to make it to the finish.
Aubry caught Jensen, the two ORECAs made contact, and Jensen was determined to be at fault and given a drive-through penalty. But the team never responded, and after the No. 52 finished first on track, they were given a 37-second time penalty for failure to respond to a drive-through penalty for incident responsibility and the win was handed to the Tower Motorsport squad.
In LMP3, the No. 74 Riley Motorsports Ligier of Gar Robinson, Felipe Fraga and Scott Andrew were locked in a close battle with the No. 30 Jr III Racing Ligier driven by Garret Grist, Ari Balogh and Spencer Pigot. Fraga came out on top of the final battle to deliver the victory for the No. 74, and the inaugural LMP3 championship in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship to Robinson.