With five teams reasonably in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GTD hunt, this weekend’s Michelin GT Challenge at Virginia International Raceway could play a pivotal role in the championship as each of five teams does their best to ensure they go into the season finale Motul Petit Le Mans still in the fight.
Since Sebring, everyone has been chasing Stevan McAleer in the No. 32 Team Korthoff Motorsports Mercedes-AMG (initially it was McAleer and Mike Skeen until Skeen had to miss a round). With podium finishes in the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, McAleer left Florida with a lead he’s held throughout.
The gap, however, is closing. The No. 16 Wright Motorsports duo of Ryan Hardwick and Jan Heylen, the only GTD team to score multiple points-paying wins, is 36 points behind McAleer’s 2329 points. Roman De Angelis, driver of the No. 27 Heart of Racing Aston Martin Vantage, is only eight points behind Hardwick and Heylen.
Needing some serious luck to fall their way (or more accurately fall against the top three) are Jeff Westphal and Robert Megennis in the No. 39 CarBahn with Peregrine Racing Lamborghini Huracan (2231 points) and Bill Auberlen and Robby Foley in the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M4 (2204 points). The points gap from first to second in each race is 30 points; it’s 20 points between each place after that down to fifth and 10 points thereafter — and that doesn’t take into account qualifying points, which are 10 percent (35 to 350 for first) of race finish points. So if the same teams finish qualifying and race in first and second, for example, it’s a total gap of 33 points. In other words, the order could shift radically this weekend.
“This year is like all others in this category. It’s just super tight, right?” says Hardwick, who admits that with a bit more consistency in the No. 16 Porsche 911 GT3R he and Heylen would have the points lead. “You know, there’s not many cars or teams that are fortunate to win more than once. We’ve been fortunate to find the top step a couple times. And that’s what’s really helped us to be at this point. It’s not just the 32 car. There are four cars extremely tight, definitely in the championship — even the 96, they’ve got an outside shot at it. That’s what’s so great about GTD racing, is that it’s super competitive amongst the teams and the driving force for what we’ve got to do.”
Wright is not only the only team to win twice (Daytona and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca), but one of only three teams in the top five that have a victory at all. Team Korthoff Motorsports, in its first full year in the championship, is still looking for a win, as are Megennis and Westphal. The fact that CarBahn with Peregrine Racing are still in the fight at all is remarkable given that in the Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen, in Westphal’s words, “I was ushered into a pretty massive crash by two prototypes that were playing bumper cars, which wrote off our chassis and we had to find a new car. So it’s been anything but easy and calm.” He and Megennis really need a victory to have any shot at the title.
“We’re not starting the races to finish second or third, we’re starting them to win,” Westphal declares. “Then if everything goes well, yes, you can achieve that W. But in this series, it’s tough to even notch more than one of them in a year. So competitive, and so many cars are quick and capable, and certain tracks favor certain machines in terms of their strengths and weaknesses. It takes one tiny error to change a result that could have been a win and turn it into a fifth. So obviously, we’re going for the win — we know that we need to be aggressive, and we need to score a lot of points if we have a shot at winning the championship. We’re all racers on this program, and everyone wants it just as bad as the person standing on the left or the right, so we’re gonna give it what we got.”
The GTD PRO fight is a little less scintillating in the first year of the class, with Mathieu Jaminet and Matt Campbell having all but clinched the championship with four wins, a second and a third in the No. 9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3R. The fight for second in the standings, though, is tied going into the final two rounds. Ben Barnicoat, buoyed by victory in the No. 14 Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 in the last outing at Road America, is tied with the No. 3 Corvette Racing duo of Jordan Taylor and Antonio Garcia. Barnicoat, in his first year with Vasser Sullivan, is alone in the standings due to Hawksworth missing several rounds, the result of a motocross injury.
“Unfortunately, the Pfaff car, they’re gonna have to have a couple of real stinkers for us to be back in the hunt for the win, or not start a race, which is very unlikely,” says Barnicoat. “So, you know, all focus now is on doing as best as we can. Of course, I want second for myself and the teams championship and the manufacturers — that’s our absolute goal — and the way we’re going to do that is by having a strong end to the year. The objectives haven’t changed at all from start of the year: We’re going into every race in an attack mode and trying for a win as opposed to a defense, because the best form of defense is to attack. It’s a shame that the championship’s got away; we’re feeling stronger than than ever right now. But, you know, the 9 car has been been solid all year, and it’s just the way it’s panned out.
“We’re confident that we can close this thing out in second, despite Corvette — we know they’re going to be strong at the end of the year. And Aston [Alex Riberas and Ross Gunn in the No. 23 Heart of Racing Aston Martin Vantage] are still there as well — they’re only 90 points back, so you can’t can’t write them out just yet. It’s going to be a hot battle for second for sure.”
With this weekend’s race at VIR being a GT-only affair, traffic amongst the 18 cars entered between GTD PRO and GTD won’t be heavy, and there won’t be any prototype battles to influence the race. Qualifying for the Michelin GT Challenge at VIR takes place Saturday at 3:15pm ET, with coverage on IMSA.TV. Live television coverage for the race on Sunday begins at 2 p.m. ET on CNBC (and streaming on Peacock as well), with the green flag scheduled for 2:10pm.