The lone yellow in the Michelin GT Challenge at Virginia International Raceway, the penultimate round of the 2022 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, came at almost exactly halfway into the 2h40m race, shaking up strategy and throwing a wrench into the best-laid plans. Some that had started to look at alternative strategies were hurt, while others going on a more routine pit stop pattern found themselves benefitting. At the end, it wasn’t necessarily the cars that had shown the most speed throughout the weekend taking victory, with Pfaff Motorsports taking the GTD PRO and overall victory — its fifth of the season — and all but sealing the championship.
The GTD title fight, on the other hand, was practically turned on its head thanks to a second-consecutive victory for Winward Racing and a massive fuel-saving effort by Maxime Martin that propelled his Heart of Racing teammate Roman De Angelis into the points lead, and gave a beacon of hope to Winward’s Russell Ward and Phillip Ellis in the championship.
Polesitter Ross Gunn kept the lead in the No. 23 Heart of Racing Aston Martin Vantage at the start, and the run to the first pit stops was uneventful for the PRO contenders. Antonio Garcia was the first to pit, bringing the No. 3 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette in 47 minutes into the race, with Jordan Taylor going into the car. Pitting early and thus taking less fuel paid off later, as the Corvette had track position after the round of pit stops was completed. But the strategy that got Corvette to the front was negated when Ellis, while trying to pass Martin for GTD position, got pushed off track in The Snake and took out a trackside WeatherTech sign. He carried the sign with him, but there was enough debris on track that a full-course caution was called.
That meant that almost everyone pitted when the pits opened except for a handful of GTD teams that needed the benefit of track position. Corvette needed a long fill, and lost the track position it had gained, with Taylor falling behind Mathieu Jaminet in the No. 9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3R, John Edwards in the No. 25 BMW M Team RLL M4 GT3 and Ben Barnicoat in the No. 14 Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F.
With the green flag waving with 1h8m left in the race, no one could make the end on fuel, although some, including Heart of Racing which had had to serve a drive-through penalty for the No. 23 for working outside the pit box in their last stop, gambled on a late-race yellow to make that happen. Instead, most pitted as soon as the window to make it to the end on fuel opened, including Pfaff who took rear tires and a few seconds worth of fuel. Jaminet, though, had a host of GTD cars that did not pit in front of him, and Alex Riberas in the No. 23 Aston Martin. But Riberas was trying to save fuel, so both Jaminet and Taylor got by before he finally ducked into the pits.
Jaminet and Matt Campbell took their fifth victory of the season, with Taylor and Garcia in second in PRO and overall for Corvette. Garcia and Taylor took sole position of second in the GTD PRO championship from Barnicoat, who finished third in PRO with Jack Hawksworth, but ninth overall.
“It was super tight,” explained Jaminet. “Guys went on different strategies without stopping. And we only took two rear tires, which is not very common and the car was super hard to drive. I had to push that out. We were pretty tight on fuel at the end. So we had quite some big savings that we had to do last two laps. And we knew the Corvette is gonna catch back. So it, was pretty tight and then on the cool-down laps, we run out of fuel, so it was a good calculation from the boys. We maximized everything and it’s one more win in the bag.”
Jaminet and Campbell only need to take the green flag at Petit Le Mans to claim the inaugural GTD PRO championship.
“It’s hard to beat a season like the one we’ve had,” said Campbell. “It’s fair to say we’ve been pretty dominant. We’ve only been off the podium once the whole year so I think it just shows the level that the whole team of Pfaff motorsports is at. Mathieu has done a fantastic job all year and as a group we’ve been working really well together. So I think as a package, we’ve for sure being the strongest down pit lane overall in all areas, which is very, very cool.”
Winward Racing had the GTD pole thanks to Ward’s qualifying effort yesterday in the No. 57 Mercedes-AMG, but the win was far from certain, and looked near impossible after a slow stop due to a faulty wheel gun and then with Ellis taking out the trackside sign. But Ellis had the speed to get back to the front, and even with Maxime Martin and the Heart of Racing squad making it to the finish on only two stops, claimed the win and put the pair into championship contention, only 140 points out of first place.
“It was a team effort,” said Ward. “Philip drove the absolute wheels off that thing. It was just great strategy and hard work from the crew to get it done. That’s two in a row here in IMSA, and maybe we can get the final one as well. I think we’re still in the hunt for the championship.”
The No. 96 Turner Motorsport team was the first to try an alternate strategy, with Robby Foley coming in 44 minutes into the race. The shorter fill, combined with the wheel gun problem for Winward while Ward handed over to Ellis, put the BMW out front, followed by Aidan Read in the No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Acura NSX maintaining its second-place position, Stevan McAleer in the No 32 Team Korthoff Motorsports Mercedes-AMG, Bryan Sellers in the No 1 Paul Miller Racing BMW M4 and Jeff Westphal in the No. 39 CarBahn with Peregrine Racing Lamborghini Huracán.
Shortly after the first round of pit stops, it looked like it had all gone wrong for Korthoff, as championship leader Stevan McAleer, fresh in the car from starter Mike Skeen, slowed down and headed for the pits. The crew pulled the rear wheels off, looking for suspension damage, but it turned out to be nothing more serious than a loose wheel nut and the car was sent back out, a lap down. The full-course caution that followed gave the team their lap back when they stayed out while everyone else pitted. The team would eventually salvage an eighth-place finish to keep McAleer in the championship hunt, if no longer in the lead.
Like most of the PRO teams, most of the GTD teams started pitting as soon as the window to make the end of the race on fuel opened with about an hour left. That left Andy Lally in the No. 44 Magnus Racing Aston Martin Vantage, who had not made a second stop at all, in the lead, followed by Sellers, Aaron Telitz in the No. 12 Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F, Martin in the No. 27 Heart of Racing Aston Martin, Auberlen and Ellis. Jan Heylen in the No. 16 Wright Motorsports Porsche was the first car in line, in seventh, that was certain to make it to the end on fuel.
As the race entered its final 40 minutes, Ellis was charging toward the front, although he was among those that would have to stop for a splash of fuel to make it to the end. As he passed cars and others ducked in for fuel, he made his way to second. Waiting until late in the race — and thus having some clear track to run in as others peeled off in front of him — paid off. When he finally pitted with eight minutes to go, he came out in front of Telitz, with only Martin in front, and Martin apparently unlikely to make it to the end on fuel.
But Martin was in heavy conservation mode, and didn’t have the pace to keep Ellis behind him, and Ellis executed his pass for the GTD lead going into Oak Tree on the penultimate lap.
“We decided to actually save as much as we can and lose as little time as you can to the front guys, because we weren’t actually sure how much they were going to push or save fuel,” said Ellis. “Maybe they were going to push the entire stint and build a big-enough gap. And we weren’t quite sure, especially behind Maxime and Bill. And at some point, we decided, “Hey, we’re losing so much time so we have to get by.’ Luckily, they were so conservative that we got by pretty fast. And then try to close the gap as much as we can. Once we saw they were pitting in front of us, I had a couple of laps in clean air and that was all in. I think that’s probably got us the win today.”
Martin went 40 laps on a load of fuel to finish in second, a big move for his teammate Roman De Angelis. The finish put De Angelis into the GTD points lead, 45 points ahead of McAleer. Ryan Hardwick and Jan Heylen are third, 57 points out of the lead.
The big move came courtesy of the Winward victory, putting Ward and Ellis into contention for the championship, only 140 points out of the lead, with somewhere around a 170-point swing possible at Petit Le Mans in a month’s time, depending on the number of entries. Foley and Auberlen are still mathematically in contention as well.