ANALYSIS: Championship battles culminate amid Petit pressure and prestige

Barry Cantrell/Motorsport Images

ANALYSIS: Championship battles culminate amid Petit pressure and prestige

Insights & Analysis

ANALYSIS: Championship battles culminate amid Petit pressure and prestige

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Fighting for a championship is hard enough. Trying to manage securing a season-long victory in a grueling 10-hour race that starts in the middle of the day and ends in darkness makes that exponentially tougher. Championships in all five IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship classes — DPi, LMP2, LMP3, GTD PRO and GTD — are still up for play in the 25th Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

At 2.54 miles, Road Atlanta is the shortest track to host an endurance race on the circuit, and the shortest where all five classes are in action. That makes it a very busy race.

“It’s the nature of the circuit,” explained Oliver Jarvis, who with Tom Blomqvist is part of the Meyer Shank Racing Acura squad fighting for the final DPi championship. “Sebring’s extremely tough because of the bumps. Daytona is 24 hours, but there’s a lot of straight. Petit Le Mans, the track is so tight and twisty there’s very little rest; but, also, I think a P2 car is only slightly slower a lap here than us. So the traffic’s even more difficult than probably every other racetrack on the calendar. It’s physical in nature. It’s a tough track for the drivers.”

Last year Jarvis muscled his way past Felipe Nasr, who was on his way to the championship with Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Action Express Racing Cadillac. Nasr wasn’t going to fight that too hard — his main goal was to keep the No. 31 ahead of title rivals Ricky Taylor and Filipe Albuquerque in the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Acura, although the Mazda was a nice buffer. That highlights another aspect of this race, or any other championship finale — winning may not be the ultimate goal for the championship contenders, but it’s certainly a nice way to cap off a title run.

And some drivers who aren’t in the championship hunt, but are racing with the teams that are as the third driver, have to keep that in mind. Sure, they want to win, but the championship is more important to the team. That’s something that Brendon Hartley, joining Taylor and Albuquerque in the No. 10, and Helio Castroneves in the No. 60 MSR Acura, have to remember. With WTR having a 19-point advantage over MSR, the two teams are only concentrating on finishing ahead of the other. The two title rivals last year were in the same position, and Taylor tried everything he could to get by the No. 31. Fighting like that after 10 hours of tough racing is an especially big ask at Road Atlanta.

The short circuit makes traffic handling a key element. Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

“Some racetracks, there’s a bit of that oxymoron of slow is fast,” Taylor said. “Sometimes you have to be patient on certain tracks to go quicker. For some reason at Road Atlanta, that’s not the case; it’s like, faster, is faster, and the harder you push, the faster you go. And then the second you relax, the lap time goes away. It’s one of the few tracks that rewards just wringing the neck of the car. So that’s 10 hours, that is a lot. And then it’s, I think, one of the most densely crowded races of the season with all the classes on a relatively short lap — under a minute and 10 seconds — It’s very condensed. So on a single lap, it’s tiring, and you throw a bunch of other cars out there that may or may not see you coming at night, and it’s a long 10 hours. It’s definitely grueling.”

Fortunately for the drivers, they may not have to deal with torrential rain. The forecast that was dire with prediction of downpours from the remnants of Hurricane Ian on Saturday now indicates a bit of rain Friday night into Saturday morning, as it appears the storm will largely veer east. As of Thursday morning, however, the storm was battering IMSA headquarters in Daytona Beach, so it has certainly affected IMSA staff along with drivers and crew throughout the paddock with homes in Florida.

Wind could still be a factor for qualifying and race, and teams will have the challenge — or blessing — of temperatures about 10 degrees cooler than they’ll have experienced during practice. At any rate, it appears racers and fans will be spared the deluge of 2015 that shortened the race and led to the GTLM Porsche 911 winning overall in the hands of Nick Tandy, Richard Barry CantrellLietz and Patrick Pilet.

In addition to the close title fight in DPi, the points in LMP2 and GTD are close as well, so those championships could be up in the air until the checkered flag falls. The Michelin Endurance Cup championships will be decided as well, with points awarded after 4 and 8 hours, and at the finish. MSR leads WTR in the Endurance Cup, 30 to 29, for DPi.

The addition of endurance specialists adds to Petit’s allure, but can also complicate strategies for the title hopefuls. Michael Levitt / Motorsport Images

The endurance races always have the added attraction of extra teams and drivers joining in for the fun, such as the No. 48 Action Express Cadillac DPi.R of Jimmie Johnson, Mike Rockenfeller and Kamui Kobayashi. There’s also Risi Competizione, which trails Corvette Racing in the GTD PRO MEC points by two, and is one ahead of Pfaff in third. Risi has Daniel Serra, Davide Rigon and James Calado wheeling the No. 62 Ferrari 488. WeatherTech Racing is back in GTD PRO with an all Mercedes-AMG Motorsports driver lineup of Maximilian Buhk, Mikael Grenier and Maximillian Goetz — the first time such an all-works Mercedes-AMG squad has been featured in an IMSA race. Ferrari teams Cetilar Racing and AF Corse are back for the first time since the Six Hours of the Glen.

Then there are the drivers added for the endurance races, often stars from other forms of racing or pulled from other sports car series. Both Chip Ganassi and Mike Shank bring drivers over from their IndyCar Series program, such as Scott Dixon for CGR’s No. 01 and Castroneves for MSR. New CGR driver Ryan Hunter-Reay is in the No. 02 Cadillac. In the GTD PRO ranks, Kyle Kirkwood is driving the No. 14 Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F, and 2021 DPi champion Nasr is back in the Pfaff Motorsports Porsche that he drove to great effect at Daytona.

Bigger fields, star power, and a long, tough race … it’s perhaps fitting that the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season begins and ends with two of its toughest races, a feeling echoed by Jarvis, tempered by the influence of success, or lack thereof.

“It can be great to to end on a 10-hour race, depending if you’re the winner or not,” said Jarvis, who was victorious in the Mazda last year with Harry Tincknell and Jonathan Bomarito. “You start with 24 hours, one of the toughest races of the season, and you finish with a 10-hour. So there’s no easy way to win this championship. The way the points work, it generally always comes down to the last race and it’s not a normal 2h40m race, it’s a bigger event. It’s got a lot of prestige to it. And that means whoever wins [the championship], whether it’s us or the 10 car, you’ve got to take your hat off to them because it’s not just one race, it’s a whole year’s worth of work of performing at the top of our game.

“This race can be decided by one problem in traffic, one mistake, and even things that are out of our control. But I think that’s what makes IMSA so special is that it’s not just one, let’s say, 12-hour race in the middle. You start with a 24 and you finish with a 10. And you’ve got to hang on in there for the rest of the year to make sure you’re in a position to fight for the championship when you get to that last race. Then it’s just giving it everything.”

The 25th Motul Petit Le Mans begins at 12:10pm Eastern on Saturday. The entire race will be streamed on Peacock, with the first three hours broadcast on NBC and the final three and post-race on USA Network. Qualifying takes place Friday afternoon at 3:40pm. Eastern and can be seen on IMSA.tv.

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