Preview: IMSA GTP gets first sprint test at Long Beach

Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

Preview: IMSA GTP gets first sprint test at Long Beach


Preview: IMSA GTP gets first sprint test at Long Beach


After the “36 Hours of Florida,” the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship heads west this weekend to join the NTT IndyCar Series at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. The first sprint race of the year after 24- and 12-hour races — and in 2023 the only street circuit on the calendar — the 100-minute race around the 1.968-mile, 11-turn temporary street course almost always produces some surprises.

In 2022 it was Sebastien Bourdais making a minor error in the Hairpin while leading in his Chip Ganasssi Racing Cadillac. He fell from his pole position start (pictured above) to last, and had to make his way through the field, getting back into the lead before handing over to teammate Renger van der Zande to drive it home for the win.

“I had the best time of the year, to be honest — the car was just amazing,” Bourdais recollects of the victory. “Our Cadillac DPi was was on rails, and it started off great in in qualifying with a new track record and and then, yeah … it was a very unorthodox way to win the race. Just a little mishap going down the side, got caught out a little bit with a GT going into the Hairpin. And then I figured out too late that the DPi wasn’t quite the radius maker as the Indy car, and I found myself running out of room and stopped it in the exit wall. So had to overcome a 20-second deficit or something like that and pass every single car to make it back to the lead. But nevertheless, that’s that’s how good the car was that day.”

Bourdais, who also has three straight Indy car victories at the circuit, and van der Zande will be looking for their first victory of the season to try to close the gap on Sebring winners and points leaders Pipo Derani and Alexander Sims in the No. 31 Action Express Racing Cadillac V-Series.R. Derani won the race in 2021with Felipe Nasr — now racing in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports 963 — and would love to repeat. But it may be a harder task than in recent years. In the DPi era, Cadillac had an edge on bumpier tracks, including the street circuits, but with the new Grand Touring Prototype cars, the gap to the others appears to have shrunk and perhaps disappeared. With eight GTP entries — two each from Cadillac, Acura, BMW and Porsche — it could be wide open.

“I think it will be way more competitive across all the manufacturers,” declares Filipe Albuquerque, co-driver of the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Autosport Acura ARX-06. “I think we’ll be way closer. I don’t know who’s going to be the the leading manufacturer or the one that is going to be dominating it, but I’ll take those chances because it’s way better than any of them before. Coming over the last two years I was happy because it’s a nice event — it’s a nice town, a nice area. But then we knew that we were always struggling whenever we were putting on the helmet. That’s not anymore the case, so we are optimistic for that.”

Albuquerque and Taylor are second in the points, ahead of the No. 01 CGR Cadillac of Bourdais and van der Zande.

Whatever the class of car, the walls are never far from playing a key role at Long Beach. Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images

Accompanying the GTP cars will be five GTD PRO and 15 GTD entries, racing amongst themselves, often while having to deal with fights in the other GT class, and the GTP cars coming through to lap them.

“This is 100 minutes of threading the needle through the walls,” says Bill Auberlen, who will be driving the No. 97 Turner Motorsport BMW M4 GTD entry with Chandler Hull and has two class victories at Long Beach. “You have the most skilled drivers in the world, and to be on the track with them is great fun. But I’m in a different category than the prototype cars, so while they are having this incredible race, I’m in a GT car just trying to keep it off the walls, trying to win this thing.

“It’s a lot of work. But when you get it right, you basically are grazing the walls with your car and you’ve pushed it to the maximum and you get on that top step of the podium, there’s nothing better in our season at all.”

Last year it was a BMW, but not Auberlen’s, that took the GTD class victory — although Auberlen did receive his place on the Grand Prix of Long Beach Walk of Fame a few days earlier. Instead, Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow took the win on their way to the GTD Sprint Cup championship for Paul Miller Racing. Ross Gunn and Alex Riberas won GTD PRO in the most improbable manner: Chasing the No. 3 Corvette before the single pit stop, the Corvette crew lost a wheel nut that ended up in the radiator of the No. 9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche. Corvette Racing received a penalty, allowing Gunn and Riberas to take victory in the No. 23 Heart of Racing Aston Martin Vantage GT3.

Naturally, then, Gunn is looking forward to returning to the circuit with its signature Hairpin. And while the Hairpin that leads onto the long Shoreline Drive “straight” is certainly one of the track’s defining characteristics, Gunn has a special appreciation for the series of turns through the roundabout in front of the Aquarium of the Pacific, along with the dolphin fountain at its center.

Watch out, flowers — here come the GTs. Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images

“The Fountain section is probably the part of the track that is the most picturesque, and for the GTP guys, they maybe don’t take so much curb there,” Gunn explains. “But in GTs you can really use a lot of the curbs and sometimes destroy the flowerbeds. So that’s probably the fun part of the lap where you you can sometimes gain time and lose time as well.

“And yet the Hairpin, it’s also super special because it’s super-low speed and sometimes you concertina right when you’re in traffic and you can gain time or lose massively on competitors around you. One of the special things about Long Beach as well is the track evolution; it changes so much throughout the two days that we’re running because IndyCar are there and they’re putting lots of rubber down and the track is different every session. That’s one of the the enjoyable parts about driving at Long Beach, is each session you just find grip every every time.”

Gunn and the rest of the drivers will have a couple of practice sessions on Friday to sort their cars in order to prepare for qualifying at 5:15pm Pacific time/8:15pm ET. Qualifying will be carried live on as well as IMSA Radio, while Saturday’s 100-minute race will be on USA Network beginning at 5pm ET. The green flag is scheduled for 2:05pm local time.