Weather has been a factor throughout the first two days of preliminary action for the 2015 running of the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, the final stop on the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and will continue to affect teams and drivers when the 10-hour endurance test gets going at Noon on Saturday. With the treacherous conditions causing multiple off course excursions during practice and qualifying so far, Performance Tech’s Conor Daly and Michael Shank Racing’s John Pew suffering the worst of those mishaps, it is clear that a steady and cautious pace will win out against a more aggressive tact. The rain due to Hurricane Joaquin’s influence in the Atlantic Ocean, will not be as bad as in some areas of the southeast Saturday, but hopefully the consequences will not bring any major stoppages to the proceedings as was the case in 2009, when the race was called prior to half distance. With what may fall from the clouds above being the top story, here’s the key players to watch for when the action heats up in the fight for the top step of the podium and for the outright class championships.
Although a win Saturday would be perhaps the biggest feat in the history of Troy Flis’ Visitflorida.com Racing squad, the series title is definitely the target for Friday’s TOTAL Pole Award winners. Of any of the teams in the Prototype category, the rain may have benefitted the Corvette DP that will feature Richard Westbrook, Michael Valiante, and Mike Rockenfeller the most. Westbrook was over a second faster than the field on Friday afternoon in the wet, a far cry from the dry first practice on Thursday when the former Spirit of Daytona group was only seventh quick.
The biggest threats to the No. 90 machine claiming the race win and the overall title will be from Action Express Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing, who line up second and third on the grid Saturday. The No. 5 Corvette DP with Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi, and Sebastien Bourdais crushed the competition at the 12 Hours of Sebring in March and are looking to successfully defend their series crown from a season ago. CGR was stout two weeks ago in winning at Circuit of the Americas and would like to close out their amazing record in prototype racing with one final victory before making the switch to the GT Le Mans class in 2016. The Ford EcoBoost-Riley DP runners are experienced in the driving department with five-time Daytona champion Scott Pruett being joined by multi-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, and prototype and GT veteran Joey Hand.
In Prototype Challenge, the stage is set for the expected head to head duel between PR1-Mathiasen Motorsports and CORE autosport for the series title. Ignore what happened during qualifications on Friday. Although Tom Kimber-Smith won the class pole by a large margin, CORE did not call upon star driver Colin Braun in the session, as regular 2015 qualifier Jon Bennett handled the duties. Reliability and/or the first mistake could ultimately determine the team that comes out on top when the checkered flag falls on the season in full. Although PR1 won the Rolex 24 at Daytona, they lost several laps early in the race due to mechanical problems. Unlike in January, they would not have the required time on Saturday to make up any time lost due to mechanical malady or driver error. Also, in that same event CORE’s Braun gave away the race win in the final hour with a major accident. The treacherous road conditions could cause another major accident at anytime. The X-factor in the PC fight however, could be focused on CORE’s third driver for the Petit Le Mans: Anthony Lazzaro. Despite having a plethora of open wheel and prototype experience, he is several years removed from his most recent appearance in this form of racing vehicle. In comparison, all three of PR1’s driving trio at Road Atlanta (Kimber-Smith, Mike Guasch, and Andrew Palmer) all have multiple efforts in PC this season.
On track and post technical inspection violations have shuffled the pre-race outlook in the GT Le Mans division in terms of both the race and the championship. Although Porsche North America won the battle in qualifying on the timing chart, they will not reap the full benefits of those efforts, at least not at the start. While Earl Bamber won the pole position on Friday, posting the fourth fastest overall lap no less, the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans overall race winner also crashed the same No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR later in the session, forcing the factory squad to roll out the spare car for Saturday. The team and co-drivers Fred Makowiecki and Jorg Bergmeiser will only have a limited number of laps during the warm-up on Saturday morning to get comfortable with the new ride. The situation is also ominous for the championship table leading ride of Patrick Pilet, Nick Tandy, and Richard Lietz, whose No. 911 machine failed post qualifying inspection, a ride height violation was spotted by IMSA officials, and that team will also start from the tail of the grand touring runners at the start.
With the Porsches being pushed back, the early focus on Saturday will be on Corvette and BMW. After dominating the major endurance rounds during the 2015 TUSCC season, Corvette Racing has taken a semi-backseat in the shorter sprint events and have fallen back in the points standings. However, the expected wet conditions could even the playing field for the Doug Fehan-run squad, possibly tilting the odds in their favor. Le Mans GTE-Pro winners in June Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin are first in line, with Daytona and Sebring winners Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia, and Ryan Briscoe within striking range. Bobby Rahal’s BMW squad has a great chance at snagging the GTLM title after Saturday’s Petit Le Mans with Dirk Werner, Bill Auburlen, and Augusto Farfus holding that opportunity. The wet weather should certainly aid the Brazilian-based Farfus, who has gained praise for showing pace in the adverse conditions in the World Touring Car Championship over the years.
Finally in GT Daytona, the pieces are potentially falling into place for a memorable Saturday for the Bill Riley-guided Dodge Viper team. The squad’s pair of V-10 powered monsters could not only claim the GTD series title on Saturday, but also the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup crown as well. The No. 93 entry, which is going for the latter of the two honors, claimed the pole position on Friday with Trans-Am regular Cameron Lawrence at the wheel, and is well supported by ex-Dodge factory pilot Marc Goossens. The question for their ultimate success however, will be based on how Al Carter fares in the third driver role. The team’s other machine, the No. 33 Viper Exchange-backed entry is coming off a win in Austin, Texas two weeks ago. Ben Keating and the Bleekemolen brothers Jeroen and Sebastian will be heard from often on Saturday.
As for the opposition, the race win competition is stout with the Park Place Motorsport and Alex Job Racing Porsches starting right behind them. In terms of the championship, their three rivals all start further back on the grid. Scuderia Corsa’s Bill Sweedler and Townsend Bell took their Ferrari 458 to the winner’s circle last month in Virginia and are used to the championship pressure after being a part of the title picture a season ago, when they drove for AIM Autosport. The same holds true for Paul Miller Racing’s Audi R8 trio of Christopher Haase, Dion von Moltke, and Bryce Miller who won this race a year ago. The unknown questions however, lay on the shoulders of TRG-Aston Martin Racing. Although pro driver Kuno Wittmer secured the GTLM title last year at this event, the title hunt factor is new for co-drivers Brandon Davis and Christina Nielsen. The female star from Denmark has been the major media focus this weekend as she hopes to become the first woman to win an IMSA title on Saturday night. How she handles the pressure from outside the on track action will greatly influence her success or disappointment come Saturday night.