Since its return to major sports car racing competition in 1999, Corvette Racing has set the standard in terms of performance, preparation, and support which combined to the fullest potential Saturday at the historic Lime Rock Park circuit in Connecticut, as the General Motors-based runners secured its 100th victory with a 1-2 finish in the WeatherTech Northeast Grand Prix.
Running among the top four throughout the two hour, forty minute timed distance, the team’s No. 4 Chevrolet Corvette C7.R entry driven by Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin took advantage of mistakes that ruined the results for its rivals in the GT Le Mans division of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship: Ford, BMW, and Ferrari.
Having won the previous three IMSA events, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Ford GT was the prohibitive favorite entering at Saturday’s start, especially after Richard Westbrook took the TOTAL Pole Award in qualifications on Friday. However, things turned sour immediately for CGR, as contact forced the Englishman off the road in the Esses section of the 1.1 mile layout on the very first lap. Westbrook made a valiant comeback to put the No. 67 Ford back into podium contention, however when Ryan Briscoe took over past halfway, the Australian could not find a way to get past the No. 4 Corvette with either Milner or Gavin at the controls.
While Ford and Corvette dueled for positioning, a solid opening stint from Risi Competizione’s Toni Vilander put the Houston-based Ferrari 488 in the lead at the midway point, a spot held when Vilander turned over the driving seat to Giancarlo Fisichella. However, the ex-Formula One star during the final hour of the event started to struggle with handling and slipped off the road at the challenging Big Bend curve on consecutive laps. The first off course excursion put the No. 4 Corvette with Gavin driving to position number one, while the second slip moved the No. 67 Ford of Briscoe to second.
However, Briscoe made contact with Fisichella in an attempt to avoid the Ferrari, suffering damage which slowed his overall pace. The situation allowed the sister No. 3 Corvette of Antonio Garcia to slip past during the final half hour to secure runner-up honors in GTLM for himself and teammate Jan Magnussen, Corvette Racing’s second 1-2 finish in 2016, matching its photo finish effort in the season opening Rolex 24 at Daytona in January. Briscoe and Westbrook held on to complete the class podium, but the result doubles Milner and Gavin’s lead on the championship points table from five to ten with the next race set for Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
As Chevrolet, Ford, and Ferrari battled for the victory, Saturday was an event to forget for both Porsche North America and BMW Team Rahal. Both of the Bobby Rahal-prepared V-8 turbo M6s were eliminated due to accidents at the final turn of the circuit, ironically both also involving the No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR. The No. 100 BMW was forced to retire first when John Edwards was clipped by Porsche NA’s Fred Makowiecki. Unfortunately, Dirk Werner would suffer a similar fate when the same Porsche, now with Earl Bamber at the controls collided with the German in a fight at the time for second place. None of the drivers involved in the accidents suffered injuries. In an equally double whammy-type outcome, Porsche NA’s sister No. 911 entry of Patrick Pilet and Nick Tandy also suffered difficulties as mechanical maladies brought the vehicle to a halt on two different occasions on Saturday.
In Prototype Challenge, a two-car duel from start to finish eventually went in favor of Starworks Motorsport’s Renger van der Zande and Alex Popow, as the current class points leaders grabbed their third victory in the past four events. Moving up to the front row of the starting grid after pole winners CORE autosport moved to the back of the starting grid due to a post qualifying driver change, Popow chased PR1-Mathiasen Motorsports’ Robert Alon in the opening stint. A superior pit stop from the Peter Baron-guided squad vaulted the No. 8 Starworks’ entry to the front when van der Zande took over a lead he would comfortably maintain until the final 15 minutes when PR1’s lead driver Tom Kimber-Smith closed in from second.
Unfortunately, Kimber-Smith’s late surge was halted when the British-based pilot was held up by BAR 1 Motorsport’s Johnny Mowlem for two consecutive laps, creating a gap that the PR1 driver could not overcome. Behind the two front runners, Performance Tech Motorsports’ Kyle Marcelli and James French would complete the PC podium, driving a solid race yet never made a serious charge for the top spot during the two hour, forty minute timed distance.
Finally in GT Daytona, Magnus Racing’s Andy Lally was able to erase a one lap plus deficit to eventually take over the lead late and claim his and co-driver John Potter’s first IMSA victory since the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Getting back on the lead lap following the final full course caution of Saturday’s race. Lally knifed his way through the GTD competition, before getting past Riley Motorsport Dodge Viper driver Jeroen Bleekemolen to take the top spot for good.
Bleekemolen would slip back to third at the finish as late contact with Team Seattle Porsche’s Alex Riberas at the No Name Straight chicane forced the Dutchman off the road and severely damaged the Alex Job-prepared Porsche, forcing the team to retire the 911 before the finish. The result could prove disastrous for Riberas and teammate Mario Farnbacher, who could have closed further on Scuderia Corsa’s Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan in the race for the series title. The championship leading Corsa Ferrari squad struggled for pace and finished 11th on Saturday, yet managed to add three points to its cushion which now stands at 25 points over Team Seattle, who was credited with a 14th-place finish.
With Riley’s late issues, Stevenson Motorsports’ Audi R8 jumped to second at the finish securing a 1-2 result in GTD for the German marque. Robin Liddell and Andrew Davis were solid from start to finish, yet kind of were lost in the late shuffle thanks to Lally’s charge through the field.