There were two major turning points in the three-way battle for the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class title in the 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Saturday during the 26th annual Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.
A trio of protagonists were separated by just 11 points at the start of the day, but the No. 6 Porsche Penske Motorsport Porsche 963 was eliminated from championship contention just 74 minutes into the 10-hour event when Nick Tandy was swept into an accident triggered by a pair of Grand Touring (GT) cars.
As the race unfolded, the championship lead bounced back and forth between the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac V-Series.R that led the standings heading into the weekend, and the No. 10 Konica Minolta Racing Acura ARX-06 that took over the top spot after points were awarded for qualifying.
With 62 minutes remaining, Filipe Albuquerque in the No. 10 attempted to pass Pipo Derani in the No. 31 for second place around the outside of Turn 1, a fast, 90-degree right-hander. The cars made side-to-side contact before the Acura speared to the left across the grass into heavy contact with a tire barrier. IMSA race control reviewed the coming-together but ruled no incident responsibility.
The dramatic turn of events essentially guaranteed the championship would go to the No. 31 Cadillac, with drivers Derani, Alexander Sims, and Jack Aitken. They duly clinched the crown with a sixth-place finish.
Derani and Sims ended the season with a 21-point advantage over Albuquerque and co-driver Ricky Taylor, who finished just a single point ahead of Blomqvist and Braun. The No. 60 duo led the GTP class with three race wins in 2023.
The top seven teams completed the first year of the new GTP formula clustered within 60 points, demonstrating a remarkable level of parity between the four competing manufacturers. Porsche Penske Motorsport’s two entries tied for fourth in the standings (-42 points).
“It’s been a real pleasure to be a part of this new era,” said Aitken, who served as the No. 31 team’s endurance driver in 2023 before moving into the seat currently occupied full-time by Sims in ’24. The championship driving trio also won the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in March.
“I think the standard of drivers, teams, and machinery that we have competing in the series is just phenomenal,” Aitken continued. “To have such a close finale after so many ups and downs for everybody through the year is really amazing. It was heart-in-mouth stuff pretty much the whole way through the race, and I think we’re all still slightly in disbelief. But it’s just reward for all the hard work that’s gone into this program.”
Derani admitted that the prospect of a late-race battle with Albuquerque prompted flashbacks from their previous on-track encounters, most famously at the 2021 Petit Le Mans.
“It seems to always be the No. 10 at the very end fighting with us, but this year the race took a different direction toward the end,” remarked Derani, who claimed his second IMSA championship. “I think Filipe was a little bit too optimistic there with still an hour and (two) minutes to go.
“We’ve seen that going through the outside of Turn 1 never really works,” he continued. “It happened last year with two Cadillacs, unfortunately. You just lose grip, and obviously he tried. He came in very aggressively trying to cut me off to the inside. We touched and he went off, which is unfortunate for him.”
Meanwhile, the battle for the prestigious Motul Petit Le Mans race win boiled down to a straight fight between the No. 01 Cadillac Racing Cadillac shared by Sebastien Bourdais, Renger van der Zande, and endurance driver Scott Dixon, and the No. 60 Acura fielded by Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian and drivers Tom Blomqvist, Colin Braun, and Helio Castroneves.
Braun grabbed the lead from van der Zande with a strong restart following the caution for Albuquerque’s crash with 30 minutes to go, and he held it to the finish, which occurred under caution after a pair of minor late-race incidents. The result bookended the ’23 season with victories for the Meyer Shank Acura, having started the campaign with a triumph in the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
The No. 60 actually fell two laps off the lead about two hours into Saturday’s race when Blomqvist was hit from behind in traffic in Turn 10. He was able to immediately drive the car into the pits for repairs and the start of a stirring comeback drive that culminated in Braun’s victorious restart.
“We just put our heads down and focused on what we could do,” said Braun, who earned his 25th race win in IMSA competition. “We knew we had a fast Acura and would have opportunities to get our lap back. We didn’t panic, and the guys did a great job on strategy. We had to be fast at times, but we also had to be smart and save the car.”
Regarding the critical restart that put the Meyer Shank Acura into the lead, Braun said: “Renger and I have raced each other for a long time, and he’s always raced me super fair and super clean. I just put it all on the line. We didn’t have a lot to lose, and I think they were kind of in the same boat in terms of the championship. I knew it was going to be big commitment, and it was awesome to make it happen.”
“I took it real easy on that last restart to save as much fuel as I could, that’s why I was slow,” van der Zande responded. “I don’t know where Colin got the grip from, but he had massive grip and sent it down the inside and still made the corner. I didn’t expect that, so hats off to him.”
Saturday’s season finale also determined the winners in the 2023 IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup. Cadillac clinched the manufacturer’s title when points were awarded following the fourth hour, and Sims, Derani, and the No. 31 Whelen Engineering team locked up the team and driver crowns at the 8-hour mark.
With championship battles settled early in Grand Touring Daytona PRO (GTD PRO) and Grand Touring Daytona (GTD), Saturday’s 26th annual Motul Petit Le Mans allowed the class races to shine through.
WeatherTech Racing scored its fourth IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GTD PRO win of the season, while Forte Racing Powered by USRT overcame several setbacks to capture its maiden GTD win.
The WeatherTech GTD PRO trio of Jules Gounon, Daniel Juncadella and Maro Engel in the No. 79 Mercedes-AMG GT3 car had one in-race penalty on a day that featured a bevy of them throughout the 52-car field. A fourth hour drive-through was assessed for failure to adhere to the minimum refueling time.
But that was their only major issue on the day and the trio’s pace kept them in the top four in class most of the race. The car came alive in the cooler night conditions and Juncadella held off the advances of Kevin Estre, in the No. 9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R (992), to bring home the win.
Additionally, the win secured Juncadella and Gounon the GTD PRO title in the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup. Engel was part of the team’s bookend wins here and the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona. It is the fourth career WeatherTech Championship win for all three drivers.
“It was up and down with the drive-through, but we came back through to the win,” Engel said. “What an endurance season it’s been for these guys, big thanks to these guys.”
The rest of the GTD PRO race generally revolved around ends of runs.
Pfaff’s five-year run with its fan favorite “plaid Porsche” ended on the podium, Estre sharing the car with full-season co-drivers Patrick Pilet and Klaus Bachler. The Steve Bortolotti-led team switches to McLaren in 2024.
Risi Competizione, racing 25 years on from winning the inaugural Petit Le Mans in 1998, rounded out the podium with a largely trouble-free drive to third with Daniel Serra, Davide Rigon and Alessandro Pier Guidi aboard their No. 62 Ferrari 296 GT3.
Vasser Sullivan, in their No. 14 Lexus RC F GT3, won the title at race start but suffered their first finish outside the top-five in more than a year. In the fifth hour, Ben Barnicoat hit the Turn 3 curb, which launched the car airborne, into a sign and destroyed the front end of the car.
Lastly, a to-be-determined engine issue sidelined Corvette Racing and its No. 3 Corvette C8.R in its last race as a full factory program. That left the trio of Antonio Garcia, Jordan Taylor and Tommy Milner an unrepresentative seventh after contending for the win in the opening hours.
An otherwise luckless year for Lamborghini in WeatherTech Championship competition came good at the end, with the brand’s first victory of 2023. It came in unusual circumstances.
The trio of Loris Spinelli, Misha Goikhberg and Patrick Liddy incurred three drive-through penalties in their No. 78 Lamborghini Huracán GT3 EVO2 yet rallied through strategy and pace to secure the victory. It is Goikhberg’s fourth, and Spinelli and Liddy’s first WeatherTech Championship win.
Leading in the fifth hour, the car received a drive-through for jumping a restart. Then in the eighth hour, the car picked up two more: one for incident responsibility with the No. 27 Heart of Racing Team Aston Martin Vantage GT3 and the other for working on the car outside the pit box.
That dropped the car well outside the top five but through a methodical charge from Spinelli, the No. 78 Lamborghini was back in fourth at the start of the ninth hour and leading moments before the tenth and final hour.
Liddy, watching from the pit box, perhaps had the best view of the proceedings.
“It was unbelievable. Watching Loris the last couple hours was gut wrenching!” he said.
From the driver’s seat, Spinelli praised the Forte by USRT team.
“We started the race really well, and ran in the top five for a couple hours,” he said. “We had a couple penalties but the guys gave me an amazing effort for the last three hours. I’m thankful to Lamborghini and the Forte team.”
The podium changed on the final restart of the race, leading to the 13th full-course caution. What looked to be a possible Porsche second through fourth finishing order behind the Lamborghini, came unglued.
Two cars appeared to squeeze Jan Heylen’s No. 16 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R (992), running in second place, exiting Turn 10, and the resulting damage led to a fire that forced the Belgian to pull off course at Turn 3 and extinguish the flames himself. Seb Priaulx, poised to score a podium in the No. 80 AO Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R (992), ran off course behind Heylen at Turn 10 and lost track position.
In the chaos, Turner Motorsport leapt to second with Robby Foley, Patrick Gallagher and Michael Dinan sharing the No. 96 BMW M4 GT3. The only Porsche on the GTD podium was the other Wright Motorsports car in third, with Alan Brynjolfsson, Trent Hindman and Maxwell Root sharing the No. 77 Porsche in potentially that trio’s last race together for the time being.
The 2024 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship opens Jan. 19-21 at Daytona International Speedway with the annual Roar Before The Rolex 24 followed Jan. 25-28 by the 63rd running of the Rolex 24 At Daytona.