America’s Tire 250: Five Takeaways
Monday, September 10, 2018
There was a lot to take in during Sunday’s two hours and 40 minutes of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship racing at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. 
The America’s Tire 250 showcased moments of masterful driving, brilliant strategy, and at times, sheer heartbreak. As the penultimate round of the season, it also set the stage for a wide-open Motul Petit Le Mans on Oct. 13, as all three class championships are still very much up for grabs.
Here are five takeaways from a fascinating visit to the Monterey Peninsula:
1. Championship Pictures Clarify, But it’s Still Close
Looking at the championship standings in all three classes, there’s essentially a head-to-head battle between two teams in each one. Granted, there’s always a chance somebody else still in mathematical contention could sneak in and take the title, but most likely, it’s going to come down to the top two in each class.
In the Prototype class, that’s the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi-V.R and co-drivers Eric Curran and Felipe Nasr versus the No. 54 CORE autosport ORECA LMP2 machine shared by Colin Braun and Jon Bennett. The No. 31 team leads the standings by just four points, 254-250, but the No. 54 team is the one with momentum going to Motul Petit Le Mans.
Braun and Bennett have been on a second-half tear, with four consecutive top-two results – including back-to-back victories at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and Road America. Both teams have five podium finishes on the year, and it’ll likely take a sixth to claim the 2018 title.
In the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class, Corvette Racing co-drivers Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia have the most breathing room among championship leaders, with a nine-point advantage over Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing. Magnussen and Garcia have put themselves in position for a second consecutive GTLM title with seven consecutive podium results and eight overall on the season in the No. 3 Corvette C7.R.
What they don’t have so far is a victory this year, whereas Westbrook and Briscoe have three in the No. 67 Ford GT, but four results of sixth or lower in the past six races has cost them dearly. They’re still in it, without question, but they need another strong result at Motul Petit Le Mans as well as some bad luck for the No. 3 team.
The battle for the GT Daytona (GTD) title is now the closest it’s been since July, when No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini co-drivers Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow held a three-point lead over No. 86 Meyer Shank Racing Acura driver Katherine Legge after the race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. With a victory in the America’s Tire 250 on Sunday alongside co-driver Alvaro Parente, Legge is within six points, 303-297, over Sellers and Snow, who finished fourth at WeatherTech Raceway.
The last time it was this close, Snow and Sellers rebounded with a huge victory at Lime Rock Park. They may need at least a podium result at Motul Petit Le Mans to close out the GTD championship they’ve led since March, when they won the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts.
2. Title Hopes for Some Take Big Hit at WeatherTech Raceway
The championship hopes for three would-be contenders were severely damaged at the start of the America’s Tire 250 when a multi-car incident removed the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi-V.R from the race before it could even cross the starting line, while the No. 66 Ford GT struggled to complete two laps after the incident.
Joao Barbosa was driving the No. 5 at the start of the race and spun sideways after contact from behind from Misha Goikhberg in the No. 99 JDC-Miller Motorsports ORECA LMP2. He then was collected by Dirk Muller in the No. 66 Ford GT and also Nick Tandy in the No. 911 Porsche RSR. 
For the No. 5 team, not crossing the line meant no points were earned from the race. While Barbosa was eliminated from title contention when he missed two races due to injury earlier in the season, the incident dropped teammate Filipe Albuquerque from second in the standings with a seven-point deficit to the leaders to sixth and a 33-point gap heading to Road Atlanta. 
They’re still mathematically eligible, with a total of 35 points still available, but a championship for the No. 5 team at this point would be highly unlikely.
“I’m sorry for all the Mustang Sampling Racing guys,” Barbosa said. “They worked all weekend to get the car ready. We had a really good shot today. The car was really good on race pace. Unfortunately, we’re out of the race, and the championship gets that much tougher now. We’re very disappointed.”
It’s a similar story for Mueller and his No. 66 co-driver Joey Hand in GTLM. With a nine-point gap between them and the leaders coming into the race, a strong result from WeatherTech Raceway was sorely needed. Now, the margin has grown to 15 points, which means they will need a strong run at Motul Petit Le Mans coupled with bad luck for the teams ahead of them.
“What a drama at the start,” Mueller said. “Basically, I had the perfect start and I got penalized for it because I was right at the back of the prototypes there and there was nowhere to go. I was really happy with my start and had a smile on my face, and then the prototypes were wrecking in front of me and I had nowhere to go. The right side was blocked and there was a little gate on the left. I thought I could make it and it was my only hope. Our Ford CGR guys did a great job getting us back out.”
The championship hopes for the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R team and drivers Jordan Taylor and Renger van der Zande also took a tumble on Sunday. The stage was set for the team to make a strong move in the championship when Taylor earned the Motul Pole Award in qualifying on Saturday. 
Although Taylor gave up first and second to the pair of Acura Team Penske machines at the start, he was in position to gain major ground before a mechanical failure forced the No. 10’s retirement from the race after just 40 minutes. The defending Prototype championship team is now 19 points out of the lead heading to Motul Petit Le Mans.
“A disappointing day, obviously,” Taylor said. “We had the strongest car all weekend – fastest in two practices and we got the pole – and it’s tough not to capitalize on a weekend like that."
3. Mazda’s Time Is Coming Soon
For the second consecutive race, a Mazda DPi car was in position to potentially score a breakthrough victory for the program only to have heartbreaking circumstances take it away.
Last month at Road America, Jonathan Bomarito had the No. 55 Mazda RT-24P at the front of the field inside the final 10 minutes of the race before a late-race splash-and-go pit stop netted an eighth-place result. On Sunday, Harry Tincknell – Bomarito’s co-driver – had the No. 55 at the head of the field with plenty of fuel and a fairly comfortable lead when Lady Luck turned her back once again.
Tincknell spun while attempting to overtake the lapped car of Gustavo Yacaman in Turn 5, dropping him all the way back to sixth by the time he got running again. He fought his way back to fourth by the checkered flag.
“I feel absolutely gutted that we had the victory so close to us and it slipped away that way that it did,” Tincknell said. “The guys did an amazing job to not only give us a great Mazda RT24-P after we started off the weekend on the back foot, but to give us a strategy that put us into the lead. Jonathan had a great first stint to drive to get the car up to second place, and the team delivered a fast pit stop that got us into the lead. I’m confident the first win for Mazda Team Joest is just around the corner.”
4. Different Strokes for Different Folks
The road to victory for each of the three class-winning cars in Sunday’s race was markedly different. For overall winners Pipo Derani and Johannes van Overbeek in the No. 22 Tequila Patrón ESM Nissan DPi, it took perseverance after starting from the rear of the field and also overcoming a spin early in the race.
“It was an amazing day for us,” said Derani, who was announced on Friday as Nasr’s new, full-season co-driver in the No. 31 Whelen Cadillac for 2019. “It has been a tough year for us, but every time we have everything together, we can deliver. It’s important for the team. I’m really happy because if it wasn’t for them not giving up, we wouldn’t have finished where we did today. 
“It was just a fantastic day for the team. A big thank you goes to them for giving us the car to win today. We had nice passes after the spin, and I can’t thank the team enough. With only two races left with Tequila Patrón ESM, it means a lot that I was able to bring back a win for them.”
Fuel strategy was the name of the game in GTLM, where Connor De Phillippi and Alexander Sims played it to perfection in the No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW M8 GTE. They were rewarded with their second consecutive victory.
“We were on save fuel strategy from the very beginning of my stint,” De Phillippi said. “We had really good pace throughout the stint. There wasn’t a big difference between pushing and saving.
“It was the longest we’d done. We hoped, fingers crossed the tires would last, but they certainly did – just like at VIR. To go over an hour (1:17) on the tires and they still held strong. No issues at all. Big thanks to Michelin for making a great tire.”
And speaking of tires, Parente’s late charge to the GTD victory – he went from fourth to the win within the last 10 minutes of the race in the No. 86 Acura NSX GT3 – was the product of fresher Continental rubber over the closing laps.
“I think we made all the right decisions this weekend in terms of setup,” said Parente. “Obviously, Katherine putting it on pole and having a great run got us off to a great start. It was almost a perfect weekend. I knew we were the strongest car on track, especially as the run went on and their tires fell off much more than ours.”
5. Three In A Row for Onroak at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca
The key to victory in each of the past three WeatherTech Championship Prototype races at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca came down to one thing: chassis from Onroak Automotive.
Two years ago, in the final season for the previous-generation LMP2 prototypes, Ozz Negri and John Pew drove the Honda-powered No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2 to the victory. Last year, the win went to Renger van der Zande and Marc Goossens in the No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Ligier JS P217, the lone WeatherTech Championship victory to date for the Gibson-powered Ligier.
And on Sunday, the No. 22 Nissan DPi, which uses an Onroak-built chassis, got the job done for the third consecutive year.