Another warm sunny day greeted the Pirelli World Challenge Championships Presented by Nissan Saturday morning at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The day promised to be downright hot, as does the racing. Saturday’s schedule calls for qualifying and races for several groups.
The premier group, GT, had its qualifying mid-morning, and veteran Johnny O’Connell of Flowery Branch GA put his red No.3 Cadillac ATS-V.R GT3 on pole with a lap of 1:23.960/95.960 mph. It was his first PWC pole this season, keeping his streak going for getting one in every PWC season. He’s had 18 PWC pole positions in his career. O’Connell had a trying test day Thursday, being hit leaving the Corkscrew, driving his car off at speed in Turn Nine towards Salinas, and then digging himself into the gravel, losing body parts and causing suspension problems in the process. “Needless to say, I was motivated. It was a total team effort. The Cadillac Racing crew had to build a lot of the race car and actually got me back out later in the day. We are doing what we need to do, get the points for the pole and remain in a fight for this championship.”
The championship to which O’Connell referred is the PWC GT championship, the premier PWC series. This is the only group which has a single race, on Sunday. So it’s all or nothing for those 16 GT drivers, and their manufacturers. The race is drawing much attention as there are four drivers with a mathematical chance for the prize, and nine points separate the top two contenders. Points leader Alvaro Parente from Portugal has 1554 points driving No.9 K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S GT3, and runner-up Patrick Long of Manhattan Beach CA has 1545 points driving No.58 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3R. The two Cadillac drivers, O’Connell in No.3 and Michael Cooper of Syosset, NY in No.6 have 1451 points, but it would take a melt-down of the top two to accomplish that. A win earns 110 points, 98 points for second, 90 for third, etc Last place for this group gets 15 points.. Bonus points add up to a total of seven: for pole, fast race lap and most improved position.
With a single 50-minute race with no pit stops or driver changes, GT racing is, as Long says, “distilled racing.”
Long qualified second, followed by Cooper, Jon Fogarty/No.99 GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing McLaren 650S GT3, Austin Cindric/No.6 K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S, and Parente in sixth.
The GT qualifying track record set last year still holds: 1:23.734/96.219mph set by Alessandro PierGuidi, Ferrari 458 GT3 Italia.
Long said “It was fun. Our team’s main priority was to come here and get a race car to be at the front of the field. So we have been backing it session after session. We shut it down early in qualifying and made one last run to see if we could win the pole and steal the added seven points. In a normal scenario, we wouldn’t do that. I gave it one last try and the car wriggled on me in Turn Six and I had to get out of the throttle. So I said let’s get this thing in the show. Johnny is the epitome of never give up. You can never count him out. It’s great to be on the front row with him. And we’re trying to win the first championship in four years since we went head-to-head in 2011. (Ed Note: Long won that title.)
Parente, 32, comes from European GT racing, and has been a factory GT3 driver for McLaren customer teams since 2012. This is his first full season in America. The only previous US race experience was the February 2007 A1GP race at Laguna Seca – when it snowed. So this weekend he’s seeing the track in a completely different setting.
Long is a factory driver for Porsche, the only American in their stable. He has been with Porsche for the past 15 years, and he’s raced at Laguna Seca about 20 times in various series over the years including the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion and the wildly successful Rennsport.
Manufacturer’s have a tight GT battle going on also. McLaren leads with 131 points-five wins, eight poles and six fast laps; Porsche has 130 points=five wins, six poles and six fast laps. Cadillac has 115 points-five wins, two poles and three fast laps.
The first Saturday race is PWC TC-TCA-TCB.Patrick Gallagher/No.54 Atlanta Motorsports Group Mazda MX-5 has pole for the TC-TCA-TCB race Saturday morning, with a lap of 1:35.823. Paul Whiting/No.51 PWR Honda Civic Si is on the pole for the TCA class, starting twenty-third overall, with a fast lap of 1:44.155. Henry Morse/No.14 Hale Motorsports Mazda 2 has the TCB pole position, starting thirty-seventh, with a lap of 1:52.182. There are 44 starters in the 40-minute race.
In the TCB Class there’s another tight race for Driver Champion. The top drivers are P.J. Groenke/No.25 Tech Sport Racing Chevrolet Sonic with 858 points; Morse with 845 points; Tom O’Gorman/No.94 Black Armor Helmets Honda Fit with 796 points; Ted Hough/No.68 Breathless Racing Mazda 2 with 644 points and Jasper Drengler/No.01 Drengler Racing Honda Fi with 636 points; and Will Rodgers/No.65 Hale Motorsports Mazda 2 with 532 points.
There are five other championships on the line this weekend.
During the Saturday lunch break, there were Parade Laps for the Race & Rods Corral cars, an autograph session for all the PWC drivers, and track VIP Parade Laps. The first race Saturday afternoon is PWC GTS followed by more Parade Laps – Cadillac Corral and track VIPs. The last race of the day is the first race for the PWC Sprint X Series.
The Sprint X race is the only race with a mandatory pit stop and driver change – an hour-long event. The other races are sprint races of 40 or 50 minutes – no pit stops, single driver: as GT contender Patrick Long defines it – “distilled racing.”
In the Sprint X, there are two drivers, and a different driver will start each race. The Series determines whether it will be the Amateur or the Pro driver who starts, with it rotating on the two race weekends. After 25 minutes into the 60-minute race, there is a ten-minute break for driver change. High drama. The license determination for the drivers is based on the complex FIA system of Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze. This weekend the Friday qualifying session was for the Amateur/Gentlemen drivers (Bronze FIA license). The grid for the second race will be set based on the fastest laps set in the first race, and typically (barring mechanical or other issues) that would be the Pro drivers (Platinum, Gold or Silver FIA licenses.)
David Ostella/No.23 M1 GT Racing Audi R8 LMS Ultra has pole position for the Race 1 Sprint X, with a lap of 1:25.390/94.353 mph. His co-driver is Dion Von Moltke. The fastest GT Cup-X driver was David Askew/No.63DXDT Racing Lamborghini Huracan Super Trofeo with a lap of 1:31.307. His co-driver is James Burke, and their starting position is eleventh – Row 6. Kurt Rezzetano/No.37 Calvert Dynamics Ford Mustang Boss 302 will start first in the GTS-X class, in fifteenth position. His co-driver is Andrew Aquilante. There are 24 cars in this hour-long race which runs at 4pm local time on Saturday.
This weekend and at many previous races during the 2016 staff from the Stephane Ratel Organisation are on site to observe and be helpful in the FIA licensing aspects of the Sprint X Series, and assist in developing the Balance of Power in PWC. SRO runs the Intercontinental Challenge (Blancpain GT Series,) which will run one of its endurance races at Laguna Seca next October. It will be an eight-hour race, and will be open to any FIA homologated GT3 cars, which could include cars from PWC and IMSA.