IMSA ends one era, starts another at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta

The No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing team celebrates their season-closing victory - IMSA photo
The No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing team celebrates their season-closing victory – IMSA photo

IMSA ended its DPi prototype era in fine fashion on Saturday, October 1st, with the running of the 25th Petit Le Mans race on the Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta road course where this WeatherTech SportsCar Championship enduro has been held each year of its existence. At the same time it crowned a race winner in each of five classes, it also welcomed new champions in three prototype and two sports car categories.

The Atlanta area was blessed by good weather as Hurricane Ian stayed east of the area and allowed the two days of practice and qualifying, and a single full day of racing to take place without hindrance from meteorological instances. 

After 10 hours and almost 15 seconds, 423 laps of racing in the Motul Petit Le Mans, which is intended to be a 10-hour contest, the car and drivers atop the standings were the same ones who started the season with victory: Meyer Shank Racing’s hot pink Acura ARX-05 DPi was first to the checkered flags, as they were in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the 60th edition of that race. 

The DPi category, completing its sixth year of competition, had its championship up for grabs between the two Acura teams. Coming into the race Wayne Taylor Racing’s (WTR) No. 10 was the leader, but by the close, the No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian took all the glory. The Meyer Shank Racing (MSR) team began their domination on Friday, by earning pole position with Tom Blomqvist at the controls. In earning that No. 1, he enabled Acura to take hold of the 2022 Daytona Prototype International manufacturers’ championship.

Meyer Shank Racing won the season opener, the 60th Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 25th Motul Petit Le Mans – IMSA photo

The race seesawed between these two teams throughout and they were clear of their need to stay close to one another in order to take the title. After more than nine hours, Blomqvist, together with co-drivers Oliver Jarvis and Helio Castroneves knew they had to stay ahead of the No. 10, wheeled at the close by Filipe Albuquerque. At the final stop, the MSR got Blomqvist out before Albuquerque rejoined the field and he gapped his car to the point where the latter driver made a forced pass of the No. 57 Winward Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the second turn as he tried to keep Blomqvist in sight.

The result was heartbreak for the WTR team, which has lost this championship three years running with a late issue at this race. The contact ensured MSR’s second overall Petit Le Mans victory, along with the 2022 DPi team and driver championships for Blomqvist and Jarvis. Castroneves joined the duo for endurance contests.

This 25th edition of Motul Petit Le Mans finished under caution, but it was an earlier caution, the eighth such one, with just less than an hour to run, that changed the true complexion of this race. That was when the two Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac DPi racers, who had run at the front throughout this 10-hour enduro, managed to tag one another in the first turn, ending both of their days and making the race an Acura versus Acura affair. The shunt moved both the No. 01 and No. 02 Cadillac prototypes to fourth and fifth in class, respectively. As Renger van der Zande, behind the wheel when the collision with Earl Bamber (#02) occurred said, “We came to Petit Le Mans to win and to finish the race like this is really difficult. There’s never any intention to come together out there… “

That incident gave both the No. 10 and No. 60 the opportunity to fight to the finish – or at least until there were six minutes remaining. Then the No. 57 Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GTD class was off-course on the hill leading out from the pits, following contact with Albuquerque. And that, as they say, would be that. Nobody wants to finish under caution, especially after such a long race, but rules are rules and there was no way to get the track cleared and ready for racing before time ran out.

Behind the winning Acura of Meyer Shank Racing, Olivier Play, Pipo Derani and Mike Conway brought the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac home second, followed by the No. 48 Cadillac of Mike Rockenfeller Kamui Kobayashi and Jimmie Johnson. The No. 01 Cadillac from Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth overall (Ranger van der Zande, Sebastien Bourdais and Scott Dixon). 

The winners in LMP2 finished fifth overall, with Tower Motorsport’s No. 8 ORECA LMP2 07 earning the victory in class, with drivers John Farano, Louis Deletraz and Rui Pinto de Andrade earning the victory. In LMP3, it was Andretti Autosport’s Ligier JS P320 prototype first to the checkers with Jarett Andretti, Gabby Chaves and Josh Burdon earning the victory.

The No. 14 Lexus RC F GT3 earned its first endurance race victory at the 25th Motul Petit Le Mans – IMSA photo

GTD PRO wasn’t really decided until post-race, as the No. 62 Ferrari 488 GT3, driven by James Calado, Davide Rigon and Daniel Serra crossed the finish line first but were penalized for a too-long drive time for Serra during a six-hour time period. It’s an important rule – drivers need to rest between stints, and Serra did too long a stint. That gave victory to the No. 14 Lexus FC F GT3 of Jack Hawksworth, Ben Barnicoat and Kyle Kirkwood, for the manufacturer’s first endurance victory in its sixth year of competition, and 12th for the RC F GT3 in all IMSA competition. 

Meyer Shank’s overall race victory wasn’t the sole win last Saturday for Acura, as Gradient Racing earned the GTD class victory in their No. 66 Acura NSX GT3, holding off the No. 70 of Inception Racing’s McLaren 720S GT3. Theirs was a tense 30-minute fight until caution stopped either car from changing position. As it was, a less-than-two-second gap separated the two cars at the close of 10 hours’ competition, a margin of victory that’s likely gaping compared to what might have been had that ninth and final caution not occurred. Theirs was the first victory for all three drivers, Kyffin Simpson, Till Bechtolsheimer and Mario Farnbacher at Gradient, who started at the rear after a problem with a turbocharger wastegate prevented them from turning a qualifying lap.

On Sunday night, IMSA celebrated its champions in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with a Night of Champions. IMSA President John Doonan began the proceedings by noting that John Bishop and Bill France Sr started IMSA in 1969 on the premise that teams and drivers could choose the level at which they wanted to compete. “Bill France Sr and John Bishop would be very proud that we are operating this championship on the same core set of values,” he noted as he congratulated and thanked the 18 auto manufacturers who participate throughout the spectrum of IMSA’s seven sanctioned series.

With their victory the previous night, Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian earned the final DPi championship for Acura, with drivers Blomqvist and Jarvis taking the driver’s titles. In LMP2, Tower Motorsports and driver John Farano earned the championship, while the No. 54 CORE autosport Ligier JS P320 took the title with co-drivers Jon Bennett and Colin Braun, who have been racing together for about two decades. 

GTD PRO’s champions are the No. 9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R, with co-drivers Matt Campbell and Mathieu Jaminet earning the driving title and Porsche taking the manufacturers nod. Finally, the No. 27 Heart of Racing Team Aston Martin Vantage GT3 is the GTD titleholder, with driver Romain De Angelis the top points earner. BMW earned the manufacturer’s championship with its three class victories on the year.

But wait! There’s even more! On Monday, open testing began for the new prototypes that will start their seasons in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona next January. Acura, BMW and Cadillac opened the testing season just 36 hours after completing their 2022 campaigns, with the Acura ARX-06, Cadillac V-LMDh and BMW M Hybrid V8 on the Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta road course. Porsche opted to stand down at this test, somewhat surprising since their US headquarters are close to the circuit. 

The No. 01 Cadillac V-LMDh was the first GTP car to start the three-day test – IMSA photo

The Cadillac was first on the 12-turn, 2.54-mile road course for the three-day test. While teams have tested separately, this was the first time they could size one another’s progress in the LMDh prototype class that will race as GTP cars in both IMSA and the FIA’s World Endurance Championship (WEC).

Derani, who tested the Cadillac recognized what a big step this test was for everyone involved. “Every time you move into a new technology, there are big things to learn and many things to accomplish,” he said. “When you put the size of the project in comparison to the time you have to run, it makes things more difficult for everyone involved. It’s a great challenge to have. The sport is heading into a promising new era,” Derani predicted.

The No. 25 BMW M Hybrid V8 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing LMDh car at testing – IMSA photo

The most important aspect of this three-day test is “getting mileage,” according to Brandon Fry, BMW M Team RLL’s technical and race operations director. “Certainly, as the drivers had more time in the car, the times came down. All the cars looked like they were pretty close together. It’s nice to see right out of the box that everybody is pretty close.”

The Wayne Taylor Racing Acura ARX-06 tests at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta – IMSA photo

After taking Acura’s championship, Blomqvist got the nod for the first day of testing. “There’s a lot more manufacturer involvement across the grid,” he explained. “It’s going to be very competitive. We know we have to raise our game to stay at the level we need to be competing where we want to be. We haven’t had much time to relax,” or to relish the race win and championship achievement.

During the test sessions, Wayne Taylor Racing announced its 2023 racers, who will begin their search for the first LMDh/GTP championship title: Ricky Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque Brendon Hartley and Louis Deletraz. Chip Ganassi Racing, which is competing both in IMSA and WEC, announced its WEC drivers for 2023: Earl Bamber and Alex Lynn will be joined by Richard Westbrook in the Cadillac V-LMDh program. 

The new LMDH cars are expected to generate more than 670 horsepower from the combined output of their internal combustion engines and hybrid powertrain. The car’s regulations were crafted together by IMSA, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), and the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). This conjoining of regulations allows both LMDh and Le Mans Hypercars (LMH) to compete in both the WeatherTech Championship and FIA World Endurance Championship.

By Anne Proffit

About Anne Proffit 1250 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

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