IMSA’s Prototype and GT Le Mans divisions head to the California coast for the BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix at Long Beach
By the numbers: 100 minutes, 14 Prototypes, 8 GT Le Mans, 5 minutes minimum drive time.
From two of the longest races in the season to IMSA’s shortest – Long Beach is just a sprint race with a driver change. IMSA shares this weekend with IndyCar, limiting track time and paddock space, so 22 car entry list does without the GT Daytona field for this one. Looking back at the results of amateur racers, GT3 equipment and hard barriers mixing last year – even after the winners crossed the line – a reduced car count should make for better racing.
Two cars are missing the round. Spirit of Daytona are still piecing a Cadillac together following Vautier’s heavy crash in the closing hours at Sebring, with SC365 reporting the team are due to test at Watkins Glen and could rejoin the field as soon as Mid-Ohio in May. Giant killers Risi Competizione are also giving the weekend a miss, although no official reason has been given.
In Prototype, the Taylor brothers have taken the past three wins. There’s a guaranteed new winner this year with Jordan being joined by Renger van der Zande in the family #10 WTR effort and Ricky moving to partner Helio Castroneves at Acura Team Penske. If Castroneves carries his blinding speed from the Rolex and Sebring into pole come qualifying, it’ll add to his back-to-back IndyCar poles around here in 2016-17.
The Acuras have proven fast so far, but the Penske testing schedule included both Daytona and Sebring. With the streets of Long Beach being a new arena for the car, the track rubbering in so quickly and track position being crucial, Penske’s engineers will need to work hard at nailing an early setup. Penske will also have to take the latest BoP changes into account, leaving them with reduced boost and fuel capacity. The Acuras have also earned themselves a reputation for taking unnecessary chances with GT traffic – some drivers will need to dial back their instinctive aggression to make clean, efficient progress in the narrow streets here without finding the walls.
For the Cadillac teams, the new 5.5L engine has been a mixed blessing. It keeps all the speed of last year’s 6.2L V8, but has been less reliable and seemingly just as thirsty. Both teams will be hoping that Long Beach’s shorter race duration and slow corners suit the engine’s massive torque without doing a Toyota and overly stressing the cooling system. The Cadillac has also been hit with a 0.6mm air restrictor and 2L fuel capacity reduction, giving the DPi-V.R the smallest tank in the class.
The WEC-Spec LMP2 field is where things get really interesting. In theory, the pure performance gap will have closed since Sebring; that said, Long Beach’s tight corners and bumpy surface could still suit DPi custom suspension despite BoP changes intended to level the Prototype class. JDC-Miller and PR1 had WEC-Spec cars here last year whereas Performance Tech and CORE Autosport didn’t. With track time limited and the circuit’s surface changing so quickly during the weekend, it’ll be an uphill battle for the teams who can’t work with data from 2017.
Mazda took a podium with the new RT24-P at Long Beach last year before the car’s lack of competitiveness fully showed itself. Joest’s thoroughly reworked car showed its speed at Sebring before reliability led the effort down late in the race, but excellent fuel mileage gave both cars a strategy offset on the rest of the field. That advantage could prove crucial where teams have previously had to decide between fuel saving and praying for yellows or pushing and taking two stops. However, BoP changes see the Mazdas carrying a 10kg weight increase this weekend and considerable 7L fuel capacity cut as well as a boost reduction this weekend.
The ESM Onroak Nissans performed well last year – Ryan Dalziel’s street fighting with the Cadillacs was a highlight of the race. They’ll be hoping to get both cars across the finish line this time out after crack endurance driver Olivier Pla made contact with Vautier’s SDR Cadillac in the first corner at Sebring, ending that car’s race. The Sebring speed was undoubted; the fuel stints hovered somewhere between Mazda frugality and fuel-swilling Cadillac.
Corvette come to Long Beach off the back of a 2 day test at Road Atlanta; their Sebring performance was very un-Corvettelike, marked by poor reliability and lacking the pace to stay in touch with the lead battles in class. Seven previous wins here demonstrates the potential of V8 torque, good strategy and Corvette’s slick pitwork – expect more of the same this time.
Ford built a car to win Le Mans, and Long Beach is not Le Mans. The lack of medium and high speed corners will hurt Detroit’s low-drag special relative to the opposition, and there’s no BoP break to help them out. They don’t get a BoP break either, so any special results will come from clever engineering work or genuinely racy driving on track. However, the GT has form for being able to push fuel stints to the max – with GT cars being on the edge of 1 or 2 stops around here, it’s a safe bet to say that Ford can go longer than most without losing out on pace.
BMW’s M8 GTE looks more like one of the sleek yachts moored up trackside than a nimble racing car built to do battle on the streets themselves. The long wheelbase suited Sebring’s bumps, landing the Team RLL-run crew a podium, but it’ll be interesting to see if anything inherent in the car’s design reacts to the very different Long Beach circuit. IMSA clearly thought the BMW’s surprising pace at Sebring wasn’t just the result of homework since a sedate debut, either – a boost cut from 5000-7500rpm will hurt their acceleration and top-end speed, and a 4L cut in fuel capacity will hurt too, especially as the BoP across the rest of GTLM is unchanged.
Sebring proved there’s speed behind the noise in IMSA’s resident banshee screamer, the Porsche 911 RSR. A podium last year with what was then still a very new car demonstrated the latest 911 had potential. Former series champion Patrick Pilet won here in 2016 sharing with Nick Tandy, who specifically asked to come back to IMSA when Porsche wound up its LMP1 activities in FIA WEC. The sister crew have serious GT street circuit pedigree too – remember what happened when Vanthoor and Bamber raced GT cars on streets? Vanthoor won his last race for previous employers Audi in the streets of Macau, going out in style by flipping his car as he tried to overtake current co-pilot Earl Bamber. Let’s hope he doesn’t repeat at Long Beach, or he’ll need swim shorts and a snorkel instead of Nomex and a crash helmet.
An unforgiving circuit, fuel mileage racing, sponsorship from burgers rather than energy drinks, complex strategy, level (apparently) BoP and a potential quadruple-consecutive race winner – whatever happens, it’ll be worth following. Sessions will be streamed online (geoblocked in USA) via IMSA.tv, or you can listen in for free wherever you are on IMSA Radio.