10 takeaways from the IMSA Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta
Compelling finale featured birthday celebrations, big crowds, great racing, and some heartbreak
The 2019 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship ended Saturday with the 10-hour Motul Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, the old-school 2.54-mile rolling road course. It was a pretty damn compelling finale. Ideal weather, a good and enthusiastic crowd, some deserving winners, and plenty of heartbreak. Some impressions:
1: Two deserving wins for a pair of drivers on their birthday – Daytona Prototype class and overall winner Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Whelen Cadillac, who teamed with Eric Curran and Felipe Nasr, and GT Daytona winner Bill Auberlen, who co-drove the No. 96 Turner BMW M6 GT3 with Robbie Foley and Dillon Machavern. For Derani, it was his first Petit win in four tries; in the other three he came close, “but they slipped away.” For Auberlen, it was his fourth Petit win, “and it only gets better and better and better.” This is Auberlen’s 60th series win, tying him for the most overall with the now-retired Scott Pruett. Derani, incidentally, is 26, and Auberlen is 51 – he had been racing in IMSA for six years before Derani was born.
2: The GT Le Mans two-car teams – Chevrolet Corvette, Ford GT, Porsche and BMW – have been running the IMSA races all season, but here comes the Houston-based No. 62 Risi Ferrari 488 GTE, which had only raced in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and the 24 hours of Le Mans, and absolutely laid waste to the full-factory team competition. Driver James Calado qualified on the pole, and he and co-drivers Alessandro Pier Guidi and Daniel Serra had a near-perfect run, aside from “a bit of a surprise with some tire issues,” Calado said. They won by nearly eight seconds over the No. 67 Ganassi Ford GT, a nice finish in the Ford’s series swan song.
3: IMSA is committed to the LMP2 class for 2020, despite having only two entries in the 2019 series finale. The No. 38 Performance Tech started on the pole but crashed out 90 minutes into the 10-hour race, leaving the No. 52 PR1 Mathiasen car to win both the race and the season championship. It wasn’t pretty for either of them – the Performance Tech car finished 32nd overall, 264 laps behind the overall winner, and the No. 52 Mathiasen car was 32nd overall, 400 laps behind the leader.
4: After what driver Dane Cameron called “a learning year” in 2018 for the No. 6 Penske Acura Prototype he shares with Juan Pablo Montoya and, for this long race, Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud, the team rebounded in 2019 to win the championship, despite a fourth-place finish at Road Atlanta. This year, “three wins and a championship,” Cameron said. Not bad.
5: Acura also won the GT Daytona championship, despite a 12th-place, last-in-class finish by regular drivers Mario Farnbacher and Trent Hindman, and for this race, Justin Marks. The team had such a points advantage that they only had to start the race to secure the title.
6: Similarly, the GT Le Mans title was won by the No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR of Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor, with help here from Mathieu Jaminet, despite a fifth-place class finish at Road Atlanta. “It’s something we’ll really be proud of,” said Vanthoor. “It’s a dream come true.”
7: In its final race, the front-engine Chevrolet Corvette C7.R team finished fourth in the GT Le Mans class for the No. 3 car, and seventh for the No. 4. It was longtime Corvette driver Jan Magnussen’s final race for the No. 3 team, as he will be replaced in 2020 by Jordan Taylor, whose family-owned No. 10 Konica-Minolta Cadillac Prototype finished second to the No. 31 Whelen Cadillac.
8: It was also the last race in the four-year career of the Chip Ganassi-run two-car Ford GT team. The No. 67 Ford GT was second in the GT Le Mans class, and the No. 66 was eighth. This puts some good drivers looking for a ride in 2020 – one who is set for next year is the driver who took the No. 67 car across the finish line: Ryan Briscoe will replace Jordan Taylor in the No. 10 Cadillac. The second driver for the No. 10 hasn’t been decided, but it likely won’t be Renger van der Zande, who replaced Jordan Taylor’s brother Ricky when he moved to the No. 7 Penske Acura. Which, incidentally, finished third, one spot behind brother Jordan in the No. 10.
9: Cadillacs finished first and second at Road Atlanta, a strong showing after IMSA allowed the Cadillacs to take 15 kilograms of weight off the cars. It could have easily been an all-Cadillac podium, but with less than a half-hour to go, the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac, a team car to the winning Action Express-owned No. 31 Whelen Cadillac, was sidelined with an exploding left front brake caliper. Too bad, as this was apparently the last appearance for the very successful No. 5, as Mustang Sampling has ended its sponsorship.
10: The biggest heartbreak of the race was the last-lap disaster when the leading No. 33 Mercedes AMG-Riley Wynn’s GT3 ran out of fuel, allowing the No. 96 Turner BMW to get by for the win. The Mercedes team, owned by car dealer and racer Ben Keating, who has long shared the ride with Jeroen Bleekemolen, will only run the four IMSA endurance races in 2020 (Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen and Road Atlanta) in the Bill Riley-tuned Mercedes, as Keating and Bleekemolen have opted to race in the Europe-based World Endurance Championship.