By Christopher DeHarde, Staff Writer
LONG BEACH, California– The BUBBA Burger Grand Prix at Long Beach had a two hour practice session early on Friday morning for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship where the 19-car field basically acted as street sweepers for the first official on track action of the weekend on the 11-turn, 1.968 mile street circuit.
Felipe Nasr and Pipo Derani led the first practice session in the No. 31 Action Express Racing Cadillac DPi. That was a good showing for the car that won this year’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.
“The car was feeling great,” said Nasr. “From the beginning of the session first of all we had to understand what available grip there was out there and it was the first time we are running the Michelin tires here. They were pretty good straight away. As usual you’ve got to understand what the car needs for the conditions, it was pretty cold out there initially but then the temperature was rising and we made a few changes to compensate for that and also together with the grip level increasing, the pace was picking up from lap to lap just cleaning the track and more rubber was going down.”
That’s normal for a street circuit. If the weather stays dry, grip will pick up as more and more rubber is laid down. The biggest variable with that is how the different rubber compounds interact with each other. Michelin is the tire supplier for the whole field now after having just supplied GTLM over the last few seasons and how that compound mixes with Firestone for the Indy cars and Pirelli for Blancpain GT World Challenge America.
With the track having hosted drifting races in the last three corners of the track, one would think that the rubber laid down by the drifters would be a good thing for the sports cars but that hasn’t been the case.
“The drift rubber is not very good to come into contact with the race rubber,” said GTLM pole winner Nick Tandy. “We found last year, I think the drifters have been out quite a short time before race week and fortunately the last few turns where they use the track, they tend to be quite wide and off line obviously to make use of the track width so you have got to bear this in mind and it does affect the lines that you can use in these areas.”
“We can’t use it because it’s off-line, said Ford Chip Ganassi Racing driver Dirk Mueller. “It’s basically slippery, it got better over the two hours of practice that we got.”
Mueller is in an interesting spot because he’s not driving with his traditional co-driver Joey Hand. Hand is suffering from flu-like symptoms and as such, the team called upon endurance fill-in Sebastien Bourdais to come drive in the No. 66 Ford GT. Bourdais has won three times at Long Beach in open wheel cars but this will be his first time in a sports car at Long Beach. Mueller was very sympathetic to his co-driver’s plight.
“First of all I have to say it’s a big bummer, right? For Joey, this is his home track,” said Mueller. “There’s [family] that were on the way already, he was on pole last year, I’m definitely missing a big portion there and I’m really bummed for him. It’s so tough but that’s what it is and now we need to look forward.
“Sebastien is the best sub, I mean he is in our lineup, he’s doing a good job. We’ve won races together, we finished second in Sebring, he knows this track but he’s definitely having a tough time being on both sides.”
Bourdais had to schedule his time this weekend so he could be in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser/Sullivan Honda for practice. Friday morning IMSA practice ended at 9:40 with Indy car practice starting at 10:00. Further complicating matters will be if he gets into the later rounds of qualifying for the race on Sunday since the Saturday race will start just 40 minutes after qualifying is scheduled to end.
From a manufacturer perspective, the most pressure this weekend has to be on the Acura Team Penske pair of ARX-05 DPi machines.
Acura this weekend has taken on a much larger presence at Long Beach since they are the title sponsor of the newly-named Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach for the NTT IndyCar Series. Ricky Taylor and Juan Pablo Montoya set the second and third fastest times in the morning practice session.
Moving to the afternoon, Helio Castroneves put his No. 7 Team Penske ARX-05 Acura DPi on pole position with Tandy leading the GTLM field in an all-Porsche front row.
One quirk about the Long Beach weekend is that there is no GT Daytona traffic to contend with. The LMP2 category isn’t present either but GTD has a much larger presence on the grid than LMP2 and so there is a much greater risk of incidents. With only 100 minutes in the race on Saturday, there will be differences in how the teams and drivers will run the race.
“I think that’ll be nice,” said Kyle Kaiser, driver of the No. 50 Juncos Racing Cadillac DPi. “I think the time difference between the GTLM cars and the cars that we’re running is still pretty big, you’re catching up to them and you get by them pretty easily. I think it’ll play less of a factor with traffic but it’ll still play a role later in the race, for sure.”
“It impacts everything, from driving to the strategy behind the wall,” said Tandy. “At the end of the day, no matter how many cars or classes are on track, we’re just racing our competitors in GTLM. It does change the chances of cautions happening and incidents happening on track and also in the pits because normally we pit with GTD, people are off sequence and you can get a mess in the pit lane, especially with somewhere as tight as this.
“So it does change it from that point of view, it keeps things a bit more simple which again puts the emphasis on a good starting position but yeah, where you’d normally look at maybe counting on a 50% chance of a caution, here it’s lower because there’s fewer cars on track, basically.”
The BUBBA Burger Grand Prix at Long Beach will begin its live broadcast on NBCSN at 1:30 pm PT, 4:30 pm ET. The race can be viewed on the NBC Sports app.