By Christopher DeHarde, Staff Writer
LEXINGTON, Ohio– Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course could have easily been renamed Mud-Ohio after rain kept hitting the track and the surrounding grass parking lots all throughout Friday morning and into the early Friday afternoon but the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship maintained their schedule on the first day of the Acura Sports Car Challenge, the first normal round of the 2019 season.
With Friday’s morning practice conducted entirely in the wet, only 22 cars turned complete laps out of 36 on the entry list. Juan Pablo Montoya was fastest in the No. 6 Acura Team Penske ARX-05 with a lap of 1 minute, 41.568 seconds. Both Penske DPi entries went out as did the CORE Autosport Nissan DPi but that was really it from the Daytona Prototype International (DPi) camp. The No. 77 Mazda Team Joest entry also turned a lap but did not set a representative time in the mostly GT Daytona (GTD) session.
GTD has a new rule in 2019 where the amateur-rated driver of the pro-am lineups are eligible for 15 minutes of track time to themselves without any other classes on track and the GTD cars took advantage of that available track time. The fastest GTD car was the No. 86 Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 of Trent Hindman but that car only turned six laps in the session. GTD cars turned a total of 197 laps in the session and only two GTD entries did not participate in the session (No. 33 Riley Motorsports Mercedes AMG GT3 and No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3).
Friday’s afternoon session was a bit different as Oliver Jarvis and Ryan Hunter-Reay turned the two fastest laps for their Mazda DPi entries. The remarkable part of that is that Friday was Hunter-Reay’s first time in the car, having been announced as a Mazda Team Joest driver just days before the Mid-Ohio weekend.
The second session was one of changing conditions as the rain stopped about 30 minutes before the session began and the rooster tails coming off of the cars became smaller and smaller as time went on. Teams switched to slick tires late in the session and turned lap times that were much faster than the earlier session.
In fact, the No. 14 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 entry went sixth fastest overall with Jack Hawksworth turning a fastest lap of 1 minute, 30.190 seconds to average 90.129 mph.
Last year’s GTD class win went to the Lexus RC F GT3 when 3GT Racing entered them and Hawksworth was upbeat about his car’s performance in practice and how he turned the fast laps at the end of the session.
“It was just drying up and drying up,” said Hawksworth. “At the end it was between wets and slicks and we just thought that we could get a bit of a read on the slicks and it was dry enough for slicks so it was good.
“I don’t know if I’d call it fun, it’s really sketchy you know because you’ve got one dry line and the slick starts to work better the more heat you get into it so you try to keep it within these two small gray lines on the circuit which are dry while generating some heat and then you know if you go just a bit wide and end up in the wet, you’re going to go off so it’s a little bit tricky in those conditions and it was hard. But, once I got some heat in them then it was fun because obviously I had more grip than the others.”
Hawksworth is among the drivers that raced on Continental tires last year that are switching to Michelin tires for 2019. With new rubber comes new variables in car setup and driving style but Hawksworth said his car suits the tires and track very well.
“It feels better, the car felt good last year as well,” said Hawksworth. “This car does work well at this circuit, it won last year, it was kind of a dominant weekend for the team last year so the car suits it, this car does well in high speed corners. The Michelins add a little bit of longevity, the tires don’t degrade quite as fast as last year so you can push a little bit harder for a little bit longer.”
In GT Le Mans (GTLM), Sebastien Bourdais is substituting again for Joey Hand in the No. 66 Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT in his first ever sports car race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. The Frenchman raced the car at Long Beach and was happy to be called up to replace Hand who is not racing on medical advice. The best part though is that he’s not doing double duty by racing an Indy car on the same weekend.
“It’s definitely easier when you’re not switching fire suits six times per day,” said Bourdais. “It’s a fun track, the car is fun, the team is good and I’m trying to help those guys out with Joey’s situation. It’s bad circumstances that Joey’s sick but it’s also making it eight [weekends] in a row for me and it would’ve been nice to have an off weekend before it gets all crazy but it is what it is.”
Bourdias was referencing his upcoming schedule. He will be racing at the INDYCAR Grand Prix next weekend, qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 the following weekend, racing in the Indianapolis 500 on May 26th assuming he’s not one of the three cars bumped in qualifying. After that he’s racing in Detroit in the only doubleheader for the NTT IndyCar Series and then at Texas Motor Speedway the following week before the 24 Hours of Le Mans after that and Road America’s Indy car race after that.
Bourdais has had a lot of experience in the Ford GT before so this weekend isn’t as big of a challenge for him as one might expect. Having driven thousands of miles in the car at Le Mans and at other endurance races, hopping in at a track he knew from his Indy car days was almost like a piece of cake.
“It’s surprisingly fairly easy,” said Bourdais. “Obviously it’s a familiar environment, I know the car well, it’s funny how your mind and body adapt to different circumstances and you just kind of really don’t think about it.”
For all of the teams, this will be the first “normal race” of the 2019 season. Standard race length is two hours and 40 minutes for WeatherTech Championship races and the first three races have consisted of two endurance races and a 100 minute sprint race with only two of four classes. For drivers and teams, the preparation is different, but not nearly as different as one might think. Speaking to CORE Autosport driver Colin Braun,
“I think for me preparation-wise it’s kind of the same as always, I stick to kind of my normal routine,” said Braun. “This race being longer than Long Beach but shorter than our endurance races, you don’t have as much time to make up for any mistakes that happen. You’ve still got to be fast and quick and efficient without making mistakes and honestly these races are all sort of a little more sprint race mentality than I think they were many years ago. Even a place like Daytona or Sebring, we have so few yellows, people are making so few mistakes that if you do make a mistake it’s so hard to make it up in any event.”
For his father Jeff Braun, car preparation is a bit different. The elder Braun is the lead engineer for the Nissan DPi effort, the sole Nissan representation in the DPi class.
“The big difference for the long races to this race is that we can put some of the lightweight parts on the car,” said the elder Braun. “We don’t have to run all of the lights that we normally do, we can run some parts that are a little bit lighter but less robust maybe for the sprint races so that’s one thing for that. From a car preparation standpoint, [at] Daytona and Sebring it’s brand new parts. Here we can use some parts that still have some life left in them. They look the same, they just haven’t been completely lifed out.
“From a strategy standpoint, Daytona is 40 stints. Basically, it’s 40 sprint races. Here, it’s three sprint races, it’s really no different, it’s just that there’s not as many of them and you have to go just as hard at every place which is now the nature of endurance racing in that it’s a long string of sprint races or a shorter string of sprint races or in Long Beach style it’s two sprint races. That’s kind of the way you look at it, you can’t lose any time in a pit stop or driver change or a tire change or anything else and the driver has to be flat out every stint which is the same as the first stint at Daytona.”
Qualifying for the Acura Sports Car Challenge at Mid-Ohio is Saturday starting at 11:40 am ET for the GTD class, 12:05 pm for GTLM and 12:30 pm for DPi/LMP2. The race is Sunday at 1:40 pm ET.