Photo: Courtesy of IMSA

Michelin GT Challenge at VIR: Five Takeaways

By IMSA Wire Service

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – At 3.27-miles in length, VIRginia International Raceway is the fourth-longest racetrack on the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, but Sunday’s Michelin GT Challenge featured enough door-to-door racing and beating and banging to please even the most demanding short-track racing fan.

At the end of a tough two hours and 40 minutes, BMW was celebrating a double podium and its first victory for the new M8 GTE race car in the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class, Lexus returned to the top step of the GT Daytona (GTD) podium for the first time since May, and the championship races in both classes saw some plot twists that will make the final two rounds of the season that much more exciting.

Here are five takeaways from the second and final GT-only weekend of the season:

1. Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss
For the first time all season, a team not named Ford Chip Ganassi Racing is sitting atop the GTLM point standings. Which one? Corvette Racing, which has won the GTLM title each of the past two years.

More specifically, it’s the No. 3 Corvette C7.R duo of Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia, winners of last year’s season title as well. While they haven’t won a race yet this season, Magnussen and Garcia took their fourth second-place result in the last five races and their seventh podium result in nine starts this season. That’s two more podiums than they had in last year’s championship-winning season.

Granted, they did have three race victories last year, and there’s still time to make that happen. If it does (unless their teammates, Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin in the No. 4 Corvette, do it first) it’ll be a milestone 100th IMSA victory for the Corvette Racing program.

2. Legge Closes Gap in GTD Title Fight
If the finish line at VIR were at the end of the backstretch, No. 86 Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 co-drivers Katherine Legge and Mario Farnbacher would have had their second GTD victory of the season. On the final lap, Legge briefly darted past leader Dominik Baumann in the No. 14 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3, with Patrick Long right on her tail in the No. 58 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R.

Unfortunately for her, the lead would be short lived as Baumann had better track position going into the roller coaster section of the VIR circuit and he managed to retake the lead. Meanwhile, Long also had enough momentum to slip past and take away second place. Nevertheless, the third-place run was a significant points haul for Legge, who reduced her deficit in the championship standings from 18 coming into the race to 13 heading to next month’s penultimate round at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

“I’m really pleased, the team did an awesome job, the car was great,” Legge said. “We had a really strong car, the best car we’ve had in three or four races. I’m gutted that we weren’t able to win; we came so close to getting that second win of the year. I had a bit of a moment when the front brakes locked and that cost me enough time that I couldn’t get around Baumann. I’m pleased that we made a gain in the championship. We’re going to take this fight to the very end.”

3. Strong Start, Disappointing Finish for Erstwhile GTLM Points Leaders
Ford Chip Ganassi Racing was the hottest team in the WeatherTech Championship coming into the Michelin GT Challenge, riding a streak of four consecutive victories between its two cars. Leading the way was the No. 67 Ford GT duo of Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe, who own three GTLM race victories, including the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona.

After Westbrook put the car on pole in Saturday’s wet and wild qualifying session, the stage was set for another good day come Sunday. Sure enough, Westbrook took advantage of his starting position and motored out into the lead for the entirety of his driving stint.

Shortly after he pitted and turned the car over to Briscoe, however, the race turned sour for the No. 67 team. Clutch problems that began rearing their head near the end of Westbrook’s stint forced the car behind the wall for lengthy repairs. The team eventually got the No. 67 back on track and complete enough laps to overtake the retired No. 911 Porsche of Nick Tandy and Patrick Pilet and finish seventh, but they’re now four points behind the new points leaders in the No. 3 Corvette.

“It was a terrible result for us,” Briscoe said. “After leading the race and looking strong and being really happy with the car all weekend, there’s just a lot of points thrown away right there. It’s disappointing, but the points are still close. We’ve just got to come back strong at the next one at Laguna and keep fighting for the championship.”

4. GTD Points Leaders Endure Worst Result of Season at VIR
VIRginia International Raceway had been very good to Lamborghini the past two years, as the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing team of Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow delivered the manufacturer’s maiden WeatherTech Championship victory at the track two years ago. Last year, Change Racing took the victory in their Lamborghini Huracán GT3.

With that in mind, it was reasonable to expect a strong performance from the lone Lambo in the GTD field, the points-leading No. 48 of Sellers and Snow. It turned out to be a bit of a nightmare for the team instead.

The bad luck started Friday, when Sellers encountered a mechanical failure early in the first practice session that prevented the car from participating the rest of the day. After overnight repairs, Snow qualified a reasonable fifth on Saturday and in the race, he got as high as third during the first pit-stop cycle.

Bad luck returned in the second half, however, as Sellers and Legge – the team’s closest pursuer in the championship – made contact, resulting in an extra stop to repair the damaged Lamborghini. Sellers battled back over the closing stages to salvage a sixth-place result, the team’s first finish outside of the top four all season. Nevertheless, they still retained the GTD championship.

“It wasn’t particularly a great day for us, and a bad points day,” Sellers said. “But at the end, you look and think that we had to have one of these coming. There was going to be a time where we struggled in the race, where the speed wasn’t there, and this time it got the better of us a little bit. It wasn’t by lack of effort.

“Everyone on this team gives their absolute best and while we didn’t have the quickest car, the guys were good in the pits and got us a couple of positions. You just hate the days where they gain the positions and you can’t keep it from them. Madison and I did the best we could and today we were fortunate to walk away with sixth and not a little bit worse than that. We have to reload, figure out where we’re at, and go from there.”

5. GT Manufacturer Championship Battles Come Into Focus
With two races remaining, the leaders in the WeatherTech Championship manufacturer standings in both GTLM and GTD have commanding leads.

In GTLM, Ford leads Chevrolet by 12 points, 295-283, with a maximum of 70 points still available. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the manufacturer title will be going to Detroit. Porsche is third and effectively out of mathematical contention with 274 points, as a last-place finish in a GTLM race would deliver 26 manufacturer points at worst.

To pick up its third consecutive GTLM championship, Chevrolet essentially needs to win both of the final races and Ford would need to score last-place points in both. If the Blue Oval does score the championship it will mark the first time since 2010 that Chevrolet hasn’t won an IMSA manufacturer’s title.

Chevy’s run includes back-to-back GTLM titles in 2016 and 2017, Prototype manufacturer championships in 2014 and 2015, American Le Mans Series GT and GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series Daytona Prototype titles in 2012 and 2013, and the GRAND-AM GT championship in 2011.

In the GTD class, Lamborghini is in a similar position to Ford. The Italian manufacturer currently leads the class standings by 18 points, 282-263, over Acura and Lexus is third with 258 points. A race victory is worth 35 points and with eight competing manufacturers in the class, a last-place result offers 23 points.

For Lexus to win the title, it would need to win both of the last two races and have Lamborghini score last-place points in both. That would result in a tie – each manufacturer would have 328 points – and Lexus would prevail on the most-race wins tiebreaker, four to three.

There are more permutations that would allow Acura to take the title away from Lamborghini, but if Lambo were to score last-place points in both of the final two, Acura needs at least one win and could finish no worse than second in the other to take the manufacturer title.

And that’s your back-to-school math lesson for today.

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