By IMSA Wire Service
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Let’s get one thing straight right off the top: there’s still a long, long way to go in the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
With just two races in the books – albeit two really big ones in the Rolex 24 At Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts – the championship race is close in all three classes. And to be exact, each of the GT classes still has nine races remaining on the schedule, with eight still on tap for the Prototype class.
But if the season ended today, we’d have one driver and team celebrating its second title in three years, along with a driver who’s in his first full WeatherTech Championship season. There would be another set of teammates winning their first title with a team that’s no stranger to winning throughout the world of motorsports. And there would be another team that has knocked on the door somewhat frequently in recent years, but finally broke through this time around with a pair of first-time champion drivers.
In the Prototype class, the 2016 championship-winning No. 31 Whelen Engineering team and 2016 champion driver Eric Curran lead the championship standings alongside Brazilian Felipe Nasr, who is racing in IMSA full time for the first time in 2018. They’re in this enviable position by virtue of their podium results of second at Daytona and third at Sebring.
Technically, Curran and Nasr are tied with their endurance racing teammate, Mike Conway, but Conway will drop out of the lead following next month’s BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix at Long Beach, a 100-minute sprint race that includes each team’s two full-season drivers.
That the No. 31 Cadillac DPi team stands atop the championship battle right now should come as no surprise. After all, this particular team – with Curran and then-co-driver Dane Cameron – took the title two years ago, and as a group, their Action Express Racing program also includes the two-time WeatherTech Championship-winning No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi program. The No. 5 squad also has won all four Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup titles handed out to date. The No. 31 team also currently leads the Patrón Endurance Cup standings.
“Great points day,” said Curran from the Sebring podium. “Two podiums in a row. Leading the championship, leading the Patrón Cup championship, I mean, it’s a pretty good start to the season with my new teammate. I can’t complain.”
Curran and Nasr lead the No. 54 CORE autosport ORECA LM P2 full-season team of Jon Bennett and Colin Braun by four points, 62-58, with the No. 5 team of Joao Barbosa and Filipe Albuquerque hot on their heels with 56 points.
It will be particularly interesting to see how the Prototype championship picture changes throughout the spring and summer. The Patrón ESM team that won Sebring, Pipo Derani and Johannes van Overbeek in the No. 22 Nissan DPi, is currently sixth in points due to a rough outing at Daytona, but figures to be strong going forward.
Certainly, the defending Prototype champion No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac Dpi-V.R. team of Jordan Taylor and Renger van der Zande cannot be counted out, especially going to Long Beach where the team has won each of the last three races.
Both of Acura Team Penske’s cars were frontrunners at Daytona and Sebring, but midrace issues prevented them from achieving strong results. One would think these sprint races might be just what the doctor ordered to bring them back into the mix. The same goes for the two-car Mazda Team Joest squad that showed plenty of speed at Sebring.
All of those teams and more are very much in the mix, so get your popcorn ready, because this season is shaping up to be a great one for Prototype racing in the WeatherTech Championship.
Of course, the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class always features titanic battles, and there’s another one brewing in that championship as well. Buoyed by their victory in the Rolex 24 At Daytona, the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Ford GT pairing of Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe lead the standings heading to Long Beach.
They’re five points, 63-58, ahead of the Sebring winners, Nick Tandy and Patrick Pilet, in the No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR, with the No. 912 Porsche duo of Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor just three points back in third place.
But there’s just 10 points separating the top seven teams in the standings, including both Corvette Racing entries that have won the past two GTLM championships, and it’s just a 15-point spread from front to back among all full-season GTLM teams. Yep, still anybody’s race there.
The GT Daytona (GTD) class currently features the biggest spread from first to second. The No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 team of Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow have a seven-point advantage, 65-58, over the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3 pairing of Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen.
The third-place No. 86 Michael Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian team and drivers Katherine Legge, Alvaro Parente and Trent Hindman is 10 points behind the leaders, with the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa squad – which has won the past three consecutive GTD titles – and drivers Alessandro Balzan and Cooper MacNeil sitting 12 points behind the leaders.
The No. 48 team – which has finished inside the top three in GTD points in three out of the last four years – got to the top of this year’s standings in a similar manner to the way the No. 31 team took the Prototype lead, with podium results in both of the season’s first two races. The difference is the No. 48 took the victory at Sebring, and while the championship lead is great, the Sebring win meant more to Sellers right now.
“I’m going to be honest,” he said from Victory Lane. “At the moment, the win is what matters. I mean, we’re so early. It’s great to bank the points now, but we have so many races left. As long as we can keep doing what we’re doing right now, the result will take care of itself. We’re happy with today and we’ll worry about tomorrow when it comes.”
For the GTD class, “tomorrow” comes the first weekend of May at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which will host its first WeatherTech Championship event. And when it comes, the battle for the championship moves back into the spotlight.
But up next for the WeatherTech Championship is the BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix at Long Beach on Saturday, April 14. The 100-minute race featuring the Prototype and GTLM classes will be televised live on FOX network at 4 p.m. ET. Tickets are available now at GPLB.com.