Season finale at Road Atlanta reveals 2016 champions

The 2016 IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship is now in the history books and its last hurrah, the 19th annual Petit Le Mans, was as exciting as ever even though the champions were unofficially crowned early on. In spite of that, the battles for overall and class honors across the board went to the wire. It was also the last race for the entirety of the Prototype field (minus the Deltawing) as new P2 and DPi machinery will be introduced in 2017

Qualifying was a straight-forward affair for Michael Shank Racing on the eve of their 250th (and last) Prototype start. Pla and the No. 60 Ligier had been the pace setters throughout all of the practice sessions, the Frenchman unwilling to relinquish the top spot to the Daytona Prototypes that sang their swan song at Road Atlanta. He set an unbeatable 1:13:061 mid-way through the session which was nearly a half-second quicker than the best that Mazda’s Tristan Nunez could do in the No. 55. Third quickest was championship leader (by a thin one-point advantage) Eric Curran in the No. 31 Action Express Corvette, while the No. 70 Mazda started fourth.

Robert Alon was the quickest in Prototype Challenge, his 1:16:411 being just a tad quicker than Alex Popow’s last flyer which put him next to the pole-sitting PR1/Mathiasen ORECA. Johnny Mowlem was third fastest on his last professional start in the BAR1 Motorsport No. 20 car. Kenton Koch was fourth for Performance Tech, the top four separated by just two tenths of a second.

Three quarters of a second – that was the gap between the pole sitter in GT-LM and the bog last starter in the premier Grand Touring category. To say it was tight is an understatement, Richard Westbrook’s pole time of 1:18:131 being just a tenth and a half quicker than Antonio Garcia’s best effort that put him second. Toni Vilander and Joey Hand filled the second row, while Tommy Milner was only seventh in the championship-leading Corvette No.4. It could have been worse, though as last year’s winner, Nick Tandy, started from tenth aboard the No. 911 Porsche.

Jeroen Bleekemolen slipped through the cracks to claim the first pole in 2016 for the No. 33 Viper in GT-D, this car also on its last start. The Dutchman thus put himself in the best possible position to mount an attack on the championship-leading Scuderia Corsa Ferrari that came to Road Atlanta with a huge gap in the points standings following the disqualification of Magnus Racing at VIR. Bleekemolen’s 1:21:305 was just under a half-second quicker than the best time by Park Place’s Matt McMurry, who qualified ahead of another Porsche, the No. 23 of Mario Farnbacher who was joined on row two by Christina Nielsen who was aiming to become the first female champion in IMSA-sanctioned competition since 2009 when Melanie Snow became champion of the GTC category.

Continue reading for the full story.

This Petit Le Mans was a genuine race of farewells as multiple cars (and drivers) took to the track for the last time. For starters, this was the very last start for the Daytona Prototype platform which was introduced over 13 years ago at Daytona. Four such Corvette DPs took the start at Road Atlanta, three built by Coyote and one by Dallara, the tube-frame sportscars being replaced come in 2017 with the new DPi formula for manufacturers and the new 2017-spec LMP2s with the spec Gibson engine. It was also the last race in the prototype ranks for Michael Shank, as he will embark next year on a GT-D adventure with Acura fielding their NSX GT3 in IMSA competition. John Pew, Oswaldo Negri Jr’s long standing team mate at MSR was also set to take his last race start at Petit Le Mans, the American veteran stepping away from racing over 12 years after his debut. Another seasoned driver, Johnny Mowlem, who raced just about anything on four wheels in a career spanning over 20 years, also said goodbye to racing at the end of this year’s PLM. Last but not least, this was the last start of a Lola-based prototype as the two Mazdas will see no more racing action in 2017.

Prototype Class

2016 IMSA Petit Le Mans - Race Report
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All this emotion was dialed up to eleven as the race got underway on Saturday morning. Olivier Pla converted his pole into a solid lead, easily getting rid of the two Multimatic-built Mazdas that got up to second and third. The Frenchman kept the lead up until his first stop when John Pew got aboard. The stop itself was troublesome as some broken drive pins meant that the rear-left wheel was reluctant to come off the hub. It would be an issue that the MSR crew would have to fight all race long. Pew didn’t drive too much as during the first full-course caution period that lasted a quarter of an hour some 70 minutes after the fall of the green flag Pla got back behind the wheel. He managed to get back up to the leading lap, which’d been lost due to the longer stop and Pew’s lack of pace. Up front, Dane Cameron was leading, followed by the team-mate car No. 5, the two Mazdas and the No. 90 Racing Corvette DP. Ryan Dalziel wasn’t involved in the fight for long as the car kept misfiring, this issue only getting worse as the race progressed. A similar fate was endured by the No. 50 Mazda later on.

Just as the No. 60 MSR Ligier moved up to the overall lead, the second Full-Course Yellow was deployed for both debris at Turn 2 and track problems at the same spot

Pla was back on the attack as the race got back to green, although the car briefly lost speed as the Frenchman probably pressed the pit speed limiter button by mistake, losing fifth place to the ESM Ligier. With Dalziel and, later, Nunez out of the fight due to misfires (both cars stopping on track, the Mazda more than once, before going behind the wall), Pla was soon back to the lead of the race before the end of the third hour.

Just as the No. 60 MSR Ligier moved up to the overall lead, the second Full-Course Yellow was deployed for both debris at Turn 2 and track problems at the same spot – it became apparent that the asphalt was slowly deteriorating on the racing line. Curran retook the lead after pitting under yellow but he lost it after the race got back to green to Jordan Taylor who put down a monster pass in Turn 2. It was a proper touring car race, but between prototypes, behind Taylor as Negri traded paint with Pipo Derani’s ESM Ligier. While Negri lost time, Derani soldiered on, soon reaching Eric Curran whose solid defense meant that Derani spun trying to pass the No. 31 Whelen Corvette. Negri was quickly up to pace and went past Curran to reach his team mate, Joao Barbosa, by the end of the fourth hour.

A new (third) caution period took place during the fifth hour as worsening track conditions in Turn 2 pressured series officials to make a move. They did, and workers were soon on the scene, while the pack was still circulating behind the safety car, applying dry cement which took roughly an hour to fully merge with the existing surface. Meanwhile, changed did take place as some cars lost and others gained time on pit lane. Barbosa took the lead after a new round of stops, followed by the No. 31, No. 10 (who’d come in from the lead), No. 60 and No. 70.

At the restart, the order was slightly altered with Barbosa leading ahead of Negri, Curran and Angelelli. The No. 31 made contact with the No. 61 which caused one of the number plates on the Whelen Corvette to be displaced. The race officials would later order the No. 31 to make an extra stop to fix that issue. Slightly ahead, Negri passed Barbosa and kept the lead for some twenty minutes before he had to pit, halfway through hour number six. Thanks to excellent pit work, Olivier Pla got back on track still leading while Felipe Albuquerque took over from Barbosa and emerged second. Pla’s work to build a gap was only interrupted by yet another Full-Course Yellow late in the sixth our that lasted for little over 15 minutes.

Pla’s superb restart saw him easily bridge a gap but it was all up in tire smoke as the Frenchman outbraked himself in Turn 10 but managed to keep the lead. This partly due to the fact that Cameron and Albuquerque were fighting for second position, the No. 31 Corvette eventually taking that spot before Felipe suffered a disastrous puncture on the No. 5 that would’ve been game ending but the Portuguese had lightning-quick reaction. He managed to nurse the car to the pits and Jordan Taylor got up to P3. The extra stop was still very costly for the title-defending crew as the No. 5 got back on track one lap down – this moment playing an important part in the title fight.

A new lap record was set by the super quick Olivier Pla on lap 244 before he had to pit, followed by both Cameron and Taylor. This left Johannes van Overbeek aboard the No. 2 to lead briefly before he too had to come in for a stop before the end of the seventh hour. With this round of pit stops done, Pla was still leading ahead of Taylor who managed to pass Simon Pagenaud on his out lap in the No. 31. The Indy Car champion then lost third in favor of Spencer Pigot who’d previously gotten by van Overbeek – the No. 70 Mazda was looking good, but better yet was Pla whose lead measured over 30 seconds as the race got into the eight hour.

With less than three hours left to run and with most IMSA titles already decided (GT-D to Scuderia Corsa, Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan, PC to Alex Popow and Renger van der Zande of Starworks Motorsport and Corvette Racing with the No. 4 duo of Milner and Gavin) it was still all to play for at the top and in some classes for the NAEC (North-American Endurance Cup) crowns. Pla motored on in the lead while behind Pigot fought with Ricky Taylor for second and then with Simon Pagenaud for third. He did go by the two of them eventually to end up second with an hour and 20 minutes left to run. Scott Sharp then spun in the second-placed ESM Ligier but got going again. The final nail in the coffin for the No. 5 and its title aspirations came when Albuquerque was ordered to serve a Drive-Through penalty for blocking the overall leader who was about to put him a lap down. Minutes later, Pla made another stop and lost the lead to Spencer Pigot who was yet to pit, trying to extend the stint as long as possible so as to skip stopping for a splash at the very end.

With 45 minutes left to go, Pipo Derani moved up to second by passing Miller but the Brazilian was quick to dive on pit lane for his last stop of the race

After Pigot finally completed his stop, Pla was back up to first overall but he soon spun after Jorg Bergmeister, who received a late call to pit, touched the No. 60. Pla got going again soon enough but the gap to second place Joel Miller was down to just 10 seconds. However, Miller couldn’t get any closer because Pla quickly got on with the job at hand and extended his lead by five seconds in just a couple of laps as the race entered in the final hour.

With 45 minutes left to go, Pipo Derani moved up to second by passing Miller but the Brazilian was quick to dive on pit lane for his last stop of the race. Miller followed suite, the Mazda getting new rubber only as the car was also refueled. After Pla also made its last stop, again losing time with the reluctant left-rear wheel, it was Mazda still in second, the Ligier of Derani in third and the Corvette of Cameron in fourth.

Derani managed to move pass the Mazda which was still looking good for a podium which would have been the first ever all-P2 podium since the merger. It wasn’t meant to be though as, with 13 minutes left on the clock, the Mazda’s rear deck was engulfed in flames and Miller managed to get the car stopped next to a safety crew. The incident called for a short safety-car period which was over with eight and a half minutes to spare. First and second overall were separated by the battling GT-D leaders while, behind, Cameron and Taylor fought for third. The latter took third in traffic and would go on to finish there, behind Derani and Pla who crossed the finish line three and a half seconds ahead of the No. 2 which, in exchange, got the NAEC silverware. The IMSA silverware went, again, to Action Express (teams), but to a different driver pairing, Cameron and Curran. Victory of the day was, however, in Michael Shank’s bag and it was a highly emotional one as it occurred at such a milestone moment.

P Class Top 5 Results

Pos No. Drivers Team Vehicle Laps
1 60 Pew/Negri/Pla Michael Shank Racing Honda HPD Ligier JS P2 412
2 2 Sharp/Derani/van Overbeek Tequila Patron ESM Honda HPD Ligier JS P2 412
3 10 Taylor/Taylor/Angelelli Konica Minolta Chevrolet Corvette DP 412
4 31 Curran/Cameron/Pagenaud Action Express Racing Chevrolet Corvette DP 412
5 5 Barbosa/Fittipaldi/Albuquerque Action Express Racing Chevrolet Corvette DP 410

GT-LM Class

2016 IMSA Petit Le Mans - Race Report
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In GT-LM, Corvette took all the titles (teams, drivers, manufacturers both in IMSA and in the NAEC) but the victory in the ten-hour race went the way of Risi Competizione, the No. 62 Ferrari driven by Giancarlo Fisichella, Toni Vilander and James Calado keeping in contention all the way through. They led after trouble struck both the front row starters, the No. 3 Corvette and the No. 67 title-contending Ford and kept at the sharp end of the field even when the lead was taken by the No. 4 Corvette with Ollie Gavin behind the wheel. The eventual championship winning car later lost time after an off-track moment for Marcel Fassler which meant that third was the best possible result for No. 4 which gave Corvette Racing their third Driver’s Title. It was the fifth title for Gavin in North-American IMSA-sanctioned competition, himself and Milner winning four times in 2016 on the way to the title (including at Daytona and Sebring).

In GT-LM, Corvette took all the titles (teams, drivers, manufacturers both in IMSA and in the NAEC) but the victory in the ten-hour race went the way of Risi Competizione

The GT-LM podium was completed by the surviving No. 66 Ford while BMW and Porsche had a troubled run. The No. 100 BMW collided early on with the No. 67, essentially destroying that squad’s title hopes, both cars needing to pit. The No. 67 required a floor change while cosmetic damage on the No. 100 was followed by an alternator failure. The other M6 GT-LM did no better as it was out due to a steering rack failure. Both Porsches were put out of contention by crashes. The No. 912 clashed with Andy Lally’s Audi, Makowiecki taking the blame for plowing in the back of the R8 No. 44, while the No. 911 car crashed into the BAR1 LMPC car driven at the time by Johnny Mowlem. Scuderia Corsa’s GT-LM car was just as unlucky, the No. 68 catching fire on pit lane with less than two hours left to go.

GT-LM Class Top 5 Results

Pos No. Drivers Team Vehicle Laps
1 62 Fisichella/Vilander/Calado Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE 398
2 66 Hand/Mueller/Bourdais Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT 398
3 4 Gavin/Milner/Fassler Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R 398
4 3 Garcia/Magnussen/Rockenfeller Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R 397
5 912 Bamber/Makowiecki/Christensen Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR 395

Prototype Challenge Class

2016 IMSA Petit Le Mans - Race Report
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In PC, Starworks Motorsport took the IMSA titles with their No. 8 crew although the car dropped out of the running with little under two hours left to go. The car was, however, classified sixth which was enough for Ranger van der Zande and Alex Popow. PR1/Mathiasen also took the titles in the NAEC with drivers Tom Kimber-Smith, Robert Alon and Jose Gutierrez.

PC Class Top 5 Results

Pos No. Drivers Team Vehicle Laps
1 52 Alon/Gutierrez/Kimber-Smith PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA FLM09 404
2 38 French/Marcelli/Koch Performance Tech Motorsports ORECA FLM09 403
3 85 Goikhberg/Miller/Simpson JDC-Miller Motorsports ORECA FLM09 395
4 88 Kvamme/Bradley/Hanratty Starworks Motorsport ORECA FLM09 393
5 20 Yount/Drissi/Mowlem BAR1 Motorsports ORECA FLM09 379

GT-D Class

It was a clear run in GT-D for Scuderia Corsa, the team having the title in the bag by the time Christina Nielsen finished her stint after three hours (thus also completing her minimum drive time in the race) from the start. The No. 33 Viper gave it all and managed to finish second on the road, only to be gifted the victory after Magnus Racing was again excluded, this time because John Potter hadn’t spent enough time behind the wheel. With Magnus pushed to the back of the finishing order, second should have been given to the No. 73 Park Place Porsche while the Scuderia Corsa 488 GT3 should’ve followed suite in third.

This was not the case however as yesterday evening, in an unexpected turn of events, the No. 73 Porsche was also excluded for the very same reason as the No. 44 Audi. As it turns out, due to a misunderstanding of the rules, Patrick Lindsey did not stay enough behind the wheel of the Park Place Motorsport Porsche 991 GT3-R. This means that the Nielsen/Balzan/Segal Ferrari was moved up to second and the BMW M6 GT3 No. 97 Turner Motorsport was given P3. The added points nudged Balzand and Nielsen up to P1 in the NAEC standings, tied with Alex Riberas and Mario Farnbacher. Since the No. 63 won at both the Sebring 12 Hours and the Watkins Glen Six Hours, the title goes their way instead of the No. 23 Team Seattle/AJR squad.

GT-D Class Top 5 Results

Pos No. Drivers Team Vehicle Laps
1 33 Keating/Bleekemolen/Miller Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper GT3-R 385
2 63 Nielsen/Balzan/Segal Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 384
3 97 Marsal/Palttala/Lawrence Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 384
4 48 Sellers/Snow/Miller Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3 383
5 9 Bell/Aschenbach/von Moltke Stevenson Motorsport Audi R8 GT3 383

For the full results, click here.

The 2017 season will officially begin in late January with the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona but we’ll be able to witness the new DPi and LMP2 machinery attack the oval even earlier during the traditional Roar Before The 24 test days.

Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert -
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read More
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