IMSA title fights head for the hills of Monterey
“I’m looking forward to getting back to Laguna. It’s got a pretty unique track surface there, and a lovely mix of corners in a nice part of the world.” That’s how Alexander Sims words his enthusiasm for getting back to his No. 31 Action Express Racing Cadillac V-Series.R at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and hurtling it down the famed Corkscrew for the first time.
For its fourth race of the season, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship heads to its fourth different type of circuit, for its fourth different race length of the year. After a roval, a former airport circuit and a street course, the series heads to its first natural terrain road course, carved into the coastal countryside of Monterey County, California to wrap up its Western swing with a 2h40m race this weekend, the Motul Course de Monterey.
Sims’ eagerness is probably bolstered by the fact that he and Pipo Derani are in the thick of the championship fight, sitting a single point behind the championship-leading No. 6 Porsche Penske Motorsport duo of Mathieu Jaminet and Nick Tandy. But like all of the GTP contenders, it will be a learning experience for them, as none have any testing time on the circuit with the new GTPs.
“Looking forward to just driving the track and then trying to get our teeth stuck into understand how these GTP cars can work best around there,” he says. “It’s new for all of us. With these cars, we’re embarking on an unknown journey on each of these circuits that we go to. We do the simulator work and the engineers have a certain expectation of what it should be, in terms of a competitiveness for us; but once we’re on the ground, the circuit conditions inevitably are slightly different to what one expects, and yeah, we’ve just got to adapt and try and optimize our package as quickly as possible while still working on the fundamental development of the car.”
Sims alludes to Laguna’s “unique” track surface, which the WeatherTech Championship competitors will see for the last time this weekend — repaving is expected to begin ASAP after this weekend’s race, and new curbs are already in place. The existing surface is hard on tires, and with IMSA’s reduced allotment of Michelin tires — three sets are allowed for qualifying and race — that could make things tricky on a double stint. While in theory in a 2h40m race, if a team starts on the qualifying set, it may not be required. Many believe double stinting will be necessary, and that’s where things get tricky.
“Certainly, tire degradation will be a bit of a pain for us. And maybe I’ll be I’ll be kicking myself for saying I was looking forward to it before the weekend, if we do struggle with tire deg or something through the race,” Sims concedes. “But it’s a challenge that that I enjoy. These cars, they’re so different, honestly. With a DPi car last year with a different Michelin tire, there’s not a huge amount that’s the same that can be transferred from that learning in terms of specific engineering items. And so the fact that the track surface is the same, it is a bit of a known quantity that we’re likely to have tire deg going into it. At least it doesn’t throw another variable into the mix.”
If there’s anybody that has Laguna Seca down, it’s Ricky Taylor. He has three straight wins at the circuit, the first in 2020 with Helio Castroneves for Penske, and the last two for Wayne Taylor Racing with Filipe Albuquerque, all three in the Acura ARX-05. With Taylor and Albuquerque coming into Laguna Seca third in the championship and searching for their first victory of the season, how much they can apply from previous experience will be certainly interesting when the cars roll off for first practice Friday afternoon.
“Laguna has been really good to us,” notes Taylor. “The ARX-05 always performed well there — a very high-downforce track, can run the car low. And it very much seems like the ARX-06 is a little bit more of the same, it likes the same things. We’ve gotten to go to sort of most of the different track types. You know, we’ve seen some fast corners, we’ve seen bumpy, we’ve seen smooth, we’ve seen street courses. And so going to Laguna Seca, we know what to expect from past experience, although everything is new with the GTP cars everywhere that we go.
“If Long Beach taught us anything, it’s that we can have some good confidence in our simulation and our simulator setups. We unloaded very well there. We hardly touched the car until the race and so hopefully, that can give us some confidence in in what we can expect for Laguna.”
Of course, Jaminet and Tandy will be doing their best to retain the championship lead, and BMW certainly wants a victory. Three races have meant three different winners, from three different manufacturers – can that streak continue for one more race?
LMP2 returns to the track for the first time since its “regular season” opener at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. Defending champ John Farano leads the point standings as he is joined by Louis Deletraz for the first race this season in the No. 8 Tower Motorsports ORECA. Farano and Deletraz won at Laguna Seca in 2022, beating Dwight Merriman and Ryan Dalziel, who are third in the points going into the race. In between are Steven Thomas and Mikkel Jensen.
Pfaff Motorsports hopes to rekindle its Laguna magic from last year to get its season back on course. Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images
The No. 14 Vasser Sullivan Lexus duo of Ben Barnicoat and Jack Hawksworth are on a three-race podium streak in GTD PRO, culminating with a victory at Long Beach. While last year Laguna Seca certainly favored the Porsches, there’s no guarantee that Pfaff can repeat victory with Klaus Bachler and Patrick Pilet, althopugh it would certainly help dig them out of their fourth-place hole. Daytona winners Danial Juncadella and Jules Gounon are second in the points in the No. 79 WeatherTech Racing Mercedes-AMG, followed by the Corvette duo of Jordan Taylor and Antonio Garcia.
GTD won’t have the same winner from 2022, that’s guaranteed. But looking down the order from last year’s race, when you get to a team that’s going to be there this weekend, it’s championship leaders Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow. With victories at Sebring and Long Beach in the No. 1 Paul Miller Racing BMW M4 GT3, they’ve built up a pretty good lead in the points over Daytona winners Roman de Angelis and Marco Sorensen in the No. 27 Heart of Racing Aston Martin Vantage — nearly 100 points. But only one point behind Heart of Racing is the No. 12 Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F with Aaron Telitz and Frankie Montecalvo, who are a mere seven ahead of Inception Racing’s Brendan Iribe and Frederik Schandorff.
WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca reports that advance ticket sales are up 35 percent over previous years for the race, indicating big crowds at the circuit who will also be treated to Lamborghini Super Trofeo, which opens its season this weekend, and Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup, both of which will have a pair of races. Michelin Pilot Challenge will run a two-hour race on Saturday afternoon. Select sessions will be carried on IMSA radio, and qualifying will be live on IMSA.tv as well as Peacock. The 2h40m Motul Course de Monterey will be broadcast live on NBC beginning at 3pm ET on Sunday.