With a condensed two-day schedule, the prototype challenge and GTD classes of the Tudor United Sportscar Championship took to the picturesque Lime Rock Park circuit with a busy Friday. Two practice sessions led to a 15 minute qualifying session for each class.
The initial entry list was already slim with 18 cars, it narrowed further when the #58 GTD Porsche from Wright Motorsports withdrew before the weekend started. The change left the mix at 10 GTD cars and 7 prototype challenge cars.
Practice was uneventful for most, but some teams had drama in the morning. The #97 Turner BWM Z4 fell victim to the downhill turn 7 with Michael Marsal at the controls. The car returned to the paddock on a flatbed with material damage to the rear end. Second practice or qualifying was out of the question as the crew took the car off-site in an effort to effect repairs for the Saturday race. Co-driver and Dane Cameron was able to get some laps in before handing off to Marsal.
The #007 TRG Aston Martin had drama of the mechanical variety when it broke a clutch on its way out for first practice. The crew worked quickly to replace the culprit and gave the team 20 minute of track time at the end of the session. The fix worked as the car jumped to fourth place on the time sheets. Also in the mechanical difficulty department, the #23 Alex Job Porsche suffered with a misfire in the morning but the team believed the issue had been fixed for the second practice session.
Colin Braun in the #54 CORE autosport prototype challenge car set the fastest time in class over both practice sessions. Bruno Junquiera, Renger van der Zande and Conor Daly joined Braun to make up the only four drivers setting laps below the 49 second threshold. The GTD class was roughly five seconds adrift of the PC cars.
With a tight field on a short track, qualifying would be critical. Track position will be valuable in the race so there was more at stake than just bragging rights.
When GTD qualifying opened for business, Dion von Moltke (US born to South African parents but races under a South African licence) in his Paul Miller Audi R8 and Ben Keating in his Dodge Viper SRT traded fast laps with only hundredths and thousandths between them. The frenzy would continue throughout the full 15 minutes. Von Moltke set a strong time of 54 seconds mid-way through the session which set the benchmark and Keating gave chase.
While the Audi and Viper traded fast laps, other GTD cars found excitement of their own. Ray Mason in the #76 Compass 360 Audi went off in a spin approaching the uphill chicane, but didn’t hit anything.
He ended up at the bottom of the charts for qualifying for his first outing with the Audi, no doubt looking to stay out of trouble and gaining more knowledge with every lap. He did more laps than most and set his personal fastest lap time on his next to last lap of the session.
Patrick Lindsey locked up the tires of his Park Place Motorsport Porsche under braking into turn one, going around outside of the turn through the dirt. After cleaning up his tires, Lindsey recovered to claim a third place starting position. Christina Nielsen similarly locked up the tires of her Aston Martin and briefly visited the escape road at the end of the front stretch and she will start in fifth.
Keating and von Moltke continued to push hard throughout the session. Keating carried too much speed just before the uphill chicane and went for a sideways ride into the grass to driver’s left, then cleaned up his tires and came back in an attempt to find more speed.
When the checkered flag waved, von Moltke’s time stood and he claimed his second pole of the season by the slim margin of 9 thousandths of a second. Von Moltke will start with Christopher Haase in the silver and red Paul Miller Audi R8 LMS. Keating will start second on the grid with Jeroen Bleekemolen waiting to take over in their white Riley Motorsports Viper.
Speaking to IMSA Radio after the session, von Moltke recognized the slim margin and said “It was a little too close for comfort there.” He dedicated the run to his father saying “My dad got his scan back, he’s cancer free and my drive was for him.” In other post-session comments, he noted the likely role of traffic in the race saying “The PC cars are very aggressive which you have to be in order to pass around here. We snuck in a couple of places during practice where we probably shouldn’t have gone. So the key tomorrow will be to keep it clean and just keep our pace.”
Keating knew he was close. “We had a spin and were sliding around. I put down a pretty good lap, but Dion got me. After I heard that, I was out there pushing really hard to squeeze another one-hundredth from the car but it didn’t have it. I was giving it my all for sure.”
The top seven in the GTD field were covered by less than eight tenths of a second.
As clouds began to gather, prototype challenge got underway with the non-professional drivers mostly taking to the track for qualifying. As the qualifying driver starts the race, the choice showed a glimpse of Saturday race strategy.
Stephen Simpson in the yellow #85 JDC/Miller Motorsports car set successive fast times on his first laps which set the early target as the first car below the 50 second mark. James French and Chris Cumming followed behind but their efforts were interrupted after six minutes when Todd Slusher looped his #16 BAR1 Motorsports car in the middle of the uphill chicane to driver’s right. He was fine, but the left rear wheel, bodywork and wing were crumpled against the barrier with major damage. The incident brought out the red flag to halt the session as the car was recovered by flatbed.
During the red flag, IMSA Radio weatherman Greg Cramer peered through his sunglasses to report sprinkles in pit lane which is usually not conducive to faster lap times. The recovery took some time and all eyes watched the clock and the approaching end-of-day curfew to see if the session would resume.
Five minutes were added which was just enough to get the session to its minimum length and beat the curfew. If the session didn’t reach minimum time, the grid would have started on points and Simpson’s time would have been erased.
The green flag waved again and everybody hit the track. French and Cumming improved their times despite the raindrops, but nobody had anything for Simpson who claimed pole with a gap of six tenths.
The pole was the first ever for both Simpson and the JDC/Miller Motorsports team. Arguably, Simpson’s pole should not be surprise as he is a professional driver running among those who don’t make their living behind the wheel, but the performance was still impressive in light of the quality of driving in the field and the tight margins at Lime Rock.
Simpson later acknowledged the work of the team on the car and the variable weather conditions saying “We were making a lot of changes during practice today. We had some time to find and we did it. We drove well this morning and, together as a team, we found some speed. When we were sitting here in the red flag, I didn’t think the rain was enough to affect [the car]. But on the further end of the track, it was raining a little more.”
The South African also admitted that he was pleased to see countryman von Moltke claim pole in GTD. “It’s amazing, two South African drivers on pole! When I was sitting in my car and they said Dion on pole, I was really happy for him and thought ‘I hope it can be me next.’”
The two classes will start tomorrow with separate grids for a 2 hour 40 minute race. As usual, follow the race on IMSA Radio and look for a race report on DSC.