Kelvin Van Der Linde, Markus Winkelhock and Pierre Kaffer won the inaugural edition of the Mazda Raceway California 8 Hours, at the wheel of the #44 Audi Sport Team Magnus R8. The outcome of the third round of the 2017 Intercontinental GT Challenge was decided less than twenty minutes from the end, when Van Der Linde passed Christopher Mies for the lead.
The #29 Audi Sport Team Land R8 eventually finished a mere 2.488 seconds down on the leader, with the #9 K-PAX Racing McLaren crossing the line in third. The Pro-Am winners’ trophy went to the #54 Black Swan Racing Porsche, a car that finished in fifth overall. GT4 honours went to another Porsche, the #26 Rearden Racing Cayman. That means that the GT3, GT3 Pro-Am and GT4 categories were all won by American teams.
“I am really happy for John Potter and Team Magnus, for this means a lot for an American team,” said Kaffer. “This was the first time they competed against the much more experienced European teams and this is a great reward for their efforts.”
Sunny conditions greeted the teams for the start of the inaugural edition of the Mazda Raceway California 8 Hours, the longest-ever professional race at the Laguna Seca circuit. Polesitter Christopher Mies held on to the lead at the start and together with his team-mates Christopher Haase and Connor De Phillippi, managed to give the #29 Audi Sport Team Land R8 a lead of over half a minute at the halfway mark.
A couple of safety car interventions in the fifth hour of the race saw that advantage melt like snow in the Californian sun and two other Audis – #44 Audi Sport Team Magnus R8 and the #11 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT R8 – were on tail of the #29 car for the next three hours, running away from the other cars in the field.
The final pitstops set the wheels in motion for a thrilling finale. The crews of the #11 and the #29 cars opted not to respect the imposed pitstop delta time, both incurring a drive through penalty for that infraction. But even with that penalty they both ran away from the #44 Audi Sport Team Magnus R8, which had stuck to the rules.
In the Belgian Audi Club Team WRT car Robin Frijns had taken the lead after the final pitstop, but the Dutchman lost that position again after taking the drive through one lap before Christopher Mies in the Audi Sport Team Land machine.
Frijns tried to recover that lead when both cars had to lap a backmarker, but that led to contact in turn 10, with both Audis ending up in the gravel trap. Frijns lost a couple of laps in the process, Mies could continue, but because of the following safety car intervention, his advantage over Kelvin Van Der Linde in the #44 Audi Sport Team Magnus R8 was reduced to a couple of tenths of a second.
The 21-year-old from South Africa was determined to take away the lead from Mies, who was clearly struggling with the slightly damaged #29 car. Some twenty minutes before the end of the race, Van Der Linde passed Mies on the outside of turn 5 and even though Mies did his utmost to keep up with the Audi Sport Team Magnus car, he eventually had to settle for second.
Kelvin Van Der Linde shared the winning car with Pierre Kaffer and Markus Winkelhock; for the latter it was his second consecutive win in the Intercontinental GT Challenge. Winkelhock therefore has claimed the lead of the driver standings, taking over from his Spa co-winner Christopher Haase.
And what about the competition? After the problems for the Belgian Audi Club Team WRT R8 the #9 K-PAX Racing McLaren proved to be the best of the rest, finishing some 43 seconds behind the leader. The K-PAX Racing machine proved to be the only car that managed to finish on the lead lap. In fourth and one lap down was the sole surviving Acura (the other NSX fell by the wayside with cooling problems). American squad RealTime Racing gave the car a convincing debut in an SRO series, showing off the potential of the car.
Porsche fans left the Mazda Raceway with mixed emotions: the #58 Porsche Motorsport North America by Wright Motorsport 911 had to retire after problems with the fuel rig, but fifth was then taken by the immensely popular #54 Black Swan Racing Porsche, which also finished first in the Pro-Am Class. Jeroen Bleekemolen, Tim Pappas and David Calvert-Jones did not set a foot wrong and beat the Pro-Am competition with four laps in hand.
Both MARC Cars Mazda – running in the invitational class – ended the race inside the top-10, proving the reliability of the Australian-built machines. The burgundy-liveried cars finished just ahead of the winner in GT4, the #26 Rearden Racing Porsche of American trio Jeff Kearl, Jeff Westphal and Sean McAlister. They inherited the lead after the leading #3 TRG Aston Martin was hit with brake problems two hours from the end.
All eyes will now turn towards Malaysia, where the final and decisive round of the 2017 Intercontinental GT Challenge, the Motul Sepang 12 Hours, will take place on December 9th – 10th. From the arid conditions in Laguna Seca to the hot and humid Sepang, the season is sure to end with another great race.