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2019 Motul Petit Le Mans Preview

Will the 22nd running of the Deep South’s crown jewel of endurance see Acura Team Penske’s coronation, or Whelen Engineering Racing come back from the brink?

For over two decades, the best sports car racing teams in North America and the world over converge upon rural Braselton, Georgia, just 80 kilometres northeast of the heart of bustling downtown Atlanta.

Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta may have a new name to reflect a new sponsor and a number of new facilities along the circuit, but the fast, undulating 4.088-kilometre circuit remains unchanged, and so do its challenges. It’s the 22nd running of the Motul Petit Le Mans, the 10-hour season finale of the 2019 IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship.

DSC deputy editor Stephen Kilbey has already filed a rundown of the 34-car entry list spanning IMSA’s four categories, in which every team has something to motivate them to victory in class. But in the premier category, a series championship will be settled in the drive from dusk to dawn at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta this Sunday.

The #6 Acura Team Penske ARX-05 of Dane Cameron, Juan Pablo Montoya, and third driver Simon Pagenaud is on Championship Point, leading the reigning champions’ number 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R of Felipe Nasr, Pipo Derani, and Eric Curran, 274 to 262.

Montoya and Cameron’s third win of the season at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca was their seventh consecutive podium finish, and all they need is to finish eighth in class or better to secure Team Penske’s first sports car racing championship since 2008, and their eighth in total going back to the days of the United States Road Racing Championship and Can-Am.

For Montoya, already a three-time Daytona 24 Hours winner, twice a winner of the Indianapolis 500, and a Monaco Grand Prix winner and IndyCar Series champion on debut, this would be his first full-season IMSA drivers’ title. For Cameron, this would be his third IMSA title, adding to his GTD title in 2014 and his Prototype title in 2016.

But don’t count out Whelen Engineering Racing, the reigning champions and one-half of an Action Express Racing stable that’s won four of the last five premier-class titles in IMSA. It’s the duo of Nasr and Derani, the most exciting Brazilian striker duo to hit the States since Romario and Ronaldo in the ‘94 World Cup, who have a chance to overturn the twelve-point deficit if they win Petit Le Mans, and the number 6 Penske/Acura finishes 9th or lower.

Doing so would give Nasr back-to-back IMSA Prototype drivers’ titles, it would give Derani his first, and Whelen Engineering Racing their third in four years. In five previous attempts, neither of AXR’s teams have won Petit Le Mans. Nasr, Derani, and two-time premier class champion Curran may not control their own championship fate, but they can never be counted out.

The trio of Nasr, Derani, and Curran are also in the mix for the Michelin Endurance Cup Drivers’ honours, as they trail by just two points, the defending Petit Le Mans champions at Wayne Taylor Racing, Jordan Taylor and Renger van der Zande. The black and blue number 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac will bid for WTR’s third Petit Le Mans victory in six years, all of them led by Jordan Taylor, in what will likely be his last ride with the family squad before moving on to new surroundings at Corvette Racing.

A maximum fifteen points are available for this fourth round of the Michelin Endurance Cup for the leaders at four hours, eight hours, and the finish. Only one other driver trio is still mathematically eligible: That of the number 55 Mazda Team Joest RT24-P – 2016 overall winner Olivier Pla, Harry Tincknell, and Jonathan Bomarito. To win the Michelin Endurance Cup, the Mazda gang have to lead at each interval to get the 15 points maximum, with the #31 scoring less than 9 points total and the #10 scoring only 6.

On the manufacturers’ side, Acura has virtually wrapped up the DPi Manufacturers’ Championship in the WeatherTech Sportscar Championship – their first premier class North American sports car championship title since 2009. They can also add the Michelin Endurance Manufacturer’s Cup if they can overturn a six-point deficit to Cadillac, who are going for their third in a row and five out of six for General Motors in the unified era.

DPi has many other stories of intrigue to follow of course – the return of Juncos Racing, the likely swansong race for the Nissan-Onroak DPi (running in new, retro colours to mark Jon Bennett’s final race, below), the recent Balance of Performance buff for all five Cadillacs, and returns for the likes of Endurance Triple Crown winner Timo Bernhard, WEC star Mike Conway, and IndyCar stars Simon Pagenaud, Graham Rahal, and Spencer Pigot.

LMP2 remains the same two-horse race it’s been for much of the year – between PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports and Performance Tech Racing. Matt McMurry of PR1/Mathiasen has clinched the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship LMP2 title, Cameron Cassels and Kyle Masson have clinched the Michelin Endurance Cup, upon them starting the race.

Can the #52 PR1/Mathiasen ORECA of McMurry, Gabriel Aubry, and Dalton Kellett make it six wins in a row to end the 2019 season, or can Cassels, Masson, and Andrew Evans end that winning run?

In true Georgia fashion, GTLM promises to be another all-out, 3 AM Waffle House parking lot brawl, with the two Coca-Cola Porsche 911 RSRs battling not only for class victory but also a championship – as they’ll be the only two cars eligible once the field takes the green flag.

It’s 304 to 292 in favour of “BamThor” the #912 Porsche GT Team entry of Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor, who’ll only need to finish seventh or better in a nine-car field to clinch Porsche’s second IMSA GTLM Drivers’ and Teams’ Championships, with their third Manufacturers’ Championship already secured.

Bamber and Vanthoor, who are already compiling hall of fame CVs before the age of 30, have three wins and seven podiums this year, though, seventh in class at Laguna Seca was their worst finish of the season. Their closest competition would seem to come from within: The #911 of defending Petit Le Mans champions, Nick Tandy and Patrick Pilet, who already made history at Petit Le Mans when they took the most improbable of victories in the rain-shortened race of 2015, an overall win in a GTLM class vehicle!

They don’t control their own destiny, but another Petit Le Mans class win, the third in five years for Tandy and Pilet, and the fourth of 2019 for the duo, and an eighth or ninth-place finish for the #912 would see Pilet win his second GTLM drivers’ title and Tandy win his first. To sweeten the deal even further, they’ve got Frédéric Makowiecki back, weeks removed from a Super GT victory in the most recent round at Sportsland Sugo. Opposite Makowiecki, young Frenchman Mathieu Jaminet will join Bamber and Vanthoor.

In the Michelin Endurance Cup, it’s advantage to the 911 of Tandy, Pilet and Makowiecki by 6 points over both the 912 Porsche, and the #67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing GT of Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook, and Scott Dixon in the last race for the Ford GT racing team as we know it now. Porsche, Chevrolet, and Ford can still win the Manufacturer’s Endurance Cup.

Petit Le Mans will also see the end of the Chevrolet Corvette C7.R’s tour of racing duty, its successor, the mid-engined C8.R, will be at Road Atlanta for the press. Corvette Racing has eight victories in their class, the most of any team in any category, but none since 2010. They have a five-time Petit Le Mans class winner in Oliver Gavin in one car, and four-time PLM class winner Jan Magnussen in another, in what is expected to be Magnussen’s Corvette Racing farewell, at least as a full-time driver.

The return of Risi Competizione and their Ferrari 488 GT3 with Le Mans GTE-Pro winners Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado and Daniel Serra will add more excitement to the mix, as well!

12 cars are entered in GTD, but when the #86 Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian Acura NSX GT3 of Mario Farnbacher, Trent Hindman, and Justin Marks starts Petit Le Mans, Farnbacher and Hindman will be crowned GTD class Drivers’ Champions, the first GTD title for the NSX GT3 and for the team that took the overall win in 2016.

The Manufacturers’ Championship isn’t settled yet though, Lamborghini and Acura come into Petit Le Mans with just one point between them in a winner-take-all scenario! There’s also a route for Porsche to steal the Manufacturers’ title, but they’d need a win from Scott Hargrove, Zacharie Robichon, and Lars Kern in the #9 Pfaff Motorsports 911 GT3-R and a meltdown for the two Acuras and three Lamborghinis.

The Michelin Endurance Cup is a total free-for-all! Seven teams enter Petit Le Mans with a mathematical chance to win it all, six of them are here at Road Atlanta, with the #33 Wynn’s Riley Technologies Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Jeroen Bleekemoelen, Ben Keating, and Felipe Fraga on top by three points over the #63 WeatherTech Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 of Cooper MacNeil, Toni Vilander, and Jeff Westphal, with another point between them and the aforementioned #86 MSR Acura.

Also in the mix are the #9 Pfaff Porsche, the #14 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 (Frank Montecalvo/Townsend Bell/Aaron Telitz), the #96 Liqui-Moly Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 (Bill Auberlen/Robby Foley/Dillon Machavern), and lastly the #29 Montaplast by Land Motorsport Audi R8 LMS (Christopher Mies/Ricky Feller/Daniel Morad) making its return for the first time since Watkins Glen!

Then on the manufacturers’ side of the MEC, it’s Mercedes-AMG leading Ferrari 29-27, with Acura, Audi, and Lamborghini all three points back.

Whether on IMSA.TV, the NBC Sports family of networks, or on IMSA Radio, there are many ways to enjoy all the weekend’s action at the 22nd running of Motul Petit Le Mans – and DSC will be there from Road Atlanta throughout the weekend.