Flat Spot On: A Rainy Afternoon in Georgia
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
BRASELTON, Ga. – When is a road race in the rain no longer a race? Some people were asking that question as the Petit Le Mans seemed to reach a saturation point while precipitous fallout from a hurricane in the Atlantic kept coming down on Road Atlanta.
Funny thing, though. Despite the frequent safety car periods for spinning cars, some throwing mud high enough to splat on the walkover bridge, the fences were still occupied by fans. The fans were also disguised as umbrellas in the various grandstands, enjoying the spectacle of a championship race decided under the cruelest of racing conditions.
For those who don’t know, nearby Gainesville is the chicken capital of the U.S. – as in broiler hens and fryers. On this day, it was nothing but rooster tails of spray as well as screaming engines.
When an early checked flag mercifully was sighted in the mist shortly before nightfall, bona fide champions emerged. They were led by Patrick Pilet, a Frenchman driving a GT Porsche – which not only clinched the driver and manufacturer titles. Pilet and co-driver Nick Tandy won overall, the first GT drivers to win the Petit since the event started in 1998.
Pilet surely owed kudos to English teammate Nick Tandy, who ran straight up the order during a soggy opening double stint after starting in the rear. The car failed post-qualifying inspection on Friday due to a skid block that absorbed enough water and swelled enough to make the ride height measurement too low. On Saturday, Tandy was in second before the exchange to Pilet. “That was when we first thought we had a chance to win overall,” said Tandy, who has culminated a remarkable two years since he won the GT LM class in the 2013 Petit. He’s added a class victory at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2014 and this summer co-drove the Porsche 919 Hybrid to victory at Le Mans this summer.
As with his quadruple stint in the night at Le Mans, Tandy’s driving was crucial to a banner day from foul conditions for Porsche. After the team’s final pit stop, Tandy raced past four GTLM competitors ahead of him and took the lead when the leading Daytona Prototype pitted.
For those who might suggest the “petty” Le Mans has lost its luster with the advent of Daytona Prototypes in place of cars like the Porsche RS Spyders, Peugeot HDI FAP or the Audi R10 TDI, there are apparently a lot of fans who disagree. It will take more than a hurricane or a technical hiatus to displace the appeal of this circuit and its day-long race.
The variable conditions of steady rain followed by drizzle and then more rain made visibility difficult for drivers, who also had to deal with puddles and water running across the track. Many of them were involved in titles chases in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship. Those titles concerned the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup in addition to the season-long points championships.
So the conduct of the race, which was first put under a red flag just past the official halfway point, teetered between deciding championships like real road racers and the issue of safety – plus a touch of boredom due to long safety car periods. The fans, who had campsites in the infield jammed by Thursday night despite the forecast for three days of rain, obviously had already voted with their tents and umbrellas and many a driver was thanking them via Radio Le Mans interviews. But the conditions finally dictated a respite while waiting for a denser cell of mid-afternoon rainfall to roll through before resuming.
It’s been said under this byline before, but as the major endurance races go, so goes the sport of sports car racing. And this one – like the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 Sebring 12 Hour, has legs.
It helps that officials of the NASCAR-owned IMSA series announced early in the week a new generation of cars. Called the Daytona Prototype International, the DPi class to be introduced in 2017 is designed to generate interest in American endurance racing among manufacturers worldwide. According to teams, there’s a wide variety of well known manufacturers interested in this next generation. The cars will be eligible to run at Le Mans in the LMP2 class, which will help return that linkage to not only the Petit Le Mans but the other American enduros.
In the past, the Petit winners were given an automatic invitation to the world’s premier endurance race in France, which helped attract more international teams to the event. That’s no longer the case with the current generation of Daytona Prototypes competing in the TUDOR series. There’s nothing official about the 2017 race at Road Atlanta’s rules, but renewing the linkage to Le Mans would surely re-elevate the event’s stature. It will also help to have the worldwide GT3 cars eligible for the GT Daytona class in the United SportsCar Series starting next year.
Once the DPi prototypes arrive, one hopes a spec tire will not be required. The GTLM cars, which already had an advantage in being heavier than the prototypes and less dependent on aero downforce, raced through the rain on world class tires such as Michelin and Yokohama developed for series like the World Endurance Championship. The TUDOR series’ showcase prototypes class ran this race on rain rubber without the same level of technical sophistication.
Nobody wants to win a title by standing around after a race is called for rain, but drivers also tend to shy away from driving blind at over 150 mph in the daylight, much less during the race’s closing hours.
In the end, the pit schedule of Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi handed them a Prototype class victory. Action Express teammates Dane Cameron and Eric Curran were the runners-up on the track and in the champ chase after pitting from the lead.
Barbosa and Fittipaldi had issues in the penultimate round in Austin and appeared to be out of the running in their title defense. But when the Spirit of Daytona team’s Corvette got covered in mud during the Petit – twice – the Portuguese-Brazilian-French connection (Sebastian Bourdais) of Action Express was sitting pretty. When the surprise checkered flag fell shortly before nightfall, Barbosa and Fittipaldi celebrated a second straight title.
But one definitely had the feeling that everybody celebrated the dancing appearance of the black and white squares signaling the race’s end – including those ever-loving fans still on the fences and in the grandstands – and especially the drivers preparing to race in the darkness of a rainy night.
Joey Hand, who might have had a shot at first place in the Prototype class runner-up Riley-Ford of the Ganassi team, said it would have been “crazy town.”