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Flat Spot On – Big Stakes for a ‘Petit’ Race

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 12 2021

Wonderful old Road Atlanta is ready to host this weekend’s Petit Le Mans. (RacinToday photos by Jonathan Ingram)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

BRASELTON, Ga. – The Motul Petit Le Mans rides again on Saturday.

Practice officially began Thursday. The massive infield party at the Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta was already under way.

I don’t know about you, dear racing reader, but there’s something about this track and this event that is unlike any other. Having overtaken us so quickly, it’s hard to believe nearly a quarter of a century has passed since the late Don Panoz figured out the not-so-obvious by launching a 1,000-mile race at his track in 1997. If you linked Le Mans with an event in Georgia wine country (ha ha), the future of American sports car racing might well be brighter.

So, welcome once again to a world class race and party. In addition to homegrown IMSA talent such as the sanctioning body’s winningest driver Bill Auberlen, the entry includes several IndyCar champions and Indy 500 winners as well as seven-time NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson. Two over-all winners of the Le Mans 24-hour, Nick Tandy and Loic Duval, will join the high-speed party that is compelling enough to have campers scattered throughout the woods in the infield in addition to a virtual sell-out of reserved sites. 

This year’s event concludes a second full season for IMSA during the COVID-19 pandemic, something the sanctioning body doesn’t get enough credit for considering the diversity and number of participants. IMSA also wins an unofficial award, hands down, for handing out the most hardware in all of racing given the number of classes competing for manufacturer, team and co-driving titles in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

It’s party time at Road Atlanta.

If the past is prologue, along the way to a multitude of class titles being decided on Saturday, in some cases in favor of the highest finisher, one can rest assured something weird will happen. In fact, it already has. Starting in the waning days of autumn due to the pandemic push on the schedule, daylight savings has expired. The noon start coupled with sunset at half past five means darkness will cover roughly half of what is now a 10-hour race.

Then there’s the new points system (more later). 

Those competing for the prestigious DPi title are on board an Acura ARX-05 (Ricky Taylor and Filipe Albuquerque) and a Cadillac DPi-V.R. (Pipo Derani and Felipe Nasr). Their respective teams, Wayne Taylor Racing, sponsored by Konica Minolta, and Whelen Engineering Racing, will be playing high-speed cat and cat throughout the day and darkness. Each team will have a third driver—Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi in the Acura and Mike Conway on board the Cadillac. Both teams will press the issue while trying to make the finish line, which in this event is easier said than done.

Last year, it was more like alley cats. Taylor and Derani ran afoul of each other in Turn 6, taking both off the track with the checkers at the ready. The subsequent parted seas left the path open for Wayne Taylor Racing’s trio of drivers to score the victory. The drivers in the contretemps, which is French for what Brits call a punch-up, parted ways on less than friendly terms. There were two racing remaining in last year’s pandemic-adjusted schedule, but this time the closing laps are the last of the season.

Prior to this year’s meeting on the 2.52 miles of rolling Georgia hills shaped like a pork chop, Derani and Taylor offered some relatively classy rivalry comments. But the bitter words of Derani, after he confronted the Penske Racing team in the pits at the end of last year’s race, still hang in the air. No doubt these guys want to settle last year’s score and a championship as well.

“We did everything we could, leading the race with 10 laps to go, and he just pushes me out on a desperate move to try and go to the lead,” Derani said of Taylor. “I think it was a mistake on his part, and I hope he sleeps on it. I lost a little bit of respect for him and for his teammates, who tried to accuse me of doing something wrong.” 

One of the Cadillacs of Action Express is readied in the paddock at Road Atlanta.

Although the DPi contenders are separated by 19 points, this year’s points system makes it a close contest, starting with Friday’s qualifying. Each race finishing position earns 10 times the points it received a year ago. Where a class winner took home 35 points in 2020, the reward is now 350 points. Second place in a race now earns 320 points, third place nets 300 and downward from there. In addition, points are now distributed in qualifying, with 35 going to the pole winners in DPi, LMP2, LMP3 and GTLM, and to the fastest car in the second GTD qualifying session.

Spins and incidents have decided the Petit in the late going often enough to expect something similar to happen again. Setting the scene for surprise finishes in the second Petit in 1998, Jorg Muller threw his BMW V-12 LMR into the gravel trap at Turn 10 to pave the way for a victory by the redoubtable Panoz LMP-1 Roadster S driven by David Braham, Eric Bernard and Andy Wallace. Allan McNish, a four-time Petit winner, once lost the victory after spinning his Audi while trailing the safety car in the “100 years rain” of 2009. Peugeot’s subsequent victory ended Audi’s nine-race winning streak and started the French company’s own three-race streak at Road Atlanta for the Peugeot 908. 

Class victories have come into this equation, too. The upset of the ages arrived in 2015 when a factory Porsche 911 RSR, using its rear engine configuration to maximum advantage, rode the rain to over-all victory against the vaunted prototypes. Class finishes can be dicey, too, such as Corvette driver Andy Pilgrim trading paint with Tommy Archer’s Viper in Turn 1 on the final lap in 2000, which earned Pilgrim a congratulatory letter via FedEx from his upcoming co-driver in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Dale Earnhardt Sr. 

The degree of difficulty adds up to making the Petit big, especially if a title is on the line. But two categories need not worry about a disaster in the dark. In the final season of GTLM, Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor will clinch the driver’s title by starting their Corvette C8.R for Corvette Racing. Ben Keating and Mikkel Jensen need only start the race to clinch the LMP2 crown in their ORECA fielded by PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports.

Parking is where you find it at Road Atlanta.

In LMP3, the driver title comes down to Gar Robinson, driving the Ligier JS P320 of Riley Motorsports, and co-drivers Jonathan Bennett and Colin Braun in Core Autosport’s Ligier.

In GTD, a trio of title contenders includes Porsche drivers Laurens Vanthoor and Zacharie Robichon; Lamborghini drivers Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow; and Aston Martin drivers Roman De Angelis and Ross Gunn.

The weather forecast calls for clear skies, and, of course, half a race in darkness that seems to promise all manner of endings.

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram’s book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” carries a five-star rating on Amazon. Ingram and Bill Lester are co-authors of the 2021 release from Pegasus Books titled “Winning In Reverse.”)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 12 2021
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