Sunday December 5th, 2021 7:07PM

Mazda wins Petit Le Mans, Action Express scores title

By IMSA Wire Service
  Contact Editor

The route to the championship was straightforward: The top finisher among the two contenders at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta would be the champion.

The finish, of course, was anything but straightforward.

Felipe Nasr held on as Ricky Taylor tried to pass him on the final lap Saturday night, recovering after Taylor bounced through a gravel trap and back on track in front of him, to claim the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Daytona Prototype international (DPi) title by finishing second in the Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia.

Nasr was chasing eventual race winner Harry Tincknell but leading the championship battle when Taylor tried to pass Nasr heading into turn 10A on the final lap. The two cars made contact, and Taylor’s No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura ARX-05 bounced off course and returned to the track ahead.

But Nasr’s No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R passed Taylor heading into turn 11 and held on for second place in the race – and the championship – through the final turn of the final race of 2021 to prevail by 0.405 seconds.

“I knew he was going to try to make a last-minute move, but that was a little too wild,” Nasr said. “All the way to the gravel and then coming across the track. If there was grass there, he could have just continued. He had to go through the gravel, and then I had to drive to take the position back.

“There are many ifs. If I was behind and I had to do something, for sure you’ve got to try it. Maybe it was a little too much, but I get it. He’s a racer, too. He’s got to try something.”

While Nasr was going out as a champion, Tincknell, Oliver Jarvis and Jonathan Bomarito were helping Mazda go out as a Motul Petit Le Mans winner in its final race in DPi. Tincknell drove the No. 55 Mazda Motorsports Mazda RT24-P past Nasr for the lead in Turn 7 with 22 minutes remaining in the 10-hour race and held it to the finish.

“To be honest, I just had a feeling the whole race that the opportunity was going to open up through (Turn) 6 into 7,” Tincknell said. “It’s not really a normal passing place, but I also knew in the back of (Nasr’s) head, he had a championship to think about as well.”

Nasr’s championship run came in his final race with Action Express Racing, which announced last month that Tristan Nunez will replace him in the No. 31 car next season. Nasr’s co-champion, fellow Brazilian Pipo Derani, spoke of the emotion behind the championship.

“For me personally, it was very emotional to look back and slowly start to realize that I’m a champion,” Derani said. “I’ve learned from the mistakes I’ve made and I’ve grown so much as a person over the last year. To finish this chapter with Felipe was great.”

Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque and Alexander Rossi had the same mission as their rivals – keep the No. 10 Acura ahead of Nasr, Derani and Mike Conway in the No. 31 Cadillac. That mission was in reach for almost all of the race’s 410 laps.

“The championship literally came down to the last corner,” Taylor said. “I just have to say I gave it everything I had. There’s going to be a lot of nightmares before Daytona (the 2022 season opener) just thinking about what I could have done differently.”

While Nasr and Derani shared the drivers’ championship, Action Express claimed the DPi team championship – its fifth since 2014 – and Cadillac claimed the DPi manufacturer title.

But at times, Nasr’s final stint was difficult for his teammates to watch.

“It kept us on the edge of our seats all the way to the end there,” Conway said. “It was hard to watch. I had to walk off a couple of times from the TV and catch my breath. This is what this championship is like. The IMSA series is really tough. It always goes down to the wire.”

At one point in the race, the Mazda was three laps behind with various mechanical issues, but the driver trio regained the distance in a matter of two hours and charged into the lead. The victorious farewell was an upbeat sendoff to the car’s four-year run in IMSA’s top class.

“At the start of the program, we were spraying fire extinguishers at it,” Tincknell said. “Now we’re spraying champagne at it after one of the biggest races in the world.”

They weren’t the only ones spraying champagne into the chilly Georgia night. Nasr, Derani and Conway held an emotional celebration of their own.

“It came down to the last corner after 10 hours of racing,” Nasr said. “I said to the team, ‘Why does it have to be so hard? What a day. What a day!”

No. 8 Tower Motorsport Benefits From Late Penalty To Win In LMP2

The Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) class saw a three-way tussle for the Motul Petit Le Mans victory, with No. 8 Tower Motorsport ORECA LMP2 07 drivers John Farano, Gabriel Aubry and James French gaining the victory when the No. 52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA was penalized postrace for an unserved pit-lane drive-through for incident responsibility in a late clash with the No. 8.

It was the second Motul Petit Le Mans win for both Farano and Aubry, the first for French.

The No. 52 still clinched the LMP2 championship for drivers Mikkel Jensen and Ben Keating with the runner-up finish. They also took home the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup title along with third driver Scott Huffaker.

Jensen was leading as the 10-hour clock ticked down to the final minutes but needed to save fuel with the No. 8 Tower ORECA charging.

“We had to fuel save because the (No.) 8 car was catching us and we couldn’t afford to stop again,” Jensen explained. “I got a fuel number, I had to keep it every single lap. In the end, he just got very close and then we had contact in turn 10.

“But most important, we won the IMSA championship, we won the (Michelin Endurance Cup), so we accomplished everything we wanted to achieve this season. But it would have been nice to win this one to finish off.”

Keating, the 11-year IMSA veteran, was pleased to collect his first season championship. Even with the disappointment of losing out on his second Motul Petit Le Mans win, the Texan managed a smile.

“We’re walking over here talking about how (mad) we are still about how the race finished,” Keating said, “but it was an exciting race because of all the yellow flags. Even eight hours into the race, four cars were all on the lead lap and we were only one lap behind the DPi field. It kept incredibly close the entire race.”

Steven Thomas, Tristan Nunez and Thomas Merrill finished third in the No. 11 WIN Autosport ORECA, holding onto second in the season standings.

No. 74 Riley Motorsports Cruises To LMP3 Victory, Title

The No. 74 Riley Motorsports Ligier JS P320 arrived at Michelin Raceway with a narrow lead in points, but after 10 grueling hours of competition, the team departed carrying a bag full of trophies.

Not only did drivers Gar Robinson, Felipe Fraga and Scott Andrews lead the most laps, but they enjoyed a runaway victory as Robinson cruised to the WeatherTech Championship in the inaugural season of the Le Mans Prototype 3 (LMP3) class.

“Every race is its own animal, but this one carried quite a bit of weight because the championship was on the line,” said Robinson, who opened the season winning the Rolex 24 At Daytona and added four more victories. “Risk management was definitely a lot higher this weekend. We knew we had to take care of the car all weekend to make sure we came out on top. I think we executed that very well. I couldn’t be more proud of my team.”

The No. 74’s nemesis, the only team standing between it and the title, was the No. 54 CORE autosport Ligier shared by Jon Bennett, George Kurtz and Colin Braun. They were in striking distance – lurking 50 points behind – going into this season-ending battle.

But the No. 54 was never really a threat. The car had problems throughout the race and retired in the ninth hour of competition.

The No. 74 did face a race battle from the No. 30 Jr III Racing Ligier, but it wound up a lap behind Fraga in second place.

“Felipe just brought it home, like he always does,” Robinson said. “It’s incredible to watch that guy do what he does. You think you are going as fast as you can go and he finds another half second. The way he goes through traffic and how he handles these races so well is really incredible.”

Final GTLM Race Doesn’t Disappoint At Road Atlanta

The outcome of the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class competition at the 24th annual Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta wasn’t determined until the final 10 minutes of the 10-hour endurance classic.

Mathieu Jaminet, in the No. 79 WeatherTech Porsche 911 RSR-19 he shared with Cooper MacNeil and Matt Campbell, edged the team’s No. 97 entry (with drivers Kevin Estre, Michael Christensen and Fred Makowiecki) by 0.318 seconds at the checkered flag after ceding the lead on the final lap of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale.

WeatherTech Racing orchestrated the 1-2 finish when the No. 4 Corvette Racing C8.R came into contact with the overall race-leading No. 55 Mazda Motorsports DPi with just under 15 minutes remaining. The Corvette sustained damage when it speared off course, requiring driver Nick Tandy to retire the car.

Estre in the No. 97 had stretched his lead to more than 10 seconds over Tandy when the Corvette encountered trouble, with Jaminet in the No. 79 running a close third at the time. The WeatherTech cars swapped positions in the late stages to maximize championship points for the No. 79, which is a full-season WeatherTech Championship entry.

It marked the third race win of the season for MacNeil and Jaminet, who were joined by Campbell for their victory earlier this year at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts. Jaminet and MacNeil also triumphed at Road America.

“To finish off the season and win the last GTLM race ever with a 1-2 finish for the WeatherTech Porsches is amazing,” said MacNeil. “There couldn’t be a better way to end the season. There was a lot of hard work involved, so big thanks to the team for everything this season that led up to this.”

The race was slowed by 10 full-course cautions until the last two hours and 10 minutes ran clean.

“Just staying out of trouble was the key,” MacNeil observed. “With as many cautions as we saw today, it was just a matter of time until you were caught up in one yourself. There’s not a scratch on our Porsche.”

Jordan Taylor and Antonio Garcia clinched the 2021 GTLM championship for Corvette Racing by starting Saturday’s race. While they won the championship by simply taking the green flag, the No. 3 Corvette C8.R wasn’t around to see the checkered flag.

Taylor was at the wheel when he was swept into an accordian-style eight-car accident on a restart at the start of the fifth hour. After cresting the hump that precedes the downhill braking zone for turn 10, Taylor found the track blocked by a group of slower cars and slammed into the back of a GT Daytona entry.

Garcia, who was watching on television at the time, was not surprised there was a crash.

“I could anticipate something happening after three or four restarts because traffic was crazy today,” he said. “There was a lot of tension between the classes.”

Taylor said it was the biggest accident of his career and estimated the impact speed at 110 mph.

“Definitely a scary moment when you come over the crest in fifth gear and everyone is stopped,” he remarked. “The stack-up effect is always there in (turns) 10A and 10B; it was just way more extreme today.

“At first I thought I broke my back – that’s how hard the impact was,” he added. “My lower back is a little sore with some muscle spasms, but I’ll be fine in a couple days. Thankfully, Corvette and Pratt & Miller built a race car that kept me safe.”

Taylor’s fourth IMSA championship was almost forgotten in the aftermath of the accident drama. Garcia’s title was his fifth in IMSA competition. The Corvette duo repeated their championship-winning performance from 2020.

“Amazing to get another championship for Antonio and I,” Taylor said. “Two in a row, and it was great to finish off the GTLM era with two championships like that.”

This was the final WeatherTech Championship race for the GTLM category, which is being replaced by the GTD PRO class in 2022.

While just short of the race win, the No. 9 Pfaff Porsche 911 GT3R – with drivers Laurens Vanthoor, Zacharie Robichon and Lars Kern – did everything it needed to earn the team’s first championship. Saturday certainly marked a triumphant comeback for the Porsche, which only qualified eighth fastest in class on Friday but pushed the Aston Martin for the victory all the way to the end.

“We were like, at this point, we might as well try and win the race, too,” an emotional Robichon said. “I think I just got something stuck in my eye, I don’t know what’s going on here.

“It’s been pretty special. For Laurens, Lars and myself, it’s the last race as a team so it’s a little bittersweet. But I couldn’t be more proud. It’s super special. We’ve worked together as a team and Laurens came in and this whole team – every guy and girl – it’s what they deserve.”

There were no assumptions going into this class battle. Three cars – the No. 9, No. 23 and the No. 1 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 – came into the race with a mathematical shot at the title.

Contention was fleeting, however, for the top qualifier among the trio. The No. 1 Lamborghini won the GTD class pole position, but early race contact with an LMP3 car sent the car behind the pit wall for lengthy repairs only two hours into the race. It continued, however, finishing seventh in class.

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