IMSA News Roundup
It stands to reason, then, that IMSA will again have strong representation at Le Mans in 2017 on June 17-18. A total of eight WeatherTech Championship teams will compete, as well as 19 full-time drivers in the series. Thirteen drivers in the Le Mans field have won at least once in the 2017 WeatherTech Championship season, and the field will include more than 40 drivers that have started two or more races in the series this year.
Leading the charge will be the Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA trio of Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Sebastien Bourdais, who return to defend their 2016 GTE Pro victory in the No. 68 Ford GT. They've since added another crown jewel to their trophy case, a GT Le Mans (GTLM) victory in the 2017 Rolex 24 At Daytona, and will be joined by another U.S. entry from Ganassi, the No. 69 Ford GT shared by Richard Westbrook, Ryan Briscoe and IndyCar star Scott Dixon.
The IMSA team carrying the most momentum to Le Mans has to be Corvette Racing. Co-drivers Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia have won two of the past three WeatherTech Championship races in the GTLM class, including another crown jewel in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida. They will be joined in the No. 63 Corvette C7.R by Jordan Taylor, who has won all four 2017 WeatherTech Championship races to date in the Prototype class sharing the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R with his brother, Ricky Taylor. More on him in a moment.
The other Corvette Racing entry, the No 64 C7.R, will be shared by 2016 WeatherTech Championship GTLM champions Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner, being joined once again by endurance teammate Marcel Fassler. Gavin and Milner won earlier this year in the BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix at Long Beach, and were 2015 GTE Pro champions at Le Mans with Jordan Taylor as their co-driver.
After finishing on the Le Mans podium last year in GTE Pro, Risi Competizione aims for the top step with its No. 82 Ferrari 488 GTE and full-season WeatherTech Championship co-drivers Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella (who won Le Mans in GTE Pro in 2014) joined by Pierre Kaffer, who previously raced with the Risi team in 2015.
Getting back to Ricky Taylor, he'll be part of an intriguing three-driver lineup in the LM P2 class, sharing the Gibson-powered No. 43 Multimatic-Riley entry with current WeatherTech Championship GT Daytona (GTD) points co-leaders Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen. Keating and Bleekemolen also have won two of the last three WeatherTech Championship races – at Sebring in March and earlier this month in the Advance Auto Parts Sportscar Showdown at Circuit of The Americas in Keating's home state of Texas – but are trading their regular Mercedes-AMG GT3 ride for a Prototype at Le Mans.
In the GTE Am class, Scuderia Corsa has doubled down on its efforts to defend its 2016 class victory at Le Mans, entering a pair of Ferrari 488 GTEs. In the No. 62 will be 2016 Le Mans GTE Am winners – and 2015 WeatherTech Championship GTD co-champions – Bill Sweedler and Townsend Bell, joined by Cooper MacNeil, who won the GTD class at Long Beach last month in the No. 50 WeatherTech Mercedes-AMG GT3.
The other Scuderia Corsa entry, the No. 65 Ferrari, will be co-driven by 2016 WeatherTech Championship GTD co-champions Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan, along with frequent WeatherTech Championship competitor Bret Curtis.
"Once again this year, IMSA fans will have plenty of familiar drivers and teams to root on this year at Le Mans," said IMSA President Scott Atherton. "We're extremely proud of the record of success our teams have had at Le Mans, recently and throughout our history, and believe we've got another stellar crop to take on the world this year.
"Without question the entries from the WeatherTech Championship will be favorites for the podium. We wish all of our teams and drivers the very best as they embark on this grueling test of their abilities and hope to celebrate another Le Mans victory, or two, this year at the Sahlen's Six Hours of The Glen two weeks after Le Mans."
Practice and qualifying for the 24 Hours of Le Mans begins on Wednesday, June 14.
SPEAKING OF LE MANS … TESTING, TESTING, 1-2-3: While the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix presented by Lear on June 3 stands between now and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, IMSA teams fielding race cars in the twice-around-the-clock French endurance classic have been hard at work making final preparations to ship their cars abroad.
Immediately following the May 6 WeatherTech Championship race at Circuit of The Americas, Ford Chip Ganassi Racing had both of its U.S.-based Ford GTs at Road America for testing on May 8 and 9. All four of the team's full-time IMSA racers – Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller, Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe – got seat time on the four-mile Wisconsin circuit, which was a good tune up for the nearly 8.5-mile Circuit de la Sarthe at Le Mans.
Immediately after the Ford test, Corvette Racing had a test of its own at Road America for its full-time WeatherTech Championship lineup of Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen, Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin. They were joined by special Le Mans guest stars Jordan Taylor and Marcel Fassler.
During the two-day test – which has become an annual tradition for Corvette Racing – both of the team's Mobil 1/SiriusXM Corvette C7.Rs turned laps to evaluate aero settings and Michelin tires specifically for Le Mans.
"Our Corvette felt pretty good overall on the new Michelin tire and the aero package we ran," said Milner, a two-time winner at Le Mans with Corvette Racing. "We all came away pretty happy and feeling pretty good about the starting point we have for the (Le Mans mandatory) Test Day (on June 4).
"The next question will be how we stack up pace-wise with our competitors. From our side, the engineers did a great job coming up with a package that is as comfortable as you can make it with low downforce."
The 2017 race marks the 18th consecutive year that Corvette Racing will compete at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The team has eight class victories since its debut in 2001, and no active team has made more consecutive starts at Le Mans.
While the Ford and Corvette teams went to work at Road America, the No. 43 Keating Motorsports Multimatic-Riley LM P2 car to be shared at Le Mans by current WeatherTech Championship GT Daytona (GTD) points co-leaders Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen and current Prototype class points leader Ricky Taylor did endurance testing at NOLA Motorsports Park near New Orleans.
For all three drivers, the Gibson-powered Multimatic-Riley is a different animal compared to their usual WeatherTech Championship rides (a Mercedes-AMG GT3 for Keating and Bleekemolen and a Cadillac DPi-V.R for Taylor). As a result, the team is pulling out all of the stops to test anything and everything before shipping the car to Le Mans.
"Our goal is to be consistently quick on track, but to make sure we don't beat ourselves with costly mistakes or issues," Keating said. "We tested at NOLA from 1 to 9 p.m. in order to make sure everything tested well at night. The NOLA test went extremely well without any issues."
This week, the team is at it again, testing the LM P2 car at Watkins Glen International alongside a handful of other WeatherTech Championship teams preparing for the Sahlen's Six Hours of The Glen in July.
"We head to Watkins Glen to continue to learn more about the car, work on setup adjustments, and continue to confirm smooth operation over long runs," Keating explained. "The team continues to improve the more we practice. This will be our last test before we ship the car to France. Therefore, we need to make sure everything is ready for the Le Mans Test Day before it ships out."
In addition to the car performance, Keating also is impressed by how well the No. 43 team is beginning to gel. That's important, as they're in the deepest of the four classes at Le Mans, with a total of 25 entries.
"I can't say enough great things about how our team has come together," Keating said. "Ricky Taylor is really at the top of his game right now and I am honored to have him on the team. Jeroen and I have driven together for years, but I am always impressed at how well he adapts to the LM P2 car.
"With 25 cars in the class, it will be very hard to work our way up to the front. However, with this list of drivers, the preparedness of the team, and the performance of the (Multimatic-Riley) MK30 (chassis), we have an extremely solid effort. This will be my best campaign at Le Mans yet, and I am excited."
HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF FOR MATT PLUMB IN 2017: Longtime IMSA driver Matt Plumb found himself atop two different leaderboards after the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race at Circuit of The Americas (COTA) two weeks ago.
Plumb and co-driver Paul Holton raced their pole-winning No. 76 C360R McLaren GT4 to victory lane in the Grand Sport (GS) class in dominating fashion, leading 32 of 47 laps. More impressive though was the win moved Plumb back into a tie with Billy Johnson for most Continental Tire Challenge wins by a driver, with 23. Until last year, Plumb held the title outright, but Johnson passed the mark after winning six times in 2016.
The relationship between Plumb and Johnson dates back to 2005, when both first entered the Continental Tire Challenge Street Tuner (ST) class. Plumb captured his first two series wins in 2006 and Johnson followed with four wins of his own in 2007. In an ironic twist, Plumb joined Johnson for a handful of races in 2007 as part of Kensai Racing, whose primary sponsor at the time was Compass360.
"Ray Lee (C360R Technical Director) and Karl (Thomson, C360R Team Principal), I had both known for a long time," Plumb said. "Ray I knew a little better, because he was the one who hired me to come drive for them with Billy a long time ago. We all stayed in touch with what each other was doing."
Staying in touch would prove to be instrumental for Plumb down the road. After balancing the roles of lead driver and team manager for Rum Bum Racing since 2010, the Pennsylvania resident found himself looking for a ride after the team suspended operations in April 2016. It was a new experience for Plumb, who collected 18 wins and the 2013 GS driver championship with Rum Bum.
"It was tough for me in that I had spent such a long time working for Mr. (Luis) Bacardi and starting that team and getting to be a part of it for almost six years," Plumb said. "It was a little uneasy to not only find something, but also to find something that would allow me to be competitive and continue to hopefully perform the way we had been performing."
Plumb was quick to reach out to C360R, ready to provide his experience of developing racecars, which his former team was looking to do with the new and largely untested McLaren GT4. The alliance was formed for 2017 but as it turned out, Plumb and his future co-driver Paul Holton, had never met. Luckily, the veteran and the up-and-comer became fast friends.
"For some reason, our paths never crossed so it was a leap of faith for Ray and Karl to trust in the fact that we would gel well together," Plumb said. "(Paul) is fast, he is smart, he's an athlete and we've personally gotten along extremely well. He takes in every bit of information that he can and he uses it to go fast and make a lot of good decisions behind the wheel."
Throughout his decorated IMSA career, Plumb has found that a team with great chemistry can make all the difference when it comes to success on the track, and he strongly believes he has found that with his new team.
"Life is short. It becomes really important as time goes on that you spend it trying to achieve the goals you're focused on and being around people you want to be around," Plumb said. "I was extremely lucky in the Rum Bum front and even luckier transitioning into this Compass360 situation because everybody here I get along with and everybody here I respect.
"With Ray and myself and Paul and the rest of the crew, we were able to do a ton of testing and the results have shown, including a win in the third race of McLaren's history. That was very much due to all the development work, which can't happen if people can't work together properly."
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