10-hour Petit Le Mans series finale at Road America could be a heartbreaker.
And it all comes down to this.
After a grueling season that began 11 races ago at the Rolex 24 At Daytona on January 24, the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship’s 2015 season ends Saturday with the championships in all four classes undecided.
The 18th Annual Petit Le Mans Powered By Mazda, the 10-hour finale at Road Atlanta in Georgia, could be a race of firsts and lasts.
The series could get its first female champion, as Christina Nielsen, co-driver of the No. 007 TRG-AMR Aston Martin Vantage in the GT Daytona class, brings a scant one-point lead to Road America. Nielsen has driven to the lead with a consistency that includes four second-place finishes, but no wins, something the team would like to change this weekend. “This is my favorite track,” she says, “and we had a lot of speed here in practice.”
So long, GT Daytona cars, diesel Mazdas
And it will be the last time we see this particular field of cars in the GT Daytona class, as for 2016, the series adapts the global FIA GT3 standards, allowing manufacturers and teams to race cars that are legal for more than 50 series around the world.
In the Prototype class, just six points separate the top six drivers in the championship, with point leaders Michael Valiante and Richard Westbrook, drivers of the No. 90 VisitFlorida.com Chevrolet Corvette Daytona Prototype, hoping for their first championship.
Also in Prototype, it will be the last race for the two SpeedSource SKYACTIV-D Smart Diesel Mazdas, as for 2016, the team transitions to a new conventional engine that will replace the diesels. For team principal Sylvian Tremblay, Petit will be a “tune-up” for next year, “A great opportunity to have both cars and teams get into the mindset of going into the 2016 season with a strong overall package.”
In GT Le Mans, Bill Auberlen and Dirk Werner took the victory at the last race, the Lone Star Le Mans at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, to bring them to within three points of Porsche North America driver Patrick Pilet, the GTLM points leader hoping for his first series championship.
Pilet joins 2015 24 Hour of Le Mans overall winner Nick Tandy in the No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR, with Auberlen and Werner in the No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW Z4 GTLM. Corvette Racing’s Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen, drivers of the No. 3 Chevrolet Corvette C7.R, are 10 points back and still well in striking distance.
And in Prototype Challenge, CORE Autosport drivers Jon Bennett and Colin Braun hold a 12-point lead as they hope to repeat as championship in their No. 54 ORECA FLM09. But Mike Guasch and Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports entry and RSR Racing co-drivers Chris Cumming and Bruno Junqueira will be looking for their first championship if the CORE entry can’t close the deal.
And, of course, this is the last race for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, as it becomes the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2016. TUDOR will remain an important presenting sponsor for the series for at least another decade.
Regardless of who wins the 2015 season championships, there’s no arguing that they will have earned it, as Petit Le Mans has always been a tense, nail-biting end to a long season. The 2.54-mile Road Atlanta track is tough on cars and drivers, and the long day-into-night 10-hour race has often seen changing weather conditions, and could this year.
Many of the 39 teams entered have added a third driver for the finale – IndyCar champion Scott Dixon joins the No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing Ford Ecoboost DP, helping out regulars Scott Pruett and Joey Hand, winners at Circuit of the Americas. Fellow IndyCar racer Sebastien Bourdais joins the No. 5 Action Express Corvette DP, the defending series champions.
Veterans Max Angelelli and Map Papis wil be helping the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Corvette DP and No. 31 Actions Express Whelen Corvette DP, respectively. Porsche ace Patrick Long joins the No. 17 Falken Tire GTLM team in the last race for Falken in the series, and possibly the last race for the No. 17 Porsche 911 RSR team, the race’s defending champions.
Petit Le Mans Powered By Mazda will be broadcast live on FOX Sports 2 and IMSA.com. FS2 coverage airs from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. ET on Saturday, followed by IMSA.com from 12 to 2:30 p.m. ET. FS2 resumes coverage from 2:30 to 7 p.m. before returning to IMSA.com from 7 to 8:30 p.m. ET.
Live television coverage of the conclusion airs from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. ET on FS2. In addition, FS1 (FOX Sports 1) will air a three-hour highlight telecast of the race on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET. IMSA.com and IMSA Radio will offer live coverage from throughout the weekend at Road Atlanta, beginning with practice on Thursday.