Winless for the season, dominant victory by Pruett and Hand looked like the No. 01 of old.
For the Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Ford EcoBoost Riley team, it must have felt a little like 2011.
That was the year that the No. 01 absolutely dominated the Prototype field, with nine wins in 12 races. And that was the team that showed up Saturday at the Lone Star Le Mans at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
Winless for the year, drivers Scott Pruett and Joey Hand drove an technically accomplished race, winning by a whopping 16.9 seconds over the second-place No.10 Konica Minolta Chevrolet Corvette of Wayne Taylor Racing, driven by brothers Ricky and Jordan Taylor.
Pruett and Hand are not at the top of the points battle, so Pruett, a five-time champion, said beforehand that the strategy was do what it took to win, since points didn’t really matter.
And what it took was a two-pit-stop race for the two hour, 40-minute event, when the second-place No. 10 made three stops, and the third-place car, the No. 90 VisitFlorida.com Corvette DP of Richard Westbrook and Michael Valiante, made four stops. That team came into the race as the points leader in Prototype, and the third-place finish widened that margin.
But it wasn’t just smart strategy for the winning No. 01, it was speed, too. Hand turned by far the fastest lap of the race – 1 minute, 58.616 seconds, almost a full second faster than the No. 10’s fastest lap, which was the next quickest. Ford has not had much to celebrate this season, but there was no shortage of power today.
This was Pruett’s 60th win, increasing his all-time victory number, but not the margin over second place, because Bill Auberlen won his 55th race today in the GT Le Mans class. “I’ve had an amazing career,” Pruett said. “I’ve been so blessed.”
So why was the Ford EcoBoost Riley so fast today? It was just a matter of learning the car and the engine, Pruett said. The turbocharged V6 engine, with the sudden power rush of most any turbo engine, took some getting used to, and chassis tuning of the Riley has progressed over the season.
“We had a great car today,” Hand said. “It was fantastic to get my first win as a permanent part of the team.”
Also showing speed in the Prototype class today was the DeltaWing, which led the Prototypes for four laps until brake problems intervened and dropped the car to eleventh.
Wild and wooly
As you’d expect in Texas, it was a wild and wooly, penalty-filled race, most of them called by the IMSA officials for unnecessary on-track contact, even though there were only two full-course cautions. In the end, fuel mileage played an important role, especially in the GT Le Mans class, where both the Porsche North America 911 RSRs had to pit with just three minutes remaining for fuel. Porsche driver Nick Tandy was leading the class in the No. 911, but ended up 15th overall, and third in class.
Winning in GTLM was the No. 25 Team RLL BMW Z4 GTE of Bill Auberlen and Dirk Werner, the team’s second victory of the season. And it wasn’t speed, it was strategy that got them the victory: “We’re able to go two more laps on fuel than the Porsches can,” Werner said.
Finishing just behind the BMW, and just ahead of Tandy’s Porsche was the second-place No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari F458 Italia of Giancarlo Fisichella and Pierre Kaffer.
The win by the No. 25 tightens the points in GT Le Mans going into the final race in two weeks – Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. Patrick Pilet, the Porsche pilot who is Nick Tandy’s co-driver, is leading the points with 279, and Auberlen and Werner just three points back.
Prototype Challenge saw a lot of spins and on-track contact, but surviving for the win was the No. 54 ORECA Chevrolet of CORE Austosport’s Colin Braun and Jon Bennett. In second was the No. 11 RSR Racing entry of Bruno Junqueira and Chris Cumming. The win increased CORE’s points lead to 12 over the No. 52 PRI/Mathiasen entry. Braun had to drive the final stint without power steering -- "That time in the gym paid off," he said.
In GT Daytona, it’s a “Local Boy Makes Good” story, as Texas Dodge dealer Ben Keating and his co-driver, Jeroen Bleekemolen, manhandled their ViperExchange.com Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper to the class win. Second was the No. 97 Turner Motorsport BMW Z4 of Markus Palttala and Michael Marsal. Third was the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Audi R8 LMS of Christopher Haase and Dion von Moltke, who qualified the car on the pole.
“The race just came to us,” Keating said. The tires lost traction during long stints on the hot pavement, he said, requiring some careful management of braking and turning. But by the time Bleekemolen took over, “The car was great,” he said. “I had a good battle with five or six other cars, and we never touched.”
The GT Daytona points leader remains Christina Nielsen, co-driver of the No. 007 TRG-AMR Aston Martin, though she and teammate finished eighth in class today.
The TUDOR United SportsCar Championship season finale will be Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on October 1-3. It’s a grueling 10-hour endurance race on the tight, fast 2.54-mile road course, and it will decided championships in all four classes.