Sportscar and GT veteran says winning the Pirelli World Challenge in the first season of the new Cadillac ATS meant even more than Le Mans wins.
Johnny O’Connell, who has won in various GT classes four times at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, says his fourth consecutive Pirelli World Challenge GT title was his toughest victory yet.
After scoring an IMSA GTS class win in a Nissan 300ZX Turbo at Le Mans in 1994, O’Connell became one of the cornerstones of the Corvette Racing squad in GTS and GT1. In that capacity, the Poughskeepie, N.Y.-born driver racked up four wins, four seconds and a third in the legendary 24 Hour race, 2001-’09.
However, O’Connell believes Cadillac’s switch from the fan-favorite V8-powered CTS-V.R to the GT3-spec V6 turbocharged ATS-V.R and taking on an ever-deeper field of PWC cars in 2015 made this his most satisfying triumph.
O’Connell recorded four race wins and eight other top-five finishes to secure his fourth straight crown.
“A lot of drivers would trade a championship for a win at Le Mans,” said O’Connell. “Well, I can honestly say that the 2015 Pirelli World Challenge GT championship was the biggest accomplishment of my career.
“It was a huge undertaking with a new Cadillac. If you asked most people, they would have told you that we didn’t have any chance of winning the GT championship; we would be happy just to get on the podium in 2015 with the new car. But the chassis from the get-go had a very athletic feel.”
O’Connell did admit that reliability was marginal in the early stages of the season.
“We broke a lot of equipment early in the process,” he said. “Some of our results early in the season proved that I am Irish, because if we’d had to run 10 or 20 minutes longer, we wouldn’t have made it!
“But the very first race with that car [at Circuit of The Americas] we finished third. So I was optimistic that if we could keep things together, that we might have a chance for another championship.”
I felt good at Long Beach because even though the lead only lasted about 75 seconds before I got torpedoed, that was a critical moment for me. I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve got these guys now.'
Despite being shunted out at Long Beach while leading, and suffering an engine-bay fire at Barber Motorsports Park, O’Connell insisted his confidence didn’t waver.
“I felt good at Long Beach because even though the lead only lasted about 75 seconds before I got torpedoed, that was a critical moment for me. I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve got these guys now.’ Of course, we then had the fire at Barber, and there was so much pressure on Cadillac Racing to come back and perform well at Mosport [Canadian Tire Motorsports Park]. To win two races that weekend, that was our defining moment, for sure.”
O’Connell cited the depth of the 2015 competition as the best it’s ever been in World Challenge.
“In the previous three championships, there were always two or three guys who were tough and had their act together. I’d say, this year, PWC had some of the best racing on the planet. You had a factory driver in the McLaren, Ryan Dalziel in the Porsche, factory driver in the Bentley, factory driver in the Ferrari, factory driver in the Nissan and the Lamborghini and the list goes on and on.
“I always had great admiration for the series but the series now should be a destination point for a driver’s career… The series was awesome in 2015.”
That variety, said O’Connell, highlighted the strength of GT3-spec cars heading up the World Challenge entry list, allowing different models' strengths to shine at various races. He observed: “There are tracks that suit the Ferrari, that suit the Porsche, that suit the Lamborghini, that suit the Bentley and suit the Cadillac.
“There are a lot of similarities between Mosport and Utah [Miller Motorsport Park]. I went there thinking we could do well. I was very optimistic and motivated. We won pole and executed the race well. We began to think we could catch up if we executed properly.”
Boy, I really had to be ready for the finale. And my qualifying lap might have been one of the best in my career
O'Connell on Laguna Seca
Of the dramatic championship decider at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, O’Connell recalled: “At Sonoma, the Ferrari had finished in front of us so then we go to Laguna and they get some weight taken off. Boy, I really had to be ready for the finale. And my qualifying lap might have been one of the best in my career. Certainly it was my best at that track.
“In the race, I got a great start and Olivier [Beretta, Ferrari] had a bad qualifying so he was going to have to work through the field. [When Beretta caught up] he came from a long way back to attempt that pass in the Corkscrew… Luckily, the Cadillac was stout enough to restart and get back in the race.
“It was high drama, to say the least. And, of all four of the Pirelli World Challenge championships, this one by far is the most significant. For me personally, it means the most.”