OCTOBER 15, 2023
Dramatic Moments With Just Over an Hour Remaining Determine Championship and Race Winners
By John Oreovicz
IMSA Wire Service
BRASELTON, Ga. – There were two major turning points in the three-way battle for the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class title in the 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Saturday during the 26th annual Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.
A trio of protagonists were separated by just 11 points at the start of the day, but the No. 6 Porsche Penske Motorsport Porsche 963 was eliminated from championship contention just 74 minutes into the 10-hour event when Nick Tandy was swept into an accident triggered by a pair of Grand Touring (GT) cars.
As the race unfolded, the championship lead bounced back and forth between the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac V-Series.R that led the standings heading into the weekend, and the No. 10 Konica Minolta Racing Acura ARX-06 that took over the top spot after points were awarded for qualifying.
With 62 minutes remaining, Filipe Albuquerque in the No. 10 attempted to pass Pipo Derani in the No. 31 for second place around the outside of Turn 1, a fast, 90-degree right-hander. The cars made side-to-side contact before the Acura speared to the left across the grass into heavy contact with a tire barrier. IMSA race control reviewed the coming-together but ruled no incident responsibility.
The dramatic turn of events essentially guaranteed the championship would go to the No. 31 Cadillac, with drivers Derani, Alexander Sims, and Jack Aitken. They duly clinched the crown with a sixth-place finish.
Derani and Sims ended the season with a 21-point advantage over Albuquerque and co-driver Ricky Taylor, who finished just a single point ahead of Blomqvist and Braun. The No. 60 duo led the GTP class with three race wins in 2023.
The top seven teams completed the first year of the new GTP formula clustered within 60 points, demonstrating a remarkable level of parity between the four competing manufacturers. Porsche Penske Motorsport’s two entries tied for fourth in the standings (-42 points).
“It’s been a real pleasure to be a part of this new era,” said Aitken, who served as the No. 31 team’s endurance driver in 2023 before moving into the seat currently occupied full-time by Sims in ’24. The championship driving trio also won the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in March.
“I think the standard of drivers, teams, and machinery that we have competing in the series is just phenomenal,” Aitken continued. “To have such a close finale after so many ups and downs for everybody through the year is really amazing. It was heart-in-mouth stuff pretty much the whole way through the race, and I think we’re all still slightly in disbelief. But it’s just reward for all the hard work that’s gone into this program.”
Derani admitted that the prospect of a late-race battle with Albuquerque prompted flashbacks from their previous on-track encounters, most famously at the 2021 Petit Le Mans.
“It seems to always be the No. 10 at the very end fighting with us, but this year the race took a different direction toward the end,” remarked Derani, who claimed his second IMSA championship. “I think Filipe was a little bit too optimistic there with still an hour and (two) minutes to go.
“We’ve seen that going through the outside of Turn 1 never really works,” he continued. “It happened last year with two Cadillacs, unfortunately. You just lose grip, and obviously he tried. He came in very aggressively trying to cut me off to the inside. We touched and he went off, which is unfortunate for him.”
Meanwhile, the battle for the prestigious Motul Petit Le Mans race win boiled down to a straight fight between the No. 01 Cadillac Racing Cadillac shared by Sebastien Bourdais, Renger van der Zande, and endurance driver Scott Dixon, and the No. 60 Acura fielded by Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian and drivers Tom Blomqvist, Colin Braun, and Helio Castroneves.
Braun grabbed the lead from van der Zande with a strong restart following the caution for Albuquerque’s crash with 30 minutes to go, and he held it to the finish, which occurred under caution after a pair of minor late-race incidents. The result bookended the ’23 season with victories for the Meyer Shank Acura, having started the campaign with a triumph in the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
The No. 60 actually fell two laps off the lead about two hours into Saturday’s race when Blomqvist was hit from behind in traffic in Turn 10. He was able to immediately drive the car into the pits for repairs and the start of a stirring comeback drive that culminated in Braun’s victorious restart.
“We just put our heads down and focused on what we could do,” said Braun, who earned his 25th race win in IMSA competition. “We knew we had a fast Acura and would have opportunities to get our lap back. We didn’t panic, and the guys did a great job on strategy. We had to be fast at times, but we also had to be smart and save the car.”
Regarding the critical restart that put the Meyer Shank Acura into the lead, Braun said: “Renger and I have raced each other for a long time, and he’s always raced me super fair and super clean. I just put it all on the line. We didn’t have a lot to lose, and I think they were kind of in the same boat in terms of the championship. I knew it was going to be big commitment, and it was awesome to make it happen.”
“I took it real easy on that last restart to save as much fuel as I could, that’s why I was slow,” van der Zande responded. “I don’t know where Colin got the grip from, but he had massive grip and sent it down the inside and still made the corner. I didn’t expect that, so hats off to him.”
Saturday’s season finale also determined the winners in the 2023 IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup. Cadillac clinched the manufacturer’s title when points were awarded following the fourth hour, and Sims, Derani, and the No. 31 Whelen Engineering team locked up the team and driver crowns at the 8-hour mark.
The 2024 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship opens Jan. 19-21 at Daytona International Speedway with the annual Roar Before The Rolex 24 followed Jan. 25-28 by the 63rd running of the Rolex 24 At Daytona.