The final race of the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship took place at Road Atlanta on Saturday. The twenty first edition of the now classic Petit Le Mans (the idea of Dr. Don Panoz, who sadly passed shortly before the race this year) was a celebration of Dr. Don’s vision.
The motto “for the fans” has always been the ideology behind first the American Le Mans Series and then the IMSA series that followed after the merger with Grand-Am from 2014 onwards. The grid walk before the race, driver autograph sessions and seeing the drivers making appearances at the Car Corrals are all initiatives from the “for the fans” ethos and allow the fans to meet and interact with their heroes. All of this was part of Dr. Don Panoz’s vision and without him, there would never have been Petit Le Mans or the whole endurance racing scene as we know it now. Every endurance racing fan owes “Dr. Don” a huge debt of gratitude.
Championships Up For Grabs
Corvette Racing went into the final race of the season knowing that the #3 Corvette C7.R of regular season drivers Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen had a great chance to take the drivers and team championships. The manufacturers title was certainly going to Ford, assuming one of their two Ford GTs took the green flag to start the race (both Ford’s did start the race).
The only rivals to the #3 Corvette were the #67 Ford GT and again once the green flag dropped these would then be the only two cars left in contention for the drivers / team titles. Antonio Garcia in the #3 Corvette started from second place on the GTLM grid but immediately took the class lead on lap one of the ten-hour race – finish there, and the titles would go to Corvette. Tommy Milner starting the #4 Corvette also made up places at the start and was soon running in third place. The first round of pit stops saw the #4 Corvette overtake a car in the pits – the black #24 BMW M6 GTLM – this was a theme throughout the race thanks to the slick pit work of both Corvette Racing pit crews – both cars benefited and overtook rivals during the pit stops.
The #912 Porsche running in a retro livery reflecting the 1998 GT1-era Porsches took the GTLM Class lead thanks to an earlier pit stop and fresher tires. Tire degradation was a theme of the race in all of the classes, but particularly for the GTLM Michelin-shod runners. There were a number of full course cautions during the race, there were a couple of odd accidents and also some four wide action on the start / finish straight which always ends badly and in this case a crash for the GTD Class #96 BMW who was the innocent victim.
Marcel Fassler, usually the third driver in the #4 Corvette C7.R for the longer endurance events, pulled double-duty, doing the same role during the race in the #3 C7.R as well.
Hand To Hand And Off Their Backs
The race in all three classes was close and fierce for the entire ten hours. The GTLM Class saw all of the cars lead at some point as cars pitted at different times. It was difficult to predict who had the fastest car and who was likely to win the race during the all important dark final couple of hours. Both Corvettes were fast at the start and were always in contention throughout the race, until disaster struck for the #3 C7.R. Antonio Garcia made a pit stop during a full-course caution period at about 6.30 p.m. with just over two and half hours left in the ten-hour race. All seemed normal as he left the pits on fresh tires, but Antonio seemed to make a rare mistake and spun up the cold tires leaving the sweeping righthand up hill pit lane exit. The car slewed onto the grass and hit the concrete wall with a sickening thud and bounced back on the grass.
Every Corvette Racing supporter held their collective breath and hoped that this wasn’t the end of the #3 C7.R championship. Antonio managed to get the car pointing in the correct direction and despite the right front wheel not spinning and smoke billowing as the tire wore off the rim, he nursed the injured Corvette the full 2.54 mile lap of Road Atlanta back to the pits. Antonio took the car straight to the garage rather than the Corvette pit as this allowed all of the pit crew to descend on the car back in the garage area. The crew worked miracles and replaced the whole front of the car which was badly deranged (it had pushed back onto the wheel, the reason it wasn’t turning). Luckily there was no suspension damage and because the rest of the cars were still running behind the safety car, the #3 Corvette pit crew led by Dan Binks managed to turn the car around and get it back on track just two laps down on the GTLM Class leader but now in 9th place out of the class of nine cars. The #67 Ford or Richard Westbrook, Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon were running third, but if they could finish first or second the drivers and team titles would be theirs.
The #912 Porsche then made things worse for Corvette Racing as they hit one of the other cars and were immediately assessed a penalty, promoting the #67 Ford to second place just behind the other Porsche, #911. Antonio Garcia showed no sign that he had given up after the accident and relentlessly chased down the eighth place Ferrari which was also two laps down on the #911 Porsche.
The final ninety minutes of the race saw Antonio take eighth place which was as good as it got for the #3 Corvette, but would it be enough? Their sister car the #4 with first Olly Gavin and then Tommy Milner at the wheel did their bit and got in front of the #67 Ford pushing it back down to third place. Then for some reason the Ford seemed to start to struggle and eventually they came home fifth which at the end of the race was good enough for the #3 Corvette C7.R to take team title and the drivers title went to Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia repeating their clean sweep of success in 2017. For Corvette Racing it mean that they had now won eight of the nine titles available since 2016, as Tommy Milner and Olly Gavin had won all three titles that year.
The Cadillac DPi of Wayne Taylor Racing won the race overall and the #31 Whelan Engineering Cadillac DPi sealed the drivers and team championship adding further to a great race and season for GM.