Motorsport can be a cruel game. Pat Long knows this all too well – in his 14 years as a Porsche factory driver, he’s faced more than his fair share of curveballs and lived to tell the tale. But with just one lap remaining of an eventful 2016 season, the Pirelli World Challenge produced one final sting in the tail, allowing a grateful Alvaro Parente through to become the first man other than Cadillac’s Johnny O’Connell to win the GT title since Long himself took the spoils in 2011. However, the outgoing champion wasn’t about to go out quietly… Here’s what we learned from Laguna Seca.
1. Patience pays for Parente
He didn’t know it at the time, but Alvaro Parente had bought himself the best ticket in the house for the drama that was about to unfold. Would he have preferred to take the championship with a straight-forward lights-to-flag victory? Of course he would. But the improbable circumstances which saw the Portuguese clinch the race win and the PWC GT title on the final lap of the season will certainly make for a better story to regale to the grandkids in years to come.
Unbelievable finish! O’Connell punts Long wide on the final lap, and Parente is through for the title! #PWC
— Racing GT (@RacingGT) October 9, 2016
When the seven points that he had erroneously been awarded for pole at Lime Rock were revoked by a PWC audit just hours before the race, Parente’s nine-point lead over chief title rival Pat Long was slashed to just two. It was now a 50-minute winner-takes-all showdown, and starting sixth after a less than ideal qualifying, there was an awful lot riding on the opening lap.
Taking a leaf out of K-PAX Racing team-mate Colin Thompson’s book, Parente got off to a flyer, jumping ahead of Michael Cooper, Jon Fogarty and Austin Cindric for third, right on the tail of Long. But unlike Olivier Beretta when faced with a similar scenario last year, Parente didn’t attempt to force the issue and was content to wait patiently for an opportunity to present itself.
It looked as though his strategy would backfire when Drew Regitz shunted at turn one, bringing out the third Full Course Yellow of the day with only ten minutes to go. But despite all evidence pointing to the race finishing under caution, with the clearly shaken Regitz’s stricken Audi buried deep in the tyres, Parente was rewarded with a one-lap shootout that would decide the championship.
When race-leader Johnny O’Connell ran wide at turn three, Long pounced. His extra momentum carried him past the Cadillac on the outside as they headed into the braking zone, but with a gap to the inside, O’Connell refused to yield. With Parente taking a watching brief from third, the two cars made contact, knocking Long out onto the dirt. The Porsche scrambled back onto the circuit in fifth, but the damage was already done. In the blink of an eye, Parente was through and away, with Cooper third and Bryan Heitkotter fourth.
O’Connell took the flag first, but was stripped of his fourth win of the year for avoidable contact and hit with a time penalty which dropped him behind Long to fifth. Again, the man to benefit was Parente, who now had a winners trophy to go with his championship. You just couldn’t have scripted it.
— World Challenge (@WCRacing) October 9, 2016
2. Long loses out at the last
For Long, the manner of his defeat will be especially hard to take. Having salvaged crucial points from St. Petersburg after damage from a start-line accident on the previous weekend at COTA had caused him to miss all of practice and qualifying, the Porsche factory driver then faced having his title hopes snatched away for good when the falling price of oil forced EFFORT Racing to pull out.
Long then demonstrated the resolve of a champion by winning twice at Mosport on debut for Wright Motorsports, adding a pair of thirds at Utah Motorsports Campus and only once finishing outside the top ten to pile the pressure on Parente as they approached the business end of the season.
Having executed a perfect race to keep his rival at arm’s length for the duration, Long appeared to have done enough. But he reckoned without O’Connell, whose small error suddenly presented him with a golden opportunity to put the title beyond Parente’s reach once and for all.
It would be all too easy to level criticism at Long for putting himself into a vulnerable position on O’Connell’s outside, when the veteran had nothing to lose and second was enough for the championship. It wasn’t a move he needed to make, but he had little choice; Long couldn’t afford to throttle back and wait in line, which would have only invited pressure from Parente on the run up to the Corkscrew.
Hindsight suggests that it was the wrong move, but under the circumstances it was the only one realistically available to him. When your luck is out, sometimes there’s not a lot you can do about it.
Thanks for all your messages. In the end the only time I pulled next to or ahead of Jonny is when he made mistakes today. Hard to accept.
— Patrick Long (@pLmotorsport) October 9, 2016
3. Heikotter puts Davison in the shade
Bryan Heitkotter doesn’t fit the profile for a typical winner of Nissan’s GT Academy: for starters, he’s 35 years old. The inaugural US winner was 30 when he beat 53,000 online competitors to earn himself a professional racing contract in 2011 and since then has worked his way through the ranks of the SportsCar Challenge series and the PWC TC class. But it was upon graduating to GT3 in 2015 that Heitkotter really began to shine.
His four class wins in the amateur GTA division and an outright podium at Mid-Ohio prompted the organisers to move him up to the GT class alongside the Pros, a decision vindicated when Heitkotter rounded out the year with a run of top-ten finishes and another podium at Miller Motorsports Park.
An excellent start to 2016 at COTA laid the foundations for a strong season that saw him take the fight to vastly more experienced Always Evolving team-mate James Davison. When the Australian was forced to miss Utah after becoming involved in an incident at Mid-Ohio while on probation, Heitkotter stepped up and took a stunning double win, then gained an important psychological edge by beating Davison on his return at Sonoma.
The twists and turns of Laguna Seca weren’t expected to favour the Nissan, but Heitkotter rounded off the year in convincing fashion. On the weekend which saw Davison’s cousin Will triumph in the Bathurst 1000, Heitkotter out-qualified his team-mate and sliced through the field from ninth to fourth, later promoted to third after O’Connell’s penalty.
Correction: we *did* get a podium after all! Moved to 3rd from a post race penalty. Amazing outcome on a tough twisty track. #unexpected
— Bryan Heitkotter (@BryanHeitkotter) October 10, 2016
With the upgraded Nissan GT-R GT3 underneath him next year, the Californian might fancy his chances of improving on fifth in points…
4. Acura’s low-key farewell for the TLX
Almost unnoticed amid the final lap drama was a forgettable weekend for the RealTime Racing Acura squad on the final outing of the Acura TLX-GT. Spencer Pumpelly and Ryan Eversley worked their way forward from 15th and 18th positions on the grid to round out the top ten in the race, an inauspicious end to a season which saw Eversley sweep the Road America weekend – leading home an Acura 1-2 in race one – and finish inside the top six in points for the second year in a row.
— Ryan Eversley (@RyanEversley) October 9, 2016
32-year-old Eversley will hope that he has done enough to remain part of the RealTime setup next year as they transition to the much-anticipated NSX GT3, developed by veteran Peter Kox. RealTime will remain HPD’s de-facto works team in PWC, while Michael Shank Racing will run the mid-engine NSX in IMSA’s GTD class ahead of a possible customer programme for 2018.
5. Sprint X will continue to grow
When the PWC SprintX championship got underway for it’s first-ever meeting at Mosport in May, it did so with a disappointingly small grid of just eight cars. It was a similar story at Utah Motorsports Campus, leaving many to question its place in an already crowded market. But after the grids reached an encouraging 24 cars at Monterey, the answers are becoming clearer and a thrilling conclusion to race one, as Kyle Marcelli hunted down Mike Skeen’s Viper on the last lap, may just buy it some precious goodwill.
Think more people and sponsors would be interested in seeing GT qualifying streamed? Or 8 cars drive around for SprintX? #shrug
— Mike Hedlund (@mike_hedlund) August 13, 2016
With 60 minute races featuring a mandatory pitstop and driver change, the SprintX has a similar format to SRO’s Blancpain Sprint Cup, with GTX and GTS classes for Lamborghini Trofeo, Porsche Carrera Cup and GT4 machinery added into the mix. It should come as little surprise then, that SRO founder Stephane Ratel is a stakeholder in WC Vision – which owns PWC – and that he was the driving force in getting the series off the ground.
Targeted as a cut-price Pro-Am alternative to IMSA, where GTD is set to compete at every round in 2017, SprintX enables gentlemen to offset costs with a second driver, while allowing aspiring Pros in the GT Cup and GTS classes to learn the ropes of GT3s before stepping up to the single-driver GT Sprint series.
Unfortunately, neither Marcelli nor Skeen would be able to reprise their duel in race two as a result of damage both cars sustained in the GT race, leaving Michael Mills and John Edwards to win and wrap up the inaugural championship for Mills. It’s a problem the PWC is seeking to resolve by creating standalone SprintX events that count towards the overall championship – another clear nod towards the Blancpain GT Series – although this has yet to be confirmed, with mixed reception from teams.
Whatever format they decide upon, SprintX can and will continue to grow. Perhaps the more pressing question is whether it will be accepted by a US sportscar racing fan-base that doesn’t like being told what it wants…