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October 17, 2017

PWC Preview: IMSA’s qualifying king on life after Porsche

PWC Preview: IMSA’s qualifying king on life after Porsche
Photo Credit To Porsche

When Gianmaria Bruni’s move from Ferrari to Porsche was finally confirmed, it caused significant ripples in the GT racing world. However, it wasn’t the only transfer involving the two marques over the winter, as Porsche junior programme graduate Alex Riberas now wears the Scuderia’s unmistakable scarlet red. After an impressive acclimatisation in the Asian Le Mans Series, can the IMSA standout take the Pirelli World Challenge by storm? Ahead of the season opener in St. Petersburg, James Newbold asked the man himself.

So the saying goes, in order to get anywhere in this world, you have to speculate to accumulate. That is to say, success comes not from settling for your lot, but from taking risks and staying one step ahead of the curve to be in the right place when the cards are folded.

However for Alex Riberas, it wasn’t quite so clear cut. After graduating from the Porsche Supercup, the Spaniard took four GTD pole positions and a victory at Laguna Seca in IMSA last year, but while his stock was higher than ever before, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows.

Ironically, his front-running pace for Alex Job Racing meant Porsche was consistently overlooked for a performance break while other cars were given a leg-up, which caused several car owners to pull their entries in protest. Simple maths suggested Riberas would have markedly fewer opportunities to race by staying in the Porsche family, even without his driver rating being upgraded from Silver to Gold, which forced him to cast the net wide in search of a ride.

But while circumstances may have forced his hand, the decision to switch allegiances to Ferrari has already shown signs of bearing fruit. The 488 GT3 was the car to have in the Asian Le Mans Series and Riberas – still eligible to run as a Silver – took full advantage, winning at Buriram on his way to second in points with Olivier Beretta and Rino Mastronardi, despite a DNF in the opening round at Zhuhai.

“We had factory support from Porsche, but as far as my possibilities to grow up inside the Porsche family, those were not very good at that point,” he told Racing.GT.

“Even though I liked where I was, my aim was to become a factory driver or work together with a factory in some way, so that’s why I started to talk with Ferrari. They said they were looking for young drivers and I was just in the right place in the right moment. We started talking about Asian Le Mans Series, I was able to be a part of that and luckily everything went well!

“If you come from a Cup car, then everything is super easy, but I must say the Ferrari did surprise me a lot because it’s such an easy car to drive. From day one I was feeling like it was a winning car.”

His efforts were rewarded with a chance to try out the 488 GTE at Vallelunga, along with Alessandro Pier Guidi, Miguel Molina and Nick de Vries. Riberas downplays the importance of the test, which many billed as a shootout to fill the vacant seat in Ferrari’s GTE-Pro team, but the fact he was invited at all suggests he is highly thought of by people in high places.

“It was not really a selection process or anything, it was just a test to see where everybody was and to establish the programmes for this year,” he explained.

“To be honest, I already expected Alessandro to take the WEC seat because he’s the driver who deserves it the most and who has been there the longest.”

The 23-year-old’s next test is the Pirelli World Challenge, which marks a return to his sprint racing roots. Up against some of the best Pro GT drivers in North America and with no team-mate pin the blame on if things go awry, Riberas will be under the microscope more than ever before, but says the pressure to perform is nothing new.

“Since the beginning of my career I knew every time I go out on track I’m fighting for my future,” he said.

“Every corner I do has to be done at the maximum I can and especially last year in IMSA, it was such an intense year. It was one of those years in your career where if you shine, you continue, but if you don’t, you have no opportunity to continue and therefore you are lost.

“Every single time you put your helmet on, your visor down and you go for it – that’s going to be the same scenario here, in IMSA, in Asia or anywhere else.”

It’s an approach that has served him well so far, but could Riberas translate this into a title challenge come season’s end? Don’t rule it out – his PWC career may have gotten off to a shaky start with an off in Thursday practice at St. Pete, but in the week that saw his beloved FC Barcelona overturn a 4-0 first leg deficit to beat PSG 6-5 in one of the greatest Champions League games of all time, it will take more than a bump in the road to set him back.

While Riberas is new to PWC, his R. Ferri Motorsports team has a strong pedigree in the championship. It was arguably only Beretta’s over-exuberance that cost the Canadian outfit the title in their most recent campaign in 2015 and whilst Riberas won’t have a second car to compare notes with, he certainly won’t be using that as an excuse.

“The competition is very strong, names like O’Connell or Cooper with the Cadillacs, those two guys are really quick, then Alvaro Parente of course and Patrick Long, so there are many competitors out there,” he said.

“It’s a very high level championship and it is tough to win, but I have high hopes as well because as we can see from 2015, Remo Ferri did a great job with Olivier, so I think we should be able to fight against the competition.

“Of course it’s nice when you have another car where you can play with the setup to try different things, but I wouldn’t see it as a big disadvantage. If you’re a single car, then the whole team is focused on one-car performance so as long as you are fast and the car is running well, you can win if you are a single car team or if you are with a big team.

“I’m already used to sprint racing and that’s where I feel comfortable, so I don’t see a big deal on going back to it for this year. I’m just really excited to take on this challenge and hopefully do well.”

As for the rest…

McLaren factory driver Alvaro Parente ended Johnny O’Connell’s run of four straight titles last year and returns to defend his title with the Flying Lizards-run K-PAX Racing outfit, but team-mates Austin Cindric and Colin Thompson both move to pastures new. In their place, Bryan Sellers will combine his IMSA programme in the Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini, while Mike Hedlund returns from racing a Porsche in the European Le Mans Series to run in the GTA class.

Patrick Long came within half a lap of wresting the title from Parente at Laguna Seca before O’Connell intervened and earned widespread sympathy in the aftermath. Having switched mid-season from EFFORT Racing to Wright Motorsports last year, the Porsche factory stalwart will benefit from the continuity of sticking with the same crew this time around, where he will be joined by Michael Shein in a GTA class entry. Another strong 911 GT3-R will be fielded by Bob Stallings Racing, with Jon Fogarty again at the controls, while GMG Racing will run two cars in GTA for James Sofronas and promising Cup class graduate Alec Udell.

Now in the third year for the ATS-V.R, Cadillac will hope to recapture their unprecedented run of success between 2012-2015 with evergreen 54-year-old O’Connell and team-mate Michael Cooper. The New Yorker came on strong in his rookie season and pipped his veteran team-mate to third in points, with a title challenge surely next on the agenda.

Like R.Ferri Motorsports, Ryan Dalziel returns to the series after sitting out 2016 with a CRP Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3. The Florida-domiciled Scot would likely have won the 2015 championship had it not been for calendar clashes that forced him to skip Detriot and Sonoma and will likely factor into the title hunt again if CRP can quickly get on top of their new car, having switched from Audi.

After a mixed 2016 with Always Evolving, James Davison has returned to TRG on a one-off basis for St. Pete to race the team’s Aston Martin Vantage, while Hong Kong’s great hope Adderly Fong leads the Absolute Bentley’s two-car attack, with Luo Yufeng set for a learning year in the second Continental GT3.

Peter Cunningham’s RealTime Racing team are anything but newcomers, but the same can’t be said for their cars. The Acura NSX GT3 fared well on its competition debut in the rain-affected Daytona 24 Hours, but is still largely unproven ahead of its first outing in PWC. Experienced Dutchman Peter Kox was the car’s main development driver and has been kept on to race it, with Ryan Eversley joining him in the second car after Cunningham’s retirement from driving.

Another high profile addition to the championship is 2016 Daytona 24 Hour winners Magnus Racing. Having turned their backs on IMSA amid concerns over the standard of officiating, the Audi squad have signed Pierre Kaffer has to lead the team, although the German will miss two races due to his commitments at the 24 Hours of Nürburgring and Spa. Team patron John Potter will race a second R8 LMS in GTA.

About The Author

James Newbold

James Newbold is Racing.GT's Editor. He graduated from a politics degree at the University of East Anglia in 2015, which should help him navigate through the political minefield that is GT racing. He likes Marmite on toast and Oreo cookies. Speaks Spanish, but only when no one is looking.