The 20th edition of Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta has all the ingredients to become an instant classic.
To start, and it’s rather important for the sake of enjoyment, the season-long titles in IMSA’s four WeatherTech SportsCar Championships have either been settled or been moved so far out of reach by the points leaders, the only thing left to focus on is 10 hours of day-to-night sports car racing.
Almost a decade after its last appearance at Petit Le Mans, Team Penske—the undisputed heavyweight kings of North American motor racing—are back and have brought Indy 500 winners Juan Montoya and Helio Castroneves, along with 2016 IndyCar champ Simon Pagenaud, to wheel an LMP2 prototype.
Thanks to Castroneves’ pole position on Friday, the team, which is using Petit Le Mans as a dress rehearsal for 2018 when it arrives with the factory Acura Team Penske Daytona Prototype international program, has shown its intention to destroy the opposition in IMSA’s marquee class.
Penske’s clan will have a trio of factory Cadillac DPi-V.Rs to contend with today, and despite winning the first seven races of the year, regulation changes designed to slow the hearty 6.2-liter V8-powered prototypes have largely neutered the beasts. Reliability, however, is the one attribute the Cadillacs have on their side.
Nissan, winners of the race at Road America’s flowing, high-speed circuit, were a close second and third in qualifying, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Considering the vast similarities between Road America and Road Atlanta, the Tequila Patron-sponsored Nissan DPis are capable of an upset.
Never bet against Roger Penske’s teams, but in this one instance, the newness of racing a prototype and executing the little things that can win or lose a race—like efficient driver changes, which have been an issue in practice sessions—could fell the giant.
Toppling Team Penske, IMSA’s instant agitators, will be the only priority for the rest of the 10-deep class.
The WeatherTech Championship’s marquee class for production-based factory entries, GT Le Mans, is a celebration of ridiculousness. Of the nine cars in qualifying—two BMW M6 GTLMs, two Corvette C7.Rs, one Ferrari 488 GTE, two Ford GTs, and a pair of Porsche 911 RSRs—the top five were covered by 71 thousandths of a second.
Risi Competizione’s Ferrari, wielded by Toni Vilander—the flying Finn of GT racing–held off Antonio Garcia’s Corvette by 0.054 seconds…Joey Hand’s Ford GT was only 0.069s shy of pole…
GTLM boasts a roster of incomparable driving talent where, as qualifying demonstrated, there’s almost nothing to separate the fantasy machines. The race could be a different tale as some cars, and Ford’s GTs in particular, are saddled with enough weight to bring them in line with the speeds of the other GTLM entries that over a full fuel stint, tire degradation and crisp handling can disappear.
The other added concern, which the entire class will face, is dealing with faster and slower traffic. One of the Corvettes tripped over a prototype earlier in the event, which sent both cars flying off the track, and with prototypes dive-bombing GTs, GTs trying to conduct a race of their own, and a varying level of talent in GT Daytona and PC–the two Pro-Am classes– and race-ending clashes are inevitable.
And if the David vs Goliath Prototype theme and GTLM grudge match isn’t enough of a draw, the forecast calls for light rain in the final two hours of the race. Spend the first eight hours being perfect, and then let the skies turn Petit Le Mans upside down. If we’re lucky, the clouds will do their part and close the IMSA season with buckets of drama.
Watch it on FOXSports1 from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET and listen to it from start to finish at with commentary from the legendary team behind Radio Le Mans.