When IMSA's TUDOR United Sports Car Championship shows up for the final race of the season at Road Atlanta, they pull out all of the stops. This endurance event has been held since the late 1990s, and has been jewel in the crown of American endurance sports car racing ever since. Over the history of the event, held in the fall in Northern Georgia, many years have been plagued by rain, and this year added to that with one of the rainiest weekends I've seen in a long time. Luckily, when you've got racing drivers bordering on inhuman capabilities, combined with one of the best cars for driving in the rain, coupled with brand new Michelin rain compounds that proved quite good, it all adds up to Porsche victory. This wasn't just a Porsche GTLM victory, however, this was a victory for Porsche in the race overall, beating even the more powerful and higher downforce Prototypes to the checkered flag. Had the race been dry, the Porsches wouldn't have had a chance at the overall title, but add in a weekend of torrential rain, mix liberally, and you've got a recipe for some extremely interesting action.
In qualifying, Porsches were way up at the top of the time sheets (and the bottom). Earl Bamber set the two fastest times of the session in his GTLM 911, but in the process of pushing so hard in the rain, he had an off and bent up his chassis. As such, the car had to be swapped out for a backup car overnight and he was demoted to the back of the grid. Similarly, Nick Tandy's GTLM car was fast, posting a time that earned him 2nd on the grid. Unfortunately, his car was deemed to be out of regulation, being that the car's ride height was too low. He, too, would start from the back. The cars wouldn't stay back there for long, though. Bamber started from 32nd on the grid, but by the time the first lap had ended, he was running 25th. Even more impressive, Nick Tandy took only 16 laps to move from the very back of the grid to leading GTLM. With the rain continuing to come down, he was turning quicker lap times than anyone on the track, including the more powerful Prototype classed cars.
With this much rainfall, the race was predictably pockmarked by lengthy sections of yellow-flag running behind the safety car. It's good for driver safety, but it doesn't make for very exciting racing. The first caution came after only 2 laps, and many more were seen through the day with some employing jet dryer trucks to attempt to push the water off of the track, and others where more drastic measures were used, including the digging of a drainage ditch to attempt to divert the water away from the racing surface. No matter the rainfall, though, the rear-engine Porsche platform helped the drivers with excellent traction out of the corners. It didn't take long before Tandy moved into the overall lead for the first time.
While Tandy's first stint was an incredible display of amazing driving, Bamber was suffering with the worst of luck. On the opening lap, he had a coming together with a slower GTD classed car, causing a puncture. On the second lap, Bamber came in to replace the tire, but the course was yellow at the time, meaning the pits were closed. As such, the team incurred a 60-second stop-hold penalty. Before coming in to serve the penalty, the team noticed that the car was running very hot coolant temperatures, and Bamber had to come in again to remove some tape from the front of his car. After serving the penalty, Bamber found himself dead last in GTLM, some 4-laps down from the lead. Where Tandy's luck carried him to the front of the field, Bamber's sunk him to the bottom like a stone, and the trio of Bamber, Bergmeister, and Makowiecki could not overcome that early detriment.
After Tandy traded out of the #911 car for Patrick Pilet, their car continued to run like a rocketship, passing everything like it was standing still. Pilet again moved the car into the overall lead of the race for nearly 20 laps of horrendous weather. Richard Lietz, as well, served some phenomenally dependable driving on the track, keeping the car 'on the island' as they say, even in the worst of weather conditions. After 5 hours and 21 minutes, the race was halted under red-flag conditions for the stewards to further evaluate the track and how the conditions were deteriorating. Eventually the field was sent back out. During the 2-laps of safety car installation, Pilet hopped out again for Tandy, and following the green flag, he moved from 4th to 3rd before another caution period fell. On the first lap after the course was clear for that period, Tandy moved his 911 back into the overall lead. After 190 laps, Tandy was leading the race again and he never looked back.
Only 9 more laps would come to pass, all of them with Tandy leading, before the race was called complete due to inclement weather. Instead of the traditional 10 hour event, this year's Petit Le Mans was shortened to just 7 hours and 51 minutes (199 laps). With Porsche's overall victory here, and the manufacturer's 5th GTLM class victory of the season (4th for Tandy and Pilet), comes a handful of championship wins as well. Patrick Pilet nabbed the Driver's title for the season, the #911 crew received the title of Teams' Champions, and Porsche earned the Manufacturers' Championship as well, all in the GTLM category. Interestingly, this was Porsche's third GTLM victory in a row at Petit Le Mans as well, and a home victory for Porsche Cars North America, which is based locally in Atlanta.
Saying Goodbye To Falken Tire
Unfortunately, not all was perfect. This was the last race for Walker Racing running the Falken Tire team partnership with stellar drivers Wolf Henzler and Bryan Sellers (who were joined by Patrick Long for Petit). In the last handful of years, the small customer Porsche team managed to take a number of GT victories, including this year's Watkins Glen 6-hour race, the 2013 and 2014 Petit Le Mans class victories, one at the now-gone Baltimore event, and a particularly rainy event at Mid-Ohio. We were always fans of the beautifully liveried cars, and their presence will be missed on the grid next year. Wolf Henzler will continue as a Porsche factory driver, and we hope Bryan Sellers (a contributor hear on FLATSIXES.com) finds an excellent ride for the 2016 season. Both drivers are fantastic behind the wheel, and they deserve nothing but continued success.
Continuing their success this weekend, Porsche teams also took a 1-2 victory in the GTD category with the now-obsolete 911 GT America (Petit being this car's last race). Victory went to the Americans Patrick Lindsey, Spencer Pumpelly and Madison Snow racing with Park Place Motorsports. Magnus Racing drivers John Potter, Andy Lally, and Robert Renauer scored second place.
All in all, this was an incredible way for Porsche to end out a season of fantastic results. We now look forward to a successful Daytona 24 hour, including the launch of the new 911 GT3R in the newly revamped GTD category. Enjoy the spoils of victory, but do not rest on those laurels. 2016 brings new challenges.
Dr. Frank-Steffen Walliser, Head of Porsche Motorsport -
“We wrote history today. Porsche wins Petit Le Mans for the first time, we clinch the first overall victory with a GT car at this classic, we win all three championship titles plus the GTD class – under such difficult condition you can’t get a better race result than this. Nick and Patrick drove an absolutely flawless race over the whole distance, none of our competitors managed this. The way Nick grabbed the overall lead during the last stint after a phenomenal performance…words fail me. A big thank you to our customer team Falken Tire for the fantastic collaboration over the past years.”
Marco Ujhasi, Overall Project Leader GT Works Motorsport -
“Taking overall victory at Petit Le Mans is an incredible achievement. It’s a well-earned reward for all the hard work the team has put in over the last months. We went through a difficult time after Le Mans. The way we fought our way up again is a fantastic success. And now to crown this all with overall victory is simply indescribable.”
Nick Tandy, Driver Porsche 911 RSR #911 -
"The last stint when it began to rain harder was the toughest of my career. Never before have I had to concentrate so much. It’s a shame, of course, that the race had to be stopped prematurely, but it was the right decision. It simply became too dangerous. To win the big and petit Le Mans in one year is every driver’s dream and it means a great deal to me.”
Earl Bamber, Driver Porsche 911 RSR #912 -
“Congratulations to our teammates in the number 911 car and to Porsche for this brilliant victory. It was unbelievably difficult today. Unfortunately things didn’t go very well for us today. Our start was great and I was able to move up into third place. But then I got a puncture which forced us into the pits and later earned us a stop-and-go penalty. Actually, everything that could go wrong went wrong for us today. But Porsche’s success outshines everything else.”
Frédéric Makowiecki, Driver Porsche 911 RSR #912 -
“What an incredibly tough race. Ten safety car phases and finally the red-flag is evidence of this. For us it was a day to write off, although in the beginning we were looking good. I want to congratulate my teammates on their fantastic success. After all, it’s the first time that a GT vehicle has clinched outright victory at Petit Le Mans.”