Sunday, July 14, 2024

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Why IMSA GTP's debut in downtown Detroit was divisive amongst drivers

Thanks to the vision of Roger Penske and the Downtown Detroit Partnership, the event – which was a Formula One round from 1982 to 1988 – returned last yr because the flagship round of the IndyCar Series within the shadow of the imposing General Motors towers on the Renaissance Center, which forms its global headquarters – a minimum of for now.

The streets of Detroit aren’t any stranger to sports cars either, with Trans-Am (which supported F1 within the mid-Nineteen Eighties and IndyCar from 1989 to 1991) and the American Le Mans Series (within the late 2000s) having graced previous events.

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After racing at Detroit's other temporary track at nearby Belle Isle Park from 2007 to 2022, IMSA's premier series made its debut this weekend on the tight downtown track after the second-tier Pilot Challenge series was the guinea pig for its revival last yr.

This race is best remembered for a wild accident during which Robert Megennis' BMW hit Rory van der Steur's Aston Martin on the third corner and jumped excessive. You could understand why IMSA teams didn't wish to risk their prized LMDh cars within the inaugural GTP season with an electrical hybrid system, in addition to their GTD cars – especially with a few of them weeks ahead of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

So it was no surprise that this yr's 100-minute event was interrupted five times by track-wide warnings for accidents or debris.

After a sometimes chaotic race, response was mixed to say the least.

For example, Porsche's Felipe Nasr, who made a superb comeback to complete fourth after his 963 was hit by one other automotive on the yellow track and had to alter a tire, muttered: “This race offered all the pieces a motor racing fan could wish for . It was an enormous challenge for us drivers.”

However, Richard Westbrook, whose JDC-Miller 963 went right into a track-blocking spin, complained: “Honestly, the track just isn’t suitable for racing top-class GTP prototypes. It was like being in a automotive bumper. The damage to the vehicles worsened from lap to lap.

“It was unacceptable – simply unacceptable. I discovered this frustrating. I actually have very fond memories of the times once we competed on beautiful Belle Isle in Detroit.

#85 JDC/Miller MotorSports Porsche 963: Tijmen van der Helm, Richard Westbrook

#85 JDC/Miller MotorSports Porsche 963: Tijmen van der Helm, Richard Westbrook

Photo: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport images

Detroit joins Long Beach because the second street circuit on the 11-round IMSA schedule, and the long-standing nature of the California facility means its suitability is unquestionable. Complaints concerning the Detroit layout centered on the bumpy surface, tight layout and agile corners, although the GTP cars reached speeds of 185 mph on the long straight leading into Turn 3 – which a minimum of allowed them to simply lap the GTD Pro class cars at an overspeed of around 35 miles for an hour.

“I'm honestly driving better than I expected,” pole-sitter Nick Tandy of the Porsche works team told Motorsport.com after practice. “Since our cars are quite large physically, they’re quite large vehicles by way of dimensions for a racing automotive.

“We were slightly apprehensive about how they’d handle all of the tight sections here, however it's actually not that bad. Although the track is brief, the track feels fast, these cars speed up much faster in first and second gear than in fourth and fifth gear after exiting the corner.

“So you consistently feel this huge acceleration that you simply don't really find anywhere else. Even in Long Beach there's quite a bit more second and third gear stuff, but here almost in every single place, every corner, is first gear for us. So it seems fast enough and the tight sections are quite easy to barter in our big GTP cars.

“Of course, the road situation is completely different, but when you're driving off-road by yourself, it's quite a lot of fun.”

#6 Porsche Penske Motorsports, Porsche 963, GTP: Mathieu Jaminet, Nick Tandy

#6 Porsche Penske Motorsports, Porsche 963, GTP: Mathieu Jaminet, Nick Tandy

Photo: Richard Dole / Motorsport images

The GTD Pro class made up the opposite half of the sector and it too produced some crazy moments because the race was finally decided when Corvette's Nicky Catsburg and Ben Barnicoat's Lexus collided at turn three, allowing the AO Racing Porsche 911 of Seb Priaulx and Laurin Heinrich to take the win.

“I found it quite exciting,” Heinrich said. “I raced on the Norisring within the DTM, which only has 4 corners, and I raced in Monaco within the Porsche Supercup, which is definitely much closer to that track.

“I think racing for two years in Monaco prepared me really well for this track, it's quite bumpy, you're running against the wall everywhere.”

Priaulx added: “I'm not a track designer, but they're a bit tight. We won, so it doesn't really matter what the track is!”

Another dimension to IMSA pairs street racing is that Long Beach is Acura's home race – it’s the title sponsor because its U.S. headquarters is in nearby Torrance – while Detroit is essentially Cadillac territory.

#10 Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Acura ARX-06: Ricky Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque

#10 Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Acura ARX-06: Ricky Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque

Photo: Brett Farmer / Motorsport images

The irony of Caddy victories in Long Beach and Acura victories in Detroit was not lost on race winner Felipe Albuquerque as Motorsport.com noted after the race: “I considered that! Last yr we actually desired to win at Long Beach because Acura was missing that and things weren't going our way.

“It's type of ironic to return to Cadillac's house and win under their towers. We have these beautiful trophies, so it appears like we're taking home a Cadillac! In racing, nothing is what you expect, you exit on the sector and all the pieces happens – nothing is predictable.

The No. 10 Acura he shared with Ricky Taylor is the fifth different GTP winner in as many races this season. Not bad for less than 10 entries!

Taylor, who agreed with Tandy that the track was fun to ride regardless that it’s so narrow, noted that the promotion and volunteers who placed on the event were “spectacular” and “made a difference from anywhere else to which we went.”

#10 Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti, Acura ARX-06, GTP: Ricky Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque

#10 Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti, Acura ARX-06, GTP: Ricky Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque

Photo: Richard Dole / Motorsport images

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Taylor's final comment cuts to the guts of this event – like Long Beach, Detroit is primarily a promotional vehicle for IMSA manufacturers. They race to sell road cars, not only for the sake of racing.

Sure, the bumps on the long straight that almost sent Pato O'Ward's Arrow McLaren IndyCar into orbit in the course of the warm-up should be grounded. Albuquerque is true that Turns 6 and seven may gain advantage from a resurfacing to make it easier to drive and reduce power without the chance of maneuvering.

“I actually think Monaco is smoother now than any track in America,” he joked. “So I believe we are able to discover a middle ground.

“I respect the bumps and the characteristics, but if some places could be improved, I think it could be a little better.”

As an event, that is an absolute must-have in your schedule. As a racetrack, it will be great if organizers could make just a few tweaks and ask town to spend just a few dollars on resurfacing work before next yr.

But between brutal winters and muggy, hot summers, traveling around Detroit won’t ever be smooth…

Additional reporting by Joey Barnes

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