IMSA Wire – What to Watch For: Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach

By David Phillips

IMSA Wire Service

At 100 minutes long, the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is many hours shorter than the brace of endurance events that kicked off the 2024 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. But whatever it lacks in length, the event makes up in importance to IMSA’s dozen participating marques and tens of thousands of sports car racing fans given its location amid Southern California’s car culture and automotive industry. What’s more, the iconic 11-turn, 1.968-street circuit promises – and usually delivers – an action-packed sports car race from start to finish.

Qualifying Is Key

Although the prestige and championship points on offer in qualifying are every bit as important as in the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Cadillac, the track position afforded by a strong qualifying performance is vastly more important at Long Beach than at the opening rounds of the season. Not only is overtaking much more difficult on the street circuit than on the comparatively wide-open spaces of Daytona International Speedway or Sebring International Raceway, there’s also far less time to take care of business.

At Sebring, for example, owing to a technical infraction that voided its qualifying time, the winning Grand Touring Daytona (GTD) No. 57 Winward Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 started from the back of the class grid and didn’t take the lead until the checkered flag would have waved at Long Beach. Thus, Friday’s qualifying session figures to be of critical importance in determining the outcome of Saturday’s race.

Equally, drivers and their pit crews need clean performances during “sprint” events such as the Long Beach GP. Penalized infractions on the track and in the pit lane are virtually certain to “put paid” to a team’s hopes for a strong finish. At Sebring, for example, it took the No. 14 Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 the better part of 10 hours to regain the GTD PRO lead after an early penalty for (lightly) striking a crew member during the first round of pit stops. Should a similar situation arise at Long Beach, there would be nowhere near enough time to recover from the penalty.

Qualifying Schm-alifying

Paradoxically, starting position proved to be of little consequence at Long Beach last year to the No. 6 Porsche Penske Motorsport Porsche 963, which looks to successfully defend its 2023 overall and Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class victory this weekend. After all, Nick Tandy qualified the No. 6 Porsche a full 1.5 seconds behind the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Acura ARX-06 of pole winner Filipe Albuquerque, only good enough for sixth on the grid.

And while the Porsche improved its position during the course of the race, it appeared doomed to finish no better than second behind the No. 10 Acura until a “Hail Mary” strategy put Tandy’s co-driver Mathieu Jaminet in position to win the race.

Given the fact that Michelin’s tires designed for double stinting required a bit longer to come up to temperature, all of the GTP competitors changed tires during their scheduled pit stops – all but the No. 6 Porsche and its No. 7 sister car. Eschewing the 10 to 12 seconds that would have been spent fitting new rubber during their stop, the No. 6 Porsche emerged from the round of stops in the lead with the No. 7 in second.

While Ricky Taylor used his new Michelins to great effect in catching and passing the No. 7 Porsche, he only had time enough to put the nose of the No. 10 Acura to the tail of the No. 6 Porsche for the final 10 laps. When Taylor’s bold attempt to overtake the lead Porsche in Turn 1 came cropper, Jaminet was free to steer the No. 6 Porsche to the win, from sixth place on the grid.

Will such a strategy play out again in GTP or, for that matter, GTD, which is running on new Michelin rubber this year? Much depends on if and when full-course yellows occur. Had there been a full-course yellow in the final five laps last year, for instance, Taylor would likely have used the superior grip of his newer Michelins to overtake Jaminet. Or had there been a caution around the time of the pit stops, the time the Porsches saved by skipping the tire change would have been largely negated when the pack formed up behind the pace car for the restart.

Wild Cards

The Long Beach field will feature a couple of wild cards: drivers and/or cars that are not running the full schedule but who have every chance to win on Saturday. On the GTP front, 24 Hours of Le Mans and Rolex 24 winner Mike Rockenfeller is set to make a cameo appearance in the No. 5 Proton Competition Mustang Sampling Porsche 963 together with Proton regular Gianmaria Bruni.

After a partial ’23 WeatherTech Championship schedule in the JDC-Miller MotorSports Porsche 963, Rockenfeller joined Ford Multimatic Motorsports this season as part of its factory GTD PRO program with the Ford Mustang GT3. Given that Long Beach is not on the GTD PRO calendar, Rockenfeller is available for a GTP one-off with Proton.

Meanwhile, with an eye firmly fixed on bettering the chances of capturing a GTD title for Lexus, Vasser Sullivan is entering a second car at Long Beach, namely the No. 89 Lexus RC F GT3 that normally competes in GTD PRO as the No. 14 Vasser Sullivan entry. In order to meet the GTD driver requirements of one pro and one amateur per car, GTD PRO drivers Jack Hawksworth and Ben Barnicoat will split up at Long Beach, with Hawksworth joining Frankie Montecalvo in the latter’s familiar No. 12 Lexus. In turn, Montecalvo’s regular GTD running mate, Parker Thompson, will be paired with Barnicoat in the latter’s familiar Lexus, albeit with different numerals on its flanks.

Additionally, Long Beach sees the welcome return of the Lizards, namely the Flying Lizard Motorsports team that won no fewer than six IMSA championships, 69 podiums and 25 race wins (including two at Long Beach) over 11 full-season and two partial-season efforts between 2004 and 2016. The Lizards have since enjoyed considerable success in the SRO America and Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America series.

While much of the Flying Lizards’ IMSA success came in Porsches, Long Beach will see the team field the No. 28 Aston Martin Vantage EVO GT3 for drivers Elias Sabo and Andy Lee. Although this is a one-off appearance for the Flying Lizards (at least for now), there is every reason to believe they will be competitive at Long Beach on their return to GTD.

Regardless which of the 17 cars entered takes the GTD class win at Long Beach, one thing is for sure: Saturday will see the three-race win streak come to an end for Paul Miller Racing and drivers Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow, given that they are running for GTD PRO honors in their No. 01 BMW M4 GT3 this season. Thus, will Turner Motorsport fly the BMW flag alone in GTD this weekend with Robby Foley and Patrick Gallagher piloting the No. 96 BMW.

Will Porsche Penske Motorsport stage a repeat of its 2023 success? Who will assume the mantle of GTD Kings of Long Beach? Catch all the action on the Peacock and USA Network on Friday and Saturday.