If you asked drivers from the top four GT Daytona (GTD) teams in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings about the championship battle, they agree on several things. No one can be counted out. No one has a guarantee in. And the title will most likely be decided come November – in the closing laps of the classic Motul Petit Le Mans’ 10-hour season finale at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.
There is no shortage of confidence or optimism among the championship leaders, however, the 2021 season has proven there’s no prohibitive favorite. Yet.
“It is a tight battle, there’s no question about it,’’ said Bryan Sellers, who drives for the Paul Miller Racing team.
“The one thing about GTD this year is you’ve really seen a depth of competition and a lot of good teams, a lot of good drivers and a lot of people fighting for wins on a week-in, week-out basis.’’
Robby Foley, whose Turner Motorsport team currently leads the standings, agrees.
“I’m not surprised at all. I think we’ve seen this through the years,” Foley said. “There’s probably seven teams with cars on any given weekend that have a chance to win.”
The No. 96 Turner BMW M6 GT3 with drivers Foley and veteran Bill Auberlen leads the standings by 27 points over No. 9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R drivers Laurens Vanthoor and Zach Robichon. The No. 23 Heart of Racing Team Aston Martin Vantage GT3’s Ross Gunn and Roman De Angelis are third, 52 points off the lead. Sellers and Madison Snow, in the No. 1 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 are 86 points back.
The four teams go into this week’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach within the 90-point range available at a single race between first- and fifth-place finishers. Only two races remain after Long Beach to settle the season trophy: the Oct. 9 Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway and the Nov. 13 season finale Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.
The GTD class has not competed at this week’s Long Beach street circuit since 2017. However, Vanthoor did race at Long Beach the last time IMSA competed there in 2019 – winning the GT Le Mans class (GTLM) with the Porsche factory team.
Vanthoor and his Pfaff Motorsports group look to be the team to beat this weekend. They have won a class-best three races in 2021 and take a two-race winning streak into Long Beach.
“It is a young team but a very family atmosphere,’’ Vanthoor said. “There is a lot of respect for the drivers and the team is very driven to be successful. The Porsche 911 GT3 R has proven to be successful all around on all tracks. We have it all in our hands to win this, and my confidence in us achieving that is quite high.’’
Auberlen joins Vanthoor as a former Long Beach winner, co-driving to victories in 2013 (GT class) and ’15 (GTLM). His teammate isn’t sure what to expect at Long Beach since it’s been four years since GTD last raced there.
“Long Beach is a bit of an unknown,’’ Foley said. “It’s unknown for a lot of people because the series hasn’t been there in a while, and I personally have never driven there. Last time Bill (Auberlen) was racing there, he got the pole position and he has wins there, so hopefully we can use some of that experience.”
The Paul Miller Racing team may not have victories this season, but the fact that they remain in the title hunt gives the drivers optimism heading into Long Beach.
“If you look at it right now, we’re up against three teams – one that has three wins and two that have two wins and we haven’t even got one yet,” Sellers said. “It’s almost impossible to believe that you’re going to be in a championship hunt without any wins at all, so that becomes our main focus, trying to make sure we put ourselves in position to win races and if we can do that for the final three, then maybe in the last one we’ll be in position to chase for that championship.’’
There are a couple things all the drivers agree upon, one being that this tight championship battle makes the racing fun. Close competition with a handful of favorites at every race raises the level of intensity and gives each trophy extra meaning.
“It is fun,’’ Sellers conceded. “You do this to be the best and when you’re up against competition like this and you’re in the thick of the battle, if you can find a way to make this championship happen, then you prove you are in elite company.”
And outside of one team going on a run in the coming weeks, the other solid bet among drivers is that ultimately the season title will go down to the wire.
“I think, for sure, the championship will come down to the last race and probably the checkered flag of the last race,’’ Foley said. “The cars have been strong all season. You can look back and say, if we didn’t have a problem at Sebring or had different luck elsewhere, we’d have an easy lead. But you could say that for the top three or four cars.
“So I think it’s going to come down to the last lap of the last race. It’s going to be intense for sure, and Petit Le Mans will be pretty stressful. You have to make it 10 hours just to be there at the end so it will be all about being there at the end.’’
The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach airs live at 5 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN. Tickets for the race weekend are available at gplb.com