The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship made a successful return to the streets of Long Beach on a postcard-perfect Southern California afternoon. The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach played out before a packed house for the 46th edition of the classic event.
Cadillac continued its domination of the tight circuit in the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class, with Pipo Derani and Felipe Nasr (No. 31 Whelen Engineering/Action Express Racing) claiming the overall victory Saturday, but there were surprises sprinkled throughout the GT Le Mans (GTLM) and GT Daytona (GTD) categories.
As the 2021 season rushes toward a close, the DPi and GTD championship battles tightened considerably at Long Beach. Both GT categories have two races remaining on the slate, starting with the Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway on Oct. 9. WeatherTech Championship competitors in all five classes then will wrap up the campaign with the Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta set for Nov. 13.
Here are three takeaways from a sun-splashed weekend at Long Beach:
Forrest Gump Theory: A WeatherTech Championship street race is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. Heading into the Long Beach weekend, plenty predicted a messy race, but the racing has actually gotten progressively cleaner in recent years.
The 2017 contest featured five full-course cautions, causing 24 of the 55 laps to be run behind the safety car. The 2018 and ’19 races were each twice slowed by cautions, as the lap count over 100 minutes increased to 65 and 73, respectively.
This year’s Long Beach race included just one safety car period lasting only four laps, when Kevin Magnussen slapped the tire barrier in the No. 01 V Racing Academy Cadillac DPi-V.R and spread debris on the track. Other than some typical street-course bumping and banging and a late spin by Olivier Pla in the No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian Acura ARX-05 DPi, the drivers put on a remarkable display of precision driving through a concrete canyon.
The closest threat to a second full-course caution came when Robby Foley nosed the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 into a tire wall (more on that later). But like Pla, he was able to continue without disrupting the flow of the race.
Bryan Sellers, who shared the GTD-winning No. 1 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 with Madison Snow, commented on the level of courtesy demonstrated throughout the field.
“Luckily today, the traffic flow was pretty clean,” Sellers said. “A lot of the prototype guys, this is a tough place for them to race with us because we slow them down pretty heavily in a lot of places. Most of them were pretty generous with us today, which was why you saw so much green-flag racing.”
Championships tighten: Saturday’s results had a considerable impact on two of the WeatherTech Championship class battles.
The overall victory for Nasr and Derani, combined with a fourth-place finish for Ricky Taylor and Filipe Albuquerque (No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura), slashed the No. 10’s advantage from 98 to 19 points with just one race remaining in the DPi season, essentially meaning that whoever finishes ahead in the 10-hour Motul Petit Le Mans endurance contest will be crowned champions.
“We still have the points lead going into Petit Le Mans, which is always nice, but the pressure is on,” said Taylor. “Basically, whoever wins will be the champions. To win the title on a last-race shootout would be pretty cool.”
There was a major point swing for the incoming GTD leaders Saturday. Foley’s incident when he was racing with the No. 39 CarBahn with Peregrine Racing Audi R8 LMS GT3 relegated him and co-driver Bill Auberlen to a 16th-place class finish.
Having arrived at Long Beach as the GTD championship frontrunners, Auberlen and Foley now lie fourth in the standings, 150 points back. Foley and Auberlen scored just 178 points at Long Beach, while Sellers and Snow pulled down 382 to move up to second in the standings. Laurens Vanthoor and Zacharie Robichon, who finished second at Long Beach in the No. 9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3R, are now on top, 32 points ahead of Sellers and Snow.
The good news for the BMW duo is that the GT classes have two more races on the 2021 calendar to try and recover.
Fans Make the Difference: The last Long Beach race was staged in April 2019, and there were worries that this year’s event might be adversely impacted, not only by missing last year but from stringent state and local regulations currently enforced in light of the COVID-19 resurgence.
Race officials were therefore pleased to confirm that attendance levels this year were close to those achieved in 2019 and above projections. The enthusiastic Southern California crowd added their own flavor to the event, as usual.
“I love this place and I’ve got to say thanks to the fans,” race winner Nasr said. “What a great vibe they bring to racing. It’s just awesome to get a win on the streets of Long Beach.”