Saturday, Jun 25

Michelin Pilot Challenge Season Opens with Surging 48-Car Field

IMSA Wire Service Thursday, Jan 27 865
Michelin Pilot Challenge Season Opens with Surging 48-Car Field IMSA Wire Photo
As the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge 2022 season unfolds this week at Daytona, two questions resound: Who’s ready to seize control in a wide-open Grand Sport (GS) class? And can anyone dethrone Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian in the Touring Car (TCR) division?
 
Opening salvos to answer those questions will be launched in Friday’s BMW M Endurance Challenge, the first of 10 races on the schedule. A sizable field of 48 cars are entered for the four-hour race; 32 in GS and 16 in TCR.
 
The GS championship is up for grabs after Wright Motorsports, which won the 2021 title, opted to focus on its IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship effort this year. It hardly leaves the cupboard bare for manufacturer Porsche, however. Nine of its new Porsche 718 GT4 RS Clubsports are entered in the BMW M Endurance Challenge.
 
A Porsche topped the speed chart in all five sessions during last weekend’s Roar Before the Rolex 24 test and in qualifying on Thursday. Sebastiaan Bleekemolen turned what to date has been the fastest lap – 1 minute, 52.636 seconds (113.782 mph) in the last session of Roar testing – in the No. 540 Black Swan Racing Porsche he shares with brother Jeroen Bleekemolen and team owner Tim Pappas.
 
Pappas has been pleased with the team’s transition to the Clubsport. He and Jeroen Bleekemolen are scheduled to run the entire Michelin Pilot Challenge season, with Sebastiaan joining for the two four-hour events.
 
“Once again we’re here at Daytona with a new car and we’re just trying to learn,” Pappas said. “I would say so far, though, everything went quite well. The car’s not significantly different from last year’s car from a running standpoint. We’re just pushing as hard as we can and we’ll see what happens.”
 
PF Racing is home to three of the five Ford Mustang GT4s entered at Daytona. Two of PF Racing’s Mustangs are one-off projects for NASCAR Ford drivers Austin Cindric, Harrison Burton, Chase Briscoe and Hailie Deegan. But it’s been the full-season No. 40 Mustang with co-drivers Chad McCumbee and James Pesek that’s set the team’s pace thus far.
 
“We’ve worked on our platform with our Mustang for a year now, and we finally feel like we’re starting to make some ground and get back to where we need this Ford to be,” said McCumbee, who along with Pesek finished 18th in the GS driver standings last season. “Everybody at PF Racing and Ford have worked hard to get us to this point.”
 
Other teams and manufacturers to watch in GS this season include the two Turner Motorsport BMW M4 GT4 entries. No. 95 co-drivers Bill Auberlen and Dillon Machavern finished second in GS points last season, while No. 96 drivers Robby Foley and Vin Barletta were fourth. The No. 7 Volt Racing Aston Martin Vantage GT4 duo of Alan Brynjolfsson and Trent Hindman returns after finishing third in the 2021 standings.
 
Bryan Herta Autosport Aims for Fourth Straight TCR Crown
 
Herta’s team chases its fourth straight TCR championship with a six-car attack. Michael Lewis and Taylor Hagler are paired again, this time in the No. 1 Hyundai Elantra N TCR signifying their position as reigning champions. Lewis also won the 2019 TCR crown for BHA with Mark Wilkins, who’s teaming in the No. 33 Elantra with Robert Wickens, returning to racing for the first time since his 2018 IndyCar crash left him paralyzed. Like Michael Johnson, co-driver of the No. 54 Michael Johnson Racing with BHA Elantra, Wickens will compete using hand controls.
 
BHA had to split its drivers among four Elantras at the Roar test as the team waited on shipment of the last two new cars. Herta said the team and drivers were able to shake off the rust but admitted the Daytona International Speedway road course is not well suited for the Hyundais.
 
“Daytona is special and this is a race we’ve never won,” Herta said. “We’d definitely love to be able to be on podium or compete for a win here. This is one of the magical places that you just love being at.
 
“This isn’t one of our stronger tracks, so this is probably our toughest track every year. What it’s going to take from us is really, really great execution and a little bit of luck.”
 
Audi, on the other hand, seems to thrive at Daytona. The Audi RS3 LMS SEQs of Unitronic JDC-Miller MotorSports and Road Shagger Racing led every session at the Roar test. The No. 17 JDC-Miller Audi won last year’s Daytona race while the No. 61 Road Shagger Audi (shown above) won at Sebring International Raceway.
 
“Daytona obviously suits the Audi well and we expect to be strong in the race,” said Jon Morley, co-driver of the No. 61 Audi with Gavin Ernstone. “Now that we’ve proven we can win races in the series, we’re shifting our focus to improving our consistency this year so that we can challenge for the championship.”
 
In addition to BHA’s six Hyundai Elantras at Daytona, there will be five Audis, three Honda Civic FK7 TCRs, the Hyundai Veloster N TCR of van der Steur Racing and the No. 5 KMW Motorsports with TMR Engineering Alfa Romeo Giulietta Veloce TCR that broke through for a pair of wins last year for drivers Roy Block and Tim Lewis.
 
Davis’ Porsche, Wilkins’ Hyundai Claim Motul Pole Awards
 
By Godwin Kelly
 
 
 
 
Tyler Maxson drove the No. 77 Bryan Herta Autosport Elantra to the pole position in TCR with a lap of 2:02.766 (104.206 mph). It gave Maxson his second career Motul Pole Award and came as a surprise since the No. 77 was one of the Hyundais that didn’t arrive until after the Roar test.
 
“We didn’t get this car in time to prepare,” said Maxson, who’ll share the car with Mason Filippi in the race. “We are running a different car than in the Roar and these guys did a fabulous job, just getting the car together and making it as fast as it is. I didn’t think we’d have the outright pace for it but got the pole.”
 
Maxson’s crew gambled using slick tires for qualifying, despite the course being wet in places.
 
“We thought it would dry out enough and it was,” he said. “The course was a little damp still and it was a little tricky, but the Hyundai Elantra TCR handled amazing.”
 
Friday’s four-hour race streams live on Peacock and IMSA Radio beginning at 1:35 p.m. ET Friday.
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