Vasser Sullivan, Winward take GT victories at Road America

Vasser Sullivan, Winward take GT victories at Road America

Pfaff Motorsports appeared to make the call of the race among the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GTD PRO contenders, bringing Mathieu Jaminet in just before a full-course yellow came out with 54m left in the 2h40 minute IMSA SportsCar Weekend at Road America.

Putting left-side tires on the No. 9 Porsche and giving it a load of fuel, Jaminet would have no trouble making it to the end. Unfortunately, the Vasser Sullivan team made a better call, going the final 31 laps of the 61 they completed without stopping and taking the first GTD PRO win for Ben Barnicoat and Jack Hawksworth.

The two cars had been locked in battle all race long after Hawksworth started the No. 14 Lexus RC F GT3 on pole, with Matt Campbell in pursuit. They would take their turns at the lead, especially during the second stint on wet tires, the track now fully damp after light rain that had started on the pace laps got heavier.

“I made a small mistake and allowed them track position in the lead,” said Barnicoat. “Then I got him back on the restart on the slicks. And then I got hit by (LMP2 driver Juan Pablo) Montoya and he got me back. So it was crazy. One of the craziest races I’ve been in but we have a great team. They gave me everything I needed and we got the win.”

Jaminet got to the front when Ben Barnicoat took the Lexus too deep into Turn 5. But Barnicoat took it back later, and that was when Pfaff rolled the dice, bringing Jaminet in with 54 minutes left. But neither Barnicoat nor Antonio Garcia in the No. 3 Corvette pitted. While Jaminet would be able to get by Garcia, he could never launch a full attack on Barnicoat.

“Fortunately for us this year, sometimes we had luck,” said Jaminet. “Today I think we didn’t have so much luck with the yellows and in the end the Lexus could make it to the end — they were lucky. The Lexus seems to have a little bit more, especially on the last restarts and then they started to pick up pace on the straights — definitely an edge on us on straight-line speed, which wasn’t the case early on in race. The left-side tires didn’t really work for us at best. So I was pushing to try to pass him again but just couldn’t make it. They were really fast even though they didn’t change tires. They just they just completely gambled on another yellow at the end — and they got it.”

Had it not been for that yellow, the outcome may have been different.

“It was a concern about fuel the moment we put the slick tires on,” explained Barnicoat. “I was given a fuel number that my response to was, ‘Probably there’s no way.’ But I was fuel saving from as soon as I got in the in the lead and that paid off dividends. It was super, super tight. If it had been green all the way to the end we would have maybe done it, but it was extreme. I was saving probably 20, 30 percent fuel a lap, which is a huge ask. But when everyone else is kind of in the same boat, it helps because everyone’s on the same lift-and-coast.

“(Pfaff) did make a good call and when I saw the 9 car in third on the restart, and I had old tires, and was still hitting a fuel number, I thought, ‘This is going to be tough.’ But I guess I ruined their day and got our first win.”

With closest championship rivals Garcia and Jordan Taylor in the Corvette finishing third behind them, the second-place finish didn’t hurt Pfaff in the championship hunt, and they extended their healthy lead a bit going into the GT-only round at Virginia International Raceway in three weeks.

A perfect tactical run for Winward Racing’s Mercedes-AMG GT3, driven by Russell Ward and Philip Ellis, to win GTD. Brett Farmer / LAT Images

Going the final 31 laps on a single load of fuel proved to be the winning strategy in GTD as well. Both Philip Ellis in the No. 57 Winward Racing Mercedes AMG and Bill Auberlen in the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M4 GT3 bypassed the pits when most everyone else stopped during what turned out to be the penultimate caution of the race. When the restart came, Auberlen led Ellis, but Ellis had the pace to keep on the BMW’s tail and eventually attack for the lead.

Ellis went inside Auberlen at Turn 5, and with a bit of contact, was through to P1. Any chance Auberlen had to come back was lost when Aaron Telitz in the No. 12 Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F made contact with the No. 96 while attempting to pass and sent the BMW off track. That left Ellis in command, and he cruised to victory for himself and Russell Ward, aided by the final caution for Jarvis’s incident in the Kink.

“I think without the last safety car it would have been too close. We kind of gambled on it a little bit and in the end, that’s what saved us the win,” said Ellis.

The win ended a drought for Winward, which last saw victory circle at the 2021 Rolex 24 At Daytona. The team has come agonizingly close to victory on several occasions this year, but lost an apparent win in the Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen due to drive time violations, and was leading at Lime Rock when a fuel pump gave up in the final corner of the last lap.

“It feels great. We’ve always been there, especially the second half of the season. And now finally, nothing happened to us, which is super nice. We actually were communicating on the radio that we wouldn’t celebrate during the safety car, we would celebrate at the line. And that’s what we did. So I guess we will celebrate more tonight,” noted Ellis.

Jeff Westphal and Robert Megennis were second in the No. 39 CarBahn with Peregrine Racing Lamborghini Huracán, which has shown good pace all weekend. The No. 12 Lexus of Telitz and Montecalvo, which has also had its share of bad luck this season, finished third.

The top three championship contenders finished sixth, seventh and eighth, in inverted order from their pre-race championship position. Roman de Angelis and Maxime Martin were sixth in the No. 27 Heart of Racing Aston Martin Vantage, just ahead of Jan Heylen and Ryan Hardwick in the No. 16 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R. Martin and de Angelis had been 21 points ahead of Heylen and Hardwick, who in turn came into the weekend 40 points shy of Stevan McAleer, who finished eighth with Mike Skeen in the No. 32 Team Korthoff Motorsports Mercedes-AMG. McAleer — Skeen missed a race and isn’t in the championship hunt — maintains a slim lead, but the three teams go into the final two races in a virtual dead heat.