Preview: Lone Star Le Mans – United SportsCar Championship


While the FIA World Endurance Championship will be taking centre stage at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas this weekend, it won’t necessarily be the star attraction from the racing fan’s point of view.

The United SportsCar Championship is officially in the business end of a hectic season, with two rounds left at COTA and Road Atlanta to round off another successful year of competition.

In fact, the competition is so close that all four of the class titles are still up for grabs, and just two points separate the top three teams in the highest Prototype category, making this one of the most significant and anticipated races of the weekend.

The VisitFlorida.com Racing Corvette DP of Michael Valiante and Richard Westbrook is currently on top of the pile with 248 points. An early string of five podium finishes made the recent fourth and fifth place results at Mosport and Road America seem particularly disappointing, but the Corvette entry has been in contention all year and will undoubtedly be one of the favourites to take victory at COTA.

A point behind is the Action Express Racing Corvette of Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi, which finished third at Lone Star Le Mans last year. Despite winning only one race (the Sebring 12 Hours) Barbosa and Fittipaldi have been on championship-winning form throughout 2015, securing second place at Road America last month. Few would bet against the reigning champions repeating their feat this year.

2015 Tudor United SportsCar Championship Elkhart Lake
Valiante and Westbrook lead the Prototype class (Credit: Michael L. Levitt, LAT/IMSA)

Third in the standings is the dark horse entry, the #31 Action Express Racing Corvette of Dane Cameron and Eric Curran. After taking what many considered to be a surprise but overdue victory in Detroit the American pair soon developed their title-winning credentials with a podium at Mosport and a second win of the year at Road America. This weekend will mark the Lone Star Le Mans debut for the partnership, although Cameron did pick up a podium finish at Austin in the Turner GTD BMW Z4 last September.

While these three entries are jostling at the sharpest end of the Prototype standings, there are several other teams that can still make an impression on the overall table heading into the final round. Reigning event winner Scott Pruett and his team-mate Joey Hand (Chip Ganassi Racing Ford Ecoboost Riley) are just 18 points adrift of the VisitFlorida.com entry, while the proven pace of the Corvette DP should allow the Wayne Taylor Racing squad to challenge for a race win.

Also look out for the Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2, which has performed admirably against the stronger DP opposition all season. The car will be shared by regular drivers Oswaldo Negri Jr and John Pew, and will sport a special livery in honour of the late Justin Wilson, who raced with the team this year at Sebring.

It would be easy to get carried away in the intimacy of the Prototype standings, and indeed there are three other classes on display that have similarly intriguing championship scenarios.

In Prototype Challenge it’s the CORE Autosport duo of Jon Bennett and Colin Braun that holds the top spot by five points ahead of the PR1/Mathiasen entry of Mike Guasch and Tom Kimber-Smith. Bennett and Braun clinched the inaugural United Sportscar PC championship at COTA last year, and will be keen to repeat that success as part of their title defence this weekend. Chris Cumming and Bruno Junqueira are a further six points adrift for RSR Racing, while Starworks Motorsport is a relatively distant fourth.

Bennett and Braun are the favourites in PC (Credit: Richard Dole, LAT/IMSA)

The GTLM class at COTA was last year dominated by Porsche, but won by the red and white Dodge Viper of Kuno Wittmer and Jonathan Bomarito. A mechanical failure on the leading Porsche cost them the race win, so expect to see both of the 911 RSRs challenging at the head of the class field in an attempt to reverse that result. The recent Balance of Performance (BoP) changes have helped Porsche to revive its championship hopes, with the #911 car of Patrick Pilet and Nick Tandy aiming for a third straight victory to extend its lead over the #3 Corvette in the standings.

While Porsche has been on a high during the second half of the season, the opposite can be said for Corvette Racing. The C7.R has struggled to match the pace of its rivals and hasn’t won a race since the Sebring 12 Hours in March. Nevertheless, the Jan Magnussen/Antonio Garcia entry is still second in the championship, but with two rounds to go a win is desperately needed if the American outfit is to have any chance of winning the title.

BMW has also suffered from the BoP adjustments and is now entering its fifth race without a win. The Z4 GTLM is coming to the end of its successful tenure, but the performance deficit to Porsche and Ferrari means that bridging the eight point gap between Bill Auberlen/Dirk Werner and the #911 car may be too much of an ask.

IMSA has made an attempt to hold back the Porsches slightly, although the effectiveness of its proposed 20kg weight adjustment ahead of Lone Star Le Mans remains to be seen.

2015 TUDOR United Sportscar Championship Elkhart Lake
BoP changes have benefited Porsche the most (Credit: Richard Dole, LAT/IMSA)

 

In GTD, Christina Nielsen is hoping that her team-mate Kuno Wittmer’s winning experience last year will help her and the TRG-AMR team to a maiden United Sportscar championship. And, on a track that has favoured Aston Martin machinery in the FIA WEC at least, this weekend poses an excellent opportunity for Nielsen to close in on the GTD crown.

However, the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari of Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler is showing that there is still plenty for Nielsen to lose in the final two rounds. The #63 458 Italia GT3 won at Virginia and has closed the gap to just six points (still the largest in any of the classes), so a win at Austin would surely shake up the championship heading into the final round.

There will be a couple of popular additions to the GTD field this weekend as Flying Lizard Motorsport returns to the United Sportscar Championship, while another Dodge Viper is added to the mix. Mike Vess and Jason Hart will share driving duties in the Lizards’ Audi R8 LMS, while Lone Star Racing has confirmed a Viper GT3 entry for Dan Knox and Marc Goosens.

Nielsen is yet to win a race but leads the GTD championship (Credit: Scott R LePage, LAT/IMSA)

This weekend’s race will run in conjunction with the FIA WEC, as well as the usual USCC support championships: the Continental Tire Sportscar Challenge, Lamborghini Super Trofeo and Porsche GT3 Cup USA.

The Lone Star Le Mans race will last for 2 hours 40 minutes. The green flag will wave on Saturday, September 19 at 12:35 PM local.

Lone Star Le Mans Factfile

Circuit name: Circuit of the Americas
Circuit length: 3.42 miles
Corners: 20
Completed in: 2012
2014 class winners:
P – Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas, Chip Ganassi Racing Ford Ecoboost/Riley
PC – Luis Diaz and Shaun Rayhall, 8 Star Motorsports ORECA FLM09
GTLM – Jonathan Bomarito and Kuno Wittmer, SRT Motorsports Dodge Viper SRT
GTD – Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating, Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper SRT
2014 No. of race leaders: 4
2015 No. of entries: 38

The Checkered Flag will provide continuous updates and session reports during and after the Lone Star Le Mans race weekend.