(featured image credit: John Loftis)
Gorgeous weather, gorgeous cars, great racing – what else can you ask for? The 27th season of Pirelli World Challenge racing kicked-off at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas to a large and enthusiastic crowd. The weekend was as good as you could expect and probably, in terms of attendance numbers, better than expected. The grid walk on Saturday for the GT race was, as Peter Cunningham said, “elbow to elbow”. The crowd came out and while I didn’t hear official numbers, a reliable source in the paddock said (and please don’t turn this into an argument) twice as many tickets were sold for this event than the IMSA/WEC event last year, so take that for what it’s worth, but overall it was great to see that many people there for PWC. Walking through the paddock fans were everywhere – especially those crazy GAINSCO red shirts.
The atmosphere at the track was great, but what about the stuff on the track? It was about as good as you can expect. The Touring Car races were, as usual, crazy fun. TCA looks especially intriguing as great battles between Jason Wolfe’s Kia and Elivan Goulart’s Mazda MX5 were fantastic at both rounds. This will be an extremely tight competition as Wolfe defends his TCA title.
GTS saw the return of 2013 and 2014 champ Lawson Aschenbach win race 1 in one of the lone PWC GTS spec cars left on the grid. While the car performance is down compared to many of the GT4 cars now in the grid, Aschenbach was able to use his race craft and experience to hold off the young-guns for the race 1 victory. In race 2 we saw Brett Sandberg hold off Aschenbach to grab the win in his ANSA Motorsports KTM XBow. GTS, while in a “remodeling” year will be the class to watch progress through the season as the teams and drivers get a hold on the GT4 cars. With this many new names and machines in the class expect the unexpected for the first few rounds, but also look for the racing to get more and more competitive as the season goes on.
The GT races were about as good as expected, except for one little thing (we’ll get to that later). The names on the grid are the who’s who of sports cars racing and there’s easily 12-13 guys in the GT class alone that could grab a win at any given time. Pat Long, like Ascehnbach, made some noise in his return PWC race by grabbing the race 1 win. Unfortunately he was wrecked in a turn 1 incident to start race 2 and the team will be in a fight against time to get the new 991 read for St Pete this coming weekend. As an official arm chair race director, that incident between Long and Davison was just a racing incident. There was no intent at all on Davison’s part as Long jigged right and Davison moved left. A drive through penalty was probably warranted, but I felt the stop and hold for ten seconds was a little harsh.
Speaking of the drive through penalties, race 2 had a fair share – and for the most part I’ll agree with them. Parente forcing Cooper off the track coming out of the hairpin was a justified drive through, but the one that left me scratching my head was the call on Andrew Palmer, while in second place was called in for not leaving enough room? If anything, a warning would probably suffice in that situation.
However, don’t let that put bad thoughts in your mind about the GT racing because, as a whole, it was great. The competition between Cadillac, Bentley, Porsche, McLaren, Nissan, Audi, Mercedes and Ferrari is extremely tight and will leave us sitting on the edge of our seats at each race. I was extremely impressed with Bryan Heitkotter’s weekend performances, he looked every bit as good as the rest of the GT field, but was also very impressed with GTA driver, Martin Fuentes – the lone Ferrari in the field (and older 458 Italia) was extremely fast all weekend and can compete in the top 5 overall.
Great weekend, great racing. 2016 is looking really good.