sports 34 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY May 9-15, 2024 www.montereycountynow.com The twisting 2.23-mile layout of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca is the same. But as the top sports car drivers in the world prepare for this weekend’s Motul Course de Monterey, May 10-12, they expect everything else to be very different. “It’s going into the unknown a bit,” says Richard Westbrook, who pilots the no. 85 JDC-Miller Trofi Pack Porsche 963 in the GTP class. Days after the checkered flag fell on the 2023 IMSA Sportscar Championship race, the storied track was resurfaced, a project that had been long-delayed and left Laguna Seca with a reputation for being wild and unruly—a driver’s track. So for the 2024 edition of IMSA race weekend, the teams must deal with uncertainty. Testing earlier this year revealed two things, however. The grip level of tires had increased dramatically. As a result, cars in the multiclass field were up to 3 seconds quicker per lap compared to a year ago. “More grip—that’s more fun,” observes Renger van der Zande, driver of the no. 01 Cadillac Racing V-Series R and GTP class winner a year ago with co-driver Sebastian Bourdais. But testing can only provide so much information. Westbrook recalls a session leading up to the race at Watkins Glen when the team thought it had the car sorted out. On race day, however, the car refused to cooperate. Even van der Zande hedges his thoughts. “We’ll see how the racing plays out,” he says. A field of 34 cars in three classes are entered for the annual fracas that is IMSA sportscar racing. The prototypes of the GTP class are technological marvels, using advanced hybrid powertrains that store kinetic energy—not to boost power, as in other racing series, but to reduce fuel consumption while maintaining track-blistering power. The cars designed by Acura, BMW, Cadillac and Porsche are also sculpted for aerodynamic performance. The other two classes represented at Laguna Seca are GTD Pro and GTD. Essentially the cars are the same— performance versions of street model sportscars from the likes of Chevrolet, Lexus and Mercedes AMG to more exotic marques like Ferrari and Lamborghini. The distinction is in the experience level of the drivers. All classes compete at the same time over the course of a 2:40-minute timed event. Each driver on the team must turn laps during the race. On the surface, it would appear that van der Zande and Bourdais are favorites to win. After all, they arrive at Laguna Seca as defending race champions and took the checkered flag in the series’ previous 2024 outing at Long Beach. “We’ve had a pretty strong start to the season,” Bourdais says. “Renger put on a clinic last year.” But the no. 7 Penske Porsche 963 of Felipe Nasr and Dane Cameron leads the class in points, having claimed a podium finish in each of the three races so far this season. Ricky Taylor and Filipe Albuquerque teamed for wins in 2021 and 2022 in the no. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing-Andretti Acura. And Westbrook, who shares driving duties with Tijmen van der Helm, believes they may put up a challenge. “I think we’ve done a really good job with the car, but we haven’t been able to show it,” he observes. “We just have to hope lady luck changes.” One concern for the faster GTP lineup is traffic as they catch and then try to pick their way through the GTD cars. “When cornering speeds increase, traffic has a bigger effect,” Bourdais explains. With all cars able to exit corners quicker thanks to increased grip, drivers expect passing to prove more difficult. “You have to push the risk factor, but you don’t want to overdo it.” “It’s going to be a whole new can of worms,” agrees Robby Foley, who teams with Patrick Gallagher in the GTD class no. 557 Turner Motorsports BMW M4 GT3. On the old surface, track position was key to a successful race, because the worn asphalt tore up tires. This year, however, tire wear is not expected to be an issue. “It will be difficult to overtake,” Foley says. “This opens up strategy options.” That’s another consensus among teams. The high-speed chess decisions on when to pit, whether to stretch fuel and other mental equations may play more of a role in determining the outcome than passing on the track. “Right now it’s a little bit of a question mark,” adds Mario Farnbacher. “In the end, you have to figure it out for yourself.” Farnbacher drives in GTD Pro with Ross Gun, and their no. 23 Heart of Racing Aston Martin Vantage GT3 Evo has a purpose both on and off the track. All prize money earned by the team each race is donated toward cardiology research at Seattle Children’s Hospital, amounting to more than $10 million over the years. “It’s great to know you drive for a good cause and that each lap counts,” Farnbacher says. Heart of Racing entered two cars in the race, the second a GTD ride piloted by Roman de Angelis and Spencer Pumpelly. Until the green flag waves on Sunday, only the pre-race storylines— and the ferocious grip and wicked speed—are certainties. And, of course, the new track surface laid over the well-known corners of an iconic track. “The layout is tricky,” van der Zande says, noting the one universal in racing at Laguna Seca. “The Corkscrew—I’ve had my moments there.” Motul Course de Monterey Powered by Hyundai N rolls at 12:10pm Sunday, May 12. Practice begins Friday, May 10. Qualifying takes place on Saturday. Other race series competing throughout the weekend are the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, Lamborghini Super Trofeo and the Mazda MX-5 Cup. $20-$145; free/youth 15 and under with paying adult. 242-8200, weathertechraceway.com. Track Days With a new surface, venerable old Laguna Seca presents unknowns to IMSA drivers. By Dave Faries Above: The GTD Pro car of Bill Auberlin and Chandler Hull leads a pack of cars on the way to a second place class finish in 2023. Below: Fans gather by the Corkscrew to take in the action during last year’s race. celia jiménez celia jiménez