A Whole New Ballgame

A Whole New Ballgame

RACER Magazine, September 2019

Blancpain GT World Challenge America’s 90-minute SprintX format has teams coming to grips with key decisions on strategy.

There’s not much for the team on the pit wall to think about in a 50-minute sprint race. The game plan is pretty much get the best start you can and hammer for a little less than an hour, making sure you have some tire left at the end. Add 10 minutes, and a one-hour, two-driver race opens up some room to plan and react to what others are doing. But Blancpain GT World Challenge’s unique new 90-minute format opens up another layer of possibilities that didn’t exist before.

As the series has moved from sprint races to a mix of sprint and 60-minute SprintX events to it’s consistent, all-90-minute program – unique among SRO’s GT World Challenge series around the world – teams are figuring out where, within a tiny 10-minute pit stop window in the middle of the race, there is room to gain an advantage. Throw in a much shorter pit stop delta than in previous years, add in tire strategy and degradation, and it’s a whole-new ballgame.

“I think it’s spot on,” says Toni Vilander, the 2018 overall GT champion who shares the No. 61 R. Ferri Motorsports Ferrari 488 GT3 with Miguel Molina. “You spend enough time in the car so you feel the good tires in the beginning, you feel the drop in the end. You need to manage that, you need to manage some traffic, the pit crew needs to be really alert with the timing of the pit stop. Some tracks are tricky with the cold tires on the out lap, so you want to overcut or undercut. Some tracks there is less tire drop; others like Sonoma you wonder how you’re going to survive the 45 minutes.”

K-PAX Bentley driver Alvaro Parente, who has seen the series move from an all-sprint format to its current state has similar thoughts: “I like the format. It’s more challenging. You are not in the comfort zone, you’re driving a bit more. For the gentleman drivers it’s good, you know? There’s more minutes in the car and you’ve got to manage the tires a bit more. With the pit stops, there’s more of the team getting involved and if you have a really good team in that department you’ll get better results. I think it’s been quite interesting.”

And it’s consistent. It’s not sprint race at this track and SprintX at another. That makes things easier to understand for fans, whether casual or diehard.

“I like the stability,” explains Patrick Long, driver of the No. 58 Wright Motorsports/Porsche Consulting 911 GT3R with Scott Hargrove. “I think for the fans, in order to follow and embrace something, it has to be digestible. For the teams, the main factor, in my opinion, is the sustainability. The costs of this sport are growing. I think fewer race weekends with a little longer race is more sustainable.”

The drivers seem to like it, but how does it impact the racing? The first part is the shorter pit delta – in prior season the teams had plenty of time to swap drivers and tires, and the cars were often sitting in pit lane for a few seconds before being released. That luxury of time no longer exists. There is still a minimum pit time, but it’s much closer to the actual time that a reasonably practiced team takes to change drivers, refuel and swap tires.

The second is the tires themselves. Series rules require that for practice, the teams use carryover the Pirelli tires from the previous weekend. That means that, assuming they did not do a paid test day prior to the event, that they are practicing and setting up the car on well-worn tires that have at least 40 minutes of racing on them. The first official session where the drivers experience the car on fresh rubber is qualifying. Most teams will qualify both drivers – each driver gets his or her own qualifying session to determine grid position in the race in which that driver will start – on fresh rubber. So at that point, the the team is going into the two 90-minute races with two sets of scrubbed and heat-cycled tires and two sets of fresh tires. How they use them is to their discretion, and it’s another element of strategy.

“You have the option to pick from those,” explains Enrico Diano, team manager for R. Ferri Motorsports. “I don’t want to reveal anything about how we typically do things, but managing those two new sets and those two used sets throughout the weekend, and kind of guessing a little, inferring a little as to what your competition is going to do, then consider where you’re starting in the race, and make your decision on how to use the used and the new sets for the two races.”

The other factor is when to come into the pits. The window is only 10 minutes, smack dab in the middle of the race. Barring the presence of a full course caution interfering, the pit window opens at the 40-minute mark and closes at 50 minutes. One factor is driver performance, especially in the Pro-Am classes where the lap time delta between drivers could be significant.

“Typically, depending on the level of your Pro and the event – tire degradation, wear – you usually want to do the minimum time to your Am vs. your Pro if there’s a good-size delta,” says Bob Viglione, engineer for Wright Motorsports which runs both the Pro effort for Hargrove and Long and the Pro-Am car for Anthony Imperato and Matt Campbell. “We’re fortunate to have a very good Am driver so we’re flexible, On the low degradation tracks, we can undercut a little bit to the guys that have a slower Am. The rule of thumb is you’re looking to minimize your Am time because there’s  usually a second-and-a-half delta Pro to Am.”

Everything changes when it’s a high degradation track. Sonoma Raceway in June was the first hot race of the year and it can be a tough track on tires to begin with. That race was one of the first real tests of high tire degradation this season with the longer races. In that case, if the quicker driver starts, leaving him or her out in the first stint may not pay dividends.

“You might be inclined to eke out another few ‘quick’ laps, but the reality is that there’s some tire degradation and so by the end of the stint, the lap times have fallen off quite a bit,” explains Andris Laivins of Gradient Motorsports, which runs the Pro-Am Acura NSX for Am driver Till Bechtolsheimer. “So you’re not out there making significant gains and, ultimately, if anyone pits early and gets on new tires sooner and gets them up to temperature, you’re still on old tires and going to be a little bit of a sitting duck as far as track position goes. You don’t want to be the guy running around on old tires when everybody else is on new.”

The questions to be answered in formulating a strategy – and reacting to other teams’ strategies – are nearly endless. Is the driver in the first stint strong or weak on worn tires? Likewise, is the racer that’s about to get int he car really good with cold tires? Those are significant factors in addition to all the others discussed.

“Last year we definitely did improve positions rather consistently with the pit stops,” says R. Ferri’s Diano. “A lot of that was because of the overcut technique, just keeping the car out there as long as possible, keeping it on hot rubber and attacking – as most drivers know, the in lap has to be really strong. The out lap on cold rubber also has to be really strong. That’s probably where drivers are taking the most risk, leaning on the tires heavily when they are cold and pressures are still low. Hitting curbs when pressures are low is really risky, so going over the edge on the out lap could lead to issues int he remainder of the race.”

This season has thrown a lot of curveballs at the teams and drivers this season, with longer races and shorter pit lane delta times than they’ve seen. But so far most of the teams are handling it, some better than others. Halfway through the season, they should all have a pretty good grasp of it, so how the rest of the races play out will show who has mastered strategy the best.

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