Sunny conditions greeted the teams for the start of the inaugural edition of the Mazda Raceway California 8 Hours, the longest-ever professional race at the Laguna Seca circuit. Polesitter Christopher Mies held on to the lead at the start and together with his team-mates Christopher Haase and Connor De Phillippi, managed to give the #29 Audi Sport Team Land R8 a lead of over half a minute at the halfway mark.
A couple of safety car interventions in the fifth hour of the race saw that advantage melt like snow in the Californian sun and two other Audis - #44 Audi Sport Team Magnus R8 and the #11 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT R8 – were on tail of the #29 car for the next three hours, running away from the other cars in the field.
The final pitstops set the wheels in motion for a thrilling finale. The crews of the #11 and the #29 cars opted not to respect the imposed pitstop delta time, both incurring a drive through penalty for that infraction. But even with that penalty they both ran away from the #44 Audi Sport Team Magnus R8, which had stuck to the rules.
In the Belgian Audi Club Team WRT car Robin Frijns had taken the lead after the final pitstop, but the Dutchman lost that position again after taking the drive through one lap before Christopher Mies in the Audi Sport Team Land machine. Frijns tried to recover that lead when both cars had to lap a backmarker, but that led to contact in turn 10, with both Audis ending up in the gravel trap. Frijns lost a couple of laps in the process, Mies could continue, but because of the following safety car intervention, his advantage over Kelvin Van Der Linde in the #44 Audi Sport Team Magnus R8 was reduced to a couple of tenths of a second.
The 21-year-old from South Africa was determined to take away the lead from Mies, who was clearly struggling with the slightly damaged #29 car. Some twenty minutes before the end of the race, Van Der Linde passed Mies on the outside of turn 5 and even though Mies did his utmost to keep up with the Audi Sport Team Magnus car, he eventually had to settle for second.
Kelvin Van Der Linde shared the winning car with Pierre Kaffer and Markus Winkelhock; for the latter it was his second consecutive win in the Intercontinental GT Challenge. Winkelhock therefore has claimed the lead of the driver standings, taking over from his Spa co-winner Christopher Haase.
And what about the competition? After the problems for the Belgian Audi Club Team WRT R8 the #9 K-PAX Racing McLaren proved to be the best of the rest, finishing some 43 seconds behind the leader. The K-PAX Racing machine proved to be the only car that managed to finish on the lead lap. In fourth and one lap down was the sole surviving Acura (the other NSX fell by the wayside with cooling problems). American squad RealTime Racing gave the car a convincing debut in an SRO series, showing off the potential of the car.
Porsche fans left the Mazda Raceway with mixed emotions: the #58 Porsche Motorsport North America by Wright Motorsport 911 had to retire after problems with the fuel rig, but fifth was then taken by the immensely popular #54 Black Swan Racing Porsche, which also finished first in the Pro-Am Class. Jeroen Bleekemolen, Tim Pappas and David Calvert-Jones did not set a foot wrong and beat the Pro-Am competition with four laps in hand.
Both MARC Cars Mazda – running in the invitational class – ended the race inside the top-10, proving the reliability of the Australian-built machines. The burgundy-liveried cars finished just ahead of the winner in GT4, the #26 Rearden Racing Porsche of American trio Jeff Kearl, Jeff Westphal and Sean McAlister. They inherited the lead after the leading #3 TRG Aston Martin was hit with brake problems two hours from the end.
All eyes will now turn towards Malaysia, where the final and decisive round of the 2017 Intercontinental GT Challenge, the Motul Sepang 12 Hours, will take place on December 9th – 10th. From the arid conditions in Laguna Seca to the hot and humid Sepang, the season is sure to end with another great race.
Kelvin Van Der Linde (#44 Audi Sport Team Magnus R8, 1st): “I knew I had to make a clean move to get past Chris [Mies]. Our car was really fast, and when he started to defend his position, he was on the back foot. He was burning up his rear tyres, and I could capitalize on that coming out of turn 4, passing him on the outside in the next corner.”
Markus Winkelhock (#44 Audi Sport Team Magnus R8, 1st): “I have to be honest, during the final hour I spent fifteen minutes in the trailer. I could no longer watch the race, I was way to nervous. I am absolutely happy with the win, it was great driving with Pierre and Kelvin.”
Pierre Kaffer (#44 Audi Sport Team Magnus R8, 1st): “I am really happy for John Potter and Team Magnus, for this means a lot for an American team. This was the first time they competed against the much more experienced European teams and this is a great reward for their efforts.”
Christopher Mies (#29 Audi Sport Team Land R8, 2nd): “The car was fantastic all weekend long, so it’s a bit frustrating not to conclude with the win. The car was damaged after the contact with Robin, and started to develop oversteer, which we had not had before then. I think Robin was a bit over-enthusiastic, for you cannot go two wide in that corner. A pity, for this could have been an Audi 1-2-3.”
Alvaro Parente (#9 K-PAX Racing McLaren, 3rd): “We did not have the same pace as the Audis, so to get third with three Audis at the start is great. The K-PAX Racing team had a great strategy as well, so it feels great to finish my year of racing in the States with a podium.”
Jeroen Bleekemolen (#54 Black Swan Racing Porsche, 1st Pro-Am): “I think our consistency was key to this result. Ten or fifteen laps into a stint, other cars started struggling and our car still behaved well. When Frijns was chasing me at the end, I told the team that I would not take any risks. But I did want to keep him behind me. It was a great scrap and a lot of fun.”
Jeff Westphal (#26 Rearden Racing Porsche, 1st GT4): “We knew we had our work cut for us with the Aston Martin, and two hours from the end I would never have guessed that we would win. But that’s racing, Rearden Racing did a good job in preparing the car, and it had the legendary Porsche reliability.”
Jake Camilleri (#193 MARC Cars Mazda, 1st Invitational Class): “We knew that even on old tyres we could hang in there, so we had a consistent drive. We did struggle with the power steering though, which makes racing on this track very tough.”