Tuesday, March 7, 2017

2017 Pirelli World Challenge Preview

Pirelli World Challenge returns to action this weekend with two doubleheaders at St. Petersburg. This year's Pirelli World Challenge season sees a slightly altered schedule compared to previous seasons. Five of ten rounds will see Pirelli World Challenge run its traditional GT sprint format with the other half featuring Sprint-X rounds with two, 60-minute races that requires a driver change during the race.

St. Petersburg marks the first of the traditional GT sprint rounds with Long Beach marking the second round on April 9th with that being the lone single-race weekend and only featuring the GT category. Road America is the third sprint weekend on June 24-25th followed by Mid-Ohio on July 29-30th with the final sprint round being Sonoma on September 16-17th. All five of these rounds are also IndyCar race weekends.

The first of the Sprint-X weekends will be at Virginia International Raceway on April 28-30th. Mosport will be the second Sprint-X weekend on May 20-21st with the teams heading to Lime Rock Park the next weekend on May 26-27th. The penultimate Sprint-X round won't occur until August 12-13th at Utah Motorsports Park with the Sprint-X finale occurring on Labor Day weekend, September 2nd-3rd at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

The final Pirelli World Challenge associated weekend occurs October 13-15th as the teams will likely participate in the California 8 Hours, the penultimate round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge. GTS will compete at every round except Long Beach and Laguna Seca.

Twenty-three GT3 cars are entered for the season opener at St. Petersburg, 14 of which are GT classified.

Álvaro Parente returns to defend his championship and the Portuguese driver will be in the #9 K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S GT3. Bryan Sellers joins Parente at K-PAX Racing in the #6 McLaren. Parente won six of 20 races last year and finished on the podium nine times but outside of those nine podium finishes, Parente finished outside the top five in his other 11 starts. Sellers has never competed in Pirelli World Challenge and he pairs this ride with his full-time ride with the #48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini in IMSA's GTD program.

Patrick Long finished runner-up last year to Parente after an ill-advised attempt to pass Johnny O'Connell for the victory in the finale at Laguna Seca when Long would have won the championship with a second-place finish but he returns for another crack at the title in the #58 Wright Motorsports Porsche GT3-R. Long won three races last year but did not win after Mosport in May. Jon Fogarty will be at the wheel of the #99 Porsche in GT as Gainsco/Bob Stallings Racing switches from McLaren. Fogarty's best finish in 2016 was third.

Michael Cooper topped his senior teammate Johnny O'Connell as the four-time champions' reign of dominance came to an end and O'Connell slipped to fourth in the championship after being penalized for blocking Long at Laguna Seca. O'Connell returns in the #3 Cadillac with Cooper in the #8 Cadillac. O'Connell did win three races to Cooper's two and the two drivers finished level on nine podium finishes.

RealTime Racing will debut two Acura NSX GT3s at St. Petersburg with Ryan Eversley returning in the #43 Acura with Peter Kox running the #93 Acura. Eversley swept the Road America weekend last season and finished sixth in the championship. Kox ran the Sonoma round last year for RealTime Racing and was a development driver for the NSX GT3 last year.

Absolute Racing will run two Bentley Continental GT3s with Hong Kong's Adderly Fong returning in the #88 Bentley. Fong finished runner-up on three occasions and had four podiums total and finished ninth in the championship. Yufeng Luo moves up from U.S. F2000 and will drive the #78 Bentley. His only U.S. F2000 victory came at St. Petersburg last year.

James Davison lost his Nissan factory ride as the manufacture is cutting back on its Pirelli World Challenge program for 2017. The Australian will be on the grid for the season opener at St. Petersburg in the #007 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 for TRG but no rounds are planned beyond the season opener. In two PWC season, Davison won two races and had nine podium finishes including a fourth in the championship in 2015.

Ryan Dalziel returns to Pirelli World Challenge in the #2 CRP Racing Mercedes AMG GT3. Dalziel has won four PWC races, all coming at Mid-Ohio and the Scotsman finished third in the championship in 2015.

Spaniard Alex Riberas will be a rookie in Pirelli World Challenge as he will drive the #61 Ferrari 488 GT3 for R. Ferri Motorsport. Riberas had spent 2016 running full-time in IMSA's GTD category for Team Seattle/Alex Job Racing, where he won a race and finished fifth in the championship. He also won the 12 Hours of Sebring with Alex Job Racing in 2015.

Magnus Racing moves to Pirelli World Challenge after a long and successful history in IMSA's GTD category. Pierre Kaffer will drive the #4 Audi for Magnus Racing but will have to miss the Lime Rock Park and Mid-Ohio rounds due to the 24 Hours Nürburgring and 24 Hours of Spa respectively.

Nine cars are entered in GTA, the class for gentleman driver.

James Sofronas will drive the #14 GMG Racing Porsche with Alex Udell running the #17 Porsche for the team. Michael Schein will contest a second Wright Motorsports entry in the #16 Porsche.

Mike Hedlund will drive the #98 McLaren as a third entry for K-PAX Racing. John Potter will drive the #44 Audi for Magnus Racing. Jorge De La Torre runs the #04 Aston Martin for his own team. Italian Daniel Mancinelli will drive the #31 TR3 Racing Ferrari.

Two Mercedes will be in GTA with Tim Pappas in the #54 Black Swan Racing Mercedes with Pablo Perez Companc in the #69 Champ 1 Mercedes.

GT Cup
Two cars are entered in the GT Cup class. Marko Radisic will drive the #11 Precision Driving Ferrari Challenge Evo and Preston Calvert will drive the #77 Calvert Dynamics Porsche 991 GT3 Cup.

Twenty cars are entered in the GTS category with a plethora of GT4-spec cars.

Brett Sandberg is the defending GTS championship after three victories and 11 podiums with in a KTM X-Bow GT4 for ANSA Motorsports. It appears Sandberg is preparing to race in the Blancpain Endurance Series this season. The team has entered three KTMs for this season but Bill Ziegler is the only one confirmed in the #9 KTM.

Nate Stacy finished runner-up to Sandberg and won a race with Roush Racing last year but Stacy moves to Flying Lizard Motorsports and will drive the #14 Porsche Cayman GT4. Rodrigo Baptista will be Stacy's teammate in the #3 Porsche. There will be three other Porsche Cayman GT4s on the grid with Cameron Maugeri in the #7 Krugspeed Porsche and Case-it Racing entering two Porsches with Adam Merzon in the #017 Porsche and Cameron Cassels in the #018 Porsche.

Lawson Aschenbach won the most races in GTS last season with four victories and the two-time PWC GTS champion returns with Blackdog Speed Shop but will drive the new #10 Chevrolet Camaro GT4. Tony Gaples returns in the #11 Camaro and he hasn't had a podium finish since 2011.

Parker Chase finished fourth in the championship as a 15-year-old rookie last season and he is back in the #19 Performance Motorsports Group Ginetta G55. Chase did finish on the podium six times, including three runner-up finishes. Harry Gottsacker will be Chase's teammate in the #69 Ginetta. Gottsacker's best finish last season was fifth in the finale at Laguna Seca.

Mantella Autosport returns with two KTMs with Anthony Mantella in the #8 KTM and Martin Barkey in the #88 KTM. Mantella's victory came at Utah while Barkey won the penultimate race of the season at Laguna Seca.

Jade Buford won three of his first four starts in a partial schedule in 2016. He returns in the #45 Racers Edge Motorsports SIN R1 GT4. The Tennessean will be joined by Jason Bell in the #2 SIN. The Bulgarian car won five races in 2016 with Scott Heckert finishing fifth in the championship despite missing the first two rounds and winning two races.

Andrew Aquilante finished second in his only PWC start last season but now he will be in the only Ford Mustang Boss 302 in GTS. He will drive the #32 Phoenix Performance Ford. There will be two new manufactures on the grid. Two McLarens 570s GT4 makes its debut with Mark Klenin in the #62 KPR McLaren with George Kurtz driving the #04 McLaren for GMG Racing. Ian James will debut the #50 Panoz Avezzano GT this weekend and it will also be the Brits debut in PWC.

This weekend GTS will race at 12:15 p.m. ET on Friday with race two at 12:55 p.m. ET on Saturday. GT race one will be at 9:45 a.m. ET on Saturday with race two at 3:15 p.m. ET on Sunday.