Tom Blomqvist had been in this situation before: a tough battle with Filipe Albuquerque in the closing stages of a race.
At WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, he got balked in traffic and Albuquerque passed him in the Corkscrew, leaving Blomqvist frustrated that everything he then threw at the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Acura didn’t get him back into the lead. Then there was Watkins Glen, where on a restart after a long weather delay, Albuquerque got a great run through the Esses and swept outside the No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing with Curb Agajanian Acura headed into the Bus Stop – a nearly identical move that got him into the lead at the start. At Road America, it was Oliver Jarvis’s turn, Albuquerque making a bold move in traffic in the closing stages to take victory, while MSR ended up with a wrecked Acura in fourth.
With each infuriating second-pace finish, that glorious season-opening victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, where Blomqvist and Jarvis were aided by MSR’s IndyCar Series drivers Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, seemed farther and farther away. And it wasn’t always WTR – Blomqvist had pole at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park and MSR was looking like a lock for a win, but Chip Ganassi Racing’s Renger van der Zande had other ideas.
At Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, it was shaping up to be a Cadillac weekend. That didn’t matter, though – whichever Acura team beat the other would be champions, even if a Cadillac won the race. But Blomqvist spoiled the Cadillac party with a stunning pole. With qualifying late in the day, was this a sign of things to come as the 10-hour Motul Petit Le Mans entered the evening hours? Indeed it was.
“That was a proper proper dogfight today,” said Blomqvist after he, Jarvis and Castroneves claimed victory. “There were times where we didn’t really have the pace, but we kind of expected it a little bit. We did set our car up to kind of come alive at night, and thankfully it worked out for us. The guys did a fantastic job as well with with the strategy (and) in the pits. And being able to kind of eke out the fuel at the critical time to enable us … our only opportunity really was if there was a yellow, we knew that we were doing a bit better on fuel and we could hopefully jump them if we came in nose to tail and that’s exactly what happened. But it was relentless.”
The strategy played out perfectly, and while the team couldn’t have predicted the way it would end – who could imagine a caution in the final hour brought out by the two Chip Ganassi Cadillacs taking each other off track? – a yellow late in the race was pretty likely. Blomqvist said he believed that he would have closed the gap to Albuquerque eventually, but also admitted passing would have taken a bit of aggression and luck. The final pit stop, and requiring just that tiny bit less fueling time, made the pass easy. Even Wayne Taylor predicted as the race went into the night that track position was everything, and the best way to get there was in the pits.
When the race restarted, Blomqvist built a small gap that only shrank when he was held up in traffic. It looked like the 60 did indeed have the measure of the 10. But then, for a moment, it appeared like history might repeat itself.
Blomqvist was held up exiting Turn 12 by the GTD PRO WeatherTech Mercedes-AMG, allowing Albuquerque to get a run on him. Blomqvist defended with a tight line in Turn 1, and Albuquerque briefly had a look to the outside, but thought better of it. Blomqvist caught the next bit of traffic, the No. 57 Winward Racing Mercedes-AMG running third in GTD with Philip Ellis at the wheel, in just the right spot, and swept around the outside in Turn 2. But as Albuquerque went inside at Turn 3, the No. 10 Acura and the Merc crunched side-to-side. Both were damaged, neither would finish the race, and the fight for the championship was over.
Albuquerque, who had made many masterful moves in traffic over the course of the season – the pass for the lead at Road America being perhaps the finest example – had run out of luck. He slowed almost immediately, pulled into the pit box where the crew started to take a look, but the car wasn’t leaving the pits, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The WTR crew on the pitbox felt what the MSR crew had experienced so many times this year, only this was worse: the full gut punch of losing a championship. And for the third time in as many years, WTR had entered the finale in a strong position to claim the title, and departed empty-handed.
“I think my engineer came on the radio saying four seconds back or so,” Blomqvist explained.
“But initially I just thought it was like I passed one guy literally just before Turn 4. And as we know, the Esses is not somewhere you want to get stuck behind someone in slower traffic because you could lose two, three seconds just like that. So I thought I just got through and he maybe got stuck behind and then I heard that he was in the pits with damage, so I’m guessing he tried to follow me through and it just didn’t work out.”
Blomqvist got the glory of the pole and driving the car under the checker, but Jarvis and Castroneves put in the work as well during the 10 hours. In fact, their job during the middle part of the race may have been more difficult, because if the car is set up for the cooler nighttime conditions, it’s probably less than ideal in the middle of the day, and the pace of the 60 Acura in the afternoon reflected that. So how was the car to drive before the sun inched close to the horizon?
“Horrendous,” proclaimed Jarvis. “We tested here two days couple of weeks ago. And then when I got in the car in the race, it was like nothing I’ve experienced before. The car was really loose; even just going down the Esses, which is normally comfortably flat, you had to be very cautious not to lose it. So we did know it was going to come to us, but I have to say I don’t think any of us expected it to be like that during the day. I don’t know if the track changed, we changed, I don’t know if maybe we were a bit aggressive for the daytime… but there were moments I actually thought this could end badly.”
Echoed Castroneves: “I had a lot of hairy moments out there, not only the car itself, but with traffic But at the end of the day, or the night actually, the car came alive with Tom and it was great, but it was very tough conditions. The Ganassi cars were really strong. I was really having a hard time holding them. I have to say it was it was a fun race. I was having a great time.”
For Jarvis, it was his second-consecutive Petit Le Mans victory. He won last year with Harry Tincknell and Jonathan Bomarito for Mazda in the final race for the RT24-P. Now he has won the last race for the Acura ARX-05, and the grand finale of the DPi era.
“I think the win with Mazda was a special one because we knew it was the last race of the car,” he said. “And this is the final race in the DPi era, and then to win the championship… it’s been a good hunting ground for myself for the last 12 months here. It’s such a fabulous track. It’s a tough race. We always say in IMSA that the traffic here and the racing here is flat out, it’s tough. Just watching Tom’s onboard at the end, I think my heart rate was was probably as high as his in the car.
“To win this race in the manner he did, you have to take chances, you have to take risks. I think if people at home could watch as much of the onboards as we do, you’d realize what it takes to be quick around here, to win this race. It’s calculated risk, but you’re putting a lot of faith in your competitors as well. It’s an amazing place, a lot of history to it, and everybody wants to win here.”