The usual which-manufacturer-will-be-best-this-weekend script in sports car racing, ironic given the purpose of Balance of Performance, has been positively missing in the sessions leading up to Sunday’s six-hour IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race at Watkins Glen International.
After one car each from the Acura-Team Penske combination and Mazda Team Joest battled during the previous road course race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, it was hardly a stretch to imagine the rest of the 2019 schedule being full of thrilling racing in the premier DPi class — at least between these two brands. After a quick stop in Detroit, the WeatherTech Championship’s return to permanent road course competition has seen the enjoyable Mid-Ohio rivalry between the two Japanese brands continue.
Harry Tincknell and Dane Cameron took turns topping Friday’s one-hour practice sessions in the No. 55 Mazda RT24-P and No. 6 Acura ARX-05, giving the iconic event a competitive start. Clear skies and high temperatures Friday ensured speeds were representative and eliminated the expectation of dominance from a single marque in subsequent sessions.
Perhaps indicating an overnight car setup improvement, the other Mazda DPi was fastest in Saturday morning’s Practice 3, which began wet but saw times improve near its conclusion as the 3.4-mile circuit dried. Cameron and the No. 6 Acura DPi, fastest on Friday, were seventh quickest, more than six seconds off Oliver Jarvis’ session-leading pace in the No. 77.
Given the conditions, few conclusions were to be drawn from the pre-qualifying practice; Friday’s dry, sunny running remained the source of expectations. When the sun returned and the track was dried — and cleaned, from the rain — in time for qualifying late Saturday morning, the track likely offered more grip than Tincknell and Cameron enjoyed as they surged to the top of Friday’s timesheets.
Indeed, qualifying produced the weekend’s most rapid laps. The 1-year-old Watkins Glen prototype lap record that was unofficially shattered in practice was officially obliterated when the grid was set for the third Michelin Endurance Cup race of 2019, to the tune of 2.563 seconds.
With the No. 55 Mazda and No. 7 Acura close but not factoring into the pole fight, a battle between Jarvis and Cameron commenced. For the third time of the year, Jarvis was not to be denied when a Motul Pole Award was on the line. But while the British driver’s 0.223-second advantage was impressive, a closer look at how qualifying played out indicates that the result of Sunday’s quarter-of-a-day race is far from a foregone conclusion.
Combining his quickest times through the three sectors, Cameron had the potential to be the fastest driver during the 15-minute DPi/LMP2 qualifying outing. Unfortunately for Juan Pablo Montoya’s American co-driver, Cameron’s fastest trip through the third sector came two laps after he set his fastest times in Sectors 1 and 2, breaking up a shot at a “perfect” lap.
Cameron was faster than any other driver in Sectors 1 and 3. On the lap that secured the pole for he and Mazda, Jarvis clocked the fastest Sector 2 time. Through there, Cameron was only third best, 0.134 seconds slower than Jarvis. Jarvis was a tenth of a second faster than anyone.
Remarkably, Jarvis experienced a massive slide and obvious time loss at Turn 9 on his fastest lap but hung on not only to get hold of the pole but also to set his second-best time through Sector 3, which Turn 9 belongs to. Without the slide, Jarvis would likely have earned the pole by more than the final margin of 0.223 seconds and, less critically, been the quickest pilot through Sector 3.
“The car was just fantastic in qualifying when it mattered,” Jarvis said. “I just had so much confidence. I think the lower temperatures helped, but I just had so much confidence to push and attack. It was a real pleasure to drive.
“From this year to last year, it was a huge step in the tires. I’m not sure how much quicker, but that just adds to the enjoyment of the driver. And I think I did my fastest lap on the last lap which shows just how durable they are. It was an amazing qualifying session for us. We have another six hours ahead of us. It’s a pole position, but we’re ready for the fight.”
Avoiding slides and nailing all 11 turns lap after lap will be less important after the green flag flies Sunday and that fight begins. Thus, a wider look at the qualifying sector times can help point to where advantages may be exploited during six hours of racing.
Only one driver was fastest in not just one but two sectors during qualifying: Dane Cameron. Cameron was just 0.018 seconds faster than Jarvis in Sector 1 while Jarvis was 0.099 seconds quicker than Cameron’s Penske stablemate Ricky Taylor in Sector 2. Sector 3, meanwhile, saw Cameron pull ahead by 0.143 seconds. That’s more than the advantage of the fastest cars in the other two sectors combined.
Examining the details, Sector 3 is interesting for two primary reasons. First, Jarvis in third was just 0.003 seconds off the pace of the other Mazda through that stretch of the track. This either means that Cameron is genuinely 0.14 seconds faster than the potential of the Mazdas through the third sector or that Jarvis and the No. 77 are somewhere between the No. 6 Acura and No. 55 Mazda on pace there, given Jarvis’ time loss on his fastest lap.
Second, Cameron’s advantage in the final sector could be the first sign of a major advantage during the race. Unlike the fast first sector that guides the cars uphill through the winding second and third turns and onto the backstretch, Sector 3 features the majority of the turns where strong braking and fast corner exits are key. If the No. 6 Acura — at least with Cameron in the cockpit — is truly capable of winding through the tight turns of Sector 3 in 0.14 fewer seconds than its closest competition, the car may have a distinct performance advantage not just in that area but around the entire venue on race day.
After 15 minutes of stringing together perfect sectors in qualifying, sharing the track with nearly three dozen other cars for six hours will demand a different mindset. If the third sector shines the brightest spotlight on general drivability and the No. 6 Acura is stronger there by such a large margin as 0.14 seconds, Cameron and Montoya may be able to make quick work of traffic with what the sector times indicate is a universally capable car setup. After the duo used slower cars to their advantage when fighting off Jarvis and Tristan Nunez at Mid-Ohio, traffic management could again make all the difference at The Glen.
Of course, two hours and 40 minutes at Mid-Ohio isn’t entirely comparable to six hours at Watkins Glen; drivability is meaningless if your car is serving penalties, making extra pit stops for damage or pit stop mishaps — looking at you, Team Joest — or sitting on the sidelines with mechanical issues. A lot can go wrong during 360 minutes of racing in Upstate New York, making the execution of a trouble-free day equally or more important than pure speed.
Furthermore, the 0.223 seconds between the top two cars in DPi qualifying is nothing compared to the difference in what the programs behind each car are after in Sunday’s contest. For Mazda Team Joest, pole positions have become almost commonplace but a race win remains elusive and would be a breakthrough. For Acura and Team Penske, meanwhile, Watkins Glen glory on Sunday would mean a third consecutive race win, points toward a possible championship triumph and an addition to Roger Penske’s already-expansive trophy collection.
Based on the sector times, Cameron will seek revenge after losing time in the middle area while Jarvis will aim to get Turn 9 right with co-driver Nunez for six competitive hours. But the minuscule time differences between what have become the top DPi contenders reflect only the means to a more important end: winning at Watkins Glen. Either entry from Mazda or Acura could come out on top, but, like so many others before it, this is Mazda’s race to lose.
The only missing factor is an expected challenge from the BoP-abated Cadillacs.