Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge: Laguna Seca Monterey Grand Prix recap for HART Racing
After a long break, the HART Racing Team returned to action, traveling across the country to Monterey, CA, home to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Laguna has a number of challenging aspects, including elevation changes, blind corners, and the infamous “corkscrew” turn. The track tends to favor handling and RWD competitors, so members of the HART team knew they would have an uphill battle ahead.
This would be only the second time for three of the four HART drivers to visit Laguna, while Kevin Boehm would be driving the track for the first time. Due to the team’s minimal data, and to give Kevin some needed seat time, HART decided to take advantage of the test day. One of many nice things about Monterey is the weather. Every day of the trip was sunny, and the team was able to collect plenty of data throughout the weekend.
Throughout the test day, HART focused on collecting vehicle data and trying to get the cars set up to run well on used tires. Laguna is typically hard on tires, and the FWD vehicles tend to wear tires out quickly. “If we can get our cars to run good pace on worn tires, then we should have a good chance,” says crew chief Andrew Salzano.
On Friday, the IMSA event sessions would officially begin, and the team prepared for two 45-minute practice sessions. The goal was to try chassis settings that would work with the low grip conditions to give a consistent pace throughout the stint. The HART team knew it could make the car go fast, but could it keep up a consistent pace, lap after lap? The advantage of having two identical cars is that you can try multiple changes simultaneously. The team tried different combinations on both #92 and #93 cars to see what worked best. Throughout the practice sessions, the cars were typically among the top five in overall speed, so the key focus was longevity. The team needed to control its tire management against the lighter-weight and better-balanced Mazda MX-5. At the close of practice, HART members were happy with their pace, but they knew it would be tough to stay in the top 10 by the checkered flag.
The final session on Friday would be a 15-minute qualifying session. Steve Eich would qualify the #92 car and Chad Gilsinger would qualify the #93 car. The drivers took the track at the back of the field to make sure they could create a gap and have clear track ahead of them. The Laguna surface is very hard on tires, with little grip, so it would be important to get a good lap early, when the tire was at its optimum. Gilsinger jumped to the pole quickly on his first flying lap, but soon was knocked back to sixth. Eich was struggling with traffic, which passed him on the “out” lap, but still managed to better his time for the weekend. After the post-tech qualifying results were released, Gilsinger had held his sixth place starting position, while Eich managed to slot into 15th.
“I am very happy with sixth,” admitted Gilsinger. “We knew the Mazdas and Porsches would be strong here, and there are four Mazdas and one Porsche ahead of me. We are the fastest front-wheel drive car, so I don’t think there is much more we could have done. Thanks to the team for preparing such a good car.”
Heading into Race Day, the team knew it would be a struggle. Throughout the evening, HART worked hard to get the cars ready, but also worked on strategy, to get the best finish possible. Race Day brought beautiful weather with a little bit of overcast (this would help with tire longevity). The goal for both cars was to focus on tire and brake management, and keep the cars in the top 10. As the green flag flew, both cars were able to maintain or gain position, while maintaining a consistent pace.
Gilsinger managed to jump into the top five before his pit stop. There would be three caution flags in the first hour of the race, and this would help both cars conserve tires. The team decided to pit #93 with the leaders to stay on the same strategy as they were. The top five cars pitted during the third full-course yellow. This strategy would have worked out perfectly, but unfortunately, there was a GS class car being worked on in the pit stall just in front of HART’s. There was not enough room to pull into the pit, and Gilsinger was forced to overshoot the pit stall, requiring the team to push the car back into place for fueling. Everyone did a great job of reacting, but the #93 lost four to five positions in the process. The plan for the #92 car would be to stay out longer and get closer to the fuel window, in order to give Boehm fresher tires for the end of the race. This catapulted #92 into the top three before Eich brought the car in for the driver change.
Meanwhile, Michael Valiante was now behind the wheel of #93. With about an hour left in the race, he managed to battle into the top 10 and was in a three-way battle for seventh with two other Honda Civic Si’s. The race brought multiple yellow flags, and each restart was a nail biter. The Porsches had more power, and there were two of them waiting to take positions away from both #92 and #93. Valiante and Boehm did a great job of defending their positions but ultimately, the tire wear was too much, and on the last lap, Valiante dropped two positions to finish in 11th and Boehm managed to hang on to wind up 17th.
“With the yellows, we lost a few more positions than we hoped, but overall we are happy with the results,” said crew chief Andrew Salzano. “The crew did an awesome job, we had the fourth-fastest pit stop out of more than 60 cars, and we sustained very minimal damage. We knew this was not our track, but the events coming up on the schedule should fit the strengths of the Civic; we are sure to see the podium soon.”
You can follow all the action on the new IMSA website, www.imsa.comThe Laguna Seca race will air on Fox Sports 1 Sunday, May 11, at 10 a.m. EDT.
The next event will be at Lime Rock Park, May 23-24.
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