In this edition of our WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (WTSC) round table we visit Road Atlanta for the final race of the 2017 IMSA season. We talked to Renger van der Zande, driver of the No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Ligier LMP2, and Jeroen Bleekemolen, driver of the No. 33 Riley Motorsports – Team AMG Mercedes-AMG GT3. Here’s what they had to say:
Q: What challenges does a track like Road Atlanta present?
Van Der Zande: The track is uphill, downhill - there is everything in it - but what makes it especially challenging is the traffic. There needs to be a good combination between the classes to work together. For example in Prototype when you approach Turn 3 and exit Turn 3, whether the slower cars give us room or not is a big thing. You cannot take the room. You really have to make sure that they see you and that when you get to the corner, you’re not going to touch because it will end up in a big one. So for me the biggest challenge is to get through traffic in a good and safe way. It’s easy to wreck a car in the first hour when everybody is still getting used to the traffic. You will see more aggressive and smoother passes toward the end of the race because people will understand each other better between the classes.
Bleekemolen: It is the third longest race of the season. All classes are out there, so it's busy on track. You need to get to the end with a car in good condition to be able to fight for the win. Furthermore, the track changes a lot during the race. You start in the morning when it's still cool and not too much rubber on the track yet. It gets hot later in the day, and then you finish in the dark with pretty cold temperatures and a lot of rubber on track.
Q: What is the tire strategy for a track like Road Atlanta?
Van Der Zande: It is an important one of course, but on the other hand we will have new tires every stint which means you want to run all the hours and get to the finish with new tires every stint. But at the end of the race, like we did at Laguna Seca, there is a good chance that you can opt for only two new tires in order to jump forward in position and stay at the front. Tires are important because at the pit stop, if you want to short fill (on fuel), you want to have no loss of time on the tire change. If you change four tires, that takes more time and you’ll lose time on track. So that’s an important one especially toward the end of the race - especially during the final 1.5 hours. Track position in the last hour is important and you don’t want to give it away. Also, you should not forget how much we change tire pressures. For example if the air temperature is maybe going down into the night, we have to go up with our tire pressures. To adapt as a driver and team together making the pressures work for the changing conditions plays into the tire strategy as well.
Bleekemolen: With our pit stop rules we can change the Continental tires at the same time as the refueling. That means we pretty much always change to new tires because you don't lose any time. Maybe in the end of the race you might decide to keep the same set of tires on because they are hot and it makes you faster on the out lap.
Q: What is your most memorable moment from Road Atlanta?
Van Der Zande: In 2014 – when I won Petit. It was big. What happened was: my right front headlight broke with 1.5-hours to go. Basically my team boss at the time, Peter Baron, said on the radio ‘we have a shot at the win, but we cannot change the headlight. So just before you get into the pit lane, you need to tell us if want to have just new tires or an entire new bonnet’ – the front of the car with better lights. It was really hard to drive because it is pitch dark at Road Atlanta toward the finish. It was all about that strategy. I came to the pits and … well I said the ‘F’ word! … and said ‘yeah we’re going to go for it… take tires, take tires, take tires!’ We went to four brand new Continental tires – and that’s how we won the race. We got to the front and won the race by just a little bit with only one headlight.
Bleekemolen: I have won twice there and it's hard to choose between them. In 2011 I won in GTC and 2016 in GTD. Probably 2016 was the most intense one as I did the last 3.5 hours of the race and had to fight from my first lap in the car until the very last lap of the race.
Q: What can fans expect to see at this year’s Road Atlanta race?
Van Der Zande: Fans will see as big of an IMSA show as ever. I think it’s getting better and better with Penske coming in and the Cadillac running for the first time there. The sounds are different in the Prototype class. It’s just an incredible atmosphere. The series is really picking up and it’s going to be a great show.
Bleekemolen: The racing will be good all day, and I'm sure it will still be very exciting at the end of the race in most classes. There are multiple championship on the line which makes it even more exciting. Petit Le Mans is always a great event and I expect another awesome race day!