Holy Sweet Mother Mary that was an incredible 100 minute sprint from green to checkers this fine Saturday afternoon. It’s been a hot minute since we’ve seen sports car racing put on this kind of short-course spectacle, but the wait was worth it. The Bubba Burgers Sports Car Grand Prix of Long Beach was a great event with mega changes for the overall lead and some tight thrust-and-parry action in the GTLM category as well. Even without IMSA’s other GTD class in attendance, it was a masterclass in fast paced action. And of course there was some Chevy-on-Ford beat-em-up.
At the start it was Helio Castroneves leading from pole, but the real excitement was the two Mazdas making serious moves. By the time they’d got to the back straight, however, Jonathan Bomarito in the #55 Mazda made an inside dive move and had his nose chopped right off for his efforts. That car would ultimately finish 2 laps down, never recovering from the resulting damage.
The #77 Mazda looked to be right in the catbird seat, however, as that car moved up into second place on race pace behind the #31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac of Felipe Nasr. Nasr was flat out flying, and made a gap up on the Mazda. When Bomarito’s #55 came to a halt on track, a full course caution was called before he got moving again, which called everyone in to pit for fuel and tires with a little over an hour remaining.
On the way out of the pits under caution, the #31 team failed to properly tighten one of the wheel nuts and was forced to pit again the following lap to replace the wheel under emergency service rules. Unfortunately, because the GT field was in the pit lane that lap, the team was also hit with a stop and hold penalty. That put the Sebring-winning #31 team out of contention and scoring minimal points with a 6th place finish.
The Daytona-winning #10 car with Renger Van Der Zande onboard ran way too hot into turn 9 ended that team’s efforts for the day.
Mazda ran well on their second stint, but they completely mis-timed their pit strategy and had a poor getaway from the pit stall that cost the #77 any chance at the victory. Instead of coming out comfortably ahead of the two Acura Penske racers, the car emerged directly in front of them with cold tires and was a sitting duck. Bummer, but that’s how it shakes out sometimes.
The final 30 minutes or so of the race were consumed by the battle for the lead as Castroneves’ teammate Ricky Taylor tried to catch up Felipe Albuquerque in the Mustang Sampling Cadillac at the front. Albuquerque won this race in 2018, and was an absolute phenom at the front of this race again in 2019. In the last couple of laps Felipe ran up on traffic and managed it perfectly to keep the gap back to Taylor. It was just amazing to watch, like he was playing the proverbial 3-dimensional chess.
In the GTLM class, it was Porsche at the front for nearly the entire race. While Porsche qualified 1-2 to start the race, Corvette put the pressure on early. There was a nice little fair fight between the #911 and #912 that saw positions swap during a drag race down the back straight.
Near the middle of the race, however, the #66 Ford GT managed to splice its way all the way to the front in rapid succession. Nearly as soon as the lead was taken away, however, Earl Bamber re-took the lead of the class down Shoreline Drive as the Ford just couldn’t put the power down out of the hairpin for some reason.
From then on the #912 stayed at the front and won the race driving away. Late in the race it looked like the #66 Ford would again catch the lead, as the Porsche’s carbon diffuser was starting to break up and he was losing a few tenths per lap on pace. Ultimately the Ford backed off to conserve fuel and Bamber was free to carry on.
Ford had tried to gamble on fuel strategy, making it a one-stop race from about the 67 minutes remaining mark. Usually aces of fuel conservation, the team very nearly pulled it off and made it work. Until they didn’t. With Dirk Mueller onboard, after a great short first stint by Sebastien Bourdais, the car stumbled exiting turn 8, and that was the end of their race. With the two Corvettes literally on his back bumper, Mueller’s stumble meant contact spun him right up into the wall. Porsche wins from Corvette.
It should be mentioned that no blame should be placed on the shoulders of the Corvette here. There was nowhere for him to go and this could just as easily have ended his race, too.
While I’m no stranger to complaining about BOP adjustments from IMSA in the past, they seem to have gotten the formula just right for Long Beach, as no single car seemed to walk away at any point. Certainly the Cadillac and Acura-powered DPi are better in traffic than the Mazda team by dint of having more torque available at lower RPM, but the Mazdas held their own on outright speed, and with the right strategy calls could have been in serious contention for the win at multiple points.
It should also be mentioned that IMSA did a great job of letting stopped cars sort themselves out. There were a few calls that were on the fence as to whether they should go to yellow flag conditions, but they let the race continue on. It was a good race, and I’m glad to have watched it. This is another one that you should catch on replay on YouTube when it’s available.
Well done IMSA. Keep it up.