Pirelli World Challenge’s name is more accurate than normal entering 2017.
The Pirelli portion is the component that stays most intact, while “World” represents both the diversity of cars and drivers entered as the series continues its push to be further aligned with SRO and the international sports car scene. “Challenge?” That’s deciphering the newness that’s on tap this year with SprintX taking a greater role in the overall series structure at its standalone weekends, and navigating the switch from longtime sanctioning partner SCCA to USAC.
Alas, one thing that remains intact for 2017 is the depth in the quality of the GT field, which has no shortage of top names, teams and manufacturers present this season.
Alvaro Parente returns to defend his title in his No. 9 K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S GT3, following a dramatic championship victory of a year ago. Parente now knows all the circuits he didn’t this time last year and will be perhaps a greater force to be reckoned with. In new teammates Bryan Sellers and Mike Hedlund, Parente also has two capable gunners who should pose more of a win threat more regularly than talented but lesser experienced youngsters Austin Cindric and Colin Thompson last year. Hedlund, a GTA entrant, has the Flying Lizard crew at his disposal for a title pursuit there.
Two other teams mirror K-PAX with drivers capable of winning both in GT and GTA. The first is Wright Motorsports, with Patrick Long and Michael Schein in their two Porsche 911 GT3 Rs. Long was desperately unlucky to lose last year’s title at the end while Schein won races but missed a few races early that cost him points. The other is Magnus Racing, which arrives in PWC with a strong two-car entry of Audi R8 LMS cars. Pierre Kaffer is a winner-to-be in GT with John Potter capable of the same in GTA.
Johnny O’Connell and Michael Cooper will be keen to return the Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.Rs to the top of the perch after being dethroned last year. O’Connell, a four-time champion, has lost none of his speed nor motivation. Cooper impressed last year with a couple wins and fully justified his promotion to the Cadillac team after winning a GTS title with Blackdog Speed Shop’s Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in 2015. Both will again be title contenders this season in their Velocity Red and Vector Blue liveried cars.
The two other two-car, GT-only teams come from RealTime Racing with its Acura NSX GT3s and Bentley Team Absolute with its Bentley Continental GT3s. Ryan Eversley has won races in each of the last two years in RealTime’s old TLX-GT and will look to continue that run aboard one of the new NSX cars; sports car veteran Peter Kox will be keen to prove he has the consistent speed to contend. Bentley lacks a dynamic star at the moment; Adderly Fong has some potential while the absence of young talent Andrew Palmer, injured last year at Lime Rock, still stings.
Plenty of one-car efforts are set to contend in GT, though. Between Ryan Dalziel’s CRP Mercedes, Jon Fogarty’s GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Porsche, Alex Riberas’ R. Ferri Motorsport Ferrari and James Davison in a TRG Aston Martin, there’s no shortage of talent here.
The GTA field also includes GMG Racing with two Porsches, including one for last year’s GT Cup champion Alec Udell. The capable, experienced and still super young Udell, only 21, is the 2017 candidate who can be most like Bryan Heitkotter and Michael Lewis, who starts out as a GTA driver and can win races there before an eventual progression into GT. Sadly, neither Heitkotter nor Lewis - race winners last year - are present for this year’s season opener. Notable in the rest of the class is the perennially active Tim Pappas, in a new Mercedes-AMG GT3 after recent years running either an old Mercedes, Viper or Porsche for his Black Swan Racing team.
GT Cup is still active but with only two cars, one of which a Ferrari Challenge Evo which will mark the first time a non-Porsche Cup car is entered within the previously single-make class.
GTS’ 19-car field includes a couple venerable old GTS-spec cars mixed in with more of the new GT4-spec cars. With last year’s champion Brett Sandberg not listed, it’s left to others such as Lawson Aschenbach in the debuting Camaro GT4, Nate Stacy now in a Flying Lizard Porsche Cayman GT4 MR and Parker Chase in the Ginetta G55 who are among the class favorites. Andrew Aquilante returns with his Phoenix Performance Ford Mustang Boss 302. Ian James, in the debuting but as-yet-not-homologated for GT4 Panoz Avezzano GT, will also be one to watch. Like the Ginetta, the SIN R1 GT4 and KTM X-Bow GT4 are also still in the field, joined as well by the new McLaren 570S GT4.
PWC will be interesting to watch this year because its five weekends with IndyCar see the traditional sprint format, a PWC staple, maintained. The two-driver, 60-minute SprintX format, introduced in a three-race trial last year, takes on a greater role starting at VIR in late April. That weekend will see PWC fully on its own, with all of its classes between the GT combination, GTS, and the three Touring Car classes (TC, TCA, TCB).
The fate of a lot of competitors can also in large part come down to Balance of Performance, which in tandem with SRO continues into 2017 and sees different BoP tables issued for different tracks. How you battle/overcome the BoP may have an impact on your year.
That said, PWC has prided itself on ensuring a largely fair and level playing field, and the number of manufacturers entered within GT largely bares that point out with a total of nine in GT/GTA again (Mercedes-AMG, Cadillac, Ferrari, Porsche, Audi, McLaren, Acura, Bentley, Aston Martin) set to run starting this weekend, and that’s before a Nissan return.
Enjoy what’s known for now, and look forward to the series’ continued evolution as the year goes on.