Patrick Long narrowly missed out on his second Pirelli World Challenge GT Driver’s Championship at Laguna Seca Sunday, as he was forced off track on the last lap while attacking for the race lead. Entering the weekend, Long was second in the championship to McLaren factory driver Alvaro Parente, on a deficit of just nine points. On Saturday, Johnny O’Connell qualified on pole, with Patrick slotting in p2, and Parente further afield in p6. In practical terms, Patrick either had to win or beat Parente by two track positions to claim the championship, but the morning of race day, the series issued a points clarification stating that Parente had incorrectly been awarded seven bonus points at Lime Rock earlier in the season. This effectively closed the gap between the two drivers to just two points, and critically, changing the dynamic between them. As it stood, on race morning, Patrick’s task was made comparatively easier: beat Parente outright by any margin, and win the championship.
At the rolling, two-by-two start, Parente got a tremendous jump, sweeping up from 6th on the grid to 3rd as the field streamed down into turn one. O’Connell held the lead from pole, with Long defending against the rest of the field, and as the first lap concluded, the running order was O’Connell, Long, Parente. A caution period bunched the field again, and at the first restart, Long was able to gap Parente just enough to keep comfortable, and as the race continued, a second caution period slowed the running. Parente was never able to pass Long on track, though the pressure was unrelenting.
With just over ten minutes remaining, a third full course yellow was thrown, this time for a car that had gone hard into the barriers at the far side of the gravel trap in turn one; the minutes crept by as the field circulated under yellow, and with less than one minute remaining in the 50-minute contest, the green flag was shown for a single-lap sprint to the end, O’Connell heading Long, Parente and the rest of the field. Heading into the left-hand turn four, O’Connell dropped two wheels off track on driver’s left, allowing Long to attack for the pass, but the Cadillac re-entered the track as Long apexed the turn, nerfing Patrick off-line and off-track driver’s right. Parente, Michael Cooper and Bryan Heitkotter managed to get past Long, and that’s the order they finished in on the road, the contact from the Cadillac costing Patrick a potential race win but certainly the driver’s championship.
Post-race, Johnny O’Connell was judged to have made ‘avoidable contact’ and assessed a penalty of 2.1 seconds, dropping him to p5, elevating Parente to the race win and Long to p4.
Reacting to the gutting turn of events, Long said, “Like I said at the beginning of this weekend, I was proud to still be in contention during the title chase,” he said. “I raced Johnny at the end of the race and I expected racing room and didn’t get it. For him not to be in the championship hunt and to be the deciding factor is a difficult situation. In every scenario there are two drivers that make a decision. There was no intention on my part to try and battle Johnny the entire race – my focus was on the championship and the two times I was alongside or ahead of him, it came down to his mistakes.
He continued, “This is why we all love this sport, it is action packed. I am very proud of Wright Motorsports and we appreciate the support of Porsche Consulting and all of our partners. We will come back stronger from this. In the end there is sport and there is integrity and we walk away proud of how we handled both situations today.”
Patrick is back in action this weekend as the FIA World Endurance Championship resumes at the legendary Fuji circuit in Japan, the scene of Long, Marco Seefried and Patrick Dempsey’s famous win in 2015. Race day is Sunday, October 16.