O’Connell, Aschenbach Win Saturday Pirelli World Challenge GT, GTS at COTA

AUSTIN, Texas – Johnny O’Connell, of Flowery Branch, Ga., led all the way to win Saturday’s Pirelli World Challenge GT Cadillac Sports Car Challenge Round Four race at Circuit of the Americas. Lawson Aschenbach, of Jupiter, Fla., captured the GTS class win, holding off a charging Andy Lee at the finish.

Johnny O’Connell takes the win in Saturday’s Round Four at COTA.
(Weber/SCCA)
O’Connell started from the Motul Pole Position in his No. 3 Cadillac Racing Cadillac CTS-V.R and got to Turn One first off the standing start. From there, the defending series Champion led all the way, weathering a pair of restarts and temperatures in the mid-90s to take his first win of 2013. O’Connell finished 1.107-seconds ahead of point leader James Sofronas, averaging 75.788 mph around the 2.3-mile, 20-turn road course.

“I had a really good start,” O’Connell said. “We usually lose out to the Volvos on the starts with their four-wheel drive. My objective was to just keep him behind me or to the outside going into Turn One. When I got that launch, and I saw that the Volvo was not going to be able to get me into Turn One, that was the defining moment to the race.

“After the start I had to just hit my marks. I wanted to push hard early. I brought my front tires in early and wanted to get a gap in the first couple of laps. When the Audi got by the Volvo I had to push because he was coming fast.”

The win comes one month after O’Connell and the Team Cadillac crew watched victory slip away in Long Beach. On the final lap, while leading under caution, the Cadillac’s engine expired due to a radiator punctured by debris.

“I had a good race car from the Team Cadillac guys. They’ve worked hard to get these cars to handle in this heat. It was good to get the victory after my near win at Long Beach a couple of weeks ago. It is also special to get the first World Challenge Series GT win at a new track. I am looking forward to the second race tomorrow.”

Sofronas benefitted from O’Connell’s retirement at Long Beach to score his second win of the season. Saturday, he started second in his No. 14 GMG/Mobil 1 Audi R8, but fell to third on the start, behind Randy Pobst’s No. 6 K-PAX Racing Volvo S60. Sofronas spent 14 of the race’s 25 laps trying to find a way around Pobst, and finally made the move stick, setting his sights on O’Connell.

Despite closing the gap considerably, Sofronas ran out of time, and had to settle for the runner-up finish, his second of 2013 to go with a pair of wins.

“The heat affected our strategy, much like everyone else,” Sofronas said. “We had to manage the tires, brakes and engine temps. We had a strong car for the first half of the race. We got held up by Randy Pobst. I was all over him. The car was fast in the high speed turns, but I just couldn’t get around him, and that was enough for Johnny [O’Connell] to get away. When I was able to get by Randy, I was able to get some clean air and run hard, but at the end, with eight laps to go, I began to lose the front tires and just drove through it.”

O’Connell’s teammate Andy Pilgrim, of Boca Raton, Fla., started fourth in his No. 8 Team Cadillac Cadillac CTS-V.R but fell to 13th after bogging down at the start. He worked back up to eighth by the second caution to remove the stricken No. 85 Racing for Our Heroes Porsche 911 GT3 Cup of Craig Stanton. Following the lap-11, restart to he gained two positions to sixth and was fourth three laps later. With three laps remaining, he was able to move around Pobst’s Volvo for the final position on the podium, earning the Invisible Glass Clean Pass of the Race in the process.

“I didn’t get a good start,” Pilgrim said. “The clutch was dragging and stalled the engine. I had to switch the power back on, the car fired up, by then the field was gone.

“This is a tough place to pass. I had to wait for people to make a mistake. I made some good moves, while trying to be patient. Randy was really fast on the straight, but he seemed to be having trouble through the Esses. I just bided my time and was able to get him. It was good to get a double podium finish for Cadillac. We will get it right for the race tomorrow.”

Pobst held on for fourth, followed by a charging Tim Pappas, of Boston, Mass. Pappas started 11th in the No. 54 Black Swan Racing Mercedes-Benz SLR but steadily moved up to score the best finish for a Mercedes-Benz in Pirelli World Challenge GT competition. It was Pappas’ second-career top-five finish and first since his return to the series following a 10-year hiatus.

O’Connell’s fastest lap of 1:34.126 (87.967 mph) will place him on the pole for Sunday’s Round Five race. Sofronas will again start second.

In GTS, Aschenbach started from the Motul Pole and gained an early advantage in his No. 10 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro. Unlike O’Connell, the restarts did not go as smoothly for the two-time series Champion. On the lap-11 restart, Aschenbach watched the pair of Kia Motors America Kia Optimas of Nic Jonsson and Mark Wilkins drive by heading up the hill into Turn One.

It took Aschenbach four laps to move around Wilkins, and then another two to move past Jonsson and back into the lead. In the closing laps, Andy Lee, of Colorado Springs, Colo., began to close on the leader. On the final lap, Lee turned the fastest lap of the race in his No. 20 Best IT Chevrolet Camaro, but came up 0.348-second short at the finish.

It was Aschenbach’s second-straight win, and moved him to within one point of Championship leader Jack Baldwin. Aschenbach’s resurgent run earned him the Cadillac CTS-V Move of the Race.

“This win is a big deal,” Aschenbach said. “With only 14 races, you really need to be up front as often as you can. Fortunately, today, it worked for us.

“It was quite hot. Something happened about halfway through, so I had to back it off a little bit. But Andy [Lee] drove a hell of a race out there, too. He was right there. Two Camaros up front for GM is always good.

“This is only our third race and we’re winning races. It’s quite a testament to our sponsors and the work the guys at the shop have done. We’ll take it, but I think we still do have some work to do for tomorrow, to help get this thing a little quicker.”

Lee’s runner-up finish equaled his best on the season. The fast lap of 1:41.032 (81.954 mph) means Lee will start Sunday’s Round Five race from the Motul Pole.

“This has been one of the most grueling races heat wise, in the car,” Lee said. “I opted to go without the cool suit just to stay as light as I could. I was saving everything, the motor, the brakes, the tires. I was just driving it 90 percent most of the race. I thought if I went for it on the last lap I might catch him at the right time. I closed, but I probably should have started a lap earlier. But, it was a great battle and he [Aschenbach] drove flawlessly. It’s good to be a Chevy Camaro one-two.”

Baldwin, of Marietta, Ga., started sixth, but worked his way around the front-wheel drive Kias and the Acura TSX of defending series Champion Peter Cunningham to take the final spot on the podium in his No. 73 Motul/StopTech/Foametix Porsche Cayman.

“I didn’t get a great start at all, ending up eighth,” Baldwin said. “I just ran hard all day and did the best to manage everything. I think third is pretty good. I’ve got nothing for the Camaros, so that’s what we’ve got. Third is third. I’m good.”

Jonsson, of Sweden, and Toronto’s Wilkins completed the top five.

Jim Taggart, of Raleigh, N.C., earned the Sunoco Hard Charger award for advancing the most positions in the race in his No. 61 Lotus USA/Taggart Autosport/LRR Lotus Exige. Brad Adams, of New Orleans, La., earned the Optima Batteries Best Standing Start for advancing nine positions on the first lap in his No. 96 Voodoo/Dat Dog/Yo MTV Raps! Ford Mustang Boss 302.

Sofronas continues to lead the GT Championship standings, with 517 points, followed now by O’Connell (411) and Pilgrim (370). Audi leads the Manufacturers’ Championship, with 34, followed by Cadillac (27), Volvo (20), Chevrolet (10), AMG Customer Sports (3) and Porsche (1).

Baldwin leads GTS, with 484 points, followed by Aschenbach (483) and Cunningham (369). Chevrolet enjoys an 18-point lead in the Manufacturers Championship, 35 to 17 over Acura, followed by Kia (8) and Ford (1).

Saturday’s race will be part of the June 16 broadcast on NBC Sports at 5 p.m. (EDT).

Round Five of the 2013 Pirelli World Challenge GT and GTS Championship will make its standing start Sunday at 1:15 p.m. (CDT), with coverage beginning on www.world-challengetv.com at 12:20 p.m. (CDT).

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