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Johnny O’Connell secures the Championship in style at Laguna Seca

by • September 25, 2015 • EventComments (0)6874

Alessandro Balzan, in the Ferrari, took the overall and GT win at the Pirelli World Challenge season finale, just ahead of his Ferrari teammate Alessandro PierGuidi, who qualified on the pole for the race. However it was Johnny O’Connell who clinched his fourth straight title in a dramatic race at the Pirelli World Challenge Grand Prix of Monterey at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

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With O’Connell and Olivier Beretta of Monte Carlo, Monaco, separated by just a handful of points all eyes were on the Championship contenders as the lights went off on the standing start. However it was Balzan getting a jump from the outside of the front row into the Andretti Hairpin. O’Connell took advantage of the clean start by rocketing to second place on the opening lap from his fifth grid position. Pole sitter PierGuidi, found himself third after the opening lap. Rival Beretta also made moves on the opening lap, charging from 12th on the grid to eighth, earning him the Optima Batteries Best Standing Start Award.

By lap 25, Beretta had reeled in O’Connell and attacked going into the Andretti Hairpin in a bid for third place. Corners later, the two Championship protagonists made contact in the Corkscrew. Beretta was able to continue and took third place but O’Connell was momentarily stopped, dropping him to 14th and provisionally handing the Championship to the Ferrari pilot.
While O’Connell mounted his rebound effort, Beretta had to serve a drive-through penalty for the contact. Beretta was able to emerge from the penalty in seventh place, however with just three minutes remaining on official race time, Beretta made contact with the wall coming into turn 11, rendering the Ferrari undriveable and forcing Beretta off course. The DNF for the Beretta and the Ferrari meant O’Connell and Cadillac Racing had captured four consecutive Pirelli World Challenge Championships.

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The turn of events meant O’Connell ultimately finished in front of Beretta, netting him and Cadillac their fourth consecutive PWC championship. If Beretta would have exercised patience things may have ended up differently, as the Ferraris were notoriously fast at Laguna Seca (Ferrari driver Alessandro Balzan won, followed by Ferrari teammate Alessandro PierGuidi in second).

“What a crazy race,” O’Connell said. “I was able to get a great start. I didn’t think I was going to be able to get Dalziel (Ryan, No. 31 Porsche). When we went into Turn 2 I was behind the silver Ferrari and the red one got into me a little.

“I was surprised how fast Olivier was coming through the field. I knew he would get to me. But getting there and getting by are two different things. I was minding my tires as best as I could while digging as hard as I could.

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“I wasn’t sure what he was thinking behind the wheel there in the Corkscrew. He took us both out. He wasn’t really close to me. When we crested the hill he was four or five cars back. It was a Hail Mary move. I didn’t get brushed, I got drilled. There was so much time left, he just had to bide his time.

“The Cadillac Racing guys build a strong car. When I got back going the car was good and still quick. I was thinking he was going to get a penalty and he did.”
Reflecting on his championship season, O’Connell said: “I am proud of everyone at Cadillac Racing. This whole team is made up of Joe Montana’s – we are a fourth-quarter team.

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“We had some adversity this year – the crash at Long Beach while running upfront. I had a car that could of won that race. When I got taken out, I got a huge fine and hit in the points. Then at Barber we were running fast and burned a car down. The spirit of the team came to the front at that point. What people don’t see is the hundreds of thousands of hours that the Cadillac Racing crew put into those race cars. I am just the guy who gets to put it on display for 100-minutes on the race weekend.”

Kris Wilson, was victorious in the GTS class however it was Michael Cooper of Blackdog Speedshop who finished in 10th who clinched the GTS Drivers’ Championship.

After an accident at the start which caused a multi car pileup when Mark Wilkins stalled and was hit by Freddie Hunt the race was restarted under yellow. The restart was single file, and Wilson was able to pass Baldwin at the Andretti Hairpin. Behind them, Ben Clucas and Andrew Aquilante were sitting in third and fourth. Meanwhile, Cooper decided to play it safe and not to go on the offensive, and so he happily gave up sixth position on the restart. The pass earned Wilson the Cadillac ATS-V Move of the Race Award.

Although Hunt was taken to the hospital after the wreck, he’s expected to make a full recovery.

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