Three Mercedes-AMG Motorsport Customer Racing teams will make their IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Lime Rock Park debut this weekend in Saturday’s two-hour and 40-minute Northeast Grand Prix. This race caps a busy schedule of three races in the last four weeks for IMSA’s GT classes and is the eighth race in the 12-round IMSA Championship.
Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports and two-time 2017 race winning drivers Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen come into this weekend looking for a strong showing in their No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3.
Along with endurance race co-driver Mario Farnbacher, Keating, Bleekemolen and the No. 33 team won the 12 Hours of Sebring in March, the first win for the Mercedes-AMG GT3 in IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship competition.
Keating and Bleekemolen followed up the breakout Sebring victory with another win two races later at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas in early May.
The No. 33 operates out of the same Riley Motorsports stable that also fields the No. 50 WeatherTech Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3, which is co-driven by Cooper MacNeil and Gunnar Jeannette.
Splitting the No. 33’s pair of victories, the No. 50 team won on the streets of Long Beach in April, where the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3 placed second.
The one-two Long Beach finish was the first for the Mercedes-AMG GT3 in IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship competition. Mercedes-AMG is also the only manufacturer in the highly-competitive GTD class to score three consecutive race wins in 2017.
The third Mercedes-AMG Customer Racing team competing this weekend is the No. 75 SunEnergy1 Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3, driven by Kenny Habul and Tristan Vautier. Both the first-year SunEnergy1 team and the driver duo will be making their first visit to Lime Rock Park this weekend.
Like the No. 33 and No. 50 teams, SunEnergy1 has added to the list of accomplishments and “firsts” for the Mercedes-AMG GT3 in its debut season of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship competition.
Vautier gave the Mercedes-AMG GT3 its first IMSA WeatherTech Championship pole at Sebring and then joined Habul and third team driver Boris Said in finishing third in the 12-hour race. Two races later at COTA, Habul and Vautier scored their second third-place showing of the year in the No. 75 car.
After sharing the track with faster prototype competitors in each of the year’s first seven races, the Northeast Grand Prix at Lime Rock is the first of two GT feature races on the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech schedule, where only the GT Le Mans (GTLM) and GT Daytona (GTD) classes will compete.
Next month’s round at VIRginia International Raceway (VIR) will give IMSA’s pair of GT classes a second chance to enjoy headline status and a little less traffic.
While this weekend’s race is the first at Lime Rock for the Mercedes-AMG GT3 in IMSA competition, a pair of Mercedes-AMG Customer Racing competitors were in action on the Connecticut track in May’s Pirelli World Challenge race at Lime Rock.
The highlight showing of the World Challenge weekend was a third-place GT Pro/Am class finish by Bleekemolen and teammate Tim Pappas in the Black Swan Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3. Bleekemolen should put that podium experience to good use this weekend in co-driving the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3 with Keating.
With just seven turns within its mile-and-a-half length, Lime Rock is the shortest circuit on the IMSA calendar. A two-day event, the Northeast Grand Prix begins Friday with one-hour morning and afternoon practice sessions before a 15-minute GTD qualifying session later that day at 5:15 p.m. EDT.
Race-day begins on Saturday with a 20-minute warmup session at 9:35 a.m. EDT with the Northeast Grand Prix set to start that afternoon at 3:05 p.m. EDT.
The Northeast Grand Prix can be seen live on FOX Sports 2 (FS2) this Saturday, July 22, at 3 p.m. EDT.
Ben Keating, Driver – No. 33 Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3: “I love the all-GT format. Lime Rock is such a short lap that it doesn’t really make sense to have the prototype classes race with us. I was looking forward to Lime Rock as a place we could have done well, but I expect our car will be a bit too heavy within the current rules. We also don’t have enough top speed right now to be able to make a pass on the straight, so the best place for us to pass other cars may be in the pits! This is definitely a track and race where we might consider a two-tire change or a double stint on the Continentals. I have seen this race won on tire strategy and I’ve seen it lost on tire strategy. Short laps make it difficult to call.”
Jeroen Bleekemolen, Driver – No. 33 Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3: “We had a great World Challenge weekend at Lime Rock earlier this year. The Mercedes-AMG GT3 was good, however the Balance of Performance (BoP) was different that weekend to what it will be this weekend. We will have a more difficult time, but it’s always fun to race GT only. Every now and then it’s great to have these events. It’s also great to go racing with the prototypes, that is part of endurance racing, but IMSA has found a good mix of events. I love small tracks like Lime Rock. Traffic is always a big factor with the lap being so short, but a short lap makes it all very close, so you have to be perfect to be fastest.”
Cooper MacNeil, Driver – No. 50 WeatherTech Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3:
“Lime Rock is a fun little track that can bite you. The lap times are so fast that you barely have time to take a breath. The fast downhill Turn 7 is where you want to focus the setup on the car as it leads onto the front straight, and Turn 1 is really the only passing zone. With lap times around 53 seconds, any little issue in the pits will take you down a lap and make the rest of the race quite difficult.”
Gunnar Jeannette, Driver – No. 50 WeatherTech Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3: “We’ll be heading into Lime Rock with a few extra pounds on our WeatherTech Mercedes-AMG GT3. We were hoping to see the BoP go the other way with our top speed struggles the last few races. Lime Rock is a short track with lap times that are under one minute, which means you can’t afford to spend much time in the pits without going a lap down. It’s also very difficult to pass, so track position will be very important. It’s one of America’s classic road courses and it is fun to drive. I hope we can have a good run!”
Tristan Vautier, Driver – No. 75 SunEnergy1 Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3: “One thing I love about U.S. racing in general is that the tracks are so different from each other. I have never been to Lime Rock before, but I know the track is small, so there will still be a lot of traffic management, even with only two classes on-track. Our weakness within the current rules is straight-line speed, and our strength is medium speed to fast corners, so I think Lime Rock should be OK for the Mercedes-AMG GT3.”
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