With sports car racing firmly in the motorsports news cycle thanks to the 2014 merger set to combine the Grand-Am Rolex Series and American Le Mans Series, perhaps overlooked is the Pirelli World Challenge, which wrapped its season last month at Sonoma. World Challenge seems primed for a revival given the level of manufacturer and team involvement throughout its four classes.
The marquee GT class in particular got a boost at Sonoma, when Mercedes-Benz came back with its AMG CLK63 Black Series to join a field that already featured Cadillac, Volvo, Porsche, Corvettes, Vipers and Nissans.
By Evosport-MMBS Racing's race debut in Sonoma, the car had only been on track less than a week in total, says driver Craig Stanton.
“Race day was the sixth day; our first day on track at Sonoma was the fourth,” he says. “The first three days were managing heat in the car at Buttonwillow and Willow (Springs). You're trying to keep the diff cool, the brakes cool, while we're in 100-degree heat. Then we started tuning on the car when we got to Sonoma.
“The first day there, to be able to be closer as we got closer to the race, it was awesome. And the presentation, the car was the star, for sure. People coming by to see it, it's like artwork.”
The project was confirmed in February this year but had roots in late 2011. Stanton, a veteran Porsche driver, left his primary seat at Magnus Racing to start this new effort from the ground up.
“The idea really started in November; in December it ramped up, and then in January it was on for real,” he explains. “We had to not only build a car, but build a team. Nobody was at the shop to build a quality car. So it's like moving a several-ton boulder, but you have to get it moving. It wasn't really successful until about May when we had the right people in place.”
Some of the key people involved are the Trefethen family, who supported the team at its first race and own a vineyard – Trefethen Family Vineyards – in Napa Valley. But, as Stanton notes, they're racers first.
“John (the dad) is one of the investors/owners of Evosport-MMBS, but he's a racer himself, and runs a lot of Porsche events in California. His son Lorenzo is too; he drives a spec E30,” he says.
“And they approach their winery like a race team, it's a well-oiled machine wanting to be green, sustainable and family-oriented. They're passionate and excited and know what it takes to get better.”
Stanton now goes into the car itself. His favorite part, he says, is the center of the car, which required little molding to transform from road to race specs.
“The center is, no doubt,” he says. “Three of our fabricators are drivers. Everything done was raising the seat, one hole in front and back. The center set is one of the coolest parts I've seen in the car.
“The vision is good, and the shifter is perfect. The aero and shocks are good for motion control. The StopTech brakes, Pirelli tires; those other systems work well.”
In the offseason Stanton says there are some things needed to do with the front suspension, and work out the front grip levels because the rear is stuck well, but in his words, “stuck, stuck, stuck, so good!” Improving the balance will be key to the car's development in the full 2013 season.
As for its race debut, the team had the goal of running the full distance and accomplished that in 15th place. A minor power steering issue occurred with eight laps remaining but Stanton brought the car home.
“This was our first full race distance in the car and I'm just so happy for the crew and the guys who have worked so hard on this car for months,” Stanton said in the immediate aftermath of the race. “It's a really great car and the potential in the platform is very clearly there. The fan reaction seeing the Mercedes on the track was incredible. Our paddock had a constant stream of fans, series officials and even other teams. All were excited to see the car in World Challenge. I can't wait to see what the guys will be able to do in the offseason.”
Working with lead engineer Chris Willes and the rest of the crew, the team will assemble a test schedule and then be back at it set for a full 2013.