WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – A conservative approach wasn’t paying off this year for Bill Auberlen and Turner Motorsport.
The most successful driver in American sports car history entered the 2022 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge season determined to focus on consistency rather than outright speed in the pursuit of the Grand Sport (GS) class championship.
“I said, ‘Let’s go for this championship,’” Auberlen said of the strategy he hatched with co-driver Dillon Machavern. “Let’s be conservative. Let’s finish every single race. If we’re in the top five every week, we’re gonna win this thing. And it all went sideways.”
Third place in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway went according to plan, but three consecutive difficult races, including not finishing back-to-back races at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course left the drivers of the No. 95 BMW M4 GT4 mired 12th in the championship standings and in need of a new mindset.
Switching to a “go for the win” mindset on Saturday resulted in Auberlen making an audacious pass for the lead on Christian Szymczak’s No. 72 Murillo Racing Mercedes-AMG GT GT4 in Watkins Glen’s famous “Inner Loop” sequence of corners with about 12 minutes remaining in the Tioga Downs Casino Resort 120.
From there, IMSA’s career leader in victories at the top level (65) pulled away to win his 19th Michelin Pilot Challenge race by 2.055 seconds over Stevan McAleer and Eric Filgueiras in the No. 28 RS1 Porsche 718 GT4 RS Clubsport. Szymczak and co-driver Ken Murillo held on to finish third in the No. 72 Mercedes.
“It’s actually kind of fun to have the weight off our shoulders of the championship and just go out there and run a different strategy and be a little bit more aggressive,” said Machavern, who earned his third career Michelin Pilot Challenge win – each coming with Auberlen in the past year. “Obviously, Bill is able to make some moves that he might not make if we were in the championship hunt.”
The win was the first since Auberlen and Machavern triumphed last August at Road America. Auberlen thought the Turner team’s run of 2022 bad luck had struck again when Machavern sustained a cut right-rear tire just before the halfway point Saturday, but fortunate timing on one of the day’s four full-course cautions allowed them to remain in contact with the leaders.
Taking over for the final stint, Auberlen moved from fifth to first in the space of 20 minutes, making passes with the authority for which he’s become famous.
“I could run really hard because it was kind of do-or-die, and I knew that going up against people who were in the championship, I could try moves that are a bit lower percentage than I normally would,” Auberlen said.
“I would not have done that move early in the season, but (Szymczak) was nice enough to give me enough room and I tried to give him as much room as I could,” he added. “It was fun – I had a really good time out there.”
Trent Hindman and Alan Brynjolfsson (No. 7 Volt Racing Aston Martin Vantage GT4) rallied from a cut tire of their own to finish sixth. They remain in the GS championship lead, 140 points ahead of Eric Foss and the No. 56 Murillo Racing Mercedes.
The Michelin Pilot Challenge makes it back-to-back weekends of racing with the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park 120 set for Saturday, July 2, at the track in Bowmanville, Ontario.