Turner Motorsport had a disappointing end to the 2021 Michelin Pilot Challenge championship on Friday at Road Atlanta, a feeling that has become all too familiar with the team in the latter half of the racing season. It was a bitter pill to swallow after they were taken out of the IMSA WeatherTech GTD championship hunt after being hit by the #4 Corvette at Virginia International Raceway in October.
The Turner Motorsport duo of Bill Auberlen and Dillon Machavern held the lead in the Michelin Pilot Challenge GS class championship before the final round at Road Atlanta, on the strength of six podium finishes in the #95 M4 GT4 (including wins at Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen). Their primary contender, the #16 Wright Motorsport Porsche Cayman GT4 of Jan Heylen and Ryan Hardwick was just 30 points behind, setting the stage for a winner take all showdown at Road Atlanta.
It was shaping up to be a battle to the wire between Auberlen and Heylen, as we’ve seen in other races this year. Machavern qualified the #95 car in seventh with the #16 Porsche starting in fourth. Machavern worked his way into fifth by the first pit stop after a caution, but lost position in the pits with a front left tire that was difficult to get on. The team made up for that loss in time during another caution shortly afterward, when Auberlen took over and the team took only left-side tires, getting them out ahead of the #16 Porsche.
Unfortunately, the second caution was due to Turner driver Vin Barletta being hit by an Aston Martin and leaving the track at high speed, making hard contact with the tire wall. Barletta was unharmed, but the #96 M4 GT4 (which Barletta shared with Robby Foley) was heavily damaged. The Aston Martin was penalized for the contact.
With 49 minutes left after the lengthy caution period, Auberlen was running second behind Eric Foss in the #56 Murillo Racing Mercedes, with Jan Heylen just behind. With 26 minutes left, Auberlen tried passing the Mercedes and made light contact as Foss defended heavily. Auberlen had the inside line for the next turn, but Foss then turned into Auberlen, making more contact and sending them both off the road as Heylen sailed past for the lead, which he held until the end to clinch the championship. Auberlen wound up stuck in the gravel and finished nineteenth, but he and Machavern still finished second in the championship behind Heylen.
Emotions were high after the incident, with Will Turner visiting the Murillo Racing pit area to share his displeasure. No penalty was given to the Mercedes—which was not in contention for the championship— although it ruined the chance for Auberlen and Heylen to fight for the trophy. “This was set up for a battle between the #16 and the #95, and it’s unfortunate that the orange car [Mercedes] got in the way,” said Turner. “I think we all wanted to see the battle that was going to happen, and clearly we had the Mercedes covered. There’s no reason he had to turn into us or make it hard for us to get by. Now there’s no race for the championship. I’m super-disappointed, but I love the competitiveness of this series. We’ll come back stronger next year.”—David Haueter
[Photo courtesy LAT Images.]