BOWMANVILLE, CANADA – After such a dismal start to their 2019 campaign, Gavin Ernstone and Jon Morley probably never thought they’d see the day when a 3rd place finish would feel like a disappointment to them. But on Saturday they and their team were robbed of what looked certain to be the first race win for the Simply Vegas Audi in the Michelin Pilot Challenge series.
Neither driver had ever been to the fast and undulating Canadian Tire Motorsports Park before, so both continued to get quicker as the weekend unfolded. In addition, Race Engineer Erik Petersen did a great job tuning the car to an unexpected mandatory minimum tire pressure that was imposed upon the field at the last minute.
By the time qualifying rolled around, Ernstone had begun to find his pace and qualified the car 12th out of 14 drivers. He had good start and held his position in the early laps, cutting through the back of the GS field with the rest of the TCR class. As the 2-hour raced rolled along, his lap times continued to get more competitive and he turned laps comparable to the 5th place car while trying to find his way past the 11th place machine.
After a relatively calm start to the race, a full course yellow came out at the 37 minute mark, presenting the option to fuel the car and change drivers to get Morley behind the wheel. The team took that option and performed their best stop of the season to elevate Morley up into the mix.
From here we’ll fast-forward a bit to the final 10 minutes to avoid giving out any trade secrets. All you need to know is that with 7 laps to go, Morley found himself in second place with a clear pace advantage over the leader. The only issue was that a full course yellow had bunched the field back up and there was now a lapped car (#23) in between Morley and the leader.
This lapped car would be the bane of Morley’s existence, as he continued to fight hard and defend his position, in spite of being a lap down. After a few frustrating, tire abusing laps, Morley was able to find his way by the #23 and had his sights set on Stephen Simpson in the #54 for the lead.
With mounting pressure from behind, Morley knew he needed to make quick work of Simpson so he could gap the field and cruise to victory.
With five laps to go, Morley was all over Simpson heading into turn 6, which leads onto the long back straightaway and a prime passing opportunity. Morley knew Simpson was on the ropes and would try to park him at the apex to hurt his run, but he had no clue how far he would take it, essentially refusing to go to power until Morley had rear-ended him.
The impact somehow knocked Morley’s car into a higher gear, which completely killed his run out of the corner and unfortunately forced his competitors behind him into taking evasive action. During that melee, Brit Casey Jr. drove by and took over 2nd place.
Morley was lucky to get his momentum back without losing another spot and set off to try and get back to the front.
On the very next lap, Morley saw his opportunity. Casey Jr. had gone for an outside pass on Simpson in T2. It was a brave and risky maneuver that would hurt both of them through the corner. As they left turn 2, Simpson tracked all the way out, making contact with his teammate and slowing both cars on the way to turn 3.
Morley dove for the outside in 3 and outbraked Simpson, while Casey Jr snuck through on the inside. With the move successfully completed, Morley released the brakes and progressed through the long duration right hander. Suddenly, out of nowhere, he was hit from behind by the #54 and his car snapped into a slide.
He immediately corrected with the steering wheel, but the car continued to rotate into a spin. However, thanks to years of instructing at the Skip Barber Racing School and driving their Dodge Neons and Mazda 3s in a “spirited fashion”, he knew the battle is never lost in a front wheel drive car.
Morley hammered the gas, lit up the front tires and made one of the greatest saves of his career. As he gathered the car up, he lost momentum and the #52 Honda snuck by for second place.
With only three laps left and some uncertainty about the integrity of his right rear tire, Morley did what he could to get by the Honda, but ultimately wasn’t able to get the pass made. He crossed the line in 3rd for the team’s third straight podium and a huge points gain in the championship standings.
The championship leading #37 Honda had a dreadful day, with their gearbox breaking on the warm-up lap. After their hot start to the season however, they managed to maintain a 5 point lead over Ernstone and Morley.
The #98 Hyundai fell to third in points after suffering an engine failure halfway through the race. The bad luck for those two teams mirrors the tough breaks RSR had at the start of the season and sets up an exciting Championship battle!
This also marks the halfway point of the 10 race season and RSR is feeling optimistic about their chances. The only two tracks on the IMSA schedule that Ernstone has raced at before lie ahead and Morley has experience at all of the remaining tracks. Their first victory can’t be far off!
Make sure to watch the tape delayed broadcasts of our IMPC races on NBCSN. With all the excitement in the TCR class, we’re getting more airtime than ever. Here is a link to the FULL TV SCHEDULE. The next one to air will be the Watkins Glen race on July 11th at 6PM EDT. Set your DVR’s!
The team now has two weeks off before roaring back into action at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut on July 20th. Lime Rock is where Ernstone and Morley made their IMPC debut last year and nearly nabbed a top 5 finish, before a flat tire derailed their efforts late in the race. They’re planning on something far better this year!