Action Express’ title defense quests begin

January 14, 2019

Action Express’ title defense quests begin

January 14, 2019

In a little over a week’s time, Action Express Racing will begin its defense of multiple different IMSA titles.

No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac won 2018 IMSA Prototype title. Photo: Michelin North America

The Denver, N.C.-based team won last year’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship driver’s title in Prototype. They also captured the Michelin Endurance Cup title. But they opened their season with a win at the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

In roughly a decade, the team has raised the game through two different eras of top-level prototype racing in North America. The continued pursuit of greatness for 2019 is no different.

Alas, there are changes. The team’s No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R features its all-Portuguese lineup. Joao Barbosa and Filipe Albuquerque are back, with Barbosa keen to atone from a frustrating 2018 campaign where he missed several races due to injury.

After several years with Patron ESM, Pipo Derani joins Action Express Racing. Photo: Michelin North America

The sister No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac has one major difference. Rapid Brazilian Pipo Derani enters alongside his countryman Felipe Nasr, who alone will have a chance to defend the season title. Eric Curran’s increasingly heavy business commitments see him transitioned to a third driver role for the Michelin Endurance Cup.

One last hurrah for Christian Fittipaldi. Photo: Michelin North America

Traditional Action Express endurance driver Mike Conway is back at least for Daytona, in the No. 5 car rather than the No. 31 car. The team’s sporting director, Christian Fittipaldi, will sign off his driving career at the Rolex 24 looking for one more overall win. He’ll attempt to repeat his triumph with Barbosa and Albuquerque. Meanwhile the No. 31 car seeks to go one spot higher after finishing second in an Action Express 1-2.

There’s one other change too, not unique to Action Express but common throughout the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship paddock. That is the switch to Michelin tires in three of the four classes. The team tested at October’s “On-Track Opportunity” day at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta following Motul Petit Le Mans. Otherwise, it has been a quiet winter without much running until the ROAR Before the Rolex 24 test.

“The biggest change for our team so far was changing the stickers on the car,” Barbosa laughed. “We haven’t had much track time, but we’re looking forward to some laps at the ROAR. I have run on Michelin before, and I know they have a great product.”

Barbosa referenced his time racing old Pescarolo and Dallara LMP900 specification cars in the mid-2000s. His teammates have more recent Michelin experience, albeit in other cars besides the Cadillac DPi.

Derani raced a GTE-Pro class Ferrari 488 GTE at last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. Albuquerque’s most recent experience racing with Michelin came in United Autosport’s Ligier JS P217 car in the European Le Mans Series. Albuquerque and Phil Hanson will share a United Ligier in the 2019-’20 FIA World Endurance Championship season.

But back Stateside, there’s likely to be a healthy rivalry between “Team Portugal” and “Team Brazil” among the full-season lineups. It’s somewhat ironic that Fittipaldi, a Brazilian, will be with his longtime Portuguese teammates at Daytona.

Filipe Albuquerque continues alongside Joao Barbosa. Photo: Michelin North America

“We’ll find out! It’s a very healthy rivalry,” Barbosa said. “Each one of us pushes the other one of us. We seem to get the same results. The 5 car won a couple races, and the 31 car won the championship. It’s working out really well. Every driver pushes the team in a different way. That makes for a better team overall.”

The No. 5 and No. 31 cars qualified fourth and fifth during the recent ROAR test for pit selection and garage spaces. Since winning its 2010 race debut, Action Express has roared to a Rolex 24 victory in 2014 and 2018.

Barbosa, who has been with the team since its inception, looks forward to a year back healthy and competing for a title. Watching his teammates and crew from the sideline also provided him a look into what makes Action Express tick. Leaders like Gary Nelson (team), Chris Mitchum (operations) and Iain Watt (technical) have long steered the helm for this group.

“Last year was a tough year for me. It was the first time in my racing career I ever missed races because of injury,” Barbosa explained. “But it gave me a different perspective. It got me more prepared to face 2019.

“The 5 car has been a strong contender. The goal is still the same. Do the best we can for the team.”

Joao Barbosa optimistic of a healthier 2019. Photo: Michelin North America

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