IMSA Michelin Challenge TCR championship year with driver Mark Wilkins

A CONVERSATION WITH BRYAN HERTA AUTOSPORT W/CURB-AGAJANIAN HYUNDAI DRIVER MARK WILKINS ABOUT WHAT IT TOOK TO WIN THE HIGHLY COMPETITIVE SERIES

2018 saw Bryan Herta Autosport w/ CURB-AGAJANIAN winning the TCR team championship in the what is now known as Blancpain World Challenge America. The team’s drivers Micheal Lewis finishing second and Canadian Mark Wilkins finishing in third.

In 2019, a new challenge awaited the team as they elected to join IMSA Michelin Challenge TCR class.

They went on to finish ninth at Daytona and sixth at Sebring before winning the third race on the calendar at Mid-Ohio. This seemed to have been a turning point in their season as they went on to secure first and second in the drivers standings, first in the team standings and only missing out by one point in the manufacturer’s championship for Hyundai.

“I don’t like to think about the bigger picture stuff. I really like to treat it as one corner at a time; just driving in the moment and make the most with what we have.” Mark Wilkins

We asked Mark Wilkins to take us through the season from the driver’s point of view.

Canadian Racers News (CRN) : Mark, it has been just over a month since clinching the IMSA Michelin Challenge TCR title, Have you had a chance to celebrate?

Mark Wilkins (MW) : (Laughing) Yes there has been. We were at Hyundai Headquarter in Fountain Valley (California) for a bit of a celebration. They’ve had a fantastic year overall with their sales and our championship was one of their highpoint of the year as well. So it was fun to celebrate with colleagues at Hyundai. Otherwise, it has been all family with the birth of our second son who is now just over a month old (he was born the week leading to Road Atlanta, NDLR) so a little bit of a lack of sleep on that side. My wife has bear the brunt of the work so I have nothing to complain about nevertheless it has been busy with family which is great.

Then I’ll be heading to Alzenau (Germany) to celebrate with all of the Hyundai Motorsport folks and teams that have won championship for Hyundai this year. That is where the Hyundai Veloster N TCR and Hyundai i30 N TCR are built as well as the World Rally car. We did not have a chance to do it last year but this year all four drivers will be there as well as Bryan (Team owner Bryan Herta, NDLR) and looking forward to celebrating with them. They are a very passionate group of people and it has been a very successful season for them.

CRN : Looking back to Daytona and coming from Pirelli World Challenge(now Blancpain) your teammate Michael Lewis and yourself placing second and third respectively while the team placed first in the championship, how prepared was the team going into this new challenge?

MW : The idea was always to run in IMSA for 2019, the only issue was the decision to build the Veloster N TCR car came in a bit late so we did not actually receive the car until a couple of days before the Daytona race. So, we did not run the Roar test and were a bit on our back foot as we did not know what to expect for the race. That being said, we did run the i30 N TCR last year and the Veloster N and i30 N share around 80% of the components so the cars are very similar in the built and also the drive. So we expected a lot of what we learned in 2018 would apply to the Veloster N and would be able to pick it up pretty quickly for Daytona. Actually, Michael went to Europe in December 2018 to run a few laps and the car performed well so we had no concerns about its performance.

We figured the car was to be competitive out of the gate and it was. Although, Daytona was a tough weekend as Michael was taken out by a competitor in the race and we left Daytona with the car in a bit of a rough shape. Then we went to Sebring and showed better pace, qualified third for the race and then, during the race, we had an infraction in pit lane as one of our crew member was trying to help in a certain situation which was not allowed by the rules. We had to serve a drive through penalty that brought us backward but eventually finished sixth. We completed the first two races and kind of scratch our heads a little as the LA Honda World car had won the first two races and we were standing in seventh or eight in the championship and wondering what we had to do to get our stride.

CRN : Did you know much about your competitors?

MW : One of the reasons we went to IMSA is we wanted a healthy competition and IMSA brings a lot to the table with longer races, more cars, more fans and with some really great circuits. We looked at the competitiveness of the previous year and it was quite strong so we were excited and knew the car would be good and perform well at the tracks on the calendar but also knew the competition would be tough. There were lots of Honda and Audi and just our two Hyundai and so we had our work cut out for us and that competition will grow more for 2020.

CRN : It looks like Mid-Ohio was a major turning point for your season.

MW : Early on, as we were transitioning to the IMSA program from the World Challenge, we had some personnel changes and we got a really great team synergy going. Micheal and I had work together for a couple of years and we get along great. And then Harry(Gottsacker) and Mason(Filippi) (driving the sister car 21, NDLR) are fantastic teammates; they are fast, consistent. They learned a lot and thought us a lot as well. All season we kept saying we are a team of four drivers even though we are competing against each other but we were collectively trying to win for Hyundai. We knew with only two cars against all the Honda and Audi that the only way we could do that was to work together and it did not matter which of the two cars would be on top step of the podium as long as it was a Hyundai.

Mid-Ohio first win of the season

Mid-Ohio was a nail biter to the end and Michael drove a great race (Mark and Michael won the race, NDLR) and that fired everybody up. Harry and Mason were also really quick as well and they had a couple of car issues that held them back. But they have been quick all year.

We just have a great group of people and were having fun, everything was clicking and the car was a blast to drive. I think the dynamic was great and when the dynamic is great you start to get the results as we build more and more confidence and we carried that thought the rest of the season.

CRN : At which point did you realize you had a chance at winning the championship?

MW : You know, it’s funny, I remember Daytona 2015 leading the Rolex 24 (driving a PC for CORE Autosport) Colin(Braun) was driving in the last 45 minutes and my wife said to me “go get your suit on, you have to get ready for the podium” and we had won it in 2014 and I thought no way we’re going to win this two years in a row and I said I really wanted to wait until the end of the race and she said “you’ll miss the podium if you do that”. So anyways, against my better judgement and my superstition I guess, I started getting dressed and there on TV our car was in the wall on fire with about 15 minutes to go. It is one of those things, taking it back to your question, I don’t like to think about the bigger picture stuff. It’s there, it’s a goal that is set at the beginning of the year but I really like to treat it as every corner at a time; just driving in the moment and make the most with what we have and hoping that everything we can control is in place.

Obviously it was in our mind set a few weekends before the last race but it was close. The LA Honda World car was right there even after the Laguna weekend where we finished second they were third and they were quick. I felt I had to have a great drive and beat them and I knew if I could do that it would put us in a better position for the Road Atlanta finale. Road Atlanta is such a fantastic circuit and it is my favourite circuit on the calendar. I had this extra boost of confidence. The Audi were fast and our closest competitor had a problem and did not finish so that gave us a bit of a breathing room but our goal was to win but also to give Hyundai the Manufacturer championship. As it ended, we did win the race but missed the manufacturer championship by one point. We gave it our best and it has been a fantastic weekend and a fantastic year.

CRN : Earlier you mentioned your teammate Michael Lewis, how important a role did he play especially in qualifying?

MW : Well, we actually split it up pretty evenly. At the beginning of the year, we decided for the first six races we would start three and finished three and then after that we split up the last four races in two.. So I started the year qualifying and we kind of went back and forward a bit. But Michael was certainly qualifying master and he is just such a wonderful person. You would never think he is so competitive on track with how nice of a person he is. Above that, we would talk about the car and set the car up the same, we used the same seat insert, the same belt position, we like the car the same. With endurance racing, it’s so important that whenever any of these pieces are not in place, it is a challenge. Even something simple as needing a different insert because of being a different size may lead to a possible mistake during a pitstop, even adding time to it. Also, in having the same taste in how we want the car to behave and such, it is much easier for our engineers to set-up the car.

CRN : Behind this winning team, you have a team owner in Bryan Herta that has been quite involved all season long.

MW : He was at almost all the races, only missing the ones when Indycar was in conflict. So he was at every races he could be at and on the phone at every race he couldn’t be at. He has always been super hands on, which is fantastic. We have his support all the time and whenever there is a question or unsure of something when he is not there, he founds out and offers input. He is such of wealth of knowledge. It literally is a situation where everybody is on the same page.

CRN : Now, for the 2020 season, are things moving towards defending the championship for Michael and yourself?

MW : For now, I can say we are definitely continuing with the program so to defend our IMSA Michelin Challenge TCR championship but also have the opportunity to win the manufacturer’s championship for Hyundai. It is a good program with good people. We felt we had a good package this year and we are to keep that going. We will definitely be at the Roar this year to prepare.

CRN : With Mazda entering the Series, this will give you one more opponent to compete against.

MW : I saw their show car at Road Atlanta. We expect they will be another strong competitor for us. We welcome it, it is just bringing more to the class. We saw it with all year against the GT4 cars, these TCR cars are just awesome to drive, the racing is great and they cost less to run. I think it is a great model that will continue to grow for sure. Seeing our times and where we finished in overall scheme of things in some of the races this year these TCR are very capable and very fast. I’m excited to see Mazda joining with Honda, Audi, Alfa and Hyundai. The TCR class keeps growing and getting stronger.

Mark eluded to the fact there are more to come but could not yet confirmed what is in the works at the moment. No doubt, we will keep you informed on further news about Mark.

Images: Patrice Marchessault / PMstills Photography

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