O’Connell Discusses Pirelli Challenge Title

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Johnny O'Connell won his fourth PWC crown in 2015. (Pirelli photo)
Johnny O'Connell won his fourth PWC crown in 2015. (Pirelli photo)
Johnny O’Connell won his fourth PWC crown in 2015. (Pirelli photo

HUDSON, Mich. – Johnny O’Connell, one of North America’s most accomplished sports car drivers, capped off a spectacular Pirelli World Challenge season to capture his fourth consecutive GT drivers championship for Cadillac Racing.

Driving an all-new Cadillac ATS-VR GT3 sedan, O’Connell survived an early mishap at Long Beach as well as a big fire at Barber Motorsports Park to record four victories and eight additional top-five performances in securing a coveted fourth crown.

The four-time LeMans champion battled right down to the final lap of the season to gain a 61-point margin over Olivier Beretta in a wild, drama-filled season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

O’Connell discussed his season in a recent question-and-answer session with Cadillac.

Q:  After three consecutive Pirelli World Challenge GT titles, what was your mindset entering the 2015 season?

O’Connell: “It was a huge undertaking with a new Cadillac. The amount of man hours put into building the ATS VR was ridiculous. You always visualize in your mind how things will go for the season. But if you asked most people, they would have told you that we didn’t have any chance of winning the GT championship. We would be happy just to get on the podium in 2015 with the new car. But the chassis from the get-go had a very athletic feel and it really came down to the GM and Cadillac horsepower and powertrain.  And it wasn’t easy. We broke a lot of equipment early in the process. Some of our results early in the season proved that I am Irish, because if we had to run 10 or 20 minutes longer, we wouldn’t have made it. But the very first race with that car (at COTA), we finished third. So I was optimistic that if we could keep things together, that we might have a chance for another championship.”

Q: The competition level in the Pirelli World Challenge GT class really jumped up in 2015 with the likes of drivers like Beretta, Dalziel, Davison, Estre and others and some factory efforts too. What did you expect from those drivers and teams?

O’Connell: “It was cool this year. In the previous three championships, there were always two or three guys who were tough and they had their act together. They were driving well and their teams were strong. I’d say, this year, the Pirelli World Challenge had some of the best racing on the planet. You had a factory driver in the McLaren, Ryan Dalziel in the Porsche, factory driver in the Bentley, factory driver in the Ferrari, factory driver in the Nissan and the Lamborghini and the list goes on and on. But I was stoked about it.

“I always had great admiration for the series but the series now should be a destination point for a driver’s career. Sure, when we start out, we all want to race in F-1 or IndyCar. But very few have that road open up for them. But now the Pirelli World Challenge is a place to be. And to be the best, you want to race against the best.  The series was awesome in 2015.”

Q: You had some difficult times at the beginning of the 2015 PWC series too after getting crashed at Long Beach and a fire at Barber. How did the team rebound at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in May?

O’Connell: “I felt good at Long Beach even though the lead only lasted about 75 seconds before I got torpedoed. But that was a critical moment for me mentally. I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve got these guys now.’ Before the Barber race, we had to do an engine change and we started last and we worked our way back up to fourth or fifth. We had a crazy, good race and my confidence with the new car was getting better and better. Of course, we then had the fire in the next race at Barber. I thought that it was game over. But the crew guys put in ridiculous hours to our test car, the mule car, getting it back in shape even though it wasn’t as good of a car.