Finally, the cursed offseason is coming to a close. Despite the onslaught of big announcements recently in NASCAR’s sphere of influence (Jeff Gordon announcing the end of his full-time tenure in Sprint Cup at the end of the season, Brian Vickers announcing his return at Las Vegas, Rico Abreu moving to K&N Pro Series East, etc.), you’re likely still jonesing for some cars on a racetrack, especially if you lack MavTV.
This weekend, you’ll get your chance. While there will be no Gordon in Daytona this weekend (perhaps next year?), there will be a couple of hundred other racers taking on the 3.56 mile infield road course at Daytona International Speedway in the 53rd running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
All 24 hours of the race will be televised either on TV or on the internet. Live coverage of the start will air starting Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. on FOX (the start itself is scheduled for 2:10 p.m. ET). At 4 p.m., the race will move to FOX Sports 2 and stay there until 8 p.m. At that point, the race will shift to FOX Sports 1 until 10 p.m. Overnight coverage will be aired on IMSA.com and FansChoice.tv, free to all viewers from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. FOX Sports 1 will come back at 7 a.m. and cover everything through the finish. International viewers can watch the whole thing on IMSA.com if they so choose. I will be live tweeting as much as of the race as I possibly can on my personal Twitter feed and hope to talk to some of you during the race.
With that out of the way, what do you have to look forward to over 24 hours in the four classes? A number of big stories.
Once again, the major point of discussion will be the Daytona Prototypes versus the Le Mans Prototype 2 cars (or simply, P2’s). Arguably, the topic is always in play regardless of where TUSC is racing, but never is it more clearly evident than at Daytona. Balance of Performance (BoP) is always a crucial aspect in the Prototype class and last year saw the Daytona Prototypes have a clear advantage due to having less downforce and more power. Much of last year was spent trying to equalize the two types of cars so that they could legitimately race together. Ultimately, officials may never get the two types of cars identical in performance, but the various rule adjustments appear to have gotten the cars close enough so that it’s not necessarily a foregone conclusion that a Daytona Prototype will be in Victory Lane Sunday afternoon.
Six P2 prototypes will take the start Saturday afternoon. The most notable of the bunch is the No. 60 Honda-powered Ligier JS P2 fielded by Michael Shank Racing (MSR). With the DP’s becoming obsolete after 2016, MSR was the first DP team to make the move to a Le Mans prototype, switching from their Ford EcoBoost-powered Riley DPG3 to the Ligier. It just so happens that their car is the same car that OAK Racing used in the last two races of 2014 and Gustavo Yacaman won pole in on debut at Circuit of the Americas.
The move so far has been very good. The team has topped the charts in all three practice sessions and full-time driver Oswaldo Negri, Jr. put the No. 60 on the overall pole with a lap of 1:39.194 (129.201 mph). For Daytona, the team drafts in AJ Allmendinger on a yearly basis to drive. In past years (most notably 2012, when the team took the overall victory), Allmendinger has served as the team’s go-to guy in the clutch. Allmendinger had never driven a P2 car until recently, but was clearly on pace during the Roar. Watch out for these chaps. They’re going to be a tough out.
The other P2 teams are not quite as fast as the Shank army. Krohn Racing, which competed part-time in the only Pro-Am entry in GT-Le Mans last season, is also campaigning a Ligier JS P2, but with a Judd engine. Team owner Tracy Krohn is probably the weakest driver in the lineup, but OAK Racing regulars Olivier Pla and Alex Brundle (son of Martin) and Krohn’s longtime co-driver Nic Jonsson will more than take up the slack. Problem is, I just don’t see the team really being up in the hunt. Extreme Speed Motorsports is thrashing away with their new HPD ARX-04b’s. The No. 2 was legitimately completed in the garage on Thursday and qualified slower than the fastest PC entries. The No. 1 skipped qualifying, but is at least completed and did test during the Roar. Teething problems will likely derail the HPD’s from doing much in the race.
Then, you have the diesel-powered Mazdas. They’re still a work in progress. In 2013, Clint Bowyer said, “The diesels? [They’re] chicanes!” during a mid-race press conference to describe the diesel-powered Mazda6’s racing in Grand-Am’s GX-class. That’s a very good way to describe the Lola-based prototypes carrying the Mazda diesels last year. They were slower than almost all of the GT-Daytona entries. Qualifying and practice shows that the Mazdas have made great strides. They are still three to four seconds off the pace of the frontrunners, though. Reliability is the key for the two diesels.
The DeltaWing could be a true wild card. The team has a great driving lineup with full season drivers Katherine Legge and Memo Rojas. For Daytona, former Indy Lights champion Gabby Chaves and former full-time driver Andy Meyrick return to the fold to pitch in as well.
The team has improved by leaps and bounds since they lured Tim Keene away from Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates to serve as Team Manager. Both the car and the four-cylinder Elan engine have been developed significantly to the point where the car is legitimately competitive with the best teams. Meyrick qualified the DeltaWing fifth overall, just a half-second off pole. The DeltaWing’s smaller engine and less horsepower will mean better fuel mileage in the race. Mark my words. There could be a surprise here if the car holds together.
Finally, you have the DP’s. With 12 Rolex 24’s under their belts, these cars are very well sorted out for the distance. The power advantage will likely still show up on the tri-oval sections of the course, but less so as compared to last year.
Here, you have your choice of three engines. Do you prefer the Ford EcoBoost-powered Rileys, the BMW V8’s, or the slightly louder Chevrolet engines? All three could be up in the hunt come Sunday afternoon should the chips fall correctly.
For the Chevrolet Corvette DP Evo’s, you start with the defending champions of the race and TUSC from Action Express Racing. Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi are back for another full season and have a full-time primary sponsor in Mustang Sampling, a company that manufactures conditioning systems for the oil and gas industry. Verizon IndyCar Series regular Sebastien Bourdais reunites with the team for another go. By all means, the trio should be very strong. Another strong Corvette trio will be the Wayne Taylor Racing No. 10, shared by Max Angelelli, Jordan Taylor and Ricky Taylor. Last year, the trio led for approximately one-third of the distance (Note: Jordan and Ricky’s father, Wayne Taylor, did drive during last year’s race, but only for one stint that lasted approximately 45 minutes).
With MSR’s defection to the Ligier ranks, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates is the only squad running the V6 Ford EcoBoost engine. The usual two-car Daytona assault sees pretty much everyone under contract with Ganassi come out to have at it, as usual. The No. 01 features 54-year old Scott Pruett with new full-time teammate Joey Hand, back from DTM in Germany. They’ll be joined by Charlie Kimball and Sage Karam. Karam’s the one to watch here. Last year, the 19-year old impressed at Sebring, leading overall and keeping himself in position to win overall before dropping back. The No. 02 is the utility team, featuring IndyCar and Sprint Cup drivers. Scott Dixon qualified the car second overall and will share with Tony Kanaan, Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson. Expect both cars to be in the hunt late in the race unless something major happens.
For the BMW lovers, despite three cars running the V8 engine, you really only have one dog in the fight. That is the No. 7 for Starworks Motorsport. Formula One veteran Rubens Barrichello returns to Daytona and heads up a driving lineup including Porsche factory driver Brendon Hartley and 2013 IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay. The team spent 2014 trying to develop a Honda power plant that never really panned out. However, the lineup is strong and the BMW engine is proven.
The PC class is a bit thinner as compared to 2014. Only eight cars are entered for the race. One of those cars is the No. 54 of defending champions core Autosport. Last year, despite team principal Jon Bennett spinning out on the first lap of the race, the team dominated the proceeds to win the class by a lap. For 2015, the team returns all four drivers from that lineup. Bennett is again joined for the full season by former Camping World Truck Series regular Colin Braun. James Gue and Canadian Mark Wilkins also return for another go around. In testing and practice, the team was very fast. However, they did not claim the class pole.
Those honors went to the No. 16 entry from BAR1 Motorsport. Full-time driver Johnny Mowlem turned in a lap of 1:42.480 (125.059 mph) to take the class pole in a bit of a surprise. He’ll be joined by fellow full timer Tom Papadopoulos, Brian Alder, Tomy Drissi and Martin Plowman, who is scheduled to split time between this entry and the No. 61, which he qualified. Also, you won’t miss the No. 16 on TV. Drissi owns a company that creates displays for upcoming films that are placed in movie theaters. For more than a decade, Drissi’s cars carry logos of an upcoming film that is going to be released. This week, it’s The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, which opens in February. The car has a sea motif with Spongebob characters all over.
By all means, the No. 54 of core Autosport is a sizable favorite here. However, the No. 52 from PR1/Mathaisen Motorsports (Mike Guasch, Tom Kimber-Smith, Andrew Novich and Andrew Palmer) and the No. 8 from Starworks Motorsport (Felipe Albuquerque, Mike Hedlund, Alex Popow, Mirco Schultis and Renger Van der Zande) will give a strong accounting of themselves in the race. Also, don’t count out RSR Racing’s No. 11, featuring Jack Hawksworth and Bruno Junqueira.
GT Le Mans:
Here, we have the factories. The United States is said to have the best GT racing on Earth. Despite only ten entries in the class, all of them are quite strong.
The loss of SRT Motorsports is quite glaring, especially since Kuno Wittmer claimed the driver’s championship last year and doesn’t have a full-time ride (don’t worry, we’re getting to Wittmer in a little bit). However, Chevrolet, BMW and Porsche are all back with full-time two car programs. Aston Martin is back with a single car for the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup rounds only. Of course, that was the plan last year as well. Then, they were uncompetitive at Daytona and said the heck with it. Every indication is that their Vantage V8 is quite a bit stronger than last year. As a result, they’ll likely stick around for all four endurance races.
With the help of a tow from teammate Jan Magnussen, Oliver Gavin put the No. 4 Chevrolet Corvette C7.R on pole with a time of 1:43.488 (123.840 mph), just a second off of the fastest PC entries. Magnussen qualified fifth in class, but still within striking distance. Last year, the Corvettes were in their very first race and were still green. They were very fast and ran well, but broke towards the end, allowing Porsche North America to earn the class victory. With a year of development, the Corvettes may be quite tough to beat.
The Porsches, on the other hand, seem to be a little deficient in all-out speed. The No. 911, qualified by Nick Tandy is the faster car, but Tandy could only manage eighth in class. Frédéric Makowiecki’s No. 912 was the slowest car in the class in qualifying. Compared to last year, it’s quite surprising. The BMW’s not having much in straight-line speed is not surprising. In fact, it has a major issue for BMW Team RLL ever since they switched to the Z4 GTE from the M3. Daytona is likely the worst track for them because of it. However, if they can keep the car together, they should still be able to collect decent finishes.
Personally, I feel like the Corvettes are the cars to beat (either one could pull it off). Outside of the Corvettes, the two usurping teams from Europe are likely to pose a significant threat as well. AF-Corse’s No. 51 Ferrari F458 Italia was qualified by Gianmaria Bruni second in class. He’s joined by Toni Vilander, Francois Perrodo and Emmanuel Collard. Aston Martin Racing will also be in the hunt as well. In Europe, the team has proven to be very tough to beat in both GTE-Pro and GTE-Am in the World Endurance Championship. The lineup of Paul Dalla Lana, former Formula One racer Pedro Lamy, Mathias Lauda and Darren Turner should be right up in the hunt.
The Porsches and BMW’s may be forced to rely on cunning in order to keep themselves in the hunt with their general lack of straight-line speed. However, in a 24 hour race, anything can happen. In all likelihood, core Autosport will not be able to repeat their double victory from last year (in addition to their PC team, core Autosport also operates the Porsche North America factory team in GT-Le Mans).
GT-Daytona is still the largest class in the Rolex 24 at Daytona this year. However, defections to Pirelli World Challenge have cut the class’s size by a third. 19 cars will take the green flag.
Offseason changes in BoP gave the BMW Z4 GT3 a significant power boost. More specifically, the engine’s restrictor has been increased by 19 mm in size. That’s a hole size change from 2.5 to 3.333 inches. Yowza. Only Turner Motorsport is running the Z4, but they’ve had a lot of problems. Markus Palttala is back for the full season with Michael Marsal. They’ll be joined for the race by Boris Said and Andy Priaulx. Said’s a known quantity to the team, but he’s never raced the Z4. Priaulx drove the GTE version of the Z4 last season, but is still inexperienced in endurance racing.
Jeroen Bleekemolen qualified the No. 33 second in class on Thursday, just a tenth of a second and change slower than James Davison’s No. 007 Aston Martin V12 Vantage for TRG-AMR. Jeroen will share the No. 33 with his brother Sebastiaan, Keating and former SRT factory driver Marc Goossens. The aforementioned Wittmer qualified Riley Motorsports’ part-time No. 93 and was in the top 5 when the left rear wheel nut came off in the tri-oval. The resulting crash caused a red flag and will force Wittmer to start in the rear (Note: If you bring out a red flag in qualifying, you lose your fastest two laps). Wittmer will share his car with former teammate Dominik Farnbacher, SCCA Trans-Am racer Cameron Lawrence, and Keating, who is entered in both cars.
There are a number of other entries that should contend. One is the No. 63 Ferrari 458 Italia for Scuderia Corsa. The driving lineup of Alessandro Balzan, Townsend Bell, Anthony Lazzaro and Bill Sweedler is very experienced. Bell and Sweedler were part of the winning GT-Daytona entry for Level 5 Motorsports last year, then finished out the year with AIM Autosport after the Scott Tucker-owned team withdrew from the series.
My personal pick for GT-Daytona is the No. 48 Audi R8 LMS from Paul Miller Racing. The team won the GT-Daytona pole last season, but was unable to contend for the victory. For 2015, they return with a stronger driver lineup. Bryce Miller is no longer racing full-time, content to do the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup races while focusing a bit more on his business interests in his native New Jersey.
Pro driver Christopher Haase returns for a second full season in the Audi with Dion von Moltke as his new full-time teammate. Von Moltke was part of the driving team (along with Albuquerque, Edoardo Mortara and Oliver Jarvis) that won the GT class in an Audi R8 LMS back in 2013. Rounding out the driver lineup is René Rast, who will drive a factory Audi R18 e-tron Quattro this year in the World Endurance Championship, replacing the now-retired Tom Kristensen. Rast is a very fast driver who cannot be discounted under any circumstances. While the team did have problems in qualifying, they should still be a factor despite having to come up from the back.
Regardless of what ultimately happens, this weekend’s Rolex 24 at Daytona should be very exciting to watch. There will be side-by-side action, perhaps a little contact in the infield, and some great moves. Hopefully, there will not be a repeat of last year’s horrible crash that involved Memo Gidley and Matteo Malucelli. The top 28 cars qualified within five seconds of the pole time, so cross-divisional battles could be in play. Traffic won’t be as ridiculous as last year with 53 cars starting instead of 67, but traffic will play a role as to who ultimately wins. I cannot wait. I hope you choose to give it a chance.