Last weekend (27-28th January) the one of the world’s most famous and gruelling endurance races returned to the Daytona International Speedway, the 24 Hours of Daytona. Held in high esteem by GT drivers, teams and spectators throughout the world, winning the Daytona 24-hour race is considered one part of the triple crown of endurance racing along with 24 Hours of Le Mans and 12 Hours of Sebring.
As well as being a prestigious stand-alone endurance race, the Rolex 24 at Daytona (the race’s official name) marked the first round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. The series travels around a further 11 tracks in North America throughout the year.
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The final half of the race and the winners
After an entire day of racing, 808 laps and 3102.72 miles covered (a new Daytona 24 record), Filipe Albuquerque, Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi won the 24 Hours of Daytona in the Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac. The number five car was dominant through the final quarter of the race once it took the lead. Even after the safety car allowed the second Cadillac to draw closer the Mustang Sampling team stayed out in front to finally collect their Rolex Daytonas from Victory Lane.
In second place was the number 31 Cadillac driven by Felipe Nasr, Stuart Middleton, Eric Curran and Mike Conway. The Whelen Engineering Racing-ran car didn’t have as smooth a ride as the winning Cadillac, it briefly lost its place to the number 54 Oreca driven by Jonathan Bennett, Loic Duval, Colin Braun and Romain Dumas that went on to finish third.
Although this year there wasn’t the intense, final-hour drama of previous Daytona 24 hour races, it was still eventful. Alonso’s Ligier had brake issues that occurred twice into the first corner casuing him to spin. The car had to be taken back to the team garage for the master cylinder to be changed. This didn’t solve the problem entirely, and the two-time F1 world champion has admitted to being scared when the brakes didn’t work at the fastest part of the circuit.
More punctures occurred throughout the race, both of the Jackie Chan Racing LMP2 Orecas suffered just over 12 hours in. The number 90 Cadillac repeatedly went through right rear punctures, a total of seven in 17 hours, so the team decided to retire the car.
The Mazda Joest team’s bad luck continued, both cars were pulled into the garage to deal with turbo problems throughout the night. Then, with less than seven hours to go, the number 55 car pulled off the circuit after it caught fire – possibly another turbo-related problem. The second Mazda was retired shortly after because of the electrical issues that had plagued the car from the start of the race.
Both DPi Nissans retired from the race throughout the night, too; one with turbo failure, the other suffered gearbox issues. Considering the new DPi rules and, as a result, new cars, it’s no surprise some of the Prototype class cars suffered on their first outing – a 24 hour race no less, and one which had surprisingly few car-saving safety car periods.
The Ford GTs continued to stay close throughout most of the second half of the race, occasionally swapping positions. Their strength together on track made them undefeatable finishing in the top two spots in the GTLM class. Even after one of the Corvettes got close, the Chip Ganassi Racing Fords kept their cool and maintained their lead. The number 67 car driven by Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Scott Dixon came in first followed by number 66 piloted by Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Sebastien Bourdais. The final GTLM podium position was taken by the Corvette of Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Mike Rockenfeller.
The fight for the GTD podium positions remained close thanks to the safety car sessions. The 86 NSX had a scare after Kyle Masson in an Oreca collided with the Acura GT3 driven by Katherine Legge forcing her onto the grass. It didn’t ruin the team’s chances, however, as they finished second behind the Lamborghini of Rolf Ineichen, Rik Breukers, Mirko Bortolotti and Franck Perera. The final podium position was taken by the number 48 Lamborghini with Bryan Sellers, Bryce Miller, Madison Snow and Andrea Caldarelli at the wheel.
Every single GTLM car – and all but two GTD cars – finished the race, including the new M8 GTLM on its first outing. The BMW might not have been at the sharp end of the GT field, the team feels as though its balance of performance restrictions haven’t been fair. BMW will work with IMSA to allow the new car to be more competitive, but at the very least this weekend has proved the car’s reliability.
The first half of the race
The drama of the 24 Hours of Daytona started before the Chip Ganassi, this year’s Grand Marshal, had even dropped the flag and started the race. The number 55 Mazda failed to pull out of the pit lane, but Jonathan Bomarito got the car going before the entire pack had pulled away and was able to start from his original qualifying position. The number 58 Porsche 911 GT3 R then sustained damage on the out laps.
By comparison to the build-up, the first corner of the race was relatively drama-free – if you don’t count the thunderous, ground shaking noise of 50 race cars bouncing off the walls, that is. Renger van der Zande in the number 10 DPi Cadillac kept his lead and there was no contact.
Things hotted up as Felipe Nasr then gained four positions to take third, Alonso gained two positions and Joey Hand in the Ford GT took the GTLM lead from Magnussen; all in the first lap.
Filipe Albuquerque in the number five Cadillac took the lead after the first round of pit stops while the Acura of Helio Castroneves stayed in contention until an unscheduled pit stop to sort a door pushed the number seven car down the pack.
Mazda’s bad luck continued; the 55 car lost it front-right wheel on the infield section then the 77 car was held up in the pits by a throttle issue before suffering from a flat tyre.
The Mazdas weren’t the only team to have tyre problems; a total of nine cars in the race, seven in the Prototype class, all had punctures. Continental, the tyre supplier, has said the teams are pushing the tyres beyond their limits with lower than recommended pressures and greater negative camber. The third placed number 31 Cadillac dropped back when its right rear tyre ruptured after being used into its third stint.
Just over five hours into the race a small but heavy shower came, this helped the Penske-run number seven Acura take the lead from the Cadillac. The track dried quickly and drivers who braved the slippery tarmac on slicks benefitted; the Corvette driven by Marcel Fassler was one, as was the number 11 Lamborghini driven by Franck Perera staying fourth in class.
Less than ten hours into the race, and after some well-executed pit stops and a fortuitously-timed full-course yellows, both the Penske-run Acuras got in front of the number five Cadillac. Rahal then spun the number seven Acura and gave the lead to the following Acura, however, he remained ahead of the Cadillacs until the next round of pitstops when the 31 car driven by Mike Conway took the lead for the half-way point.
The two Ford GTs continue to lead the race, a full lap ahead of the third placed Corvette. Trying to catch the front running GTLM cars, Nick Tandy spun his Porsche 911 RSR into the barriers tearing off the front bodywork and rear wing. He limped the number 911 car back to the pits for it to be fixed.
Despite the hours of racing ahead, qualifying is limited to just one 15 minute session for each class. First out was the slowest category, the GTD cars, with the Ferrari 488 GT3s taking three out of the top four places. Daniel Serra took a class pole with a 1 minute 46.049 second lap, just four-tenths of second ahead of Miguel Molina in another Ferrari.
The Lamborghini Huracan of Mirko Bortolotti initially qualified third, but was penalised and sent to the back of the grid after the car failed one of the post qualifying checks. That put the number 15 Lexus RC F GT3 into third.
The Corvettes in the GTLM class worked together, giving each other a tow around the banking to help improve their qualifying times. Eventually the number three ‘Vette driven by Jan Magnussen set the fastest GTLM time of 1 minute 42.779 seconds. His helper, Oliver Gavin, ended up sixth in class behind two Ford GTs and two Porsche 911 RSRs.
In the top category, DPi, and battling for overall pole the Cadillacs and Acuras proved they hadn’t been showing their full hand in the earlier practice sessions and were close to the top of the time sheet in qualifying. Castroneves, in his Penske-run Acura, held a comfortable lead for most of the session with a time of 1 minute 36.090 seconds. That was right up until the last moments when Ranger van der Zande took only 0.007 seconds off Castroneves’s time to take pole.
The Mazdas had been quickest in practice, but only one made it out in the qualifying session setting a time of 1 minute 36.633sconds. That put the number 55 Mazda, driven by Harry Tinknell into ninth on the grid and within a second of the pole winning time.
Alonso kept his Ligier within a second of the leader too, with a 1 minute 37.008 second lap. Very competitive when you consider the other Ligier pilot, ex-F1 driver Bruno Senna, was 2.103 seconds off pole and 1.181 seconds behind Alonso.
Classes, cars and drivers
A total of 50 cars split into three different classes will enter this year’s opening endurance race. The largest class, the GT Daytona (GTD) category will be made up of 21 GT3 cars – all recognisable even if you’re just a casual fan of GT racing. There will be four Ferrari 488 GT3s, against a trio of Lamborghini Huracan GT3s and an equal number of Honda/Acura NSX GT3s, Mercedes-AMG GT3s and Porsche 911 GT3 Rs. The pack will be completed by a duo of Lexus RC F GT3s, two Audi R8 LMS GT3s and a BMW M6 GT3.
The category above GTD, GT Le Mans (GTLM), is full of mostly recognisable cars from the outside. Underneath they differ from their road car relatives somewhat, for example the GTLM-spec Porsche 911, the RSR, is mid-engined. It goes up against the Ferrari 488 GTE, Corvette C7.R, Ford GT and the brand new BMW M8 GTLM, that makes its debut at the race.
Some of the drivers’ names in the GTLM category will be familiar, too. Ex-F1 driver and Le Mans class winner Sebastien Bourdais will be in a Ford, while outright Le Mans winners Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy will be driving Porsches.
The top class, simply named Prototype, sees more obscure-looking cars (as is typical for endurance racing) but with even more recognisable drivers – the most famous being current F1 driver Fernando Alonso who will be competing in a Ligier. This isn’t the first time the Spanish driver has deviated from his usual schedule of Formula One races to compete in America, as last year Alonso skipped the Monaco Grand Prix to race in the Indianapolis 500.
A driver who completely abandoned Formula One for a life of racing in America will be entering this year’s 24 Hours of Daytona, Juan Pablo Montoya. Unlike Alonso, it’s far from his first time racing at Daytona Beach; the charismatic Columbian has won the 24 hours race three times and raced in the Daytona 500 in a Nascar seven times. Alonso and Montoya will be accompanied in the Prototype category by other F1 drivers, including Lance Stroll and Paul Di Resta.
The prototype class is mostly made up of cars conforming to new DPi (Daytona Prototype international) rules. The DPi cars are all based on current LMP2 chassis, but are not restricted to the use of the Gibson V8 and Cosworth electronics package like they are in the FIA and ACO championships. Instead manufacturers can use their own engines, with the freedom to alter the appearance of the car’s nose, side pods, rear wheel arch and rear valance to make them more recognisable. This year’s 24 hour race sees the debut of the new cars racing along side 2017 and 2018 LMP2 cars.
Cadillac, Acura, Nissan and Mazda are all entering DPi cars, but it’s the latter with the most distinctive car thanks to having smoother, flowing lines and elliptical mouth seen on its road cars. Mazda has teamed up with Team Joest, and although the collaboration will be competing in a new category it isn’t either partner’s first time racing in the Daytona 24. Mazda has competed in the GT and GX classes before and Team Joest has had two outright victories. The new team will be campaigning two Mazda RT24-Ps driven by six drivers, including Brits Oliver Jarvis and Harry Tincknell.
As well as the glory and prestige of winning the 24 Hours of Daytona, the main sponsor of the race, Rolex, gifts the winners a chronograph watch. The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona awarded to the drivers who bring their car home first have the date of the race, the race logo and the word ‘Winner’ engraved on the back.