2017 Daytona 24 Hours Race Preview
Everything you need to know about this year’s first endurance race!by Michael Fira, on
Little over 50 years since the first Daytona 24-hour race in 1966, a new era in North-American sports car racing is beaconing and, as ever, it will all kick off on the famed Floridian beach where a host of brand-new prototypes will go head-to-head this twice-around-the-clock event. Now at its 55th edition, the race marks the start of the IMSA Weathertech Sports Car Championship season.
After a 13-year life cycle, the Daytona Prototypes (DPs) have been sent to their respective retirement homes, along with their LMP2-spec arch rivals, and in their place a new bunch of sports racers have arrived to thrill the fans. 2017 marks the debut of the DPi formula, as well as the new LMP2s. The first is based off the latter and, as such, they will race together in the Prototype class that will fight for overall honors.
Just below the bona fide UFOs that are the Prototypes we find the Prototype Challenge category which is entering its last season of competition. The spec prototype class has been a staple of American endurance sports car racing for over half a decade but this will be the last Daytona 24 Hours for the ORECA FLM-09s which, as their name suggests, were launched back in 2009. For this year, only a few cars are fielded in this class which once saw entries in the double digits.
Excitement will also be peaking in the top GT class, GT-LM. This category that features ACO GTE-spec cars from Porsche, Ferrari, BMW (not ACO compliant though), Ford, and Chevrolet and the battle is as heated as ever. Porsche has a new car and Ford brings four GTs to topple last year’s winners, Corvette Racing.
The slowest class of the field is, certainly, not the least important, as we’re talking about the GT-D category which is filled to the brim with GT3 cars. Among a plethora of Porsches and Lamborghinis we find brand-new models from Lexus and Acura, as well as three Mercedes-Benz AMG GT3 cars. The total car count for GT-D alone is 27, adding to the 12 P cars, 5 PC and 11 GT-LM for a grand total of 55 cars on the grid on Saturday, January 28th.
Continue reading for the full story.
First off, let’s not ignore the elephant in the room in the shape of the new fleet of cars within the Prototype category. This year, we’ll have both DPi, which stands for Daytona Prototype International, and LMP2 cars battling for overall honors. All of these cars are new. The story behind this new generation of second-tier prototypes is a bit complicated but I’ll try to summarize it. The ACO along with the FIA decided that the rules for the, then flourishing, LMP2 class should be changed in order to reduce cost. As such, it was decided that only four manufacturers could build chassis around a single type of engine built by Gibson. ORECA, Onroak-Ligier, Riley/Multimatic and Dallara were the four winners and off they went building their new machines which featured upgraded aerodynamics and more power to enlarge the gap between P2s and GTEs.
With growing uncertainty over the power levels of these new prototypes, christened DPis, ACO slowly changed their discourse and decided these cars were no longer accepted at Le Mans
The North-American side did not agree, however, with the new set of rules as it basically ruled out any manufacturer involvement since only one engine was permitted. This prompted IMSA to pitch the ACO with the idea of making a US-only, P2-based rulebook to which the replacement of the DPs would be built. These rules permitted manufacturers to fit their own engines on one of the four chassis builders, as well as adding manufacturer-specific bodywork that would differentiate these cars from their Gibson-powered siblings. With growing uncertainty over the power levels of these new prototypes, christened DPis, ACO slowly changed their discourse and decided these cars were no longer accepted at Le Mans. With or without Le Mans, the DPis marched on and the first manufacturer to unveil a car was Mazda. They’d started off from a Riley/Multimatic chassis but the end result was a very different piece of kit. Up next was Cadillac, with its roots firmly set in the Dallara chassis. Last, but not least, was the Extreme Speed Motorsports-founded Nissan-powered prototype which began life as a Ligier.
To make peace between the two sides of the Atlantic, IMSA permitted ACO P2s to take part in the 2017 season and five of them will race at Daytona, three ORECAs, one Ligier and one Riley. Seven DPis will face them – three Cadillacs, two Mazdas and two Nissans. To further show their closeness to the ACO, IMSA decided it would not apply any BoP modifications on the P2s, focusing instead on making the DPis run as quick as the FIA-blessed cars.
Away from the Prototype extravaganza, more news emerge as we delve deeper into the field. Porsche will field the first 911 since the 911 GT1 of the late ‘90s in GT-LM, featuring a mid-mounted engine. Further down the order we find new cars in GT-D, with Acura debuting its NSX GT3 car with Michael Shank Racing while Lexus will debut the RC-F GT3 with 3GT Motorsport. Also, let’s not forget about Mercedes-Benz which will make its IMSA debut after testing at the end of last season as a non-partner brand of IMSA.
Who are the favorites?
It’s never easy to single out a favorite ahead of a 24-hour-long race and given the wide array of new machinery in the top prototype class, it’s virtually impossible to foresee who might win the 55th edition of the Daytona 24hrs (although, technically, it’s not the 55th time the race has been run to a length of 24 hours).
We can, however, look back at the Roar Before the Daytona 24, the official test before the big race, and the December test to see where the main runners sit. It must, though, be taken with a pinch of salt as, despite IMSA’s new anti-sandbagging telemetry equipment, some teams might still have something up their sleeves. In last December’s test days, Cadillac reigned supreme while, at the Roar, P2s from Dragonspeed and Rebellion Racing set the pace. The key information is not who was quickest but how close all of the 12 cars were, only 1.3 seconds separating first from last.
To prevent a PC car from winning the event, IMSA made sure to reduce the size of the fuel tank by five liters while also taking care to reduce the fuel flow during the stops for the PC cars.
The spec PC class offered, obviously, close times and, as such, the battle should be interesting if the category won’t be hit by attrition. This could, however, also be the case in Prototype given how new all of the cars are. To prevent a PC car from winning the event, IMSA made sure to reduce the size of the fuel tank by five liters while also taking care to reduce the fuel flow during the stops for the PC cars.
Ford dominated in GT-LM, posting the first two fastest lap times at the Roar in their attempt to follow up on their Le Mans success with a Daytona crown. Corvette was not far behind, but one of the Pratt&Miller-built cars, driven by Marcel Fassler at the time, was damaged by a fire on Sunday. The car will still be on the grid next Saturday, Corvette Racing has announced.
In deeper trouble is Porsche, as their brand new contender was not meeting initial performance levels, something to be expected from a brand new car unlike any other in the recent history of the brand. This doesn’t mean that the CORE Autosport-prepared cars won’t be a factor in the race. The same could be said by the only Ferrari in the field, Giuseppe Risi’s 488 GTE boasting a stellar lineup featuring ex-F1 star Giancarlo Fisichella, James Calado and Toni Vilander. Remember that, at Le Mans, this car was the only that gave Ford a run for its money…
Manthey Racing, who are running Porsche’s WEC program in GTE-Pro, topped the time charts at the Roar with their 991 GT3-R spearheaded by Sven Muller. Close behind were a plethora of Lamborghinis, other Porsches (one of which for the returning TRG crew), Mercedes and Audi. The new Lexus and Acura cars weren’t that close to the sharp end of the field.
Picking some favorites from a 27-car field is hard but the Riley-run Mercedes AMG program will surely be strong, as well as the GRT-entered Huracans, TRG and CORE Porsches and, also, last year’s champions, Corsa Motorsport. Aston-Martin will also be back with one works-prepared Vantage GT3 which features the evergreen Pedro Lamy on the lineup. The only BMW of Turner Motorsport could also prove fast, especially in the hands of works BMW drivers Maxime Martin and Jens Klingmann.
What to expect from the race?
At Daytona, changeable weather is harder to manage than on a flat track, such as Sebring. That’s because the flat parts of the infield dry up slower than the oval. This could be very important since there could be rain early on Sunday morning. The race will get underway in rather chilly conditions under an overcast sky. Strategies will clearly differ compared to 2016 when a fuel stint lasted roughly 45 minutes for a Prototype. Strategy will also be affected by cautions, of which there will most likely be a few given the large field.
Look for battles across the GT classes as well as the top prototype category, where we should witness which cars have the upper hand for the first time: the P2s or their siblings, the DPis. Back in the DP vs P2 days, things were much simpler. The heavier, tube-frame chassis DPs would get their tires up to temperature quicker than the lighter P2s and that gave them an advantage on restarts and in the first part of a tire stint. Since the DPis share the carbon fiber monocoques of the P2s, there is almost no weight gap so it is all down to the engines, Gibson on one side and Nissan, Mazda/ER and Cadillac GM on the other, and the different aerodynamic packages.
What we can surely say is that this will be a much better start to an era than that of 1994 and 2003, alas the DPs and WSCs losing against the GT cars. For those in the US, the Fox network will broadcast the race while IMSA.com will have a stream for everyone else.