Cadillac wins maiden Prototype race, Ford off to great start in GT class

This year’s Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona was akin to a waterslide which picked up speed in the last couple of hours, with the big splash being in the very last minutes that decided the twice-around-the-clock race in three of the four classes. While at times lackluster due to the extended periods of rain that put proceedings under lengthy safety car periods, the longest race in IMSA’s Weathertech Sportscar Championship did not fail to deliver at the end in both excitement, drama, and controversy.

Daytona is where we’ve seen many formulas stage their debut. It was where the then-new 3.0-liter open-top prototypes kicked off, as well as the World Sportscar prototypes that replaced the GTPs in 1994. Then, in 2003, the Daytona Prototypes also had their first start at the 24-hour-long race. We were all looking back at the positive debuts and the not so positive ones trying to figure out how 2017’s edition will look. But, if anything, it was very hard to read into these 12 new prototypes. Seven of them were US-bound DPis while five were FIA/ACO-spec LMP2s and, after the December Test and the Roar, it was hard to pick a clear favorite. Certainly, the Cadillacs would be a feature but returning Swiss squad Rebellion Racing were also serious bidders for Victory Lane.

The GT classes were no pool of certainty either, new machinery also featuring in both GT-LM and GT-D. Porsche came with their first ever (or first since 1998, if you wish) mid-engined 911 while, further down, it was Lexus and Acura that debuted new cars. Mercedes-Benz was also on its IMSA debut, facing its first ever 24-hour race at Daytona. Perhaps the only certainty was that the Prototype Challenge was going to start in its last season of IMSA competition and a diminished grid of just five ORECA FLM-09s proved it.

Last but not least, weather was potentially preparing to throw a curve ball to add to the race’s equation in the form of rain between Saturday and Sunday. So, how was it all going to play out? We’d all find out in the course of 24 long hours.

Continue reading for the full story.

Prototype

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Cadillac came back from the Roar with the bit between their teeth and dominated qualifying. Portugal’s Joao Barbosa took pole for Action Express Racing via 1:36:903, just 70 hundredths of a second ahead of last year’s champion, team-mate Dane Cameron’s best effort. 1:37:123 was the best any P2 could do and, as expected, it was Neel Jani, Porsche’s World Champion, who delivered the goods for Rebellion Racing. He shared row two of the grid with Ricky Taylor, the top Nissan-Ligier of Extreme Speed Motorsport being fifth quickest – a surprise.

A bigger surprise yet was the lack of pace in the two Riley/Multimatic-based Mazdas. Jonathan Bomarito’s 1:39:940 was some three seconds off Barbosa’s pole lap but SpeedSource said at the time that they never planned to take pole. Having seen what the car can do at the Roar, where one of the Mazdas was second quickest, they decided to take a conservative approach that would, they hoped, see their cars last all the way throughout the 24 hours. The P2-spec Riley was also there, entered by VisitFlorida.com Racing.

Racing got underway nicely at 2:30 PM on Saturday and it was all about Cadillac in the opening few hours. The three Dallara-based prototypes were by far the class of the field as they dispatched the rest of the pack in a battle that saw the No. 31, No. 5 and No. 10 go quicker than Barbosa’s pole lap a number of times. Many commented that, if not for attrition, we’ll witness a Cadillac 1-2-3.

The three Dallara-based prototypes were by far the class of the field as they dispatched the rest of the pack in a battle that saw the No. 31, No. 5 and No. 10 go quicker than Barbosa’s pole lap a number of times

It wasn’t the case though, as the No. 31 was first to hit trouble – quite literally. It was during the tenth hour that the Whelen-sponsored prototype collided with one of the PC cars of Team Starworks, sending it into the wall. But Action Express Racing’s entry got its battle scars too, needing to pit to replace a broken toe-link. This put them six laps back but it never got better for Dane Cameron, Mike Conway, Eric Curran and prototype-debutant Seb Morris. Four hours later, gearbox problems sent the car again to the garage. The time lost was enough to put the car 20 laps behind the leaders at the end. It did not, however, mean that we forgot Seb Morris’ fantastic first stint aboard the Cadillac as he motored away from team-mate Christian Fittipaldi in the other AXR car. That was when rain hit Daytona International Raceway, Welshman Morris probably enjoying the conditions given his British GT background.

The other Action Express car, champion in 2014 and 2015, had much less trouble but the Barbosa-Fittipaldi-Albuquerque trio still lost time during the night as the rear deck needed to be replaced twice, rear lights to blame. This prompted Wayne Taylor Racing up front as the night rolled on but, amid countless caution periods, the Riley of VisitFlorida.com Racing also stepped up to lead the race. It was, in fact, the only truly competitive LMP2 car in the field as both the ORECAs and Ligier hit trouble.

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PR1/Mathiasen’s Ligier pitted with problems after only one lap and it didn’t get much better from there. Electrical issues hit them in the second half, such problems also targeting the JDC-Miller & Rebellion ORECAs. Both stopped on track a number of times, which was followed by stints in the garage. The first ORECA to stop was, however, that of Rebellion Racing which had problems with its throttle-by-wire system after only 2 hours of racing. Dragonspeed’s entry wasn’t any more fortunate. After Elton Julian’s team spent the night between Friday and Saturday rebuilding around the spare chassis following Loic Duval’s practice crash in the main car, it all came to nothing. The car, in the hands of Ben Hanley, crashed out with three hours to go.

In fact, the best of the ORECAs was JDC/Miller’s, the yellow machine finishing fifth in class and 13th overall – granted, it was the only one to cross the finish line anyway. Mazda was also unlucky. Their run for reliability turned into a crawl as the No. 70 encountered clutch problems. Then it was hit by terminal gearbox issues. By that time, the No. 55 surviving crew was moving through the field and was scored as fifth in class. But this car wasn’t meant to finish either after the engine blew up on pit lane with four hours to go.

ESM’s two Nissan-powered DPis both finished but their day wasn’t much easier. The No. 2 did show some pace during the rainy night portions but a number of electrical problems, a penalty and some spins meant that last year’s North American Endurance Champions (and Daytona winners) coul finish no higher than fourth – one place behind the Riley of VisitFlorida.com driven by Marc Goossens, Renger van der Zande and Rene Rast. They battled mainly the lack of top speed due to a lot more front downforce than the Cadillacs and ultimately finished one lap down.

They battled mainly the lack of top speed due to a lot more front downforce than the Cadillacs and ultimately finished one lap down

This brings us to the remaining Cadillacs – No. 5 and No. 10. The two cars battled it out in the last few hours of the event, as the track dried up and they could dispose of the No. 90 Riley. Then it came the second-to-last caution period (which was the 20th of the race – some six hours being spent behind the safety car). At the restart, Joao Barbosa was first and immediately built a comfortable gap, clearly helped by team-mate Mike Conway who blocked Ricky Taylor although he was many laps down. The stewards gave out no penalties so Barbosa’s nine-second lead staid. That was with 50 minutes to go. Half an hour later, the 21st caution was waved due to the disheveled No. 93 Acura who’d lost its front hood. With the field back together, the stage was set for a 15-minute-long to the flag.

Filipe Albuquerque kept the No. 5 Mustang Sampling car ahead but Ricky, racing to win for Angelelli was always looking for a way by. And he found it, with eight minutes to go, as he dived on the inside of Albuquerque braking for turn one. The Portuguese driver moved to the left on a bid to close the door on Taylor but the No. 10 Cadillac was already there and the car touched. No. 5 was sent spinning wide while No. 10 motored on. Again, no action was taken and Ricky Taylor went on to win for his father’s team while Action Express had to settle for second.

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The victory is important for Wayne Taylor Racing for a number of reasons. First, it’s the first since the Sun Trust days, the team taking the Rolex in 2005. It is also the first for Ricky, Jordan and Jeff Gordon. The last of whom last raced at Daytona precisely ten years ago for Sun Trust! It was also a great way to end Max Angelelli’s long career, the Italian already entrusted with the job of Program Chief within the DPi operation.

Action Express, champions every season since the merger in 2014, were gutted by the ‘’close but no cigar’’ result, Albuquerque calling for ,,more sportsmanship’’. There were, however, no protests lodged to the stewards. It leaves us thinking ahead to how could IMSA bridge the gap between Cadillac and everyone else in time for Sebring in March.

Top 5 Prototype Standings

Pos. in Class Pos. Overall No. Drivers Team Car Laps
1 1 10 Taylor/Taylor/Angelelli/Gordon Konica Minolta Cadillac Cadillac DPi 659
2 2 5 Barbosa/Fittipaldi/Albuquerque Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac DPi 659
3 3 90 Goossens/Van Der Zande/Rast VisitFlorida Racing Multimatic/Riley 658
4 4 2 Sharp/Dalziel/Derani Tequila Patron ESM Nissan DPi 656
5 13 85 Miller/Simpson/Goikhberg/Beche JDC-Miller Motorsports ORECA 646

Prototype Challenge

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The PC class bid its farewell from the Daytona fans with a sad-looking five car grid. But all of this was already behind as qualifying commenced, everyone wanting to see if Johnny Mowlem, returned from retirement just for this race, could take a third consecutive pole. It wasn’t to be though as James French managed a brilliant 1:42:559, 0,837 seconds better than Mowlem’s quickest lap. The Performance Tech No. 38 pole-sitter and BAR1 No. 26 second-placed cars were the only to out qualify the GT-LMs but things were going to change in the race.

The pole-sitting No. 38 sailed, at times, and drove to a 22-lap victory after navigating through the race cleanly.

Not many people were left puzzled by the race of attrition that was staged within the PC class. The combination of 24 hours of racing and changing conditions meant that the handful of ORECAs were in the middle of many incidents. One of them even sent the No. 73 Park Place Motorsport Porsche into retirement, through no fault of Matt McMurry who was driving the GT-D car. But one car had none of it. The pole-sitting No. 38 sailed, at times, and drove to a 22-lap victory after navigating through the race cleanly. Nick Boulle, James French, Pato O’Ward and Kyle Masson thus gave the team its first Weathertech Sportscar Championship win.

BAR1’s two ORECAs came home second and third, with Mowlem’s No. 26 ahead of the No. 20. The latter was a further 17 laps down – showing just how many things had happened to the PC cars throughout the race. Starworks had an awful weekend, their cars both retiring after plenty of crashes. We’ll see if we get over three PCs for the full-season entry list but, at the moment, it’s hard to believe we’ll reach this tally anywhere between Sebring and Petit Le Mans.

Top 5 Prototype Challenge Standings

Pos. in Class Pos. Overall No. Drivers Team Car Laps
1 15 38 French/O’Ward/Masson/Boulle Performance Tech Motorsports ORECA FLM09 638
2 30 26 Papadopoulos/Mowlem/Merzon/Hindman/Cheng BAR1 Motorsports ORECA FLM09 616
3 32 20 Yount/Rice/Kvamme/Ducate/Yacaman BAR1 Motorsports ORECA FLM09 599
4 44 88 Mayer/Dayson/Popow/Rayhall/Daly Starworks Motorsport ORECA FLM09 487
5 45 8 Keating/Wickens/Cumming/Falb/Ruscitti Starworks Motorsport ORECA FLM09 464

GT Le Mans

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Ford brought four cars to Daytona to try and bag this race too after winning Le Mans on their debut in 2016. And they started the right way by dominating qualifying, only thing standing between them and a 1-2-3-4 being the Risi Ferrari. Joey Hand was quickest thanks to a 1:43:473. His No. 66 was quicker than both Richard Westbrook’s No. 67 and Olivier Pla’s No. 68. Porsche’s best placed car started fifth while last year’s winner, the No. 4 Corvette, started ninth, 1.2 seconds off the pole.

The race in the top GT category was always going to be close and so it was, helped of course by the 21 caution periods. But still, we never had fewer than five cars in the leading lap and, with two of the Ford battling problems, Porsche, Ferrari and Corvette also were there to have a shot at the win. In the end, Ford’s stranglehold of the lead position for most of the race gave them the victory.

The Blue Oval dominated the early stages but come darkness and rain, Porsche came in its own and due to its better traction took over the lead, running at times 1-2.

Still, it was always hard to pick between the lone Ferrari, the No. 3 Corvette, the Porsches and two of the Fords. The Blue Oval dominated the early stages but come darkness and rain, Porsche came in its own and due to its better traction took over the lead, running at times 1-2. Corvette also led but, left with one bullet in the gun after problems and contact for the No. 4, it was always going to be hard for last year’s winners.

They did, however, make up for the lack of pace in quick pitstops, owing to a strict workout regime for the pit crew. That’s how Antonio Garcia leap frogged his rivals in the last pit sequence to lead the eight-car train into the last 15 minutes. The Spaniard didn’t have the pace and he was soon passed by Calado, with Patrick Pilet (who restarted from sixth) and Dirk Mueller (who restarted from fourth) also getting by. Then Dirk Mueller find room on the inside of Calado in Turn 1, putting No. 66 in the lead. Pilet also passed Calado’s No. 62 Ferrari but the Frenchman could do nothing against Mueller who went on to win by over two seconds. The No. 911 was second followed by the No. 62 and the No. 3. Ford’s No. 69 and No. 68 entries were also in the Top 8 as was the No. 912 Porsche. In fact, the first car off the lead lap was the surviving No. 19 Art Car BMW. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan M6 GTLM lacked pace all through the race and, adding insult to injury, the No. 24 retired a mere hour into the race with gearbox failure.

Top 5 GT-LM Standings

Pos. in Class Pos. Overall No. Drivers Team Car Laps
1 5 66 Mueller/Hand/Bourdais Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT 652
2 6 911 Pilet/Werner Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR 652
3 7 62 Makowiecki/Fisichella/Calado/Vilander Risi Competitzione Ferrari 488 GTE 652
4 8 3 Garcia/Magnussen/Rockenfeller Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R 652
5 9 69 Tincknell/Priaulx/Kanaan Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK Ford GT 652

GT Daytona

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Hard racing was also displayed in GT-D. All but a couple of manufacturers spent time at the top, with Lamborghini an Aston-Martin running as high as second. The works Aston-Martin team can, however, relish upon their qualifying result, Marco Sorensen putting the Vantage GT3 on third, just behind the two Ferrari 488s of Alessandro Pier Guidi and Alessandro Balzan.

Sadly for the fans of the Prancing Horse, both did not see the flag. The pole-sitting No. 51 Spirit of Race car dropped out early due to misfires caused by an engine sensor problems while, in much more dramatic fashion, the No 63 title-defendind Scuderia Corsa car retired with two hours to go. After great drives by both Balzan and GT3-debuting Sam Bird, it all went out in a puff of engine smoke while Bird was enjoying an eight-second lead. This cleared the way for a fight between Audi, Mercedes and, ultimately, Porsche.

Stevenson Motorsport was never too far behind but after sunrise, the Alegra Motorsport Porsche also engaged in the fight.

Jeroen Bleekemolen took the lead in the surviving Riley No. 33 AMG GT3, the team all but losing the No. 50 after Cooper MacNeil clattered it into the wall in Turn 2a on a damp track. Bleekemolen wasn’t, though, capable to keep behind Chris Mies who dispatched of the Dutchman in the Land Motorsport R8 LMS. Stevenson Motorsport was never too far behind but after sunrise, the Alegra Motorsport Porsche also engaged in the fight.

Carlos De Quesada’s crew, spearheaded by Porsche works driver Michael Christensen, pulled out a surprise victory in the end. By the last restart, following some great pit work at the last stop, Christensen found himself second behind Mies. He proceeded to drive around the German and went on to win a popular victory for the team that, last year, fielded a Riley DP car at Sebring. Mies finished second in the Land Audi followed by Bleekemolen.

Just under the podium was the Acura No. 86 which was on its debut with Michael Shank Racing. The NSXs actually proved highly competitive, leading the race on a number of occasions, sometimes even as a 1-2. The No. 93, which retired towards the end, also engaged in some highly exciting on-track battles with BMW’s Maxime Martin and Bird’s Ferrari during the night with Mark Wilkins doing the driving.

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Lexus had a much less successful debut, Paul Gentilozzi’s team first being hit by the retirement of the No. 14 car driven by none other than five-time overall winner Scott Pruett. The veteran spun by himself in Turn 2a which sent the RC-F GT3 into retirement. The remaining No. 15 had its time at the sharp end of the field due to pit cycles, but ultimately finished 14th due to a puncture in the ninth hour that ripped apart the rear-right fender. It was, though, a good effort given the 27-car field. GT-D will surely offer some amazing racing this season.

Top 5 GT-D Standings

Pos. in Class Pos. Overall No. Drivers Team Car Laps
1 18 28 de Quesada/Morad/Lazare/de Quesada/Christensen Alegra Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R 634
2 19 29 de Phillippi/Mies/Gounon/Schmidt Montaplast by Land-Motorsport Audi R8 LMS GT3 634
3 20 33 Keading/Bleekemolen/Farnbacher/Christodoulou Riley Motorsports-Team AMG Mercedes-AMG GT3 634
4 21 57 Aschenbach/Davis/Bell/Liddell Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS GT3 634
5 22 86 Segal/Negri Jr./Dyer/Hunter-Reay Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 634

For the full results, click here.

Signing off, I would like to build on my previous remark, as I reckon at least three of the four classes will offer excitement. Indeed, the PC class is obsolete and given but a few entries, it will probably not feature in may race recaps. But, we will have the many new prototypes which will fight it out, hopefully, closer than at Daytona and also the two GT classes which never fail to amaze.

When’s the Next Race?

The next event on the 2017 WeatherTech SportsCar Championship calendar is the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, taking place on March 18 at the Sebring International Raceway in Florida. The season will then continue with races at Long Beach, California on April 8 and Austin, Texas on May 7.

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