Daytona Beach, Fla., Feb. 1, 2016 – It was a landmark year for endurance racing in Daytona, starting with the new look of what’s touted as the world’s first motorsports stadium, including nearly 20-foot high letters that spell out the Daytona International Speedway at the main entrance.
Beyond the almost Byzantine new grandstand digs that include multi-tiered concourses and dramatic sightlines from grandstand seats, the pre-race hype for the Rolex 24 was all about the new Ford GTs versus Chevy, Ferrrari and BMW in the production-based LMGT class. Before getting much past the beginning, the Ford GTs suffered early problems and it was Honda that stole a march by winning over-all and scoring its first major Daytona victory at the dawn of a new era.
Winners Scott Sharp, Johannes van Overbeek, Ed Brown and Luis Felipe Derani drove an LMP2 Ligier chassis built in Europe, an unkind good-bye to the Daytona Prototype era after 14 seasons. Next year, the DPi era begins with all prototypes based on the LMP2 model created at the Le Mans 24-hour.
To hear it from the runner-up Corvette DP team, the winning Ligier was just way too fast, which always brings up the question of the so-called Balance of Performance, the constant adjustment of the rules by IMSA to keep different chassis and engines within striking distance of one another.
The Wayne Taylor Racing team ran a flawless race but came up one place and 26 seconds short. “We got beat by a team that had two penalties and some other issues,” said Ricky Taylor, who added that when driven by Sharp and Derani the Ligier of Extreme Speed Motorsports was pulling away. That was just like the Ligier-Honda of Michael Shank Racing, which led handily before its engine blew up near halfway.
On the other hand, the runners-up had other issues. Taylor’s brother Jordan was sick during the race and co-driver Max Angelelli had to seek post-race medical assistance. By contrast, winners Extreme Speed Motorsports spent the last season racing in the World Endurance Championship, which tends to raise a team’s game. Then the team was dismantled and re-built last fall.
“We thought we were going to dominate, but we got our butts kicked in the WEC,” said Brown. “That was kind of tough.” Brown said that racing is all about confidence and the turning point came last year when he and van Overbeek won at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca during a break from the WEC while racing in the newly renamed WeatherTech SportsCar Series. “I learned to get up to speed faster,” said Brown of the WEC schedule that took him to previously unfamiliar circuits.
The dismantlement meant inviting some of the personnel at Onroak Automotive, the builder of the Ligier chassis and a division of OAK Racing, to participate more closely with Extreme Speed, including an engineer on loan. “We took the ten best guys on our team and based them with 10 guys from OAK Racing,” said Sharp.
The team plans to run the Mobil 1 Sebring 12 Hour in March and then concentrate on the WEC with a Nissan power plant in its Ligier chassis. We should pause here to mention the sponsorship from Tequila Patron, where Brown is the CEO, surely helps facilitate the team’s winning maneuvers.
“We had a rough year last year,” said Sharp. “We were the only ones running a Honda (in the WEC). We let them know what we thought was the right decision for this year (to switch to Nissan power). They were happy to hear that we wanted to run the new (Honda) engine at Daytona and Sebring. The engines were reliable and just killed it. They (Honda engineers) were stunned when the engine blew up at the Mike Shank team, but they were confident ours wouldn’t have a problem.”
As for the GT classes, the factory Corvette drivers Oliver Gavin and Antonio Garcia chased each other home in a photo finish. It was an intramural dice that surely had their respective Pratt & Miller crews cringing, not to mention Corvette fans and GM executives.
Garcia got ahead minutes from the finish by diving into Turn 1 on the outside before Gavin drove back underneath him with inches to spare. “He left his brake stop just a little too late,” said Gavin. “We didn’t touch. All I could think about was what our boss, Doug Fehan, would say if we did touch.”
It wasn’t quite the same approach when winner Gavin made his way past the Porsche 911 RSR of Earl Bamber just an hour earlier. He made a “bump and run” pass in the West Horseshoe for the class lead. In this case, Gavin left his braking a tad late.
“It’s a major international race and it was getting down to the end,” said Gavin, whose Corvette was quicker than the Porsche and eventually pulled away. “I was given a warning and told it would have been OK if he had done the same thing.” It was the first Rolex 24 win for Gavin. “The important thing is to get that Rolex watch,” he said.
There may have been disappointment in the Ford GT camp as well as at Porsche, which lost one car to a broken rear axle. But the Ford folks were nevertheless upbeat as was the Ganassi team after the first blush of flat-out competition underscored some problems with the radical red, blue and white car.
“I’d rather have a car that performs well that has durability issues rather than a car that’s durable and that doesn’t perform,” said Dave Pericak, director of Ford Performance. The list of issues included the shift activators, electrics and brake lines that were vulnerable to contact. But until Garcia set the fastest lap in the class in the closing minutes, the No. 67 Ford GT owned it en route to 40th place.
Mike Hull, the team manager at Ganassi, has been down this road before. The Ganassi team ran its first Rolex 24 in 2004 with a new Riley DP under Lexus power. There were teething problems, including wipers that did not work well in the rain. But by the end of the season, the Ganassi team had won the Grand-Am Rolex Series championship. In this year’s race, the team lost one Riley-Ford to a crash and the other finished one lap down in fifth. It was good-bye prototypes at Daytona, hello GT with a bit of déjà-vu.
“There are five Original Equipment Manufacturers that are racing who have a different philosophy that they bring and different technology,” said Hull of the GTLM class. “Obviously, each of them thinks the way they approach it is best. It’s exciting.”
The excitement in the GT Daytona class came from a late-race pass for the lead by one of the stout Lamborghini Huracáns that had run so fast on the banking all day and night. In effect an Audi R8 LMS GT3 chassis with a 5.2-liter V-10 branded as a Lambo motor, the Huracán GT3 of Paul Miller Racing ran out of gas after a last-gasp pass of the winning Audi of Magnus Motorsports, which ran out of gas on the back straight before getting to victory lane.
And what of the LMPC class? It was the scene of aging, open-cockpit prototypes with a lot of rent-a-riders who did their best to bring out the majority of the 21 cautions. One such incident sent the DeltaWing DWC 13, which led three times, into the tire wall at Turn 1 in its last Daytona appearance.
Generally, given all the escalators that go higher than any hook-and-ladder in the new motorsports stadium, this year’s race was an uplifting experience for the couple of thousand onlookers who made it to the new grandstand. But with so many closely contested class races, it was also a satisfying event for the estimated 35,000 who watched from the infield. It’s likely the number of attendees will increase in the future given the amenities on the outside of the track and the trams that go back and forth to the infield.
As usual, those bumped out of the running for victory or whose chances were crapped out by mechanical failures or just good ol’ high-speed contact, or who weren’t fast enough, these drivers and their teams just ran out of options and were left to ponder trying the grueling event again next year.