The most anticipated Rolex 24 at Daytona in years proved that despite seismic shifts in the sportscar landscape, some things will always stay the same as Acura took the overall win for the third year in succession.
Featuring the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class, IMSA’s answer to WEC’s Hypercars – which will race together from here on in – the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship’s season-opener was one of the most hotly anticipated since the amalgamation of Grand Am and the American Le Mans Series exactly 10 years ago.
It wasn’t just the new top class which brought excitement, with LMP2 featuring one of the closest margins of victory at Daytona, while GTD and GTD Pro showcased the best of GT3 racing.
A lot was said in the build up to the 24 hour test of how the new hybrid prototypes would cope in what was really a baptism of fire for a completely new set of cars. Proof of how reliable the cars already are, came with just the one retirement – a relatively old-fashioned gearbox failure for Nick Tandy’s Porsche Penske Motorsport Porsche 963.
Yes, others had issues – notably the sister Porsche and the #25 BMW Team RLL GTP – but it wasn’t a bloodbath and it gives a solid base to build from, especially considering how many of these machines – and their owners – have their eyes set on Le Mans in June.
On track, it was first honours Acura. Meyer Shank Racing’s #60 and Wayne Taylor Racing/ Andretti’s (WTR) #10 had a visible pace advantage, especially around the banking where they regularly showed the Cadillacs a clean pair of heels after every restart.
Tom Blomqvist proved to be the lynchpin for Meyer Shank, with clean, quick, stints aiding in the fights with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Cadillac V.LMDHs which were the most reliable of the new marques but lacked a bit of speed.
Partnering with Colin Braun, Simon Pagenaud, and Helio Castroneves, the quartet have proved to be something of endurance masters now – indeed the team, minus Braun who moved across to the team for this year, secured themselves a Rolex last year too.
A one-two for Acura came from a remarkable rise back up the ranks. An overnight trip to the garage to replace a broken part left WTR three laps down and missing from the podium.
However, numerous caution periods allowed the team to claw laps back, and rapid stints from Louis Deletraz and Filipe Albuquerque put them back into contention. The definitive move was made after a caution period ended with just under 90 minutes to go. Albuquerque pushed his way past Earl Bamber’s #02 Cadillac to take second, and took the flag second with a deficit of just over four seconds to Blomqvist, who anchored the final stint for Meyer Shank.
Cadillacs then took places 3rd to 5th with Chip Ganassi’s duo bettering the Action Express Racing entry, which lost a chunk of time overnight repairing suspension damage after being clipped by a GTD.
BMW’s #24 BMW M Hybrid V8 of Colton Herta, Philipp Eng, Augusto Farfus and Marco Wittmann took sixth overall after overcoming electrical gremlins in the early running.
The #7 Porsche entry was classified in 14th overall after a battery change and a precautionary trip to the garage put pay to Felipe Nasr, Matt Campbell and Michael Christensen’s hopes of a podium having been running in the top five in the opening hours.
GTD Pro & GTD
On paper it’s two categories, but the only difference between the two GT3-based classes is that GTD features Bronze and, more, Silver-rated drivers. That doesn’t particularly stand for much once their drive-time requirements have been met and the Pros jump in to do battle with the all-Pro crews in the aptly named GTD Pro.
And so this edition of the Rolex 24 played out, with the two classes essentially becoming one – aided no-end by the pretty regular caution periods in the closing hours. That played right into the hands of Heart of Racing.
The Aston Martin Vantage crew got Ian James’ time in the bank early on to allow Roman De Angelis, Darren Turner and star man Marco Sorensen more time to plough through the ranks.
It was the Dane who made the key move. Getting the best of Maro Engel, the leader in GTD Pro, Sorensen powered into a lead he held onto throughout the restarts.
He held on to take the flag just two seconds ahead of Engel, who took the GTD Pro win for WeatherTech Racing in its Mercedes-AMG GT3 alongside Jules Gounon, Dani Juncadella and Cooper MacNeil – who made his final IMSA start a winning one.
Aston Martin took a one-two in the secondary GT class as that man Niki Thiim put in another ungodly-quick performance to power Magnus Racing from the outer reaches of GTD to take second for Magnus Racing and Andy Lally, Spencer Pumpelly and John Potter.
Corvette Racing and Vasser Sullivan rounded out the podium places in GTD Pro – the former on great form throughout with Antonio Garcia, Tommy Milner and Jordan Taylor just unable to get the better of the three-pointed star.
Inception Racing took the final spot in GTD as the McLaren 720S GT3 team held off a late-charge from Gradient Racing’s Acura NSX GT3 to start the IMSA season with some hard-fought silverware.
Talk about a thriller. Debuting prototype team Proton Competition, well-known in the GT ranks, took victory in the secondary prototype class by just 0.016 seconds in a remarkable final lap.
It appeared that CrowdStrike would take a debut win in its Algarve Pro Racing Oreca, but James Allen used the slipstream of the leader round the tri-Oval to creep his way alongside and then ever-so-slightly past Ben Hanley to snatch away the class victory in a win that will go down in the Daytona history books.
It was harsh on Hanley, who put in a great job to defend from Job van Uitert in the TDS Racing Oreca and do everything he could to try and take that fabled Rolex watch.
For van Uitert, he didn’t even finish on the podium as he couldn’t hold on in the various late-race restarts and lost out to Nicklas Nielsen, Julien Canal, Francois Perrodo and Mathieu Vaxiviere in the AF Corse entry.
They were all recipients of late-drama from the LMP2 experts PR1/Mathiasen Motorsport and its misfortune. Nico Lapierre spun with just over 90 minutes left coming out of the International Horseshoe and the car refused to fire back into life. The car eventually took the flag in seventh.
The most junior of the prototype classes provided probably the most straightforward of results as AWA finished 12 laps clear of the nearest competition in its Duqueine D08 simply because it was the only LMP3 that didn’t face any issues at all during the 24 Hours.
Stocked with category experts including Wayne Boyd and Nico Varrone alongside Thomas Merrill and Anthony Mantella, the squad finished a very respectable 15th overall.
They benefited from misfortune for the Sean Creech Motorsport entry. The pole-sitting Ligier lost its lead thanks to gear selection troubles, but bounced back to finish ahead of the Performance Tech entry in second.
The next round of the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship is the 12 Hours of Sebring on 18th March.
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