Doing some preparation for the Rolex 24 at Daytona and ended up with a bit of an overview/preview. The more one looks, the more interesting angles there are to the race. While prototypes may be the fastest and most likely to compete for top honors, the story for the 2016 Rolex 24 Hours is the GT cars. Opinions on that score may vary, but it still is a compelling race even if your view differs. 2016 is the last year for the Daytona Prototype formula as we know it and the Prototype Challenge class is usually more of an intramural affair. The driver line-ups in the big prototype cars are impressive but much of the chatter revolves around what 2017 will bring in that class.
Why is GT the story? New cars in both GTLM and GTD, teams changing cars, and drivers changing teams and cars. We’ll get to GTLM in a moment, but this is the first race with the full GT3 specification available to customer teams in IMSA.
There are 22 GTD cars on the preliminary entry list. Sadly, the AMG GT3 and the McLaren GT3 offerings are not in the field but Porsche, Audi, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Dodge Viper, BMW and Aston Martin provide the variety.
Times looked reasonably tight at the Roar with most cars within a second of each other. Clearly that is only testing and Daytona is a unique track, but the GT3 platform and prior balancing experience helps to keep things tight. Perhaps most interestingly, however, the sector times from the Roar appear to show that different cars make their speed at different parts of the track – even among similar manufacturers. For example, the #48 Paul Miller Lamborghini was very fast in the infield and slowest on top speed but the #11 O’Gara Motorsport Lamborghini showed almost the opposite.
IMSA was watching as well and issued an Adjustment of Performance bulletin on January 21, 2016 with tweaks for every car in the GTD field. The Aston Martins got the most help with the new Audi R8 LMS and the Lamborghini Huracan losing performance in the form of weight and restrictor.
It still is a bit of a shock to look around at all the change in GTD. Five Lamborghinis? Magnus in an Audi? Stevenson appearing with no Camaro, but rather two Audis? Bell and Sweedler moving to an O’Gara Lamborghini from Scuderia Corsa and then Neilsen moving from the TRG Aston Martin to take one of those vacant Ferrari seats? Kuno Wittmer moving from the TRG Aston Martin to the GTLM BMW? Pumpelly released from Park Place Porsche and landing with Change Racing in a Lamborghini? World Challenge Cadillac ace Andy Pilgrim released and landing alongside Patrick Long, Nicky Catsburg and Tim Pappas in a Porsche? What about seeing ex-Falken GTLM Porsche drivers Sellers and Henzler in GTD with Sellers in the Paul Miller Lamborghini and Henzler in the Team Seattle Porsche? Arguably, the defending GTD winning Viper team has the most stability in terms of car, driver and team. Alex Job would also be a strong bet with his deep experience and talented driver squad and a brand new 991GT3R.
Dark horse? Hard to call the Frikadelli Porsche a dark horse with so much experience at the Nurburgring and talent in the driver’s seat, but this will be their first race away from home. Daytona is much different – arguably much less perilous than the Nurburgring in terms of traffic, weather, bumpiness of the track. They did very well at the Roar so keep an eye on the Queen of the Ring and her team.
GTD is likely to be slightly slower in 2016 than 2015 due to the greater downforce and drag on the cars. Fastest race lap in 2015 was about 1:47 compared to a fastest Roar time of about a second slower, but the field may be tighter in 2016. We’ll also have to wait and see what impact the Adjustment of Performance will have.
The big off-season story in IMSA is clearly the appearance of the Ford GT program with Ganassi Racing. The two car team will be part of an 11 car GTLM field. That means there will be 33 GT cars on the grid of the total 54 entries – about 60% of the field. It is a good time to be a GT racing fan.
The driving line-up in the Ganassi entries is stellar – perhaps rivaled only by the line-up in Ganassi’s prototype cars, but that’s a separate story. Porsche brings two revised 911RSR cars back along with BMW with two brand new M6 cars (in place of the now-retired Z4 platform) and Corvette with two cars. Scuderia Corsa, who ran two Ferrari 458 entries in GTD in 2015, splits their effort for 2016 with one car in GTD and another in GTLM. Scuderia Corsa joins SMP Racing and Risi Competizione with the brand new 488 GTE platform for the car’s first outing. The car is so new that Risi shook its car down at the factory before shipping it to Miami to have it delivered directly to the track in the days prior to the race.
2015 saw some epic battles in GTLM, so what did the Roar tell us about 2016? Who knows? Nobody has any faith that any of the times were representative of anything. (For example, the two Porsches were together at the bottom of the chart with the two new BMWs closer to the top.) With that said, however, times were all within a second and, like the GTD cars, different cars appeared to make time in different parts of the track. The Fords had a few incidents at the Roar which caused damage and cost time, so the Ganassi team will be hoping that the test got the accidents out of their system.
The Adjustment of Performance Bulletin on January 21 also contained from presents for the GTLM class with changes to boost ratios, fuel capacity and refueling flow restrictors. Nobody has any incentive to show any more cards any earlier than is necessary.
Corvette and BMW finished one-two in 2015 on the same lap – no reason to think that 2016 won’t be just as close. The BMW is a new platform, so reliability is the big question for that team. The winning Corvette is back with Magnussen and quiet fast guy Garcia. Factory Audi driver Mike Rockenfeller joins in place of Ryan Briscoe who moved to the Ford GT program.
One potentially interesting angle worth watching during the race is the gaps between GTLM and Prototype Challenge. While the GTLM cars are likely to be three to four seconds a lap faster than the fastest GTD cars, the gap could be minimal to the slower PC cars – particularly when the full factory hotshoes are in the GTLM cars and the amateur drivers are piloting the PC cars. It wouldn’t be surprising to see GTLM cars making some aggressive moves to avoid getting held up. The GTLM cars appear faster in a straight line, but the PC cars are more nimble in the twisty bits.
In some ways, the Prototype class looks like the most stable class, but there are a variety of sub-plots to watch. Michael Shank wants badly to taste success with his P2 car, particularly has he prepares to make a run at the 2016 24 Hours of LeMans. His P2 has been fast, but sometimes fragile. Amateur John Pew has continued to get faster, but he’s still in a class going up against full professionals. Teammates AJ Allmendinger, Oz Negri, and Olivier Pla (now released from factory Nissan duty) will likely keep this entry at the sharp end of the field.
ESM will have its own P2 in the field. ESM and Shank were at the top of the charts at the Roar, but the bulk of the prototype class was only separated by about a second. The Ligier P2s were rewarded with additional weight via an Adjustment of Performance while the SMP team got a modest weight break.
In other news, the Ganassi team has two strong cars with fairly strong driver lineups. Austrian and recently retired WEC driver and F1 veteran Alex Wurz makes his Daytona debut along with factory Porsche driver and new Ford GT WEC driver Andy Priaulx. Young Lance Stroll completes the line up as the weak point – less experienced than the others by far (as perhaps evidenced by his crash on cold tires during the Roar). The other Ganassi car is the defending race winner – the Indy/NASCAR entry with Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson. Enough said. Two strong bullets in the Ganassi gun.
Mazda may be one of the more interesting stories in prototype after dropping the diesel engine in favor of a two liter inline four cylinder turbocharged gasoline engine. The team maximized the potential of its prior diesel, but making a racing engine out of a production diesel engine was a tall ask. Over 4000 miles of testing and a very strong showing at the Roar suggests this team may have some promise in the race. Mazda has a lot of history at Daytona and 2106 is the 25th anniversary of its famous overall win at LeMans. If the new Mazda engine can stay reliable in its debut, the young quick drivers like newcomer Spencer Pigot and his all American fellow drivers can be a threat.
Scott Pruett moves down pitlane to join the Action Express team in search of yet another Rolex 24 victory. Action Express has had a lot of success over the past several years and the team of Christian Fittipaldi, Filipe Albequerque and Joao Barbosa will likely run a steady and brisk pace with the goal of staying close at the end and then going racing. This car finished second in 2015 and would like to move up a step on the podium.
The VisitFlorida team is all different with Ryan Hunter-Reay joining Ryan Dalziel and Marc Goosens in the Corvette DP. The team finished third in 2015 with a completely different set of drivers. (Rockenfeller will be running with the Corvette squad and Richard Westbrook joined the Ford GT program, both in GTLM. Michael Valiante appears not to have landed a seat – at least not yet.)
Taylor Racing sees no changes, but perhaps spent some time in the off-season focusing on the driver time calculator after running into problems late in the 2015 Daytona 24 hour race costing the team a podium finish.
The plucky Delta Wing appears to have found some funding and assembled an interesting driver squad. The car showed well at the Roar, the fastest in the infield sections of all cars. Mechanical gremlins in the gearbox have sidelined the car in previous endurance events, so reliability will the biggest challenge.
Russian SMP Racing brings their BR01 chassis which is another interesting story, but more about them further below.
The headline for PC is the same as usual – fast enough to mix things up, but not fast or reliable enough to challenge for the overall. In 2015, the top PC cars finished 8th and 10th overall. CORE looks to improve, bringing back most of its driver lineup and looking to experienced engineer Jeff Braun to help steer the ship.
Times within the class are likely to be variable and the margins between cars and lap times wider than other classes. Remember also that the GTLM cars may be mixing it up amongst the PC cars with the PC cars stronger in the infield.
The two Starworks entries from Peter Baron, the CORE entry, and the PR1/Mathiasen defending class winner have the depth and experience to be the strongest. CORE in particular has several years of consistent strength. Others may have spurts of speed and could make things interesting but the pace at the Roar suggests that they’ll have a difficult task.
What else to watch?
European Teams on the Entry Again
In the 1980s and 1990s, European teams would often head to the US for the Daytona 24 and Sebring 12 hours. They bulked up the fields, added some additional flavor, and brought interesting cars. There was a lot more overlap in those days with the 24 Hours of LeMans. Without revisiting all of the gory history of Grand-Am and American LeMans Series, the European presence at Daytona has been sparse for the last decade plus.
The presence of teams and people like Franz Konrad will be a welcome sight. Franz is no stranger to Daytona and is bringing two GTD Lamborghini entries. While it seems a little odd to see the Konrad colors on anything other than a Porsche, he does have modest history with other marques including a brief dalliance with a Lola prototype and Saleen S7-R. (If memory serves, the Lola had a spectacular engine failure at the Rolex 24 in 1999 and retired early to the garage.)
As noted earlier, the German Frikadelli team is making its first visit beyond the Ring. The fastest meatball in the world started a Twitter account during the roar and quickly amassed several hundred followers. The team is such a sensation on home soil, they may relish the chance to race slightly outside the spotlight. Sabine Schmitz is certainly well known to Ring fans and Klaus Abbelen (a butcher, business man who has the meatball connection), but the rest of the drivers include Frank Stippler, Patrick Huisman and Sven Müller. Huisman and Stippler are well known but young Sven is a driver to watch. He is a Porsche factory Junior driver and has run German Carrera Cup, Supercup and WEC races. Another reason to keep an eye on Frikadelli as a potential threat.
With perhaps the most interesting combination on the entry, Russian SMP Racing will be running a BR01 Nissan powered P2 prototype in the top class and a Ferrari 488 GTE in the GTLM class. This will be the IMSA debut for the BR Engineering prototype, but the team has run at Daytona previously. In 2014, they finished fourth in a Ferrari 458 run in cooperation with the ESM team. The 488 program will be run with partner AF Corsa who has plenty of experience with the GTLM class and Ferrari GT cars in general. The driver line-up may not be familiar to US fans, but Andrea Bertolini and Viktor Shaytar won the GTE-Am class at the 2015 24 Hours of LeMans (and Shaytar won the championship in class). They’ll be joined by Gimmi Bruni who has three LeMans GT class wins to his credit since 2008 and is generally synonymous with Ferrari GT racing over the past 8 or 9 years. Brit James Calado rounds out the driving strength, bringing years of single seat and AF Corsa Ferrari GT racing experience along with him. If you’re looking for a GTLM darkhorse, the SMP Ferrari 488 entry may fit the bill.
The team may run at Sebring as well, but has not yet announced their intentions. The prototype will be obsolete after 2016 with regulation changes, so hopefully the team can get the most mileage and racing activity out of the chassis while it can.
Long term forecasts are fickle, but there aren’t a lot of indicators of anything other than an average January Florida weekend. Mid-60s F during the day, high 40s F overnight, and no major rain to be seen. Given the IMSA weather experience in 2015 at places like Watkins Glen and Road Atlanta, average would be just fine.
Outstanding Driver Combinations
There is an impressive list of drivers from multiple disciplines and multiple places and some really impressive combinations of drivers in cars. There are experienced veterans and fresh novices. There are sportscar specialists and those that make their living in other forms of motorsport or even outside motorsport in the case of some of the amateur drivers.
Some drivers have already seen action in 2016 at the Dubai 24 and a handful will head from Daytona straight for Australia to run the Bathurst 12 hour.
Lots of Reasons to Watch
A total of 54 cars with two-thirds in the GT classes. Some very close times within classes and intriguing overlap between classes. A chance to see how changes of drivers, cars and teams work out. Potential spoilers in the form of teams like Mazda who have been patient and hungry and are ready to play at the front of the field. Stellar drivers with remarkable backgrounds. New hardware like the Ford GT and BMW making their race debut. Factory efforts like Porsche looking to erase the memory of a difficult 2015 race. Cars with strength at different parts of the track could make for interesting battles as the advantage ebbs and flows.
As usual, full coverage from the Radio LeMans team via IMSA Radio. Many teams and drivers on Twitter and other social media combined with outlets like Dailysportscar.com make it easier to keep up with events. Doubtless many more reasons to watch, but those ought to be enough for any motor racing fan. Enjoy!
Photo credits: IMSA, BMW, Porsche, Mike Hull, ViperExchange, Shank Racing, Mikhail Aleshin, CORE, Wayne Taylor Racing, Action Express Racing, Risi Competizione, Konrad Racing