Rolex 24 GTD Class – A Deeper Look
Endurance races have multiple layers and there are a multitude of plots and sub-plots, unseen stories and angles and facts that get filled in later. The Rolex 24 at Daytona had plenty of storylines that grabbed the headlines, but the days and weeks after the race provided an opportunity to have a closer look. The GTD class had the most entries in the race, some of the most significant changes to teams, cars and drivers, and some of the closest racing. With that, some observations and nuggets through the GTD field at the Rolex 24:
The #22 WeatherTech/Alex Job Porsche looked like a strong contender for the win. Shane van Gisbergen in particular was electric. Better known for his Australian V8 Supercar exploits, he set 24 of the top 25 fastest laps for the car throughout the event. With 75 minutes to go, the rear wing mounts failed and the wing laid further back. He later said that he could see the crippled wing in the rear view mirror going into turn 1. Regardless, he charged into the infield and went flat out through the kink where the lack of rear downforce sent him and into a spin across the grass. The team tried to secure the rear wing and sent him back out. Incredibly, he charged into the kink at full speed again and repeated his off course excursion in almost the same tire tracks. A colleague described van Gisbergen as a grenade – pull the pin, stick him in the car, close the door and BOOM. He further proved it by claiming an electric pole and spearheading a three driver team to take the win at the Bathurst 12 hour the following weekend.
The Lamborghini badge made its first appearance in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and let the chance for a debut victory get away despite clearly having the fastest GTD cars in the field. The #16 Change Racing entry and the #48 Paul Miller entry took each other out of the lead and both sustained major suspension damage. The #11 O’Gara car suffered a variety of electrical maladies before the third hour. The #28 Konrad Lamborghini took the lead with under 10 minutes to the checkered flag, but knew fuel would be marginal at best. The team gambled in an effort to claim the win, but ran out of fuel with only 3 minutes to go and lost out on a podium position.
Daytona is unique, but the Lamborghini performance was sufficiently dominant that the marque may find itself the subject of a future Adjustment of Performance. The fastest average lap time for a Lamborghini (and GTD overall) was set by Madison Snow and was a full second clear of the fastest average time for the fastest non-Lamborghini car (Jorg Bergmeister in the Park Place Porsche). How fast were the Lamborghinis through the speed traps? Several cars had faster average top speeds that ALL of the GTLM cars and ALL of the PC cars. Yes, they gave some of it up on the infield to the GTLM and PC cars, but less to the rest of the GTD field. It is easy to understand the frustration of other GTD cars after seeing the Lamborghinis easily whistle past on the banking.
Change Racing and Franz Konrad managed to get some extra preparation time by entering the Lamborghini Huracan in the HSR Classic 24h race at Daytona in November. Change Racing was familiar with the Lamborghini Huracan after having run in the 2015 Super Trofeo series, but appreciated the additional time to adapt to the GT3 specification. The car run by Konrad at the HSR Classic event was shared by multiple teams and drivers at the open IMSA test in November. Perhaps a brand new Lamborghini Huracan GT3 is not strictly a “classic,” but kudos to Change Racing, Konrad and the HSR team to get the new car some track time during the classic event.
The Lamborghini crews worked a full day on Wednesday before the Rolex as fresh engines arrived at 6:30am for all the teams. It was quite a sight to walk through the garages and see all the Lamborghinis with empty engine bays. Perhaps evidence of the Huracan as a new car, several teams had technical manuals within arm’s reach as they worked through the installations.
The Magnus victory was the first win in the US for the new Audi R8 LMS. The team first tested its new arrival on December 7 and announced Marco Seedfried and Rene Rast as drivers a month later to join Andy Lally and John Potter, but it was a bit of a challenge to adjust to seeing Magnus in an Audi after so many years of running Porsches. Rast, Potter and Lally were also on the winning squad when Magnus won in 2012. The victory was Lally’s fifth class victory at the Rolex which puts him in rare company (prior wins were with Archangel Motorsports with Nissan Lola, twice with TRG Porsche, and Magnus Porsche). Rene Rast won a fuel strategy battle which was ironic after coming up just short in a fuel strategy race in 2013. He managed his lead masterfully, running laps several seconds slower than the oncoming Nicky Catsburg in the Black Swan Porsche and Damien Faulkner in the #92 “Don’t Mess with Texas” Viper.
The third place #93 ViperExchange “Don’t Mess with Texas” entry was also the winning GTD chassis in 2015. With their third place in class, the team came only seconds shy of giving the chassis another victory. Team owner Ben Keating found the tires late Saturday night in the #33. The excursion cost 10 laps between the time for the safety crew to recover the car and the subsequent repairs, but pushed ultimately finished only 3 laps down at the end. Damien Faulkner in the #93 not only was the fastest driver in the car, but drove the most laps of any driver in the car and GTD overall, logging 195 laps.
The #33 ViperExchange entry was the only car to completely miss the final Friday practice before the race. A clutch issue that took a lot of methodical effort to chase, diagnose and fix on Friday prevented participation. The problem was fixed, but the team was denied a hardship lap prior to the race which meant the green flag was the first time the team could evaluate its repairs. Likewise, the #93 team car had a brake issue in the final practice and it only got 6 timed laps. The Friday practice session was the only dry practice session which meant that the race start was the first dry running for the #33 car at all, making the 6 laps logged by the #93 quite valuable for the team.
The ViperExchange team had several drivers doing “the double” between the Continental BMW Performance 200 support race on Friday and the Rolex 24 over the weekend. In the #93 Viper that finished 3rd in GTD class and 16th overall, drivers Eric Foss and Jeff Mosing won the ST class in their Murillo Racing Porsche Cayman. On the #33 Viper that finished 10th in GTD and 24th overall in the Rolex 24 after running into problems, Marc Miller finished third in the CJ Wilson Racing “Darth Cayman” GT4 and Jeroen Bleekemolen finished sixth the Muehlner Motorsports Porsche Cayman in the Friday race.
Stevenson Motorsports brought two current spec Audi R8 LMS entries to the Rolex. Fans have been used to seeing Stevenson running Camaros in the Continental series. The #6 Audi was the car that Audi brought to the November test for teams to try out and Stevenson took it home after that test. The Rolex 24 was its first outing. After running consistently in the top 5 in class, damage with four hours to go cost several laps that couldn’t be recovered and the car finished 15th in class and 32nd
The #9 Audi was run by the Phoenix team at the Nurburgring 24 hours in 2015 at the debut for the revised R8 LMS platform. Unfortunately, a power steering problem ended up requiring removal of the gearbox to fix and the team missed the qualifying session. The #9 also suffered an electrical/battery problem at the start of the Rolex 24 which cost two laps at the outset. Once running, however, the #9 Audi ran a clean and consistent race but just didn’t have the outright speed to challenge for the lead. The car finished 8th in class and 22nd overall, 2 laps off the class lead. Dion von Moltke had the fastest average lap times, but Tristan Vautier ran the most laps (190) by far of any driver in the car and the second most laps of any GTD driver in the race.
Frikadelli brought its “Fastest Meatball in the World” to Daytona for the first ever race for the team beyond the Nurburgring. Frank Stippler and Porsche Junior driver Sven Muller were clearly the fastest of the drivers in the #30 Porsche. Queen of the Ring Sabine Schmitz never could get comfortable enough to match their speed. Klaus Abbelen, the butcher whose business is the basis for the meatball theme, showed pace that was reasonably close to Sabine’s speed. The Frikadelli team didn’t have the outright pace, but ran a very clean race to finish 12th in class and 27th Coming to Daytona has been Abbelen’s dream for years and he drove the car for its last stint to the checkered flag.
The #45 Krohn Racing/Flying Lizard Audi was a fan favorite during the Rolex weekend judging by the crowds gathered around its garage space. It never threatened for the lead, suffered through contact with a prototype that damaged its splitter, and ultimately retired with a gearbox problem with four hours to go. The team will return at Sebring for the 12 hours in the older spec Audi R8. The chassis was the same car that placed second in class at the 2014 Rolex 24.
Turner Motorsport brought its pair of BMW M6 GT3 cars for their maiden run in the US. The blue and yellow pair of cars had 16 engineers looking after them, making the Turner team look like something out of NASA Mission Control. The #97 had a very solid run and the best run of the two, placing 6th overall and 2 laps off the class lead. The #96 replaced the gearbox and then later suffered nose damage after a tire blew out and required time in the garage to repair. Oddly enough, the #97 suffered a tire failure in Friday practice as well, but suffered no damage. Neither car had the top speed to compete at the front of the field. The team will be hoping that Sebring fits the car better (and/or looking for changes to the Adjustment of Performance).
The #73 Park Place Porsche sat on pole after a stellar wet qualifying lap by Norbert Siedler and ran very well throughout the race and into Sunday. However, gearbox woes struck on Sunday morning and deprived the team of a strong finish. Driver Patrick Lindsey lost drive coming out of turn 5 and pulled off the track at turn 6 just before the banking and steered the car slowly through infield traffic back to the garage. He had the media center in stitches recounting his voyage weaving between passenger cars, pedestrians and track shuttles. He commented on the irony of getting all kinds of attention for the unusual drive through the infield – more than winning Petit LeMans. The team lost its shot for a win, but got the car back out later to let its season-long drivers meet their minimum drive times for points.
Scuderia Corsa ran a Ferrari 458 in GTD and a brand new Ferrari 488 in GTLM. The team won the 2015 GTD IMSA championship with a completely different driver line-up. The 2016 version ran a clean and consistent race and kept close, but finished two laps down 7th in class and 21st overall. The car wasn’t involved in drama and ran competitive lap times which usually is a recipe for a higher finish. The team should be proud of its run, but will likely be disappointed to miss out on a podium for the final run of the team’s 458 which is expected to be replaced with a shiny new 488 GT3 car. Scuderia Corsa was also busy fielding three cars in the Ferrari Challenge support races over the weekend as well.
The #23 Spirit of Seattle/Alex Job Porsche finished 9th in class and 23rd overall. They raised in excess of $147,000 for Seattle Children’s Hospital based on pledges per lap run. Wolf Henzler joined the team after the Falken Porsche team ceased operations at the end of 2015. The team ran strongly in the top few spots throughout the night before problems with a shock and then a loose rear diffuser in the last few hours slowed things down a bit. A strong run with the new Porsche car should be an encouraging sign for the team.
Perhaps the reward for the invisible car of the race goes to the AF Corse operated Spirit of Race Ferrari 458. The entry barely featured in pre-race coverage and ran a quiet race. They finished 11th in class and 26th overall, 5 laps off the class lead. It was delayed by damage incurred through contact with another car near the halfway point but otherwise ran under the radar until a flat tire with under 19 minutes to go in the race garnered some television time. Pace was consistent with driver Raffaele Gianmaria clearly the fast shoe behind the wheel with average lap times among the non-Lamborghini GTD leaders.
The #007 Racers Group Aston Martin ended its race the late Saturday night/early Sunday morning after side by side contact with the #21 Lamborghini in the bus stop at lap 371. The Lamborghini was a customer car and not a threat for the lead. The contact put both cars out. Formula One driver Sergio Perez was on site to support his brother, Tono Perez, who drove for the team. With Mexican drivers, sponsors and coverage and 100+ guests, there was plenty of buzz all weekend near the TRG garage. Before the race even started, the Aston Martin was the victim of a tire blowout on the front stretch in the second practice session which did significant damage to the right side of the car. While such an issue is never good news, it could have been a lot worse.
Lexus has announced plans to enter the IMSA GTD class mid-season with veteran Scott Pruett relative newcomer Sage Karam as drivers. The team is testing in the early part of 2016 and hopes to race by Laguna Seca or Detroit. The news is noteworthy in light of the theoretical distinction between GTLM being a factory class and GT3 as a customer class. However, another factory entry was at the Rolex 24 in the form of a works supported Aston Martin squad with some very experienced pilots. Pedro Lamy, Mathias Lauda, Paul Della Lana and Richie Stanaway comprised the driver strength. The #98 ran strongly and relatively free of trouble and incidents, staying near the top of the GTD leaderboard consistently. The team finished an impressive fourth, but a late stop for fuel win under 15 minutes remaining cost the team a podium finish.
Perhaps the winner in the GTD livery contest was the #540 Black Swan Racing Porsche with is electric green and chrome wrap. The IMSA entry marked the return for team owner Tim Pappas who had been running in the Pirelli World Challenge series recently in a Mercedes SLS GT3 and a Viper GT3. It also marked a return to Porsche for the Pappas. The team plans to run the entire season with Pappas and Patrick Long as full season drivers and Andy Pilgrim and Nick Catsburg joining for the enduros. Pilgrim was a late addition in December after parting ways with the Cadillac World Challenge. Somehow, Pilgrim is ranked as a Silver category which gives the #540 a very strong driver line up as evidence by the impressive second place GTD finish. Rene Rast’s fuel saving skills in the Magnus Audi is all that stood between the Black Swan team and the top step of the podium.
Arguably, the Rolex 24 was a successful debut for new GT3 cars. Multiple Lamborghinis in the field, multiple new Audis, multiple new Porsches, and new BMW M6 entries put on a show. The Ferrari 488 is coming soon. The Viper and Aston Martin are unlikely to see new versions. The Lexus should show up mid-season. Mercedes will likely be on the grid in 2016 as well. It is a good time to be a GT racing fan. Sebring provides a very different setting with a very different race, but should be fun.