Audi has revealed that its LMDh programme will make its competitive debut at the 2023 running of the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, firing the starting gun for the group of marques all planning to compete in the top category of IMSA and the FIA WEC with brand new LMDh chassis.
The Rolex 24 in January 2023 will mark Audi’s first race as a factory in top-class competition since the end of the 2016 FIA WEC season at Bahrain when its LMP1 hybrid effort came to and end. Audi says its new LMDh (hybrid-powered, LMP2-based prototype featuring bespoke styling cues) will act as the successor to the hugely successful Audi R18 LMP1 which scored wins at Le Mans in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 as both a diesel and hybrid-powered prototype. It is being developed alongside Audi’s SUV that it will compete with in Dakar.
“The new LMDh category fits perfectly with our new set-up in motorsport,” says Julius Seebach, Managing Director Audi Sport GmbH and responsible for Motorsport at Audi. “The regulations allow us to field fascinating race cars in prestigious races worldwide. In addition, we are making use of synergies inside the Volkswagen Group with our partner strategy.”
Audi’s new car is being developed in partnership with sister VAG brand Porsche, which is also set to compete in LMDh. This is almost certainly a strategy which will cut the cost of VAG running two parallel programmes in the same formula. Costs spiralled out of control during the latter years of Audi and Porsche’s LMP1 Hybrid programmes (2014-2016) where both companies were both spending colossal amounts of money to compete against one another.
“A great strengh of the Volkswagen Group is the collaboration of the brands in the development of road cars,” says Seebach. “We are now transferring this proven model to motorsport. Nevertheless, the new sports prototype will be just as much a genuine Audi as the Audi RS e-tron GT that was launched recently and has also been developed on a platform shared with Porsche.”
Audi has selected a chassis supplier for its LMDh, which is rumoured to be the Multimatic LMP2 (the current Multimatic forms the base for Mazda’s DPi chassis), and decided on the concept for its engine.
Andreas Roos, the head of Audi factor motorsport said the “goal is for the first prototype to be on its wheels early next year and to complete its roll-out in the first quarter.” This will be followed by a full test programme ahead of the car’s race debut at Daytona in January 2023.
In addition Audi says it is working on supplying customer LMDh cars in addition to fielding factory entries, with multiple teams already displaying interest.
“With the LMDh project, we are continuing the philosophy of our early years in sports prototypes,” says Andreas Roos. “The Audi R8 was not only the most successful prototype of its time from 2000 to 2006, with 63 victories in 80 races, but it was also very successful in the hands of our customers and easy for the teams to handle. This is also the premise with the electrification of our new sports prototype.
“Our goal is to also put the car in the hands of professional customer teams right from the start, in parallel to factory entries. We are currently evaluating internally how this will work in detail.”
Audi is one of a number of manufacturers signed up to the ACO-IMSA convergence formula, which will see LMDh chassis and Le Mans Hypercars compete together for overall wins in the FIA WEC and at the Le Mans 24 Hours. Using the same cars, LMDh manufacturers are also able to compete in the USA as part of the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship field. (No decision has been made yet on whether or not Hypercars will be eligible to race in IMSA.)
Currently, Porsche and Acura are set to compete in LMDh alongside Audi, with Ferrari, Peugeot, Toyota and Glickenhause all signed up to compete with Le Mans Hypercars. Travel Destinations understands via IMSA paddock sources that at least one more LMDh manufacturer is expected to sign up in the coming weeks and months.
The 2021 of the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona is in the books and it was truly memorable edition, with much to reflect on from each one of the five classes.
In our first debrief column of the year we take a look at the headlines after a thrilling weekend of action to kick off the 2021 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season:
Acura’s gamble pays off
Just days after committing to IMSA long-term with an LMDh programme, Acura scored its most significant DPi victory after Wayne Taylor Racing’s stunning performance in the final hour, which saw Filipe Albuquerque cross the line just four seconds ahead of the Ally Cadillac after the challenge from the factory Ganassi DPi V.R faltered due to a late puncture.
There is so much to unpick here.
Wayne Taylor Racing has now won three Rolex 24s in a row, and with two manufacturers. The team is an absolute powerhouse in long endurance races, and appears to be simply unbeatable at Daytona.
“So much went into this,” said Ricky Taylor, (driver, and son of Wayne) who scored the second overall Rolex victory of his career yesterday. “It was definitely a test of trust and a testament to preparation and sticking to a plan. … We skipped all of the offseason testing because the guys needed time to do everything properly. They know how to win this race. I feel like we were all lucky to be a part of it.”
The victory comes after Acura cut ties with Penske, which ran the brand’s factory effort from the inception of the 05 in 2018 until the end of last season. It was an incredibly bold move to step away from an American team which has such a rich heritage, but it appears to have paid off already. While Penske was able to win an IMSA title last season with the ARX-05, and a handful of other races, the jewel in the crown of the IMSA season is the Rolex 24 and Penske just couldn’t quite better the dominant Cadillacs each January.
You know what they say? If you can’t beat them, join them…
Corvette’s GTLM dominance
Despite BMW’s success at Daytona the past two years in GTLM, Corvette scoring a dominant 1-2 didn’t feel like a surprising outcome this time around.
Corvette’s #3 C8.R led the #4 sister car home after leading virtually the entire race. It’s a significant victory for the C8.R, its first in a 24-hour race, which saw its new car come of age with a mature performance.
But the GTLM class didn’t quite feel right. With BMW scaling back its effort to just the endurance races this year, Porsche’s challenge coming from a single WeatherTech entry after withdrawing as a factory and Risi Competizione bringing a single Ferrari to ensure the class reached six cars, it felt like a throwback to the final days of GT1 when Corvette raced itself primarily, and a rotating cast of other outfits.
It’s a real shame to see GTLM fade like this, but sportscar racing is cyclical in nature. IMSA is having to adapt and transition to a new era; change is on the horizon for GT racing in IMSA which looks to revitalise it. And we’ll get to that later in this piece…
Era, Winward and Riley also emerge victorious
In the other categories there was plenty of action too. Era Motorsport scored an impressive LMP2 win up against an competitive field with its crayon (fan-designed) liveried ORECA 07 Gibson.
In GTD, Mercedes claimed its first Rolex 24 class win with Winward Racing, after a hammer-and-tongs battle for the lead in the closing hours with a Spirit of Race Ferrari. Behind, SunEnergy1 made it a 1-2 for the German marque, ending Lamborghini’s reign at the top in the Rolex 24 in emphatic style.
And in LMP3, it was Riley Motorsport that took the honours. LMP3’s Rolex 24 debut as a category was, as expected, somewhat of a race of attrition, with almost every car in the class suffering mechanical issues. It was however, notable that only one retired. As others in the class ran into trouble, the #74 Ligier JSP320 fielded by Riley took control and eased victory. An impressive run from Bill Riley’s merry band.
A look to the future
The opening IMSA race of the season at Daytona is traditionally filled with speculation and announcements regarding the future and this year was no different.
The major news concerns the GT ranks of IMSA. With the increase in popularity for the forthcoming LMDh formula (which will debut in 2023), and the the GTLM category becoming light on numbers, IMSA has decided to drop the GTE-based class and add a GTD pro category for 2022. This will allow factory and private teams alike to field all-pro line-ups and GT3 cars from a wealth of manufacturers.
This has ramifications for the current GTLM teams and manufacturers, particularly for Corvette Racing, which is only in Year 2 of its C8.R programme. Unfortunately the C8.R was not designed to be easily converted to GT3-spec like Aston Martin’s Vantage or Ferrari’s 488 GTE, meaning Chevrolet will need to carry out a major redesign of the car to carry on competing with the C8.R in IMSA after this season is over.
The downsides are that this will bring unexpected cost to the programme, and prevent it competing at the Le Mans 24 Hours with the car it races in IMSA from next year (as GT3 cars are ineligible to race at La Sarthe currently). However, there is a major upside and that is in its potential competition. GT3 is still very much a healthy formula, and factories and privateer teams alike are likely to see the chance to race with an all-pro line-up for the full IMSA season with existing cars, at a budget significantly lower than in GTLM, as a tantalising prospect.
Beyond the GT news, there’s been plenty of speculation surrounding LMDh, as you would expect. With Audi, Porsche and Acura all signed up, the focus has shifted to the other marques that appear poised to join the top class in two years time. Travel Destinations understands that Ford, BMW, McLaren, Mazda, Hyundai and an un-disclosed GM brand are all expected to make a decision either way (at the very least internally) very soon.
The FIA WEC’s Le Mans Hypercar category is beginning to shape up nicely. With Toyota, Alpine, Glickenhaus, Peugeot and ByKolles all on board, we now await the first programme confirmations for IMSA’s LMDh platform which forms the other half of the planned convergence of the top classes from IMSA and the FIA WEC.
But which OEM will make the first leap of faith and sign off a programme? Over the past few weeks the picture is becoming ever so slightly clearer, as Travel Destinations’ Stephen Kilbey writes…
Push back or push on?
‘A dozen’ marques are believed to all still be involved in the technical working group for the new platform, which will see manufacturers put their own stamp on hybrid-powered next-gen LMP2 chassis and compete in either IMSA, the FIA WEC or both.
Two pertinent questions arose from the latest public update which occurred during the ACO’s annual Press Conference at the Le Mans 24 Hours earlier this month: 1. When will the LMDh formula make its debut? And 2. who will bite the bullet and be first to commit?
Originally LMDh was intended to debut in 2022, but time is ticking and it is becoming clear that a debut for these new cars at the 2022 Rolex 24 Hours in January is an unrealistic target. While reports from RACER.com suggest that the entire time frame has changed, with the debut now expected to be 2023, Pierre Fillon, the President of the ACO, has since said that no firm decision had been made on whether or not we’ll see them race “before or after Le Mans 2022”.
Currently, as the manufacturers continue to study and evaluate future programmes, the process is becoming increasingly difficult with no firm date for the category’s introduction.
It would be a mistake for the organisers to sacrifice 2022 and extend the lifespan of the current DPi field (which is becoming increasingly thin) if more than two factories have plans to be out testing cars this time next year with the intention of being ready for the original time frame. And equally it would be an error for IMSA and the ACO ahead as planned, push for 2022, and struggle to assemble a grid at all.
Ultimately the market will decide when LMDh makes its first appearance…
Porsche’s pulling power
Of all the manufacturers looking likely to commit first, it looks increasingly likely that an OEM which doesn’t currently feature in IMSA’s DPi ranks will be the first to press the green button: Porsche.
If Porsche opts to join LMDh, and its announcement could potentially come as soon as its annual Night of Champions event in December, then it’s truly ‘game on’. All along Porsche has been ‘in the room’ on LMDh and told Travel Destinations back in January that it was a very supportive of ‘convergence’ and the direction that LMDh was heading.
Its has publicly stated that it is formally evaluating an LMDh programme multiple times. And while it didn’t reveal anything in the wake of the ACO Conference which celebrated the publication of the full set of LMDh regulations and showcased LMDh example chassis (of which one looked somewhat Porsche inspired (below)), it did release a statement which served as a reminder that it is serious about returning to prototype racing.
“We’re very happy that FIA, ACO and IMSA have provided the final details of future LMDh regs,” it read. “We’re now able to take the final step in the concept study commissioned by our board of directors.”
With Penske set to cut ties with Acura at the end of the current IMSA season, and Porsche’s GTLM effort coming to a close, the timing seems almost too perfect for a Penske-Porsche reunion?
The question is, would it join the WEC or IMSA, or both? And would it prompt a swathe of other manufacturers to reveal their plans? You’d like to think so…
Someone needs to become the first domino to fall. If it is Porsche, then the potential for more heavy hitters to join in is huge; there is no other manufacturer with an equal level of status, heritage and ‘pulling power’ in sportscar racing.
Of the current DPi pack, Acura (HPD) looks closest to confirming its intention to continue its presence in IMSA’s premier class beyond the current ruleset.
“We are not confirming an LMDh programme today though clearly that is our desire,” said HPD President, Ted Klaus to select media recently.
“It is our intention to go forward with LMDH.”
These comments came shortly after it was announced that Wayne Taylor Racing and Michael Shank Racing would take over from Penske as DPi partner teams from 2021 onwards.
Prying Wayne Taylor from GM after a 30-year relationship was surely not an easy task? Was the promise of something beyond the current DPi programme on the table as a key factor for this move to occur?On paper there appears to be almost no standout reason for WTR to abandon Cadillac after so much success with the current DPi V.R in recent years, while in the midst of a title run in 2020.
But, it has indeed happened, Wayne Taylor making it clear that his involvement in the sport is slowly coming to a close. “I’m really excited about this new adventure we’re entering into,” he told RACER.com’s Marshall Pruett. “I always wanted to finish my career on top, and that’s where I feel we are headed.”
A Le Mans win is something missing from his and (coincidentally) Mike Shank’s CV’s. Will the commitment to Acura’s DPi effort in the short term allow both to gun for the overall win in the coming years?
The view from left field
McLaren is a brand that continues to be mentioned in industry conversations about LMDh. This is in part because it has been actively sniffing around top-level sportscar racing for a number of years now without actually committing to anything. As recently as 2018 it appeared close to signing off a GTE programme, before opting to focus on GT3 and GT3 customer-focused efforts.
Now though, with the viability of GTE in the medium term looking uncertain, it is looking to add a top class programme to its factory motorsport repertoire, as a third prong alongside its Formula One and IndyCar commitments.
With Formula One set to cap costs at the next set of regulations in 2022, the timing appears perfect on the surface to reallocate resources and man power to a new venture in sportscar racing. (This is, in part, why Ferrari is thought to be circling LMDh too.)
McLaren CEO Zak Brown spoke to Travel Destinations last weekend about this very subject and confirmed that the brand is still interested, as he feels Le Mans in particular is “still very relevant”. During the conversation he gave an outline for a timeline for the programme too, stating that if McLaren did enter the LMDh ranks it would have to do so in either 2023 or 2024. “We wouldn’t see the value in entering a formula with less than three years left in the ruleset,” he said.
He also made an interesting point about 2023.
The 2023 Le Mans 24 Hours will be held on the 100th anniversary of the first edition, which will surely attract multiple manufacturers set on taking the overall win on such an important year. It is also a very important year for McLaren.
“There is a real appeal in 2023, as it’s the 60th anniversary of McLaren Racing. Le Mans is like Disneyland, there’s a big anniversary to celebrate for something every year it seems!”
What would a McLaren programme look like? Factory cars with the added punch of customer teams running additional chassis? There has always been the desire from McLaren’s side for customer cars to be made available to make things more financially viable.
Could this see Brown’s other motorsport interest, United Autosports (which he co-owns), step up from an ultra-successful LMP2 and LMP3 team to a player in the top class of sportscar racing?
“I’d like to think we (United) are putting ourselves in a position to be considered on a shortlist as a technical partner for a manufacturer as they come in,” he hinted.
Brown did mention though that there are still a few finer details within the LMDh ruleset which McLaren feel need further work and clarity.
“We have been participating in all the technical meetings and we like the direction they are headed with LMDh,” he said.”However, there is a little bit of concern from our side over how difficult it will be to balance LMDh and LMH cars, specifically in tricky conditions because one set of rules features two-wheel-drive cars (LMDh) and the other features four-wheel-drive. How are going to ensure parity at two in the morning at Le Mans when it’s raining and the Hypercars can power out of the corners with four-wheel-drive?
“They need to be careful. They are confident they can find a way. We just need to make sure it can be done.”
The 2021 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener at Daytona International Speedway – the Rolex 24 Hours – has been given a set of dates, the race set to be held over January 30-31, 2021.
The 59th running of America’s premiere endurance race will again see a star-studded field of prototype and GT cars take on the world-famous Daytona banking. And with Travel Destinations, you can make the trip and experience it for yourself.
IMSA’s 2021 campaign is set to be the final one for the hugely successful DPi platform. Acura, Mazda and Cadillac will be on the grid, their teams getting one last shot at a victory in the championship’s most prestigious race before the LMDh era begins in 2022.
In addition to the dates for the race being confirmed, the annual “Roar Before the Rolex 24” preseason test sessions have been released too. Next year the Roar will be held the weekend before race-week, January 22nd – 24th (Friday-Sunday). This gives a rare opportunity for fans to take in an additional three-days of track action, and fan-focused events at the ONE DAYTONA plaza across the road from the speedway, just before race-week begins.
The Rolex 24 has become an unmissable event in the motorsport calendar in recent years, but it is a race with a long history. It was first held as a three-hour event in 1962, then known as the Daytona Continental. It has become renowned for annually attracting many of the world’s finest drivers – from various racing disciplines – to make history against the world’s best sportscar racers. Historically, drivers from NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula 1 have joined teams for “one-off” efforts. Past Rolex 24 At Daytona champions include four-time NASCAR Cup Series and three-time DAYTONA 500 champion Jeff Gordon, five-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon and two-time Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso. Dixon co-drove to his third Rolex 24 title this past January.
With the Roar Before the 24 test weekend in the books, the focus of the IMSA paddock shifts to the season-opening Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona at the end of the month. Our man in the stands was track-side at the Roar, to tell as what we can expect to see at the Rolex 24 Hours that takes place 26th – 27th January.
We are in to the third year of the DPi formula, in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and it has really hit its stride, across the board. A healthy top class, with elite drivers and new Michelin tyres, have added up to create a Daytona 24 which will likely be unforgettable. Up front the DPi class is now 11-cars strong, with an influx of Cadillac customer teams to add to the already sterling Acura, Mazda and existing Cadillac efforts. There’s manufacturer interest in IMSA, and it’s stronger than ever, with the big three up front, Mazda, Cadillac and Acura all heading into the season on the front foot.Mazda is the biggest mover here, the Joest-run effort finally looking world-beating and capable of winning its first race with two heavily revised RT-24Ps, a new set of backroom staff and Olivier Pla and Timo Bernhard added to the driver roster. Last weekend at the Roar test, the RT-24P was the class of the field on pace, so much so that Oliver Jarvis broke the all-time Daytona infield circuit lap record (unofficially) during the session dedicated to decide the pit boxes and garage allocation for race week. Why is this significant? One because the Mazda finally looks pacey on the unique, challenging speedway course, and two, because the record Jarvis broke stood for over two decades. That’s right, the last man to lap Daytona as fast as Jarvis was PJ Jones back in the GTP era in 1993, in an All American Racers-run Toyota.
Why have DPis become so fast? In part because of the development curve that the cars have been on, but mainly because of the tyre change. Out is Continental,and in is Michelin as the IMSA supplier and the difference is huge. The DPis are lapping Daytona a handful of seconds faster than in the past, with tyres that last longer and that are more predictable. It is still early stages, but it looks like Michelin has come out swinging, and will deliver us what should be the fastest Rolex 24 ever at the end of the month!
Cadillac and Acura are not far behind Mazda, at all, so don’t expect an easy win for Joest, who engineered Audi to over a decade of Le Mans success in the 2000s. In fact, come race week, when it matters there is an expectation that the Wayne Taylor and Action Express Cadillacs and the Penske Acura factory team will all be gunning to break the lap record again, and then the win in the race proper.While the cars have certainly matured, the drivers racing them have too. 2019 in IMSA is set to run with some superb talent behind the wheel, but the Rolex 24 in particular continuing to attract stars. Fernando Alonso? Yes he’s in a Wayne Taylor Cadillac with his WEC teammate Kamui Kobayashi. Rubens Barichello? Check. Mike Conway? Check. The Taylor brothers? Of course. Juan Pablo Montoya? Certainly. And that’s just a handful of drivers in DPi, as the rest of the field is littered with quick drivers too.
You may remember that Nissan was involved in DPi, with the ESM-run Onroak chassis? Well, ESM has shut its doors, but CORE autosports, which almost won the overall IMSA title last year with an LMP2 ORECA has stepped up and bought one of ESM’s old chariots to campaign this year. So yes, there’s variety and DPi looks stronger than ever.Elsewhere, GTLM looks as strong as ever too. There are no new cars for 2019, but the same strong set of factory teams are all eager to duke it out. New for 2019 Michelin tyres in the class (which has always been running with the French constructor) mean the lap times are tumbling in GTLM too. That coupled with the armada of Porsche, Ford, Corvette and BMW drivers (plus a Risi Ferrari) means that at times we won’t know where to look on track, as usual.
Alex Zanardi also deserves a mention here, the Italian, who has multiple Paralympic hand cycling gold medals and two CART championships to his name is racing with BMW. The man, who is quite possibly the most positive force ever to grace a paddock, is set to drive in a factory M8 GTLM, which does have a shot at victory. He’ll race with hand controls, and climb in and out of the car under his own steam at stops. He’s remarkable, and so are BMW for giving both him and the fans an opportunity to witness such greatness first hand. He’s also hinted that this could be his last ever race, so his progress will be one of the big story lines to follow.Oh, and expect a retro livery or two in GTLM for Rolex – you’re going to want to watch this space!
Then we have GTD, with over 20 cars once again, from a slew of manufacturers. IMSA boasts nearly 20 manufacturers competing in WeatherTech these days, and much of them race in the GT3 contingent. Acura, Lexus, Ferrari, Porsche, Audi, Mercedes, Lamborghini and BMW are all present, with top teams and drivers. It’s impossible to pick a winner here, and there are more question marks than usual as the majority of the field are running 2019 EVO kits. At the Roar Riley Motorsports’ trusty Mercedes AMG GT3 topped the times, but Meyer Shank Racing’s new Acuras and the selection of Ferraris were close behind. In testing, times shouldn’t be read into though, especially in a Balance of Performance-oriented class.So, grab the entry list, marvel at the lengthy list of world-class teams, cars and drivers, sit back and relax. If the weather holds out, this will be the fastest, most hotly contested Rolex 24 of the modern era. And if you find that you now want to be track side for the Rolex 24 at Daytona? You had better call Travel Destinations quick because time is running out!
This weekend sees the beginning of the Sports Car season in the USA, with annual curtain raiser; the Rolex 24 at Daytona. For many this event always marks the beginning of the season and the event has always attracted an exceptional grid of cars and drivers. As you would expect, Travel Destinations always has a presence track-side and our travellers are already in Florida, ably supported by our resident Daytona expert, Helen.
Here we look at the key storylines that they will see develop first-hand over the weekend. If this tempts you to see more, then make sure you register with us to be the first to learn of our plans for next year. Maybe you can join us too!
Five key storylines to follow during the 2018 Rolex 24 Hours
Can Cadillac win again?
It has to be said right off the bat that the favourite for the 2018 Rolex 24 has to be Cadillac. Last year, the GM marque’s DPi V.R won its debut at Daytona, and went on to take the overall and NAEC titles up front, led by Wayne Taylor Racing’s effort that at times was unstoppable. This year there has been plenty of changes, but there’s just as good of a chance for Cadillac’s customer outfits to take the win again.
In terms of the car, it’ll race with changes to the front splitter, as part of the ACO’s permitted ‘Joker’ evolutions to Dallara’s P217, which the Caddy is based on. It’ll also utilise a brand new 5.5 litre engine rather than a 6.2 example, in an attempt by Cadillac to streamline its engine philosophy with the rest of the paddock. There are four cars hoping to score Caddy its second win in a row. At Wayne Taylor Racing, its driver line-up has been shuffled, Jordan Taylor returns from last year, but will be joined by Renger Van Der Zande and IndyCar star Ryan Hunter Real for the racing; it’s a trio very much capable of winning it all again.
Action Express’ two cars also have some new drivers in, including ex-F1 driver Felipe Nasr and British GT racer Stuart Middleton. After coming so close last year, can either its Whelen or Mustang Sampling machines reach the top step of the podium in 2018?
The final entrant is a new one, Spirit of Daytona (formally Visit Florida Racing), which switches from running an LMP2 Riley and later a Ligier last year, becoming the only LMP2 team to win an IMSA race overall, with a victory at Laguna Seca. For its new machine, it’s got three new drivers too, Matt McMurry, Tristan Vautier and Eddie Cheever III taking the wheel. Can Spirit of Daytona spring a surprise here?
How will the new DPi efforts fare?
Outside of the Cadillac and the other pre-existing DPi effort from ESM, there’s two new players in town for this season in the form of Team Joest (yes, that Team Joest that ran for almost two decades with Audi) and Team Penske (yes, that Team Penske that won Sebring overall in 2008 with an LMP2 car). Joest will be running the Mazda DPi programme. While the RT-24P is not a new car – it ran for most of the year in 2017 with Speedsource – it certainly has more potential now after an underwhelming first season.
Multimatic and Joest have gone to great lengths to re-design the aspects of the car which proved to be weak, and have signed some new driver talent to add extra punch too. Amongst the newcomers are Ford WEC driver Harry Tincknell and ex-Audi LMP1 drivers Rene Rast and Oliver Jarvis. 2018 will be a really important year, and while few will expect Joest to blow away the field in its first run with the Mazdas, would anybody be surprised if it did with its well documented track record?
Meanwhile, Team Penske is also due to burst onto the scene at Daytona, with a pair of brand new Acura ARX-05. The legendary American outfit is returning to sportscar racing, and in a big way, running the factory programme for the marque in which it spent years racing against back in the American Le Mans days early in the 21st century. The ARX-05 is based on the ORECA 07, which is a very good starting point, as the best LMP2 car top to bottom of the current crop, it’ll also be driven by some stunning drivers. For the big race it’s fate rests on a collection of sportscar talent, ex-F1 talent and IndyCar stars that’s enough to make any racing fan drool. Juan Pablo Montoya, Dane Cameron, Simon Pagenaud make up the #6’s crew, while Helio Castroneves, Ricky Taylor and Graham Rahal will share the #7. Which of these two VERY high profile new efforts will have the better time in Florida? Time will tell!
All eyes on Alonso
It is safe to say that you can’t pick out the key names in the prototype entry for this year’s Rolex without mentioning Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard, a two-time F1 World champion, seems set on achieving the ‘Triple Crown’ of wins at Monaco, Le Mans and Indy. It’s refreshing to see someone so consumed by the F1 ‘bubble’ take a walk on the wild side and want to race elsewhere in gaps between F1 races.
For the Rolex 24 at Daytona, which will be Alonso’s first sportscar race, he’ll be driving under the very capable supervision of United Autosport, which is co-run by McLaren’s Zak Brown. He’ll drive the evolved Ligier JS P217, with Phil Hanson (an ELMS and WEC starter) and future F1 star Lando Norris. That may not sound like a ‘Super Team’, but in reality, that doesn’t necessarily matter. At Daytona, staying on the lead lap will keep you in the fight for the win right up to the flag; it’s that sort of race. Are Norris, Hanson and Alonso capable of doing that? Yes. And even so, this is a trial run of sorts for Alonso, ahead of a potential Le Mans debut this year. He will nevertheless take this seriously, and attract the world’s media to the event, which can only be a good thing for sportscars. This is a big story, and one which the sportscar world is and should welcome with open arms.
BMW M8 GTE
Further down the entry list, the GT classes will, as usual, add spice to an already tantalising prototype field. In among the factory teams in GTLM is BMW Team RLL, tasked with debuting the BMW M8 GTE at Daytona. Now, the car was delayed in its development due to a late re-design forced upon the marque, but it has the potential to turn heads. At the pre-race Roar test, it was the slowest of the GTE cars, but it is new, and GTE is a balanced formula which means it should be able to compete right away during the 24 Hours.
In terms of driving talent, there has been some changes in camp BMW. In its #24 M8, former WTCC ace Augusto Farfus returns (after competing only at Daytona last year), and will drive with brand stalwart John Edwards, Jesse Krohn who’s stepping up from GTD and Nicky Catsburg. And in the #25, Alex Sims returns for another year of GTLM action, along with, veteran driver Bill Auberlen, IMSA debutant (and 2018 BMW DTM driver) Phillip Eng and American BMW newcomer Connor De Phillippi, who moves over from Audi after winning the 2017 N24 and 2016 ADAC GT title. With a set of drivers that strong, the real challenge will likely be staying reliable, up against a field of near-bullet proof machinery from Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche and Ford.
If the M8 GTEs keep going round and round, who knows where they’ll end up come Sunday afternoon?
Battle of the GTD Brands
The other GT class, GTD, is also a battle of the brands, but on a larger scale. With 21 cars on the list, representing eight manufacturers, it’s almost guaranteed to be a thrilling race for the win. This year, there’s no new kit, but there are plenty of big names and big teams on the list; and because last year’s class winner Alegra Motorsports aren’t due to make the trip, there will be a new winner.
Audi will run two R8s, Porsche will have a trio of 911 GT3 Rs, BMW will have an M6 GT3, Lamborghini is set to have three Huracans, Acura meanwhile has three NSX GT3s in addition to three AMG GT3 , two Lexus RCF GT3s and four Ferrari 488s.
At this point, it’s nearly impossible to pick a winner, so instead, just sit back and watch this one unfold.
The dust is still settling after the Rolex 24 at Daytona and our man in the stands has returned home having watched every second of the action. After the controversial finish, that saw Wayne Taylor Racing victorious & each driver walk away with a new watch, Stephen Kilbey reviews last weekend’s events.
Cadillac has a clear advantage
The debate on Balance of Performance was rampant at the Rolex 24 Hours, but unusually, in this instance concerning the prototype class rather than the GTs. Cadillac dominated the meeting at Daytona from start to finish, topping every practice session, qualifying and the race. The other DPis in the new class and the global LMP2s were still competitive at times, but only in certain conditions and during certain periods of the race.
What we were left with was a fierce battle between Cadillac entries with rival teams Wayne Taylor Racing and Action Express at the end, which ended in dramatic fashion with a lead change in the final 10 minutes. The change in lead was controversial as contact was made causing the Action Express car to spin. Ultimately no further action was deemed necessary by the stewards so Wayne Taylor Racing took home the Rolex watches, and began the new era of North American prototype racing in fine style. But going forward, Mazda, ESM and the LMP2 teams are going to have to step up if they are to have any chance of fighting for the title or even winning races for the rest of the season.
The new prototypes impressed overall A big question mark heading into the Rolex 24 was going to be the fragility and durability of the new prototypes, which were all making their global race debuts in South Florida. Everyone was left pleasantly surprised though, as despite various mechanical niggles and incidents up and down the field, there were no retirements until the 20 hour mark when the No.70 Mazda’s engine expired in a big way up and down the pit lane. There’s obviously room for improvement though, which in turn will create better racing as the season wears on. What we have though, is a class with serious potential, stunning looking cars, good sounding entries and manufacturer interest going forward. IMSA appears to have it right this time round.
Ford is the team to beat in GTLM GTLM was arguably the most exciting class throughout this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, with four of the five manufactures represented having a shot to win the race in the closing stages. In the final two hours seven of the GTLM runners were competing for the lead, creating an absolutely thrilling end. Porsche with its new car, Corvette with its proven C7.R and Risi with its ultra-quick Ferrari all looked poised at various points, but in the end the four-car armada from the Blue Oval came out on top.
All four GTs in the race made it home, and the No.66 of Sebastien Bourdais, Joey Hand and Dirk Muller in particular was the class of the field for a significant portion of the race before winning it all at the end. The Ford GT is now both reliable and fast, with a set of drivers in its two full-season entries that can go toe-to-toe with the best the class has to offer. Corvette won the title last year, but this time round Ford surely has to be the team to beat?
Alegra surprised us all In one of the most incredible runs to the flag in recent memory, Alegra Motorsports’ GTD Porsche 911 GT3R managed to storm to the win in the Rolex 24, after spending 22 of the 24 hours biding its time climbing the order. Up against arguably the best and most diverse GT3 field ever assembled on American soil, Alegra Motorsports proved that staying on the lead lap and ensuring your star driver is in at the end is the key to winning. Daniel Morad, Carlos de Quesada, Michael de Quesada, Jesse Lazare and Michael Christensen all combined for a historic run for Porsche, cruising into Parc Ferme with no scratches on the car after the race. Alegra’s entry was supposedly a one-off, but after such an incredible performance by the Canadian outfit, surely further appearances will spawn off the back of its success?
LMPC’s tenure has run its course After eight years, the LMPC class with the spec Oreca FLM09 chassis is way past its expiry date. The racing wasn’t great, with performance Tech winning by over 20 laps, and the driving standards were mostly poor as well. Starworks and BAR 1’s entries spent way too much time in walls or on the grass in the treacherous conditions, causing multiple safety car periods which prevented the whole race from ever becoming rhythmic.
Originally a class with a sole purpose to bolster the American Le Mans Series grid during tough years, it has now run its course. The cars are old, the interest is now minimal and the field overall is so strong that it feels a redundant class. As of next year the class will be written out of the rule book, and that’s a good thing, but it is going to be interesting to see what the current teams in the class will do, given the opportunity to step up to LMP2 or race in GTD/GTLM in the future.
On the eve of Rolex 24 at Daytona; the first chance to see some of this years’ new machinery in action, our man in the stands takes a look at some of the talking points and things to look out for at this year’s race.
DPi vs LMP2 The new era for prototype racing in North America starts now at Daytona. Seven DPis and five brand new global LMP2s will all make their global race debuts at Daytona. It is very early days for all of the cars taking part, with limited running and plenty of niggles for most of them during the two official Daytona tests prior to this race week. Having said that, they are fast. They look good and are set to be driven by some incredibly talented drivers come Saturday afternoon.
The three Cadillacs run by Action Express and Wayne Taylor Racing look to be the fastest over a single lap at this stage, but the race is a long one, and the durability could be in question. In the LMP2 corner meanwhile Rebellion has been consistently quick through testing and practice at the speedway, with Neel Jani in particular showing off his ability to mix it with the Cadillacs and outpace the Mazda and Nissans. Outside of Oreca, both Ligier and Riley/Multimatic are represented by PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports and Visit Florida Racing respectively. Both are capable teams, and are set to race in the full season of IMSA. Time will tell if they’ll be able to compete for wins though as the season wears on.
GTLM winner? With the entire Prototype field made up of unknown and unproven quantities, the chances of a surprise GT winner or at least top three may be higher than you’d normally think. There is no argument that the DPi and LMP2 prototypes are far quicker than those down in the GTLM field, but over the course of the 24 hours, history suggests that the new technology is likely to hit some trouble at one point or another. It could therefore turn into a chase to the finish with the leaders in the prototypes attempting to track down the more reliable GTLM leaders. It has happened before, and as recently as 2003 when TRG won the race overall title in a GT2 Porsche when the then new Daytona Prototypes in the field all fell by the wayside. And aside from the very real opportunity to score a 1-2-3-4 in GTLM, Ford bringing four GTs to the Rolex 24 Hours could very well be an attempt to maximise the opportunity of winning the Rolex 24 outright.
Lexus, Mercedes and Acura join the fray In the GTD class, the main interest is going to be the progress of the new Acura NSX GT3 and Lexus RCF GT3s, as well as the debut of Mercedes in this class. For Lexus, the RCF GT3 is finally set for its North American debut after years of development. The cars on track at Daytona are the same specification as the Lexus which raced – and won overall – in the VLN at the tail end of last season. The team, formerly known as Rocketsports Racing, is keen to put its past, with the failed Jaguar XKR GT3, behind it as the face of this Lexus project. The time is now for Paul Gentilozzi, who with the backing of Lexus North America, will want to be gunning for wins, certainly by the end of the season.
Acura’s IMSA programme meanwhile is headed by Michael Shank Racing. The team, which has been racing prototypes in recent seasons has been tasked with running the brand new NSX GT3 partnered with the brand in its endurance programme. It is a big ask for the team, which clearly understands the magnitude of the challenge at hand. It remains to be seen how competitive the car can be this early in its debut season, though Balance of Performance will as always be a leveling factor, no matter which side of the performance equation it sits early on. The main focus for the Rolex 24 at Daytona will be ensuring that it’s up to scratch in the durability and serviceability department.
Stars in cars Beyond the galaxy of returning IMSA talent the Rolex 24 at Daytona once again dishes up part of its unique appeal; the opportunity for drivers from other parts of the sport to take on the challenge of Daytona in a proper endurance race. There is little doubt who the biggest draw is likely to be this week with legendary NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon back at Daytona racing in the Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac DPi.
From the sportscar universe, there are no fewer than nine recent, and for the most part current, FIA WEC LMP1 factory drivers listed among the 43 men due to do battle in the Prototype class. The names on the list include two current Porsche men, 2016 World Champ Brendon Hartley and current title holder Neel Jani. Toyota are well represented too with 2014 Champion Seb Buemi, plus the experienced Sarrazin, Conway and ex Toyota man, and current LMP2 WEC and Le Mans Champ, Nico Lapierre. Add in 2013 World Champ Loic Duval, current Audi DTM man plus the ultra-fast Rene Rast and Filipe Albuquerque and you’re left with a real chance to see the team mates and friends, now wearing completely different kit, going up against each other.
There’s also a bunch of WEC LMP2 race winners like Bruno Senna and Ryan Dalziel on the list too with ELMS race winner and previous LMP1 privateer champ Mathias Beche and reigning European Le Mans Series LMP3 Champ Mike Guasch also set to race. IndyCar is also well represented, as Jack Hawksworth is set to drive a Lexus RCF. James Hinchcliffe will be aboard the No.70 Mazda. Buddy Rice will pilot a PC. Graham Rahal will peddle an Acura and Tony Kannan has a real chance of winning GTLM whilst making his debut with Ford.
Porsche’s new toy With the GTE/GTLM machinery continuing on its vertical developmental curve, Porsche is the most recent marque to bring a fresh car to the category after Ford brought the GT to the party in 2016. The new mid-engined 911 RSR promises to make strides in both performance and serviceability as the brand looks to get its premier GT programme back on track after a tough 2016 campaign on both sides of the pond.
In terms of drivers Porsche’s works stable has a fresh look to it, with Audi-stalwart Laurens Vanthoor set for his debut, along with ex-BMW man Dirk Werner. The new men will race with regulars Patrick Pilet, Frederic Makowiecki, Kevin Estre and Richard Lietz, who all know how to develop a car and turn it into a winner. At the Roar Before the 24, the Porsche crew didn’t set any particularly notable lap times, but did manage to complete a significant amount of on-track running. It is going to be interesting to see if the new car can hit the ground running before its trip to Sebring and then the start of the WEC season which of course includes Le Mans, which the team will of course hope to win for the first time since 2014.
The Rolex 24 at Daytona 2017 promises to be quite a race, so sit back and enjoy the ride!
Travel Destinations are once again hosting customers at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. They are currently staying at our exclusive hotel overlooking Daytona beach and enjoying all the action at the Speedway. The tour includes car hire to enable you to be independent but is also escorted by one of our staff to help and guide where necessary. If you would like to join us in Florida for the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January 2018 please do call or email us now to register your interest.