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Well friends, the wait is over. Just a few hours from now the 2016 edition of the Rolex 24 at Daytona will begin, the longest challenge that the teams and drivers from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship will face all season, excluding those who elect to make the pilgrimage to France for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June. After a rain-filled opening day of practice and qualifying at the 3.56 mile combination tri-oval and road course at the Daytona International Speedway on Thursday, all signs point to a dry and quick tarmac for the 54 starters to race on from flag to flag. Although I’m sure everyone is eager for the green flag to drop right this minute, there are a few things to think about ahead of this classic auto racing event. Listed below are some of the keys to victory for the major contenders in each division.
The LMP2-eligible contenders need a race short on full course cautions. Anytime the Ligier, Mazda, or DeltaWing will have to deal with a restart or traffic, the engines in those entries take a little more time to crank up as opposed to the Chevrolet and/or Ford engines in the Corvette DP and the Ganassi Riley DP respectively. So the longer the event stays under green conditions, the better chances the overall speed advantage that the LMP2 and the DeltaWing machines have could manifest.
Reliability will be critical for a win by Michael Shank Racing, DeltaWing Racing, Tequila Patron ESM, etc. Gearbox issues eliminated the exotic DeltaWing DWC13 coupe early in last year’s race, while multiple issues plagued the ESM Ligier throughout the 2015 FIA World Endurance Championship season. There are also questions about the longevity of the new Mazda two liter, MZR V-6 engine, which has yet to participate in an IMSA race prior to this weekend’s Rolex 24. That is not say that the Daytona Prototypes are 100% bulletproof, since problems have hit them as well here at Daytona and Sebring, but it is clearly a greater precedent when determining the LMP2 overall win chances.
Driving team-wise Action Express Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, and Wayne Taylor Racing have the most intriguing interest. The No. 5 Corvette DP for AER is loaded with Christian Fittipaldi, Joao Barbosa, Scott Pruett, and Filipe Albuquerque, while the sister No. 31 Chevrolet is led by the aggression of Dane Cameron and Simon Pagenaud. The No. 01 Ford EcoBoost-Riley for Ganassi Racing has a dream team likewise with Brendon Hartley, Alex Wurz, and Andy Priaulx, while the defending champions in the No. 02, led by Scott Dixon and Kyle Larson are all used to prototype racing despite the fact it is not their primary racing discipline. And of course the Taylor brothers (Ricky and Jordan), along with Max Angelelli and Rubens Barrichello will be a factor in the Konica-Minolta No. 10 Corvette DP for Wayne Taylor.
It appears to be a three-team race for the Rolex chronometers in PC, with Starworks Motorsport, CORE autosport, and reigning Rolex 24 PC champions PR1-Mathiasen Motorsports the top choices. Early on however, the task could be a test for the latter two as neither posted a qualifying time on Thursday and will have to start at the end of the line for the Prototype start. So caution will need to be taken into account for both CORE’s Colin Braun and PR1’s Tom Kimber-Smith to avoid contact and an early setback.
That’s not to say however, that the others in PC are in also ran status. BAR1 Motorsports has a decent lineup and a decent ride which Johnny Mowlem put on the pole position for the second consecutive year at Daytona. JDC-Miller Motorsports is also balanced in the driving department with the likes of Mikhail Goikhberg and Stephen Simpson included, while Performance Tech Motorsports was aided in their quest by the late addition of Kyle Marcelli to go alongside team leader James French.
Finally, expect perhaps a little more aggression from the PCs here at Daytona and for the remainder of the season as for the first time, the division’s ORECA FLM09 racers will feature traction control, eliminating the need to tip-toe off of slow corners.
GT LE MANS
This is still a tricky one. With only one dry session of running and the GT Le Mans contenders focusing on different agendas during the limited running on Friday, it is hard to say who has the edge right now. As I am writing this article, an Amazing Race type detour has developed and as Phil Keoghan would say, each with its own pros and cons: “The Tried and True Route” or “The New Wave Route”
If you prefer the former, your best bets are with Porsche North America and Corvette Racing in terms of the best options for the win. The Porsche 911 RSRs may have the best driver currently in GTLM in the form of the amazing Nick Tandy and the presence of Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia in the lead Corvette C7.R is tough to ignore for you likewise. Although these may not be the most powerful cars on the grand touring planet right now, they are the most reliable with a proven track record. There are definite questions about the durability of the BMW M6 for BMW Team Rahal, the new three pronged attack with the Ferrari 488, and with the Ford GT program as Chip Ganassi Racing’s focus is split between this division and striving for an overall win. If it comes down to a survival of the fittest, you cannot go wrong with Porsche or GM.
If new wave is your ticket, of the other three most notable challengers; the BMW Team Rahal M6 GTLM is your primary choice. There is no question that the 4.5 liter, twin turbo V-8 packs a punch on the Daytona tri-oval sections of the course and the with improved aerodynamics compared with the older Z4 they ran last year, they are more competent in the infield section. You are of course, also assuming the durability concerns are nil and that any stoppages will also be dealt with by the other contenders, including Porsche and Corvette. You may also be hoping for a yellow-filled event, allowing one to save the wear and tear on equipment and using the extra power to bolt away from the field on restarts. If the power struggle route overcomes the survival of the fittest tact, BMW, Ford, and Ferrari all look better lined up for the win.
Every team in GTLM is loaded with star power in the driving department. but keep an eye out for certain X-factors to be important in the final outcome. Corvette Racing’s trump card next to Magnussen and Garcia is Mike Rockenfeller, who appears to have taken well to the GM ground shaker based on testing performances here at the World Center of Racing and in practice in tough weather conditions on Thursday. The same status holds true for Nick Tandy’s new Porsche North America teammate Kevin Estre. Estre had his moments in the sun in limited GT Daytona class action and also was a standout for McLaren in the Pirelli World Challenge series. For BMW, watch out for Brazilian Augusto Farfus, the star of BMW’s assault in the FIA World Touring Car Championship, while the veteran presence of grand touring legend Olivier Beretta is tough to ignore for Risi Competizione Ferrari. Finally, in terms of fun to watch drivers, you cannot do much better than Ford has in the form of Sebastien Bourdais or for that matter Scuderia Corsa with the always aggressive forms of Memo Rojas and Alessandro Pier Guidi.
This as mentioned often is a loaded field, with a host of contenders who have a legitimate chance to take off with the Rolex chronometers in hand come Sunday afternoon. While the new car blues could strike affect some of the challengers (Porsche, Audi, Lamborghini, etc.), the key could in reality could come down to a host of drivers who find themselves in new places for the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona as opposed to the 2015 edition.
The presence of three Porsche factory drivers will be important to the outcome. Jorg Bergmeister posted the fastest GTD lap ever run at Daytona for the pole winning Park Place Motorsports Porsche 991 on Friday, Wolf Henzler adds another key cog to the hopes for the Team Seattle-entered Porsche, while Patrick Long adds to an already talented set of drivers for Black Swan Racing. Outside of the Porsches, the addition of Bryan Sellers to the Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini was a boon of good fortune, while the duo of Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler is the heart and soul for fellow Lambo runner O’Gara Motorsports’ hopes.
Of course, the same “New Wave” philosophy from GTLM could also manifest here with the eight liter, V-10 monster Dodge Vipers from Riley Motorsports and the twin turbo BMW M6s from Turner Motorsport being the focus here. Riley won the the Rolex 24 last year using a clear horsepower edge to bury the competition. After being relatively quiet at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 open test three weeks ago, Turner’s lead entry finally started to show on Friday a peek of the potential the IHG Rewards-backed entries could achieve in the race and throughout the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech season.
SO WHO WILL WIN?
I have stayed on the No. 5 Mustang Sampling-backed Corvette DP of Action Express Racing bandwagon since Novemeber. Even though this is not the quickest car over a single lap, the team and its drivers have the experience edge to not punish a car to where mechanical woes or accidents will result. Based on that, I am sticking with them to win for the second time in three years.
Only a stunning accident with 30 minutes to go kept CORE autosport out of the winner’s circle in PC last year, I do not think that lightning will strike twice to keep them from winning this year. A strong team with Colin Braun that has gotten stronger with the additions of Mark Wilkins and Martin Plowman.
The experience tag is also why I am picking the Corvette Racing No. 3 entry to successfully defend its Rolex 24 win from a year ago. Doug Fehan and Gary Pratt’s squad are always well prepared and well schooled to handle any situation, and the driving trio is smart enough like with Action Express to avoid the critical mistakes.
I mentioned Team Seattle in the above GTD equation, but I think it will be the other car in the Alex Job Racing stable that will ultimately claim the nest of golden eggs. The driving quintet in the No. 22 Porsche is loaded with Leh Keen, Cooper MacNeil, and Shane van Gisbergen among them.
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