USCC Daytona 24H: Action Express wins in grand style and sets distance record

USCC Daytona 24H: Action Express wins in grand style and sets distance record

After probably the cleanest 24 Hours of Daytona ever, Action Express Racing crossed the line to score a historic 1-2 finish with the #5 ahead of the #31 after 808 laps completed. Ford paced themselves to similar success, scoring a 1-2 finish in GTLM, while Lamborghini won their first 24hrs race in their history thanks to the number 11 Grasser Racing’s Huracan victory in GTD. 

‘Is this a sign of the times?’ – may be the most pertinent question arising after this year’s 56th running of the legendary Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. After going twice-around-the-clock on the Floridian Roval, we rarely witnessed caution periods and this clearly affected the running order. That’s because, in IMSA competition, you can get your lap back when a Full-Course Yellow (FCY) period pops up since you can be given a ‘wave-by’ from the safety car. You can’t do it for ever, but with less than FIVE caution periods this time around, losing a lap was more lethal than ever.

The start was clean with 0 incidents

The up side was that we got to see teams and drivers cycle through their strategies uninterrupted, making it easier for us to pick the faster cars in each class. That and the fact that the all-time distance record – which dated back to 1982 when a Gaaco-built Porsche 935 won the race with John Paul, Jr., John Paul and Rolf Stommelen – fell during the last hour. But before we delve into what went on in the past 24 hours, let’s take a quick look at Thursday and the way that qualifying unfolded.

The Acura-Penske program picked the best possible chassis for their DPI car, the ORECA 07 P2. This certainly showed as The Captain’s cars were best of the rest behind the Cadillacs at the Roar. It was, then, unsurprising that Helio Castroneves reeled in a 1:36.090 mid-way through the 15-minutes session. Everyone thought it was unbeatable and the headlines were already being written about Penske’s steamroller taking pole first time out.

Only nine GTLM cars led the GT pack, followed by 21 GTD cars

It wasn’t to be, however, as Wayne Taylor’s new recruit, Dutchman Renger van der Zande, managed a 1:36.083 on his very last attempt, prompting the cameramen and journalists to race down the pitlane, away from Helio and to the WTR pit slot. The 0,007-seconds gap had Castroneves visibily gutted, while Taylor was over-the-moon with the unexpected pole position. In total, 13 cars were in the same second with the fastest time. Action Express Racing’s #5 was third and, unexpectedly, Pato O’Ward was fourth fastest in the Performance Tech #38 ORECA – the best of the P2 cars. Two cars did not set a lap time in the Prototype category – #77 Mazda and #2 Nissan – while Nicolas Lapierre crashed the other Nissan early in the session and could not continue. It’s noteworthy that both Mazdas underwent engine changes before the race got underway, relegating them to the back of the Prototype field. Meanwhile, Alonso’s #23 Ligier of United Autosports was no faster than 13th on the grid. The Spaniard complained about the lack of outright pace afterwards.

A little down the order, Corvette Racing used the age-old trick of drafting on the banking to give Jan Magnussen in the #3 C7.R the pole by 0,019-seconds from Joey Hand in second. What’s amazing is that all the cars that were in the second with Magnussen were also quicker than the previous lap record in the GTLM class.

Jackie Chan DC Racing entered 2 cars in the race and ran as high as fourth overall

Ferraris managed a 1-2 in GTD with Daniel Serra the quicker man in the #51 Spirit of Race 488 GT3 that’s crewed by current or former AMR drivers. 1:46.049 was the Brazilian’s quickest lap that brought him the pole position and Mirko Bortolotti wasn’t far away from it, making the top three at the end. Sadly, the Grasser Huracan was disqualified after failing the post race tech inspection and started the race from the back of the 50-cars-strong pack.

The start of the race and ensuing 60 minutes offered us a proper Cadillac fest with the Dallara-based DPIs running 1-2-3-4 at times. In fact, at the end of the first hour that’s exactly how they stood at the top of the overall standings. Action Express’ #5 led with Albuquerque, Tristan Vautier was second in the #90 entered by Spirit of Daytona, while Nasr followed suit in third and polesitter Renger van der Zande on a lowly fourth. Castroneves’ Acura was fifth but it had run as high as third and Patricio O’Ward was the best-placed P2 runner in sixth overall.

Grasser Racing did a great race after the frustrating Dubai 24 Hours outing winning in GTD – a truly historic feat for the Italian brand

The #66 Ford led in GTLM with the Corvette that took the pole hot on its heels. Ford reigned supreme earlier in the hour as the two GTs ran 1-2 but the #67 made a stop before the end of the hour and fell to the back of the class, while Porsche and BMW were battling at the back end of the GTLM bunch.

Land Motorsport led after the first set of stops with Lexus on second and Ferrari in third. It was, though, a dramatic start of the race in GTD as the #58 Wright Motorsport crashed even before the green flag fell – Robert Renauer apparently suffering a suspension failure that prompted him to hit the wall. The car subsequently lost many laps and never bounced back.

The two Scuderia Corsa 488 GTs were never really in contention in GTD

With 21 hours left, Action Express Racing kept themselves at the front with both cars at times, Joao Barbosa leading aboard the #5 at the top of the hour with Pipo Derani behind in the #22 Nissan – but the #31 Cadillac had run in second a good number of laps previously. WTR was running fourth behind the #31 but not everyone had it their way with three hours gone. The Mazda Joest team already had to fight through some setbacks with the #55 car. It first lost a wheel and then stopped on the pitlane. The #7 Acura had problems with the latches on one of their doors while the #38 Performance Tech car stopped halfway through hour no. 3 after running out of fuel. That incident brought the first yellow flag period in the race.

Lower down the order, Ford still led in GTLM with Ferrari being best of the rest while the caution time helped Riley bring their Merc to the fore in GTD. Giuseppe’s GTD end of the dream wasn’t happy, though, as their #82 car caught fire in the pits losing  24 laps with repairs.

Alonso’s endurance debut wasn’t bad as the Spaniard even managed to lead the race overall – briefly

After the conclusion of a WEC race-worth of hours, AXR was still at the sharp end in Prototype. Mike Conway led the way at the quarter mark in the #31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac which fought back after a drive-through penalty in hour 4. Helio Castroneves was second with the #5 Cadillac in third. It’s relevant to point out that we had a significant downpour as night started to settle over Daytona International Speedway – which was almost entirely unexpected. It was a true gamble since the rain didn’t last for long – some 15-20 minutes in total. Some cars remained on slicks, while others switched to wet tires.

In GTLM, we had a lot of the same with Patrick Pilet winning the “bet” on slicks and Marcel Fassler losing it in the Corvette C7.R with the number 4 on its sides. The car was caught up by the two Fords which pitted for wets and comprehensively gapped afterwards by the Blue Oval machines. The German lost the better part of a lap due to the team’s gamble and, in hindsight, it might’ve been a race-losing maneuver.

Ford all but dominated GTLM en-route to a 1-2 victory

Around the quarter-distance mark it’s when we started to encounter a slew of punctures that dramatically marked the proceedings. The #22 Nissan, for example, began hour 4 in second, but fell to 16th overall due to a puncture. The #77 Mazda also suffered a similar fate, while Bill Auberlen suffered a tire failure on his #25 BMW M8 GTE. That was, however, one of the very few Michelin punctures, while most of the others affected the Prototypes that are all shod with Continentals. What is more, most tire failures happened on the rear-right corner.

The tire manufacturers partially blamed certain teams that tried to get “creative” with cambers, tire pressures or sheepishly trying to double-stint a set.

Team Penske Acura’s debut was troubled by technical gremlins and on-track incidents but the team has high hopes for the entirety of the season

With the whole of the 12 Hours of Sebring in the books, it was Cadillac versus Acura at the top. Roger’s machines even managed to run 1-2 in the hours of darkness. Otherwise, the two AXR Cadillacs were still very much in contention which cannot be said about all of the Dallara-based prototypes. The WTR car suffered a number of rear-right punctures and went on to retire on safety grounds after sunrise when the puncture count reached seven! By that time, the #90 was also out after the engine expired.

The two ESM Nissan’s also saw their hopes dashed by a double engine failure on their Ligier-based cars. Even Alonso’s car suffered a puncture, a car that was driven to the lead (on pit cycles) by Fernando, and also wheeled nicely by Lando Norris during the nightly spat of rain.

BMW’s debut with the M8 wasn’t marred by many mecahnical issues but the car was slow. The team pointed at an unfair BOP

The Fords were still leading in GTLM, while Corvette was marking themselves as the best of the race. It helped that Tandy trashed his #911 Porsche with a solid off in the Bus Stop. The other car would also lose chunks of time.

Land Motorsport’s reign of GTD was ruined by a five-minute-long penalty. The German team once held a one-lap advantage on everyone else but that penalty and further troubles for other cars helped the #11 and #48 Huracans rise through to take the first two positions in the junior GT category.

The first race for Joest-Mazda was a bit nightmareish with punctures and other mechanical problems sidlining both cars

When there were just nine hours left on the clock, the #5 Cadillac led with Dane Cameron second in the #7 Acura. That was, also, the only Penske car left with chances of victory after the #6 was pushed into the garage with problems to its cockpit. The Whelen #31 was third overall owing to a puncture in the wee hours of Sunday. It was, obviously, on the rear-right…

Fords held station in GTLM, while Corvettes followed and Ferrari got up to fifth with the #62. In GTD, the only car that tried to fight the Lambos was the #86 Acura which was issued a penalty at some point, but that was never served as Shank battled (and won) with the officials.

It wasn’t all fireworks in the Mercedes-Benz camp

After 18 hours it was all about the Action Express Cadillacs at the top. The two machines were, surprisingly, followed by the #32 Ligier which made the best of Team Penske’s problems as the #7 was wheeled into the garage after contact out on track. CORE Autosport ran fourth ahead of the Jackie Chan DC Racing’s identical car.

The third (after 18 hours!!) caution helped Corvette Racing get back on the lead lap in GTLM with the #3 challenger. Thus, the yellow beast was in contention, but the Fords were still favorites due to their clearly superior pace. Meanwhile, in GTD, it was Riley leading with the Mercedes but it fell back on pit cycles. It was, though, the last car in the same lap with the leader and had living chances of a victory – or, at least, a podium finish.

Paul Miller Racing ran within reach of the victory but, in the end, it wasn’t enough

The final few hours saw the leading Cadillacs have their share of troubles, both the #5 and the #31 suffering from overheating issues. The fourth caution saw the #5 recalled back to the garage for a water tank refill. The Whelen car lost a lap to its sister car due to these issues and an earlier penalty after Middleton spun Pagenaud’s Acura. Lower down, the #32 United Autosports pitted with clutch problems and this helped CORE Autosport to rise up to P3 with their stellar lineup of Duval/Dumas/Bennett/Braun.

In GTLM, the Fords stepped on it to get away from the pursuing #3. It was all about pit stops, lack of mistakes and the situation with potential yellow flags – and the menace of rain! – in the final couple of hours of this record-setting race.

Corvette Racing played second-fiddle to Ford Chip Ganass Racing for most of the race

Grasser got the lead in GTD with three hours left but the #48 Paul Miller Racing Huracan, the #33 Riley Mercedes and the #86 MSR Acura all still had a chance at victory if drama hit – or if anything unpredictable happened.

Indeed, the last bit of the race never did see any more rain and we got to the end without any added caution periods. There weren’t many incidents worth talking about in the dying minutes of the event, so the order in each of the three classes remained virtually unchanged.

The ESM Nissans ran good until their engines died

As such, after 808 laps – a new distance record – Filipe Albuquerque crossed the line to claim victory for the #5 Mustang Sampling-sponsored AXR Cadillac DPI he shared with fellow Portuguese-speaking mates Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi. He was followed by the sister Whelen-sponsored #31 Cadillac driven to the flag Felipe Nasr, the Brazilian sharing the red-and-white prototype with Eric Curran, Ginetta junior Stuart Middleton and WEC stalwart Mike Conway. CORE Autosport held the banner up high for the P2 machinery by finishing third overall with their #54 ORECA driven by Jon Bennett, Colin Braun, Romain Dumas and Loic Duval.

GTLM was under the sign of the Blue Oval as the #67 Ford GT won ahead of their colleagues. It was, in fact, the 200th race victory for Chip Ganassi Racing and it was in grand style. The winning car was driven by Ryan Briscoe, Scott Dixon and Richard Westbrook while Joey Hand, Sebastien Bourdais and Dirk Mueller brought the #66 home in second. Corvette Racing crossed the line third best with the #3 C7.R of defending champions Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Mike Rockenfeller.

Porsche had one car truly in it but it went out after Tandy’s shunt

Down in GTD it was a true party at Grasser Racing’s pit with the #11 Huracan winning with Bortolotti behind the wheel – a historic result as it’s the very first win for a Lamborghini in a 24 hour-long event. The Italian shared the green GT3-spec car with Rolf Ineichen, Franck Perera and Rik Breukers.

After a frustrating late splash of fuel, the #33 Mercedes lost any chance of merely getting a podium, the winners out of that being the crew of the #86 MSR Acura NSX GT3. Katherine Legge survived a hit from a Prototype to start the racing on a high alongside Alvaro Parente, Trent Hindman and A.J. Allmendinger. Third at the checker was the #48 Paul Miller Racing Huracan of Andrea Caldarelli, Bryan Sellers, Bryce Miller and Madison Snow.

BAR1 soldiered on in the lone Riley/Multimatic P2 car but it proved a fruitless outing for the American team

Up next in the IMSA Weathertech Sports Car Championship is the Sebring 12 Hours race in mid-March from the 14th through to the 17th.

Photos via: DSC, Porsche Racing, Scuderia Corsa, Corvette Racing, Ford CGR, IMSA