This weekend it will be harder than ever to look away from the Daytona 24 Hours with 50 cars – 20 of which are prototypes – gearing up to take on the dash for the first round of the IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship and the North-American Endurance Cup. It’s the 56th edition of the race and it might just be that we get to witness something worth writing down in Bold in the history books.
There are many worthy talking points before next weekend’s race. I’ll go through some of the most important in each and every one of the three classes. Before that, however, let’s take a look at the track: it’s the same 5.7-kilometer Roval that we know and love, but the discerning factor this time around could be the weather. There is rain on the forecast for Sunday and, even without rain, it will be a rather humid weekend with air temperature unlikely to go beyond 22C at mid-day.
Now that we have a broad idea of how the weather will play out – although it might change by 360 degrees before race day – we can proceed to the 50-strong entry list. For starters, we’re missing the PC class which was retired at the end of 2017 due to low interest and a generally accepted view that the Courage-based prototypes were outdated. In spite of that, IMSA did not bring a replacement for the junior prototype category and this means the 50 cars are devided into three categories: 20 in Prototype, nine in GTLM and 21 in GTD.
First off, the purpose-built sports cars. There will be 10 DPIs and 10 LMP2 cars doing battle in the Prototype class at Daytona Beach and the quality in most of the driver lineups is incredible. In the DPI camp we find Mazda Team Joest – a partnership that will make its competition debut at Daytona -, Team Penske Acura which is also on its debut, Nissan Team Extreme Speed Motorsport and four Cadillacs: two for Action Express, one for Wayne Taylor Racing and one for Spirit of Daytona, the former VisitFlorida.com Racing team. As it was the case in 2017, the Cadillacs dominated the Roar test sessions and the ensuing qualifying session that organized the cars in the pit garages. It was, in fact, a 1-2-3-4 wipeout for the Dallara-based DPI that received a brand-new 5.5-liter V8 motor for this season. The car proved mighty last year, Wayne Taylor Racing winning five races in a row en-route to the title and we could witness much of the same in 2018, although now there’s at least an extra Caddy. The champion team is, as mentioned, back for another go but without champion Ricky Taylor who took Roger Penske’s offer to join his team. As such, Jordan Taylor will be partnered by Renger van der Zande this season. The other three Cadillacs also have different lineups compared to 12 months ago: AXR brought Filipe Albuquerque to do the full season with Joao Barbosa, as Christian Fittipaldi will only run in the NAEC rounds. The sister car will now feature Mike Conway as full-season driver after Dane Cameron’s departure, he too joining Acura. Finally, Troy Flis’ operation has a whole new duo in Matt McMurry and Tristan Vautier.
IMSA decided to hit the Cadillac’s with a few BoP tweaks meant to lower the power output of the engine in the wake of the Roar results, probably fearing another tour de force at Daytona in just a few days. It was, anyway, a walk in the park for the DPIs in general, while ORECA emerged as the top P2 car to have (just like in WEC 2017). The other DPI manufacturers made some changes to their lineups as well, most importantly Mazda of the ones that ran last year – the link with Joest brinigng Oliver Jarvis and DTM champion Rene Rast in the mix. Team Penske has buckets of talent in their six drivers that will pilot cars #6 and #7. Juan-Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron will do the whole season in the former, while Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves are the designated drivers in the latter. Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal will offer their helping hands in the longer rounds.
The fact that ORECA is probably the best P2 chassis could be proven yet some more by Team Penske, since they embraced the French chassis for their program with Acura. There are, also, six LMP2 ORECAs on the grid. The Gainsco “Red Dragon” returns to IMSA competition but without Bob Stallings Racing, instead as a partnership with JDC Motorsport. That doesn’t mean, however, that the No. 85 “Banana Boat” will go away, nor will its drivers from last year, Stephen Simpson and Misha Goikhberg. Extra ORECA entries come courtesy of Jackie Chan DC Racing, Performance-Tech and CORE Autosport. Colin Braun and Jon Bennett will step up to the Prototype ranks after a lackluster season in a GTD-class Porsche. Meanwhile, Performance Tech, which dominated LMPC last year, retain Kyle Masson and James French in 2018.
None of what I’ve talked about above caused quite so much buzz than the news that two-time F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso will be making his Daytona 24 Hours debut with United Autosport. The team that’s co-owned by McLaren boss Zak Brown comes to the first IMSA round with two Ligiers that aren’t the fastest of the P2 lot, but they pack some driving prowess: Phil Hanson, Bruno Senna and Will Owen will all drive, as will Hugo de Sadeleer , young star Lando Norris and former Williams test driver Paul di Resta. Alonso will drive the #23 JS P217 car with Hanson and Norris, this race potentially being just a phase in his plan to tackle Le Mans sooner rather than later. There will also be a third Ligier that will be entered by AFS/PR1-Mathiasen Motorsport for Roberto Gonzalez, Sebastian Saavedra, Gustavo Yacaman and Nick Boulle. Saavedra and Yacaman will drive for the entirety of 2018 in the yellow-and-red machine. The Riley/Multimatic car which underwent a number of updates that were agreed upon by ACO and IMSA (earlier than the time manufacturers ought to use their single jokers) will also be on the grid, BAR1 Motorsports entering the ex-VisitFlorida.com Racing chassis.
GT-Le Mans does not pack many surprises. The car count is still down at only nine with two each from Ford, Chevrolet, BMW and Porsche and the single Risi Ferrari. The red 488 GTE will also not be doing the whole season, instead Giuseppe Risi running only certain events in 2018. The driver lineup in the No. 62 is, however, impressive with team regular Toni Vilander being partnered by the Scuderia’s WEC stalwarts – James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi and Davide Rigon.
BMW bring the only new car in the category, the much lamented M8 GTE. The car had a troubled birth process that included delays in production pushing the initial roll out by five months. That’s because the German manufacturer asked for a waiver to help them lower the side profile of the car, waiver that was denied at the very last moment causing Jens Marquardt’s men to scramble for alternatives as the lower concept had already been put through the windmill tests and was well into development. The delays were showcased through and through at Daytona where Alex Sims’ fastest lap in the qualifying session was 1.4 seconds behind the pace-setting Ford. That’s why IMSA gave BMW a weight break and a bigger hole in the air restrictor to help it out. If this will work out it’s unknown (the same can be said about all BoP changes, in all honesty).
Corvette Racing and Ford Chip Ganassi Racing, which went head-to-head for both titles last year, return with vastly unchanged driver lineups and cars, while Porsche seems to again be a tough contender after putting one season under its mid-engined 991 RSR belt. There will also be some familiar Porsche faces coming back to IMSA, Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy both venturing in a full season of North-American racing. Laurens Vanthoor and Patrick Pilet will be the other full season drivers while Gimmi Bruni and Fred Makowiecki will act as NAEC drivers.
Finally, we have the busy GTD class. There is, though, a twist here. Indeed, there are 21 cars registered – the most of any class – but only 11 will engage in the whole IMSA championship, four down from last year. This is, says BMW Motorsport boss Jens Marquardt, down to the increased factory involvement in the otherwise gentleman-orientated category that make the costs rise to the sky. In turn, there are many top-of-the-line drive pairings. For example, Grasser Racing Team will enlist all its stars aboard two Huracans and we will also have Paul Miller Racing bringing the #48 back for another go at the title.
Championship-winning team Scuderia Corsa will ramp up its involvement and will align two cars, one with Weathertech sponsorship. Cooper MacNeil left Riley after a complicated 2017 season and will race a Ferrari alongside Alessandro Balzan this year. The Italian champion lost team-mate Christina Nielsen in the process, but the Dane is not without a seat as you’ll read below. Two other Ferraris will be fielded by Spirit of Race (with an all Aston-Martin driving crew, awkwardly), and Risi Competizione, which runs two cars for the first time in almost a decade.
As mentioned, Christina Nielsen soldiers on in IMSA and will take on 2018 alongside the highly succesful Wright Motorsport operation. She’ll drive the No. 58 car as the Amateur partner to Professional Patrick Long and looks for her third title in a row – not out of hand with Patrick onboard the effort. Manthey Racing will again be present at Daytona and their 911 GT3R will wear the famed number 59 – but without the Brumos livery. Park Place Motorsport’s Jorg Bergmeister and Patrick Lindsey are back for another go as well but they will compete in all of the races. Also bound for the full season are the two 3GT Racing Lexus cars and the two MSR Acuras. In the Lexus camp it’s noteworthy that Scott Pruett will make his final professional start next weekend after a storied and stunningly succesful 40-years-long career.
2018 will still see only one Audi R8 LMS but, after the sad end of the Stevenson Motorsport operation, the team that will carry the flag for the Four Rings will be Magnus Racing. John Potter managed to get Andy Lally away from the Acura cake and the #44 will be back looking for more wins with some serious talent in for the longest race of the year: Andrew Davis and Markus Winkelhock. Montaplast by Land Motorsport ended the year on a high at Petit Le Mans and were also there for the win at Daytona so it’s only natural that they’re on the entry list this year as well. Connor de Phillipi, though, has moved to BMW Team Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in GTLM, so the two van der Linde brothers will drive the #29 R8, alongside Chris Mies and Jeffrey Schmidt.
Mercedes-Benz will have three representatives on the grid but only one is a true contender for the race win – the #33 Riley AMG GT3. Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen will again team up while P1 Motorsports and SunEnergy1 Racing have also chosen AMG power. Kenny Habul also recruited works Mercedes drivers Maro Engel and Thomas Jaeger, while Riley got hold of Luca Stolz and Adam Christodolou. It’s anyone’s guess who will do better over the course of the 24 hours although we reckon Riley has much better chances when it comes to fighting for the titles – they are, let’s not forget, reigning NAEC champs.
Finally, Turner Motorsport will only enter a sole M6 GT3 – this time in Liqui Moly colors. Jens Klingmann is back in the lineup but the same can’t be said about Jesse Krohn, who moved to Team RLL, or Markus Palttala. Instead, Don Yount, Mark Kvamme and Martin Tomczyk will complete the #96’s driver roster. In spite of pre-season gossip, there will be neither McLarens on the grid in GTD, nor Aston-Martins, since TRG decided against fielding its aging Vantage.
All in all, this race shapes up to be memorable with all the variables that will play out; like the way the GTs get their tires warmed up quicker than the protos after a restart for example, or the way the rain could affect the entire event. The race will start at 2:30 PM EST on Saturday (21:30).
Full entry list here
Photos via: DSC.com, Corvette Racing, IMSA, Porsche Motorsports, Twitter