Enlarge / The #77 Mazda Team Joest, Mazda DPi (Oliver Jarvis, Tristan Nunez, Rene Rast, Timo Bernhard), the #7 Acura Team Penske, Acura DPi, (Helio Castroneves, Ricky Taylor, Alexander Rossi), and the #31 Whelen Engineering Racing, Cadillac DPi (Felipe Nasr, Eric Curran, Mike Conway, Pipo Derani) racing on Saturday at DaytonaRolex reader comments 7 with…
Although we usually cover our own travel arrangements, in this case Rolex flew me to Orlando and provided two nights in a hotel in Daytona Beach.
DAYTONA BEACH, FLA.—This past weekend, much of the world’s racing fraternity turned out for the annual Rolex 24 endurance race at Daytona International Speedway. First held in 1962, the race around the clock on a 3.5-mile (5.6km) mix of 31-degree banking and flat infield is probably IMSA’s highest-profile event and one of the toughest 24-hour races on the calendar. 2019’s event was no cakewalk, particularly once Mother Nature showed up to spoil the party.
Regularreaders willno doubtbefamiliar withthe IMSA series. But if you’ve never heard of it or are wondering what we’re doing in Florida in January when the Daytona 500 isn’t until February: this is the US’ top-tier sports car racing series. There are four different categories of car, all of which race at the same time. The fastest of these is the DPi class, for 600hp (kW) prototype race cars from Acura, Cadillac, Mazda, and Nissan. Well, sort of, because the DPis are actually based on the other prototype class, LMP2. LMP2 cars are also carbon-fiber prototypes, but all of them use the same 4.0L Gibson V8 engine.
For the past two years, DPis and LMP2s ran in the same class, with the former pegged back to the speed of the latter by a process known as “balance of performance.” This year, the DPis have been let off the leash, for this is a manufacturer-backed class with professional racing drivers behind the wheels. The LMP2s, like at Le Mans, are meant for pro-am squads.
Then there are the classes for race cars based on road-legal machinery. The faster of these is GTLM (akaGTE at Le Mans). Like DPi, this class is for factory-backed, all-pro teams from the likes of BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Ford, and Porsche. Then there’s GTD (known as GT3 in many other series—confusing, eh?), which is again intended for pro-am teams and features such niceties as antilock brakes.
Who started where?
The pre-season test—known as the Roar Before the Rolex 24—left no doubt that the combination of more powerful DPis and new Michelin tires (replacing last season’s Continental rubber) would be blisteringly quick. So it proved in qualifying, when Oliver Jarvis set a new track record of 1:33.685 minutes in the #77 Mazda Team Joest Mazda RT24-P. (At the Roar, Jarvis had gone even faster, but the weather was better.) It was an encouraging start to the year for Mazda, which knocked repeatedly on the door of victory in 2018 without ever being able to step inside.
“We’re here to show that we’re capable of winning races,” Jarvis said. “Hopefully we can do it here, but I think people now realize we’ve made that step that we needed to make last year. For [Mazda Motorsports Director] John [Doonan] I’m just so happy, he’s put his heart and soul into this project, so it’s a special day for us.”
Much attention was being lavished on the car that qualified in sixth place, the #10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R, because one of the car’s four drivers happened to be Formula 1 megastar Fernando Alonso. Bored of driving an uncompetitive McLaren in that series, Alonso has also been trying his hand at IndyCar and endurance racing. Indeed, he raced at the Rolex 24 in 2018, but in a less competitive LMP2 machine, and last June won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Toyota. This year, he was in a DPi with a chance—the #10 won the season-ending Petit Le Mans race in October—along with Taylor, Toyota teammate Kamui Kobiyashi, and the wonderfully named Renger Van der Zande.
Porsche had given its GTLM cars a nice heritage look for the race, and Nick Tandy took the class pole in his 911 RSR, but here too most of the attention was further down the grid. Alex Zanardi raced in F1, was a double champion in the open-wheel CART series (for IndyCars, but not called IndyCarfor reasons too long to explain herewithout a gigantic derail), but then lost both his legs in a horrific crash at the CART race held at the Lausitzring in Germany in 2001. Since then he’s become an inspiration, both for returning to motorsport and also for winning multiple Paralympic gold medals. I was fortunate enough to interview Zanardi to find out more about the special adaptations in the #24 BMW Team RLL BMW M8 GTE that he shared with three other drivers, which you can readin this companion article.
Only four LMP2s were entered in the race, and the pole in that class went to the #81 Dragonspeed Oreca/Gibson with James Allen (not the F1 journalist) doing the honors. Finally, pole in GTD was clinched by Marcos Gomes in the Via Italia Racing Ferrari 488 GT3.
You mentioned something about rain?
You’d think with such an amazing lineup this year we’d have had a cracking race. While there were some excellent on-track battles, unfortunately this year’s Rolex 24 will be remembered more for the retirements and the red flags. (During a racing, a red flag means the race is suspended and all the cars are parked in the pit lane.)
Early on, there was little to choose from between the Mazdas, Acuras, and Cadillacs in DPi, although the pole-sitting #77 Mazda led early on. But just after the six-hour mark, it all started to go wrong for Mazda. First the #77 was forced to retire with engine trouble. Then, about ten minutes later problems hit its sister car, forcing the #55 RT24-P into the pit lane for three laps for repairs. A valiant effort through the night by drivers Jonathan Bomarito, Harry Tinknell, and Olivier Pla almost got them back on the lead lap, but with ten hours to go they were hit by another car and also had to retire.
With the Mazdas gone the race for the overall win was mainly between the two Penske Acuras and the #10 Caddy. Fernando Alonso took over from Taylor at the first driver change and took the car to the front, showing he’s just at home driving a car with a roof and covered wheels as he is in a single-seater. The #10 was still in the lead when he handed the car over to Kobayashi, but then a series of yellow flag caution periods (where the cars have to circulate behind a safety car with no overtaking allowed) took away their advantage.
However, things got worse once the rain arrived. Originally we were predicted nothing but a light sprinkle, possibly in the final hour. But the skies over Daytona had been grey and ominous from the moment the green flag was waved on Saturday afternoon. The rain started in earnest a little before 5am, then got heavier and heavier. At 6am, the #4 Corvette C7.R aquaplaned into a tire barrier, bringing out yet another safety car period that continued for more than an hour before the decision was made to red flag the race. Race cars run with very little ride height, and that means they can become undriveable if there’s standing water. And oh, was there ever standing water. The cars parked in pit lane to wait for a break in the weather.
When that came, an hour and three-quarters later, the race managed a single lap before yet another safety car. The problem was standing water on the infield, particularly at the points where the track transitioned onto or off of the banking. Another long safety car followed, then a few minutes more green flag racing before the #63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari slammed into the back of the #540 Porsche. As you’ll see from the in-car footage below, visibility was almost completely non-existent.
Visibility is so low in the#Rolex24.
Toni Vilander had no time to react when the 540 Porsche appeared in front of him.pic.twitter.com/pcOiHWaBsO
— Motorsports On NBC (@MotorsportsNBC)January 27, 2019
With about two hours left on the clock, the race was red flagged for a second time, something that had never happened in the previous 56 years of the race. But before that happened, Alonso had returned the #10 to the lead with a lovely bit of driving, capitalizing on a mistake by another F1 alum, Felipe Nasr. The cars returned to pit lane for more than two hours, but the weather did not improve, and IMSA decided to call the race after 23 hours and 50 minutes. Taylor, Alonso, Van Der Zande, and Kobayashi were victorious overall, each earning a shiny new Rolex Daytona for their troubles.
Alonso almost tried to talk himself out of a victory; before regaining the lead and before the final red flag, he complained to his team over the radio that the conditions were too severe to keep racing. “I called a lot of times when I was second, over the radio, that [the] safety car was necessary. I think the last five, seven laps of the race, were not, I think, right. For anyone…because the visibility was nearly zero, we could not be flat out on the straights. The car was moving, the [traction control] was coming in 6th gear, [at] 200 miles per hour. There were parts of different cars in different points of the track because people were losing the bodywork here and there. And I was calling the team for a safety car immediately because I could not see anything,” he said after the race.
Victory in GTLM went to one of the BMWs. Although the #24 took itself out of contention when the steering wheel connector was broken during a driver change, the #25 of Augsto Farfus, Connor De Phillippi, Phillipp Eng, and Colton Herta stayed out of enough trouble to take the top step of the podium. They dedicated the win to Charly Lamm, the head of Schnitzer Motorsport—a long time BMW team that won the 1999 24 Hours of Le Mans for the marque. “This win is magical and of special significance to me,” Farfus said. “A few days ago, I lost a very important person in my life. I am sure that Charly was with me on the way to this success, so the win is for him. Now it is time to celebrate.”
Top honors in LMP2 went to the #18 DragonSpeed car of Roberto Gonzalez, Pastor Maldonado, Sebastian Saavedra and Ryan Cullen, and in GTD it was the #11 Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini Huracan with Rolf Ineichen, Mirko Bortolotti, Christan Englehart and Rik Breukers, making it two wins in two years for that outfit.