United State: Rolex 24 Recap for New Tudor Sportscar Series
The 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway was won, as predicted, by a former Daytona Prototype. In fact it was something of a rout for the Corvette DPs, who filled the top four spots. Ford's EcoBoost brigade, spearheaded by Chip Ganassi Racing, were comprehensively beaten.
The winning car, the Action Express Corvette DP was driven by Christian Fittipaldi, Sebastien Bourdais and Joao Barbosa. They racked up 695 laps, or 2,474 miles, at an average of 103.050 mph on the journey to Victory Lane.
The margin of victory was just 1.461 seconds which, on the face of it, is amazing after such a distance - but there is a fair amount of stage managing involved, of which, more later.
Second place was something of a family affair, with Wayne Taylor sharing driving duties with his sons, Jordan and Ricky, along with longtime sidekick Max Angelelli. Did Ellen get the idea for Oscar selfie here?
Coming in third, and on the same lap as the first two finishers, was the second Action Express Corvette DP. This was another family affair behind the wheel with the Frisselle brothers, Brian and Burt, partnering veteran Fabien Giroix and John Martin to grab the last step of the podium.
The first of the LM P2 cars was fifth as Lucas Luhr, Klaus Graff and Alex Brundle hustled their Nissan powered Oreca 03 as best as they could. They were three laps down, a clear signal that some work was needed by the officials in the balancing of performance between the Daytona Prototypes and the LM P2 cars (classes explained more in previous article).
Victory in the Prototype Challenge class was taken by the Core Autosport quartet of Jon Bennett, Colin Braun, James Gue and Mark Wilkins in tight contest.
The battle that was perhaps most keenly anticipated was in the GT LM class, any scrap that has BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche and Viper as the contestants is going to be good, and there was no disappointment in the action at the Rolex.
Porsche looked strong all week and so it proved in the race.
During the first few hours the GT LM contest was fierce with the Porsche, Viper, BMW, Corvette and Ferrari entries all trying to grab an advantage.
The first GT LM contender to drop out was Ferrari, as the Risi Comptizione #62 was involved in a serious accident with the #99 Gainsco Corvette DP. The Ferrari was travelling very slowly out of the first Horseshoe and was hit at full speed in the rear by the unsighted DP. Matteo Malucelli in the Ferrari and Memo Gidley in the Corvette were both extracted by the Safety Team and taken to hospital.
Malucelli was eventually given the all clear and allowed to fly home to Italy on the Monday following, though he told me at the airport that he was very sore. Gidley's injuries to his leg, arm and back were much more serious and required extensive surgery. The good news is that Memo is on the road to recovery, he is out of hospital and back in California.
There has subsequently been much commentary on the internet about the relative safety of the Daytona Prototypes, a lot of it ill informed. The cars have steel tube frame chassis and do not have a carbon fiber tub like the LM P2 racers. Nor do they have a frontal crash box to protect the driver and they are not crash tested as is the case with the cars running in FIA or ACO events. All that being said, the Daytona Prototypes have a good safety record and are well maintained by first rate teams, the consequences of this accident may have been just as serious whatever the specification of the car.
Both vehicles were impounded by IMSA and taken away for examination, I suspect that the new generation of prototypes due in 2016 will have enhanced driver safety aids as the regulations are a three way conversation between the FIA, the ACO and NASCAR/IMSA.
The race was suspended for over an hour due to the accident and got back underway as the sun set. A long night ensued, as it always does in Florida during January. One by one the GT LM contenders hit trouble and slipped away from the front. The #912 Porsche led the class until just after dawn when it was retired with engine maladies.
Both GT LM Corvettes also hit problems, #3 had engine overheating issues putting it out of the race, while #4 had to make a 30 minute trip to the garage to fix the transmission. This tumbled them down the rankings to 5th, this was a most un-Corvette like performance from the team.
Both Vipers were right up at the front early on, their 8 litre V10 being just the engine to have around the Daytona International Speedway tri-oval. Steering problems and front end damage blunted their challenge but the misfortunes of others promoted the #91 to the final podium place.
The main beneficiaries of the mechanical woes of others was BMW, in particular #55, after #56 lost time late in the race with a wheel bearing issue.
So top step of the podium was claimed by Patrick Pilet, Richard Lietz and Nick Tandy who had a pretty flawless race in their 911. It was a big day for Core Autosport who run Porsche's factory programme in North America, the win in GT LM was enhanced by victory in the PC class as well.
Speaking of multiple wins, it was Porsche's 76th class win and the 40th for the 911 at Daytona, well Excellence was Expected as they used to say. The titanic struggle in GT LM justified NASCAR's decision to leave the rules alone in the category and to find common ground with the ACO and FIA.
The final result in GTD was the subject of much controversy. A very questionable Full Course Yellow was thrown with just over 20 minutes to go, this had the happy consequence of bunching up the field, a common enough occurrence in NASCAR...but not in Endurance Racing. The kind of folks who follow this side of the sport hate this sort of artificial interference.
The inevitable happened when Alessandro Pier Guidi in the #555 Ferrari and Marcus Winklehock in the #45 Audi got into a royal scrap and it appeared that there was contact between the two cars in the final laps. The up shot was that the Ferrari crossed the line first, but was promptly penalised.
Or at least penalised for a few moments, as it was eventually reversed - not by independent Race Stewards as might happen in FIA sanctioned races, but by a committee of IMSA officials. It was perhaps the wrong way of arriving at the right result. It was also an encouraging sign, officials were listening to competitors... not a regular happening in Volusia County.
Indeed there were many encouraging signs throughout the event. The grid was full not just for the Rolex but also for the supporting Continental Tire Sportscar Challenge which had 68 cars in the race.
Infield parking had been sold out in October and while compared to the audience for the Daytona 500 the place was empty, there was a good crowd who witnessed some great racing.
Away from the track action, there are still a few questions, particularly in the financial area or lack of it. The late announcement of the calendar and rules package had a major impact on the teams, some of whom claim that there is around a 30% increase in the series mileage over previous years - creating a corresponding increase in budgets. By the time the announcement was made, it was simply too late to go back to sponsors and ask for that kind of money. The changes to the Daytona Prototypes in the run up the the 2014 season have also been expensive, further stretching teams' resources. The factory teams in GT LM can usually find a way of getting marketing to fund this sort of problem, but even they are unhappy.
I spoke with the head of one factory programme and he was dismissive about the way that the rules were being implemented and the lack of commercial cooperation over matters such as sponsor logos and their positioning on the cars. There was a lack of dialogue and a cultural divide that will take time to sort. He has had to explain all of this to the guys further up the food chain and they've not been amused. I also know of one major team that has started the season with a serious shortfall in their running budget, and there were stories around the paddock that suggested that was far from an isolated case.
Since the Rolex race, Aston Martin have withdrawn from the Series - citing issues with the Balance of Performance that they had imposed on them at Daytona. Level 5 have also confirmed their exit from the Tudor United SportsCar Championship, despite their GTD win in Florida, financial considerations are unlikely to be the cause of this action. Less surprisingly Gainsco, who had the stuffing knocked out of them with Memo Gidley's accident, have also decided to sit out the rest of the year.
Is it all bad news? Not at all, quite the reverse in fact. IMSA have added two respected engineers to their technical staff which should address some of the teams' concerns in that area. Even allowing for a few absences as described, there will be 66 cars at Sebring this month with a further 60 in the Continental Challenge. These are numbers that virtually every other race series would kill for. There will be a big crowd, Sebring will always be Sebring.
The Tudor United SportsCar Series got off to a fine start at the 2014 Rolex 24. Sure there are issues that need attention, but the general conclusion that I have drawn is that things are going in the right direction. Perhaps a bit too slowly for some... but time will tell.