Slippery conditions welcomed the field as the first practice got underway on Thursday. No rain was falling, but mist and a wet track was challenging enough to prevent quick times and send some cars sliding, spinning, or missing corners. The Mike Shank Ligier topped the times as GTLM cars largely dominated the top 10 and several cars opted to sit the session out.
“There wasn’t really much to be gained by staying out there,” Action Express’ Christian Fittipaldi told DSC. “We won’t be running in the rain for the race, so it didn’t make much sense in risking anything out there.”
Toni Vilander in the #61 Risi Competizione Ferrari went quickest at the outset which was a nice statement for the team who worked very hard just to get the car ready to run. The Ferrari was shaken down briefly at Fiorano before being shipped to Miami and delivered directly to the track prior to the race.
The GTLM class quickly filled the top 8 spots for the first 20 minutes or so with times in the 1:56+ per lap for all cars. Interestingly enough, the GTLM class showed a gap of several seconds to the quickest of the prototype field before the prototypes started to show some speed on a drying track. The gap may have been due, in part, to the different tire rules in GTLM which permits more development. The prototypes run the spec Continental tire.
“We’re making progress,” said BMW RLL’s Lucas Luhr during the session. “The M6 is a totally different car to drive that last years Z4 GTE. The wheel base, the room in the car, it is all different. Then you have the turbo motor. It too has a different feel. It is a turbo. The power comes on differently than with a normally aspirated motor. You push the throttle and the when the power comes on, it comes on in a rush. We’re now working on the drivability aspect of the car, just making more comfortable, and easier to drive. The M6 is a good car, but it is early in the development cycle.”
The #67 Ganassi Ford GT sat on pit lane without its rear deck for the first part of the session. It finally made an appearance after 33 minutes only setting a total of 7 laps in the session at the back of the GTLM field.
James Calado took the #72 SMP Ferrari to the top of the sheets half an hour in with a 1:55 before turning over the Gimmi Brunni after 10 laps of running. Only minutes later, Toni Vilander reclaimed the top spot in his GTLM Ferrari 488.
Mikhail Aleshin introduced the BR01 prototype to the field with a 1:56, drawing closer to the GTLM times. A drying line strained to show itself, but times didn’t budge below 1:55 at the top of the table. The prototypes generally struggled to get up to enough speed to make use of their aerodynamic advantage until about 15 minutes left in the session when Oz Negri went fastest with a 1:54.807 – the fastest overall and the first time below the 1:55 threshold.
Teams generally rotated through drivers to get everybody settled. A chance to practice driver changes on pit lane was valuable regardless of the wet track.
IMSA made a variety of Adjustment of Performance changes after the Roar test and continued making changes on race week with a fuel capacity adjustment for the Ford GT. The slippery conditions in practice weren’t the best indicators of absolute speed, so we still don’t know the impact of those changes.
Many teams undertook major mechanical changes in the days leading up to the Thursday practice. Cars like the Paul Miller and Konrad entries made engine and gearbox changes on Wednesday, with fresh units only arriving at 6:30am in the morning. Walking through the garages, the sight of several Lamborghini engine and gearbox components scattered across the floor and parts manuals nearby was evidence of the thrash required by the crews.
A red flag brought the session to a close with less than 5 minutes remaining. The #16 Change Racing Lamborghini crashed against the left barrier coming up to the pit lane entry causing damage to the front and rear left of the car. The car hadn’t set a lap time, but made several in and out circuits through pit lane before the crash. A flatbed for recovery was dispatched which brought out the checkered flag to end the session given the modest time remaining. Driver Spencer Pumpelly got out of the car on his own power and was later evaluated and released from the medical center.
Oz Negri remained at the top of the time sheets at the end with the SMP BR01 Nissan in tenth as the only prototypes in the top 10 in Mikhail Aleshin setting the time, just in front of the #55 Mazda. The GTLM class filled the remainder of the top 10, headed by Toni Villander’s time in the #62 Risi Ferrari. Frederic Makowiecki was third in the Porsche 911 RSR with Gimmi Brunni’s SMP Ferrari in fourth overall. Dirk Werner was the fastest of the two new BMW M6 cars and Oliver Gavin was fastest of the two Corvettes.
All of the GTLM and Prototype entries set times during the session except the DeltaWing and the #50 Highway to Help Prototype.
Ryan Lewis in the #26 BAR1 Motorsports car was fastest in Prototype Challenge with Johnny Mowlem in the #20 team car close behind. New addition to the #20 Brendan Gaughan got some laps in the practice as well. Several prototype challenge entries opted not to go out, including the two Starworks cars (#8 and #88), the #38 Performance Tech Motorsports car, and the #85 for JDC-Miller Motorsports.
The GTD class saw Matt McMurry fastest in the #73 Park Place Porsche just in front of Jeroen Bleekemolen in the #33 Viper and the #51 Spirit of Race Ferrari 458 in the hands of Italian Raffaele Gianmaria. Sabine Schmitz turned her first laps at Daytona in the Frikadelli Porsche, taking over for Frank Stippler who got things started. The Frikadelli car was slowest of the field, clearly taking a cautious approach with their 15 laps of practice.
In addition to the #16 Lamborghini, four GTD cars did not turn times including the Paul Miller Lamborghini, both of the Konrad Lamborghinis, the #9 Stevenson Motorsports Audi, and the #93 ViperExchange “Don’t Mess with Texas” entry. The #93 Viper made it to pit lane, but sat there during the session with its front engine bonnet removed.
In the end, ten total cars did not set lap times during the opening practice. (As noted above, the #16 set out, but didn’t make it across the line to set a time.) The slippery conditions combined with good mileage during the Roar and a dry forecast for the race likely caused some to wonder what benefit there was to be gained in light of the risks. Drivers generally noted the slippery conditions after the session, hoping for drier weather for the second practice and qualifying.
Today is a busy day for the teams, crews and drivers. Another practice session is scheduled in the early afternoon before qualifying late in the afternoon and a 90 minute night practice this evening.
Gary Horrocks contributed to this report