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Rolex 24 Prototype Preview: The Start Of A New Era

10 things to look for in the race, plus PC notes

It’s all change in IMSA’s top Prototype class for 2017 and with the opening round at Daytona International Speedway almost upon us it’s time to look at the storylines to follow for the week and beyond:

DPi vs P2:

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Without doubt one of the biggest points of interest, and potentially bones of contention, is going to be the battle between the DPis and P2s.

IMSA’s regulations, in search of the elusive factory programmes that underpin the commercial viability of racing at this level, allow the new for 2017 P2 Chassis to feature factory provided engines (rather than the otherwise stock Gibson V8) and custom bodywork, the concept has stirred very considerable interest with Audi, Bentley and Mercedes Benz amongst those that have shown, or in at leat one of those cases continue to show, some level of enthusiasm for a possible future programme.

This is very early days for both forms of the ‘Global 2017 P2’ project and there is much to discover including ultimate pace, balance between the two, and, not least, reliability.

Testing is one thing but racing is quite another and with the new era starting with the intense challenge of a 24 Hour race it’s very likely indeed that the manufacturers and the teams will learn several things about their new steed the hard way!

Electronics woes have been a feature of the public outings of the cars in both specs so far and the potential for heat, real cold and potentially rain too won’t do much to reduce the potential for further apexes on the learning curve there!

One thing that is for sure is that this race will not see the cars run as fast as they will go, 200mph plus is an insurance no no – we’ll have to wait until June in France to see how fast a 2017 LMP2 will go!

Here’s hoping that we don’t have a week of Balance of Performance wrangling, there has already been unpleasantness between IMSA and the FIA over what can, and cannot be done in balancing the two iterations of the concept. the most recent IMSA BoP looked to level the playing field that saw the fastest P2s outpace many of the DPIs at the Roar test earlier this month, whether they have got it right or wrong will likely only be know by nightfall on Saturday!

Cadillac’s return

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General Motors were early adopters of the new DPi formula and arrive here with a trio of Dallara chassised entries across a pair of factory-backed teams.

Lovers of the V8 bellow of the now late and perhaps not all that lamented Corvette DPs will be comforted by the fact that the new 6.2 litre V8 installed in the Caddys provides just as much aural intensity as its predecessor. In the speed stakes this should be on a different planet!

Action Express and Wayne Taylor Racing are teams of high quality that both know the high banks of Daytona very well – both teams featuring a mix of men who have proven on track their pace here, and those that have proven it elsewhere.

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Wayne Taylor Racing are very hungry indeed for this race, the Taylor bros joined by the always committed Max Angelelli (see below) and superstar NASCAR man Jeff Gordon, the fact that early plans could have seen Gordon anchoring a full season second car may be a source of regret, but his presence here elevates the whole effort.

Mazda’s ambitious DPi debut

The Mazda DPi effort provided a real wow when the Riley-Multimatic based RT-24P was first unveiled, the car a real beauty in an age that all too often puts function ahead of form.

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Big power from the blown four pot has seen the DPi’s predecessor one of the fastest in the previous era and more power still for the new car is, eventually, likely to see that happening again.

Shades of an earlier era in IMSA competition of big N/A power vs turbo screamers are alive and kicking again!

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Mazda, as always, have graduates of their motorsport ladder forming the core of the team and, in the latter part of the 2016 season, those drivers showed that they have the quality to go toe to toe with the rest.

Good looking car, quick and motivated drivers, Mazda now need to break the reliability curse that has kept them from the top step on the podium. 2017 is a big year, and few have more to prove than this team.

First impressions of ESM’s private Nissan DPi effort

The Nissan-engined Tequila Patron ESM effort is the one non-factory DPi effort for the season, the Ligier based, Nissan GT3 twin turbo V6 engined cars the last of the class to hit the track and the team pushing very hard to catch up.

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The effort for the season features a gathering of the ESM clan with Ligier contributing 2016 Daytona and Sebring standout Pipo Derani and 2016 FIA WEC LMP2 frontrunner Bruno Senna to the effort. Brendon Hartley in named against both cars, that likely a banker against trouble for one, and at this stage of the programme that looks a smart move.

Can the team defend their title here? You’d have to say that it looks unlikely – But this could, very easily, turn into a matter of who can keep there cars on track and out of the garage, being the very fastest may not be the defining factor in 2017!

Rebellion’s return to the USA

Commitment to the full NAEC from the fan favourite Rebellion team is no surprise to anyone who cares to spend time with the team. They thoroughly enjoyed their successful campaigns in recent years, and certainly enjoyed their pair of Petit Le Mans wins in the Lola LMP1.

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The depth in this field prevents use of the ‘bringing a gun to a knife fight’ adage – But perhaps when looking at the line-up for the #13 Oreca 07 Gibson it should be more like ‘bringing a gatling gun to a turkey shoot’.

The team’s line-up is simply stellar – Porsche factory LMP1 man Neel Jani and Toyota’s Sebastien Buemi both have a fair call on the ballot for fastest sportscar driver in the world right now.

Buemi’s Toyota team-mate Stephane Sarrazin is one of the most experienced endurance drivers still active and has lost little of his pace. And Nick Heidfeld, after perhaps losing a little of his mojo as the Rebellion LMP1 programme lost real relevance, is now in a position to run for a real victory. He’s unlikely to disappoint!

Dragonspeed’s IMSA Prototype debut

If Rebellion are the returning European invaders then Dragonspeed are the prodigal son. After a season in the ELMS last year that saw the team running at the sharp end, and ahead of a year that could see them doubling up their attack to a two car Oreca 07 Gibson effort, the now French based team are here for a crack on what was previously home soil.

3rd: #13 Rebellion Racing - Neel Jani/ Stephane Sarrazin/ Sebastien Buemi - Oreca 07 Gibson - 1:38.408

Nico Lapierre is their top gun, and there are few, if any, faster in an LMP2 car on the other side of the pond. Ben Hanley got more and more comfortable in last year’s Oreca, this is his year to place a marker for a long career in endurance racing. Loic Duval, whilst relishing a full season in the DTM with Audi Sport, will surely be looking forward to Daytona rather more – this may – or may not! – be his one sportscar start of the 2017 season.

Henrik Hedman meanwhile is the man who makes this happen, hugely enthusiastic and gathering in confidence for the season ahead. He needs his time in the car to be steady and fault-free if this effort is to feature at the sharp end by Sunday afternoon.

IMSA’s 2017 P2 Pack

The new LMP2 formula has attracted three teams to sign on the dotted line for new Gibson powered chassis and, very happily, all three have opted for different cars with only the Dallara P217 not represented on the grid in P2 form. We will certainly get to see how the trio we do have match up head to head!

Visit Florida Racing flying the Riley Multimatic flag

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Troy Flis’ team move over from their DP programme to a new Riley Multimatic Mk30 after narrowly failing to secure a deal to field a third Mazda DPi – they bring a new look driver line-up to the challenge. Long-time Riley test driver Marc Goossens is joined by the mercurial Renger van der Zande for the season with the pair joined at Daytona by one of the fastest LMP2 racers of the past season, Rene Rast. If the speed is there this trio will surely find it!

7th: #90 Visit Florida Racing - Marc Goosens/ Renger van der Zande - Riley Multimatic Mk 30 Gibson - 1:38.922

The other pair of full season P2s see the welcome trend of PC teams stepping up.

PR1/Mathiasen Motorsport showing off the Ligier JS P217

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PR1 bring their familiar #52 up into the top class together with some familiar names from the team’s PC era. Jose Gutierrez, Mike Guasch and Tom Kimber Smith all know how to race hard and win in Prototypes Kimber Smith twice a Le Mans LMP2 champion, Guasch a winner in both PC Orecas and, last season, in an LMP3 Ligier in the ELMS. They’re joined by highly rated IndyCar man RC Enerson. This will be a team with a race plan that says something other than ‘race at 100%, 100% of the time’ but come Sunday, that could be a smart move!

4th: #52 PR1/ Mathiasen - RC Enerson/ Tom Kimber Smith/ Mike Guasch/ Andrea Gutierrez - Ligier JS P217 Gibson - 1:38.596

JDC Miller Motorsports steps up from PC

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Another team that carry over their PC racing number, #85, and most of their driver line-up, Misha Goikhberg, Chris Miller and Stephen Simpson, to the Prototype class.

The team have opted for the Oreca 07 chassis, the weapon of choice for those looking for the car that has shown most speed in pre-season testing.

Rebellion Racing and TDS racing regular Mathias Beche has plenty of experience in the car’s 05 predecessor and has also been on test duty with the new car too. He’ll be pumped up by the prospect of being fielded for his knowledge and pace.

Stars In Cars

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Beyond the galaxy of returning IMSA talent the Rolex 24 once again dishes up part of its unique appeal, the opportunity for drivers from other parts of the sport to take on the challenge of Daytona twice around the clock.

There’s little doubt who the biggest draw is likely to be this week, Jeff Gordon back at Daytona in a very different car to that in which he made his name – his run in the #10 Cadillac DPi will make national headlines whichever way it goes!

There are no fewer than nine recent, and for the most part current, FIA WEC LMP1 factory drivers listed amongst the 43 men due to do battle in the class including two current Porsche men, 2016 World Champ Brendon Hartley and current title holder Neel Jani. Toyota are well represented too with 2014 Champion Seb Buemi, plus messrs Sarrazin, Conway and ex Toyota man , and current LMP2 WEC and Le Mans Champ, Nico Lapierre. Add in 2013 World Champ Loic Duval, current Audi DTM man plus the mercurial Rene Rast and Filipe Albuquerque and the conclusion can be reached that whilst the LMP1s won’t run at Daytona, there’s a unique opportunity to observe how good their pilots are!

Add into that little lot WEC LMP2 race winners Bruno Senna and Ryan Dalziel, ELMS race winner and previous LMP1 privateer champ Mathias Beche and reigning European Le Mans Series LMP3
Champ Mike Guasch.

Indycar brings RC Enerson and James Hinchcliffe to the Rolex roster, both will surely add real bite to the PR/ Mathiasen and Mazda efforts respectively.

Rolex 24 Winners

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The changing of the guard in the Prototype class sees a relatively low count of previous overall winners in the 2017 race.

Just eight previous winners are on the entry (there are a further three in the othr classes) with the full 2016 winning quartet back with Tequila Patron ESM – Ed Brown, Pipo Derani and Johannes van Overbeek plus Scott Sharp, the ESM Team Principal one of a trio of double winners, his 1996 win making him the earliest returning victor.

Ryan Dalziel is back with ESM in 2017 after missing the victory run last year with the team.

Action Express duo Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi are the other double winners back to try for a hat trick.

And Max Angelelli (see below) returns in search of a second win having taken the win back in 2005

Max’s Farewell

2016 WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Sebring Testing

Max Angelelli will step away from the driving seat after the 2017 Rolex 24 Hours and that should be a source of real sorrow for those of us that like their racing drivers committed to the point of no return.

DSC will feature a pictorial tribute to Max’s career this week but for now a two tale story – Firstly, it is fair to say that the DSC Editor’s relationship with Max has not been the best since, in the wake of last year’s race, the story of the Italian driver’s last few laps broke via an interview with Autosprint. That’s a source of regret to me, but on reflection Max would surely understand the reason for interest, and indeed concern.

My regret at that atmosphere is heightened by the fact that Angelelli has provided some real touchstone moments in my career covering the sport – I’ll relate just one.

On my very first visit to Road Atlanta, for Petit Le Mans in 2002 I took my front row seat in the media room just as the first Free Practice session got underway. One of the first around was Max, in the Cadillac LMP02.

To say that he was committed through the final turn would be an understatement of almost criminal proportions, the car bucking and sparking as he looked for grip, wrestling the handsome, but all too often unreliable, ‘Audillac’ around in search of the speed the team were looking to unlock. An elusive moment of watching one of the best right at the limit, and perhaps a touch beyond!

It remains one of my very favourite moments in my time in the sport, and has defined Max in my memory more than the events last year ever could. Forza Max.

PC

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The Oreca FLM09 is now eight years old, and its time at the sharp end is now ticking down.

There are five of the open top prototypes on the entry and there are still stories galore amongst the takers for this final hurrah at a race that has often been unkind to the cars that bolstered the ALMS grid when it needed it badly.

The five cars come from three teams, a pair apiece from Brian Alder’s BAR1 and Peter Baron’s Starworks with a solo effort from Performance Tech.

Peter Baron’s pair of cars feature eye-catching liveries and a number of significant drivers – Ben Keating doing double duty in the #8 Oreca and #30 AMG in GTD as he builds proto racing experience ahead of his planned appearance at Le Mans in LMP2.

ex Renault 3.5 Champion and Mercedes DTM race winner Robert Wickens also features in the #8 with 2017 AJ Foyt IndyCar driver Conor Daly a late addition.

Starworks regular Alex Popow reatures in the (Orange) #88

BAR1 highlights include the always entertaining Gustavo Yacaman and ex Indy 500 and Rolex 24 Hours winner Buddy Rice, Rice a full season driver for the team.

The team’s #26 car features the briefly (again) unretired Johnny Mowlem and Jackie Chan DC Racing’s David Cheng.

Performance Tech field a familiar looking squad in their #38 car, with young Patricio O’Ward stepping up from the team’s Prototype Lites effort for 2017.

Max Angelelli photo courtesy of IMSA