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Rolex 24 Hours At Daytona Preview, Part 1: Prototype

A look at the bumper 20-car prototype field, full of world-class talent, set to race on the Floridian speedway

It’s safe to say that IMSA’s DPi formula has had as good a 12 months as it could have, with more teams, more interest, chassis and high quality driver talent coming into the fray through Year 1 and into Year 2. The racing has been solid, the cars have attracted global attention, and there’s further opportunity for growth on the horizon too.

And all of a sudden, January 2018 is upon us, and it can only mean one thing for fans of US racing: the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona is here. This year’s grid has all the potential to produce an all-time classic race on at the world-famous oval, mainly due to the stunning field assembled in the prototype ranks for the 56th running.

ENTRY LIST >>

So at DSC, we’re going to kick off our in-depth Daytona 24 Hours preview with a rundown of the Prototype class, with all the pre-season winter testing out the way and just race-week to look forward to.

Cadillac

It’s only right to start off with the favourites, and the Cadillac DPi-V.R teams have to be considered odds-on at this point. Not only did Cadillac’s 2017 machine prove to be the best on pace and reliability throughout the season, but the car continued its title-winning momentum into the winter too, the car topping the times at the Roar Before The 24 earlier this month, the car running with its new (smaller) 5.5 liter engine for the first time in a competitive IMSA event.

It must be noted however, that with Prototype BoP now enforced, Cadillac’s DPis have had their air restrictors made 0.6mm smaller since the Roar, a significant reeling in of power.

For the 24, there’s four cars entered this year, one for the 2017 IMSA champion – and 2017 Rolex 24 winner – Wayne Taylor Racing, a pair for Action Express and a single example for Spirit of Daytona, the newcomer to the Cadillac party.

At Wayne Taylor Racing, there’s been big changes in its driver line-up for the 2018 season, with Ricky Taylor out and Renger Van Der Zande in for the year, the Dutchman and Jordan Taylor joined by Ryan Hunter Reay for the long races. While it’s a different set of drivers joining Jordan for this campaign, the quality is just as high, so expect them to be there or thereabouts in the running for the win once again.

Action Express meanwhile, will look to challenge Wayne Taylor for the win, after narrowly missing out on glory in the frantic dash to the flag in last year’s Rolex.

Like WTR, Action Express will run with some new faces in amongst its line-up.

In the re-liveried Mustang Sampling-backed #5 car, Christian Fittipaldi (now the team’s third driver) has lost his full-season berth to Filipe Albuquerque, who starred in the ELMS last season with United Autosports and is more than capable of winning on IMSA’s stage. He’ll be joined by Joao Barbosa, making it an all-Portuguese full-season pairing.

The Whelen-backed #31 car has a new look too, Dane Cameron joining Acura, leaving the door open for ex-F1 driver Felipe Nasr (who topped the Roar Before the 24 Times) to sign with the team. Nasr, a very talented driver, will make his second Rolex 24 appearance, after finishing third overall back in 2012.

He will race alongside team regular Eric Curran for the season, and for Daytona, Toyota LMP1 driver Mike Conway and Sunoco Challenge winner Stuart Middleton. After last year’s Sunoco Challenge winner Seb Morris impressed mightily, can Middleton, winner of the 2017 British GT4 title prove to be another star in the making? It’s a very intriguing quartet.

Last on the Cadillac entry is Spirit of Daytona, Troy Flis’ Visit Florida Racing team running under its old banner after the Visit Florida sponsorship deal came to an end after 2017.

For 2018, the team will run with a DPI, after using a Multimatic/Riley and later a Ligier in 2017. It’s a bold move, but one that could prove to keep the team competitive throughout the year.

Tristan Vautier and Matt McMurry are in for the season and look to be joined by Eddie Cheever III for the long races. As a trio, they may lack a little in experience, but could spring a surprise. Their collective pace shown at the Roar (top five throughout) for instance, was very encouraging.

Acura

The two biggest efforts joining IMSA this year, no doubt, are Joest (partnered with Mazda) and Penske, who will ride with Acura.

Make no mistake, Penske Team Acura are in this to win, and win big, and there will be an expectation externally, and internally, that its ARX-05s will be competitive right out of the blocks.

The car, based on the ORECA 07 – which proved consistently to be the best LMP2 chassis from 2017 (pre-‘Joker’ packages) – makes for a solid foundation, its driver talent does too.

Its six drivers amount to a collection of sportscar talent, ex-F1 talent and IndyCar stars that’s enough to make any racing fan drool. Juan Pablo Montoya, Dane Cameron, Simon Pagenaud make up the #6’s crew, while Helio Castroneves, Ricky Taylor and Graham Rahal will share the #7.

The question is whether or not it’ll take a few races for the team (back in sportscars for the first time since its RS Spyder programme in the last decade) to be able to go toe-to-toe with the established IMSA teams. It’s too early to make any sort of bold predictions, but don’t be surprised if Penske comes away with a big result.

Mazda

After another disappointing year for Mazda in IMSA prototype racing, it’s back with a fresh look. The RT2-4P returns, but heavily revised by Multimatic and with not inconsiderable assistance from none other than Joest Racing.

The car, which didn’t win any races before Speedsource’s season was cut short last year, has seen major attention paid to cooling and suspension, which should see better and more sustainable performance and better balance and handling too.

It just remains to be seen whether or not the base car is up to the task. With Joest running the show, we’ll most certainly find out the answer to that question, because Ralf Juttner’s crew have been there, done that, and indeed, got the t-shirt in sportscars.

In addition to the car’s changes and the personnel changes at the top, its driver squad has been freshened up too. Jonathan Bomarito stays on board for a third season, Tristan Nunez for a fourth with the marque and Spencer Pigot too returns, though his programme is NAEC only alongside his IndyCar commitments.

Joining them are three new faces to the team, all of them very familiar to DSC readers.

Harry Tincknell is paired with Bomarito for the full-season (the pair joined by Pigot at Daytona), the young Englishman is delighted to have scored a full-season IMSA deal alongside his Ford WEC campaign in 2018.

Oliver Jarvis meanwhile, joins Nunez in the second full-season car, the ex-Audi man again showed his mettle in the Jackie Chan DC Racing squad in the WEC in 2017 and again is relishing the Stateside challenge. With the mercurial Rene Rast added at the Rolex 24 here’s another trio with no discernible weak links.

Unfortunately, the team head to race week at Daytona having had a tough time at the Roar. The two cars lost a lot of track time due to a shunt in testing prior to the event, which meant the team was forced to wait for parts to be delivered for one car, while everyone else was out on track gathering data – and pace!

Mazda Team Joest will however, put that behind them, and hope to bounce back in the race, where its cars will run with 15kg less weight and a reduction in boost pressure as per the Rolex 24 BoP change.

Tequila Patron ESM – Nissan

Petit Le Mans winner Tequila Patron ESM and its Ligier-based, turbo NISMO-powered Onroak DPi are back for season two, and make for yet another pair of contenders in this year’s Rolex.

The team’s form at Daytona, plus the fact that it is the only other DPi outfit to have penetrated the ‘armour’ of the Cadillac assault in North America, should place the team in a position where this effort is taken very seriously. The car improved mightily over the course of the season, and impressed those in the IMSA paddock, and watching from afar.

Its driver line-up is strong once again for Rolex, with full-season drivers Ryan Dalziel and Pipo Derani not short of race-turning pace and success, supported by the solidity of Scott Sharp and Johannes van Overbeek. The team has brought in a pair of rapid Frenchmen to add to the mix too for the big race, Nicolas Lapierre and Olivier Pla need no introduction and can win races in whatever machine they’re handed.

Following the Roar, the Onroak DPis were given a power increase, which could well make the difference between first and second in what’s likely to be a close race to the flag.

Keep an eye on this effort, it could well end up in the mix right until the end.

ORECA

Outside of the glitz and glamour of the DPi efforts there’s also a selection of LMP2 cars, from some big-name teams, in the class too.

Of those, six are Gibson-powered ORECA 07s. It’ll be interesting to see just how they fare. While it’s not totally out of the realms of possibility that a private LMP2 effort could win at Daytona, the odds are stacked against them, with the factory-supported efforts in many cases touting more resources and cars refined from the base P2 package, using alternative power.

But, with the teams we’ve got in the field racing LMP2s, a big storyline will surely be, just how close can the best team get to taking a set of watches home on Sunday night?

The biggest name is undoubtedly Jackie Chan DC Racing in the ORECA camp. The 2017 Le Mans-winning LMP2 crew (which let’s not forgot almost won overall) brings a pair of 07s to the race, with a list of drivers oozing talent.

Williams F1 driver Lance Stroll and up and coming superstar Felix Rosenqvist already have Daytona experience in a Prototype – albeit from the previous generation of DP machinery, whilst Robin Frijns and Daniel Juncadella have GT racing experience in depth, plus high-level single-seater success on their career CVs; but this will be their first ‘go’ in a racing sports prototype.

The duo already named in the #78 car are all very familiar names to LMP2 watchers. Ho Pin Tung – who won Le Mans with the team – will race with Alex Brundle Ferninand Habsburg and another single seater ace in Antonio Felix da Costa. That talent, coupled with the group running the cars, makes for a team good enough to leave many scratching their heads in the DPi garages.

Elsewhere racing with ORECA are three teams more familiar to those who focus their attention on IMSA, as Performance Tech, JDC Miller Motorsport and CORE autosport (also running the Porsche GTLM effort) make up the numbers.

CORE, a former power house in PC, had driver quartet features ex-Audi factory ace Loic Duval, Le Mans winner with Audi and Porsche Romain Dumas, racing with Americans Jonathan Bennett and Colin Braun.

And JDC Miller Motorsport’s two-car effort will see WEC regular Simon Trummer and LMP2 Le Mans winner Gustavo Menezes take the reigns, as well as former K-PAX PWC driver Austin Cindric, ex-3GT Lexus driver Robert Alon and 2017 JDC Miller stars Stephen Simpson and Misha Goikhberg who finished a fine fourth in the class standings.

It’s hard to choose between the three outfits, especially with the silverware accumulated by JCDC last year, coupled with the fact that JDC Miller came close to winning races against the DPis last season.

Performance Tech too, will likely be solid rather than stunning, bringing Kyle Masson and James French to the party, the pair competitive in the now defunct PC class, ex-Mazda driver Joel Miller (who tested with BAR1 at the Roar) and Pato O’Ward. Rolex will be real test for the whole, team, who will surely use the event as a learning experience for the season ahead.

Ligier

If you were living under a rock, you’d have thought that by the time we’d covered all the big names and story-lines by in the DPi and ORECA ranks, there wouldn’t be much else to shout about for the rest of the field.

But as you already know, that’s not the case because in camp Ligier for the Rolex 24, United Autosports has pushed all its chips into the middle and will turn up with a set of drivers that in almost any other prototype field, would most certainly have to be disbanded to give everyone else a chance.

In one car we have ex-F1 (and DTM) driver Paul Di Resta, United’s ELMS high flyers Hugo de Sadeleer and Will Owen, and the star of the WEC LMP2 field in the latter half of 2017 (and, of course, another an ex-F1 driver) Bruno Senna.

In the other, we have Philip Hanson, a young talent in his own right, joined by future mega-star and current McLaren F1 test and reserve driver Lando Norris and two-time Formula One world champion and 2017 Indy 500 race leader Fernando Alonso.

Alonso is obviously the big story here, the Spaniard still getting to grips with sportscar racing ahead of what many hope will be a Le Mans debut this year with Toyota. But at the Roar he was poised and seemed to get up to speed very fast, eventually setting the best time of any Ligier LMP2 driver and 21st of the 66 prototype drivers across the seven sessions.

Make no mistake, if the JS P217 with its new ‘Joker’ package is up to the task, then United Autosports will feature.

The other team in the field racing with Onroak’s JS P217 chassis is AFS/PR1 Mathiasen, which will be another intetesting watch, especially with the IndyCar talent from AFS bringing their talents to the sportscar veteran PR1 crew.

Multimatic/Riley

The 20th and final entry on the list is BAR 1’s Multimatic/Riley Mk.30. The car has a lot to prove, after its disappointing run with Visit Florida Racing in 2017, which was cut short when the team changed to Ligier.

For the team, which tested with ex-Mazda factory man Joel Miller, but will race with Tomy Drissi, Marc Drumwright, Eric Lux, Alex Popow and NASCAR veteran Brendan Gaughan, it’ll be a learning week in Florida.

The positive spin here is that upgrade aside, the Mk.30 ran very steadily at Rolex last year, and finished third in what was its global race debut.

That’ll be extremely hard to replicate this year, but a quiet run to the flag would be as good as a podium for Brian Alder’s plucky squad.