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2019 Rolex 24 Preview: DPi & LMP2

A look at all the prototypes set to compete in this year's 24 at Daytona

The final part of DSC’s 2019 Preview for the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona gets its finishing touches in the Daytona press room. The IMSA Prototype classes have been revamped again, with the Gibson-engined LMP2s separated from the DPis and now in a standalone class.

The switch to Michelin rubber is the big news, followed by the fact that IMSA have determined that the form book from the Roar should not lead to widespread changes in DPi balance of performance – only slight fuel capacity changes dealt out to the Acura, Mazda and Cadillac runners post-Roar.

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Acura

Acura Team Penske heads into its second season of DPi competition on a mission. 2018 was very much a learning year, but for a team like Penske, just one win and no title challenge to speak of will have left the crew scratching their heads heading into the off-season.

A year on from its debut in the championship, the car is the same but the level of confidence is sky high. Speaking to DSC and the other major media at the Roar, all the team’s drivers appear to be confident that even in a BoP-dictated class that winning lots of races and fighting for the championship is more than possible. The team has little left to learn about the car, the only real challenge is getting the most out of the tyres.

And the ARX-05 appears to react well to the new Michelin tyres, and despite a relatively quiet Roar, Ricky Taylor did post the third fastest time of the weekend during DPi Qualifying (1:34.261), to remind everyone that Penske can flex its muscles when it feels necessary.

Plenty of laps were turned and the team seems set for race week having had a pretty trouble-free run earlier this month.

In terms of drivers, Acura Team Penske will run with a near-identical line-up to last year, with Juan Pablo Montoya, Dane Cameron and Simon Pagenaud sharing the #6 ARX-05, and Ricky Taylor, Helio Castroneves and Alex Rossi driving the #7.

The only newcomer is former Indy 500 winner Rossi, who at the Roar appeared to get up to speed in the car quickly, coming in third fastest of the Acura drivers across the weekend with a best time of 1:33.345.

Rolex will be a learning experience for the American, but with his high-level experience racing elsewhere in the USA, he’ll fit right in amongst the DPi contingent and IMSA paddock as a whole, which features an abundance of fellow IndyCar drivers.

Cadillac

Cadillac is the only marque with multiple customer teams, and as a result has the biggest number of cars in the DPi field this year, with six cars on the grid, three from the well established Cadillac runners, Wayne Taylor Racing and Action Express Racing, and three from DPi newcomers JDC Miller (x2) and Juncos Racing.

The expectation heading into Rolex is that the WTR and AX Racing efforts will lead the way, and score Cadillac its third straight win in the 24, continuing its run of being undefeated at the event in the DPi era.

Wayne Taylor Racing (pictured above) has employed an all-star team for the race, with full-season drivers Renger Van Der Zande joined by WEC Toyota drivers Kamui Kobayashi and Fernando Alonso. This will therefore be one of, if not the, most followed line-ups in the field.

Taylor and Van Der Zande need little introduction to the IMSA paddock, after proving themselves as a pairing last year. Kobayashi meanwhile will make his IMSA debut this week, and judging by his performance at the Roar, he looks up to speed and ready to go already. He told DSC the Cadillac has taken some adjusting to from his end to drive, compared to the far more sophisticated Toyota which requires a unique style of driving. But he’s a pro, who’s driven a variety of the world’s top race cars.

Alonso on the other hand, is looking for a better run this year, after a disappointing IMSA and 24-hour-race debut last year with United Autosports. This time round though, the Spaniard knows what to expect, is in the class’ most successful car, and has a year of dominant runs with Toyota in the WEC under his belt. Watch out!

Action Express, last year’s Rolex 24 victor, too has a strong set of drivers for its Mustang Sampling and Whelen-liveried DPi V.Rs. In the #5, looking for its second straight win, the ageless Joao Barbosa will race with Toyota WEC man Mike Conway, Filipe Albuquerque and Christian Fittipaldi.

The #31, which doesn’t have the Sunoco Challenge winner aboard this year, will race with the decorated trio of 2018 IMSA champions Felipe Nasr and Eric Curran and former Rolex 24 and Sebring winner Pipo Derani.

Past the long-standing teams above, JDC Miller has made a huge step up this year from LMP2 to DPi, with two brand new ‘Banana Boat’ liveried Cadillacs.

The team’s expectations coming into the Rolex 24 are modest, as it has such limited experience running the Cadillac. While it did get up to speed somewhat during the Roar, the reality is that the entire crew, and all but one of its eight drivers still need to get used to racing with the DPi V.R, and will have to do so at a huge event, as part of a star-studded field.

Tristan Vautier is the only man in the outfit with Cadillac experience, he’ll race the #85 with Misha Goikhberg, Devlin DeFrancesco and Rubens Barrichello (who has run at the Le Mans 24 Hours in the Dallara P217 which the DPi V.R is based on).

The #84 features the combination of Simon Trummer, Stephen Simpson, Chris Miller and Juan Piedrahita.

Any sort of strong finish for either car would come as a real achievement. Beyond Daytona though, there’s no reason the team can’t be in the mix for podiums and wins as it was with its ORECA 07s last year.

The last car to discuss is the Juncos Racing Caddy, which will be driven by United Autosports LMP2 regular Will Owen, Rene Binder, Agustin Canapino and Kyle Kaiser. It’s another line-up with limited DPi and prototype experience. Though Owen and Binder have at least spent time in prototypes recently, Owen in LMP2, Binder showing up in ByKolles’ LMP1 effort last year.

Ricardo Juncos has a real challenge on his hands, making the adjustment from racing in IndyCar to IMSA – two very different disciplines! But, at the very least the crew on hand can be sure that it has the right car from the job, with two hugely successful seasons under its belt heading into 2019.

Mazda

Mazda Team Joest was the talk of the town at the Roar and for the right reasons this year. The revised RT24-P chassis which the team will campaign this year in IMSA appears on the face of it to be a contender from Daytona onwards.

Oliver Jarvis was man of the hour during Sunday’s track action, setting the fastest time of the three-day test, a 1:33.398, beating the unofficial track record set by PJ Jones back in 1993. With DPis unchained from a combined prototype class featuring LMP2 machinery and the addition of Michelin rubber, Rolex is looking to be faster than ever, with cars capable of exceeding the GTP era in speed terms.

For Mazda, it’s a waiting game as we head into race week. Will, factoring in pre-event BoP changes, it still be the marque to beat on speed? Can the car stay reliable for the duration? Those are questions that won’t be answered until Sunday afternoon.

They have got the driving talent to do it, with fresh faces Timo Bernhard and Olivier Pla joining the team and a back room that’s been through a shakeup over the off-season, which sees Lucas Di Grassi, Spencer Pigot and Marino Franchitti play no further part in the programme as it stands. The remaining drivers in the programme meanwhile, Harry Tincknell, Jonathan Bomarito, Oliver Jarvis, Rene Rast and Tristan Nunez, all return.

Will all the stars align this year and see John Doonan’s outfit finally take a big win, on IMSA’s biggest stage, against the toughest competition of the DPi era yet? Few will argue that after all the effort and perseverance its taken to propel this programme into 2019, that Mazda deserves the biggest reward of them all, a Rolex 24 win.

Nissan

The Rolex 24 at Daytona is likely to be a steep hill to climb for CORE autosport from start to finish with its newly-acquired Nissan DPi. The team, which almost won the overall IMSA title last year, is back and racing with the big boys in DPi, with one of the ESM Nissans, fresh from a gruelling run in the 2018 season. With ESM’s doors now shut, this programme is very much a silver lining after losing one of IMSA’s most successful prototype teams in the offseason.

At the Roar, the team spent much of it getting its ‘new’ piece of kit shaken down. There was a lot of learning to do, but thankfully after a slow start to the event, John Bennet’s outfit managed to rack up 153 laps, and finish Sunday on a high, topping the times in the seventh and final session.

Luckily for CORE, the car is a known quantity, (it’s a strong chassis, that’s capable of winning big endurance races), it’s what they can extract from it from this early stage, while trying to get to grips with the new Michelin rubber that’s the big question mark.

Driver wise they have an experienced quartet who will deliver the best result possible, Bennett racing with Colin Braun and ex-LMP1 factory men Loic Duval and Romain Dumas.

It may be too much this early into CORE’s DPi adventure to expect a strong result, but stranger things have happened and the team knows how to compete at such a high level while learning its way round a new car.

ORECA

The split in prototype classes has done two things, bolstered DPi, and for now at least, reduced the appeal of racing a global LMP2 chassis in IMSA. Is this a bad thing? Potentially, but IMSA garnering more takers for its DPi formula is something it would consider a success.

Either way, this year at Daytona we’re down to just four LMP2s, all ORECAs, down from a 50-50 split last year between DPi and LMP2. And beyond Rolex, it’s not clear whether or not we’ll have more than just two cars going forward. There’s clear discontent in the two full-season efforts in the field, from PR1/Mathiasen and Performance Tech, the latter of which is actively considering to jump ship to ELMS to run in a more competitive and commercially viable environment.

At Rolex there should be hot competition between the three teams though, all running with the same kit, and all fancying their chances at taking home watches on Sunday.

DragonSpeed brings two 07 Gibsons as a one-off entry (as it stands), one in its Evil Keneval colour scheme with Nicolas Lapierre, Ben Hanley, James Allen and Henrik Hedman, the other in its WEC Mexican livery, for Roberto Gonzalez, Pastor Maldonado, Sebastian Saavedra and Ryan Cullen

At the Roar, Elton Julian’s outfit got off to a slow start, due to the lengthy process of changing over the electronics systems from ELMS/WEC to make them IMSA compliant, but also because the #18 was held up at customs on the way into the country and arrived at Daytona late.

Once the team got both its cars running though, the pace was, perhaps unsurprisingly there. They’ve got the manpower behind the scenes to win the LMP2 class, and driving talent to match. The team knows what it takes to win big too, after taking the 2017 ELMS title in LMP2. This ambitious US-flagged team, which will race in LMP2, LMP1 and IndyCar in 2019 could be one to watch throughout.

PR1 meanwhile, brings Matt McMurry, Gabriel Aubry and Mark Kvamme to the party, and set the fastest LMP2 time of the Roar during qualifying, a 1:35.930 courtesy of Gabriel Aubry, notably two and a half seconds off the fastest of the DPis. Is this the team that’s the favourite going in, now the team is up to speed with the ORECA following its mid-season switch from Ligier last year?

The final ORECA on the list from Performance Tech sees Brent O’Neill race with a less star studded quartet of Kyle Masson, Kris Wright, Cameron Cassels and Robert Masson. The car will be well run though, and in a class that’s thin on numbers there’s nothing to suggest the team can’t spring a surprise or two during the race.