The 2019 running of the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona was certainly a memorable one. It had almost everything, blistering pace with the new Michelin tyres, clean, hard racing, drama striking key contenders, heavy rain, huge incidents, red flags, tons of frantic restarts and surprises aplenty up and down the finish order.
The eventual winner was Wayne Taylor Racing, its #10 Cadillac DPi-V.R of Jordan Taylor, Rengar Van Der Zande, Fernando Alonso, and Kamui Kobayashi claiming the lead shortly before the second red flag of the race.
This one will be remembered for many reasons, but mainly because of the conditions and how poor they became after hours of rainfall on Sunday. The visibility was incredibly low in the closing hours, so much so that when green, drivers were often steering their cars blind in the spray. It left many in the paddock questioning the decisions by the race director at times, when the race restarted multiple times, only to be neutralised almost immediately due to incidents all over the circuit.
It did produce some stunning racing though, and some historic results.
Up front, it’s Cadillac’s third straight Rolex 24 win. The GM-brand remains unbeaten at Daytona in the DPi era with today’s win. It’s also WTR’s second win in three years, after it won the 2017 edition of the race.
As for the drivers, it’s a huge win for Fernando Alonso, who has won both the Le Mans 24 Hours and Daytona 24 in the space of a year, he also becomes just the third F1 World Champion to have won the Rolex 24 Hours, alongside Phil Hill and Mario Andretti.
Kobayashi meanwhile scored a win on his Rolex 24 debut and van der Zande won his first too as Taylor wins his second.
“I’m super happy, to the team Wayne and max that they put such little pieces together its a big puzzle and it comes together right here,” said van der Zande. “Racing with such iconic teammates makes it even more special. I’m very proud its been a long way, in 2011 I did DTM, in 2012 I had no drives, and then look where I am today.
In the race, all four drivers were near faultless, though towards the end Taylor and Alonso shone in the horrible conditions, racing for the lead on a track that had been battered by hours and hours of heavy rain.
Alonso in particular, thoroughly deserved the win. In the rain he was the quickest on track, kept his cool and twice put the team at the head of the field just before a red flag period.
Sealing the victory, Alonso got past Felipe Nasr in the #31 Action Express Cadillac by putting on the pressure, before the Brazillian ran wide at Turn 1 and was forced to give up the place just before the start of the penultimate hour.
This came after the WTR crew had to pit the car for an unscheduled tyre change in Hour 22, dropping the car to second before the final act.
The #31 finished a close second, after a valiant effort from Felipe Nasr, Pipo Derani and Eric Curran, coming achingly close to winning a set of watches after leading the race at various points when the conditions became treacherous.
Behind the Cadillacs, the #7 Acura Team Penske ARX-05 of Ricky Taylor, Alex Rossi (who impressed mightily in his first race with the team) and Helio Castroneves completed the overall podium.
Into the second half of the race, it appeared that there would be a straight dogfight between the two aforementioned Cadillacs and the two Penske Acuras, but Roger Penske’s #6 machine suffered a power issue in the final quarter of the race, leaving the team with just one shot.
Adding to that, in the flurry of FCYs towards the end, the Acuras simply didn’t have the speed to match the Cadillacs, and Penske will leave Daytona with a strong result, but safe in the knowledge that it could have won today had it stayed dry.
Just off the podium was the #54 CORE autosport Nissan DPi, which was heavily delayed but overall ran well, and would have been closer to the leading trio had it not spent time in the pits after hitting in the barriers multiple times. Instead the team finished up four laps off the lead.
Further down the order in the class, Cadillac newcomers JDC Miller and Juncos Racing had rather forgettable Rolex 24s, but learned a ton and overall fared well considering how new they are to racing with DPi chassis. JDC’s best placed Caddy came home fifth and the Juncos example ended up 30th overall.
Mazda on the other hand, endured another nightmare. After such a positive build-up to the race, with both its RT24-Ps showing record breaking pace, and looking reliable, that first IMSA race win once again proved elusive.
Both cars retired after challenging up front early, the #55, in the hands of Olivier Pla was first to hit a major issue, the car coasting to a halt, restarting but going behind the wall with a reported fuel leak.
As the car made it back to the garage however the #77 car was pictured at the Bus Stop, Timo Bernhard out of the car and attempting to do what he could to put out a significant exhaust fire on the left side of the car. It subsequently was named a retirement from the engine failure after a lengthy spell of repair work.
The #55 meanwhile, clawed its way back into contention, but just after the halfway mark Olivier Pla spun and subsequently was involved in a collision at the West Horseshoe which would prove to be terminal.
BMW Team RLL takes last-gasp GTLM win
In the wake of Charly Lamm’s passing, BMW Team RLL winning GTLM proved to be a worthy tribute to the legendary team owner, as the #25 M8 GTLM of Augusto Farfus, Connor De Phillippi, Philipp Eng and Colton Herta took home the big prize.
It’s undoubtedly the M8’s greatest result to this point, and came after a dramatic finale. The #25 was strong throughout, and had a remarkably clean run. The team may have had a rather quiet build up to the race, but when it mattered most stayed in the running, and emerged as winners in the end.
“It was a difficult race, we had a big part of it dry and then I had a half stint on slicks on a drying track, and then the last two hours was difficult but I knew that I had to take the lead,” said Farfus. “As Philipp (Eng) said today we had a special co-driver, for me he [Charly Lamm] was much more than a friend or racing enthusiast. He will not be forgotten for what he did and everything I learned from him.”
It was a freak finish, as the #67 Ganassi Ford looked set to win after a strategy gamble before the red flag catapulted the car to the lead with Richard Westbrook aboard. The car though, ran out of gas just before the red flag came out, preventing Westy’ from pitting, taking a splash and re-joining as the race winner.
“We were five laps down, patience was the key, we knew we’d get our laps back eventually. Come the daylight, we were on the lead lap, in a strong position, pulled away,” a mortified Westbrook said after the race.
“The conditions were terrible, I thought they had to stop the race, we carried on, had to pit for fuel, and they pulled out the red flag, which cost us the race. It seems strange that they pulled it out when they did, I didn’t understand why they didn’t put it out before?
“We were out of gas, we had to pit. But I don’t know what they didn’t throw the red flag. You couldn’t keep the car on the track, it was a lottery. It was ridiculous.
“It was no fun. I love racing in the rain, I enjoy the challenge. But that was beyond a challenge, you’re going down the straight, and you think if anyone has stopped we’re toast.”
In the end, the #67 dropped to a disappointing third, behind the #62 Risi Ferrari which enjoyed a surprising run to the podium after struggling for pace prior to the race. The 488, driven by James Calado, Davide Rigon, Miguel Molina and Alessandro Pier Guidi, came close to scoring Risi its first ever Rolex 24 win, after holding the class lead at the first red flag when it looked questionable whether or not the race would restart.
Corvette meanwhile, was the marque that had the toughest Rolex 24 in GTLM this year. In uncharacteristic fashion for the Pratt and Miller-run outfit, both cars were in the wars throughout, and neither C7.R had a chance at a podium in the closing hours. The #3 was hit by the sister #4 early in the race during a pit stop, which cost the car a huge amount of time, forcing it to fight all the way to the flag; it would finish sixth in class. And after climbing all the way back from laps down to the lead of the class, the car then ran out of fuel and therefore lost further time, and was unable to recover.
Later it looked as if the #4 would be in the fight, but when the rain came down Tommy Milner had a big off into the barriers at Turn 1, the American a passenger on the standing water. The car didn’t retire but lost a ton of time, finished 17 laps laps down and caused the first FCY during the rain, which led to the red flag period.
While BMW will undoubtedly celebrate long and hard after this one, it will wonder what could have been with its heavily-promoted sister car featuring Alex Zanardi behind the wheel.
Most fans watching will have been mortified to see Zanardi unable to fight for a strong finishing position after multiple issues struck the #24 car.
From the first time Zanardi climbed in, his steering wheel wouldn’t work, and after losing a lot of time sourcing and fitting a spare, the solution was eventually found to be replacing the entire steering column. The #24, of Zanardi, John Edwards, Jesse Krohn and Chaz Mostert ended up classified a disappointing ninth in class.
DragonSpeed hangs on for LMP2 victory
The LMP2 field, of just four cars, was always going to be unlikely to produce a thrilling 24-hours. There was hatfuls of drama though, right until the end. It was an old-school battle for survival, especially when the weather front closed in. Each time it looked settled and spread out, there was another twist.
In the end, the #18 DragonSpeed ORECA took the win, Pastor Maldonado, Roberto Gonzalez, Ryan Cullen, and Sebastian Saavedra enduring a fight just to stay alive after mechanical woes and multiple offs into the barriers.
The crew looked unlikely to win the race even with just four hours to go, when the sister #81 ORECA had a clear lead of multiple laps. But it would stop out on track with two and a half hours left, and drop down to third behind the delayed #38 Performance Tech ORECA that finished four laps back from the winners.
“Overall it was a crazy race,” Saavedra said. “We were expecting it to be like last year with few yellows and that was not the case. Every lap there was a new puddle and a new factor for survival. I’m very happy with the effort we showed as a team.”
Grasser makes it two in a row in GTD
GT Daytona, the deepest class in this year’s edition of the race, was won by the #11 GRT Grasser Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3 of Rolf Ineichen, Mirko Bortolotti, Christian Engelhart and Rik Breukers.
Changes in the weather throughout the race provided a good opportunity for the #11 Lamborghini Huracan team to work their way back from early woes. At one point early on the team served a stop and hold for three minutes and forty seconds for an improper wave by procedure, sending them to the back of the GTD pack. Depsite overcoming early adversity though, the team didn’t have a clean run through the rain either, the car was hit by the #66 Ford GT in a turn one incident with just under four hours to go.
The GRT Grasser Racing squad defended its 2018 win with its triumph here, and it is the second 24-hour race win for the Lamborghini Hyuracan, both of which have come at Daytona after its result last year. Christian Engelhart was the man who kept the car on the track in the races waning green flag moments, something that could not be said for a number of other competitors in the conditions.
Englehart, who drove final stint in the winning Lambo said: “It didn’t start out perfectly but in the end, it was down to managing the extremely difficult conditions. We were one lap down when I started the stint, and I managed to overtake the leader, so when the yellow came out we managed to get a wave by. I was just pushing and when the red flag came out I didn’t know I was first. I was giving everything to get to the front and I didn’t know we were already there.”
Second in the class was the #29 Montaplast By Land Audi R8 LMS GT3 of Daniel Morad, Chris Mies, Dries Vanthoor, and Ricky Feller. Morad would fall victim to the weather in his final stint, a spin while in the lead, that would prove extremely costly.
The only all-American lineup in the field, the #12 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC-F GT3 took the final podium spot. A result that the team should be delighted with from its inaugural race in the IMSA GTD class.
Looking back, the opening 18 hours of the Rolex 24 in GTD were unpredictable, but they turned out to be tame in comparison to the race’s final six hours. While a handful of entries that kept ahold of the top spots in the first half went on to finish high upp, things changed dramatically when the heavens opened on Sunday.
As storm clouds moved over the Florida coast the GT Daytona class was turned upside down. Battling treacherous conditions, Full-Course Yellows that lasted over an hour, and two red flags the class evolved into a new realm of unpredictability.
The top 15 finishers in GT Daytona were all on the same pit stop cycle meaning the final green flag period was a critical factor in deciding the race winner. The #33 Mercedes-AMG Team Riley, and the aforementioned #29 Audi R8 LMS GT3, both spun out of the lead in the wet conditions. Those two incidents would hand the win to the #11 Lamborghini once the race was called.
Until the rain came, it was a reliable run for most of the class. After that multiple cars hit trouble, including the #9 PFAFF Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R, the #46 Ebimotors Lamborghini Huracan GT3, and the #48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3 were all involved in a three-car incident on the restart after the race’s first red flag.
In addition to that, the #63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 with Toni Vilander made hard contact with the #540 Black Swan Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R. Vilander slammed the back of the Porsche in the braking zone for the bus stop, heavy spray limiting the Ferrari-ace’s visibility. Countless other cars found themselves using extended runoff areas and facing the wrong direction.
The #57 Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3, with the all-female lineup, ended its race in thirteenth, 11 laps off the leader of the class. It spent virtually the entire 24 hours outside the top ten of the class. Their teammates in the #86 Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 finished in fifth behind the #88 WRT Audi after the cards did not fall its way in terms of strategy at the end. A.J. Allmendinger was in the lead of the class for much of the late-race Full Course Yellow running, but after not pitting for roughly two hours he was beckoned in and dropped out of the top three.
Other notable finishes include the #33 Mercedes-AMG Team Riley which finished in seventh after spending much of the race’s first half either leading or battling for top five spots.
While the rain may have robbed us from the traditional dramatic Rolex 24 conclusion, mother nature provided a new stage for all four of the classes to decide who would be taking home the Rolex Daytona watches. Some points in the event that stage was the banks of Daytona, and sometimes that stage was the skies above the World Center of Racing.
The amount of green flag running was severely limited on Sunday, a stark contrast to the 2018 rendition that saw just four Full Course Yellows. At one point the field had completed just twenty minutes of green flag racing in a six-hour window. Those short green flag runs were action-packed though, with cars shooting off track, into barriers, and sometimes into each other.
Questions will be undoubtedly be asked about some of the decision making by the organisers towards the end, when many drivers and team members were openly describing the conditions as too dangerous to race in. However, this was an edition of the Rolex 24 that won’t be forgotten in a hurry, and provided those involved and watching with plenty to look forward to in the remaining rounds of IMSA’s 50th anniversary season.