This year's Rolex 24 at Daytona carries with it more uncertainties than simply who will win on Sunday afternoon.
The 52nd Rolex 24 at Daytona will take the green flag this afternoon, marking the first race in the inaugural season of the Tudor United SportsCar Championship – the end result of the merger between the American Le Mans Series and the Rolex Sports Car Series. The new series features four different classes (two prototype and two GT-based) populated by cars that used to race in either the ALMS or the Rolex Series.
Coming here this year, it’s totally a wild card. Nobody knows how far a P2 car can go.
All of these changes, some of which were initiated as recently as last week, have spawned a great deal of controversy and led to a large amount of politicking and complaining among the teams, drivers, and fans. Some see the new series and its rules as the first step in the demise of sports car racing in America. Others see it as the start of something that could make the sport relevant again and lead to increased manufacturer involvement and fan interest. Either way, the changes have made the Rolex 24 more unpredictable than it has been for many years, especially in the headlining prototype class.
Qualifying would seem to suggest that one of the six Corvette DPs will take the overall win. Five of those cars qualified in the top-six and three of those cars are fielded by teams that have either won the race or the Rolex Series championship – or both in the case of Wayne Taylor racing – in the past. These teams have a lot of experience with prototype cars at Daytona and know each other well. Plus, traditionally strong teams, like Ganassi Racing and Michael Shank Racing (both former Rolex 24 winners), are still sorting out their new Ford EcoBoost V6 motors.
“People have to remember that this is brand new technology,” is how five-time overall winner Scott Pruett describes his team’s switch to the new Ford engines. “Everything that Ford is doing with the V-6, turbo-charged EcoBoost engine hasn’t been seen in this series before. So with that there’s a lot to learn just in itself. And then you add all of the changes that we have had to make to the Daytona Prototypes, like all of the (aerodynamic) stuff and the first iteration of the aero (rules).
There are a lot of variables.
“I’m excited to be back with Ford for sure, but I think that everybody has to be realistic about where we are at in our development cycle. This is brand-new.”
Also brand new to the Rolex 24 are the prototype cars (formerly known as P2 cars) that used to compete in the ALMS. These cars include the Honda-powered cars of Extreme Speed Motorsports, the Pickett Racing Nissan Oreca, and the Oak Racing Morgan Nissan. Pickett Racing’s Lucas Luhr set the best legacy P2 car qualifying time, but that time was over a second a half slower than Alex Gurney’s pole sitting lap time. The faster of the two Extreme Speed cars – both of which experienced software issues – was over three and a half seconds slower than Gurney.
This left Extreme Speed owner and driver Scott Sharp a little disappointed with his team’s performance. His Honda ARX-03bs were built to race on Michelin tires so the biggest issue for Sharp’s team has been the series’ newly-mandated Continental tires.
“The biggest teething for us as a team is probably the Continental tires,” he says. “We had to go to the Le Mans aero kit, which obviously is a good (amount) less down-force for us, but that’s fairly adjustable for us having had a year with the cars. The Continental tires are quite a bit different. So (we’ve) been trying to get the optimum package for us around (the new tires).”
“(The DPs) seem to be a good five to six miles-per-hour faster than we are (at the) top-end,” Sharp explained. “We can struggle to get close on a lap time. I’m not politicking here, but . . . this really isn’t a track that suits our car . . . . “A DP car’s strength is on the banking and our strength is in the infield and in braking. I think on a clear track we can try to hang with (the DPs) that way, but it will be hard for us to pass them because they can pull away on the banking. But when it comes to traffic, with that extra power, they’ll just be able to maneuver through packs of cars easier than we are. We can’t really touch the front of the DP field, but there are some that aren’t as fast and maybe we can hope to race with them.
“I honestly think that the sanctioning body has an incredibly thankless job. They’re trying to blend so many cars in each class. They deserve a lot of credit for what they did to the DPs.”
Despite their poor showing in qualifying, the former ALMS cars have lots of experience in endurance racing outside of Daytona and feature strong driver lineups. Plus, they carry less weight, meaning they should be able to run longer on a tank of fuel and double-stint their tires. These variables could make them competitive over the course of a 24-hour race, according to Pruett.
“Almost every year I’ve come here, especially the last ten years, you have a real good idea of who you are racing and lap strategy and pit strategy and how far you go on fuel and all of that,” explains Pruett. “But coming here this year, it’s totally a wild card. Nobody knows how far a P2 car can go. They’re 300 pounds lighter than we are, so definitely they’re going to be better on tires and easier on brakes. I’ve heard they go further on fuel than we do and refuel faster than we do. So those are the components that we haven’t even seen yet.”
Team owner and driver Wayne Taylor, whose Corvette DP qualified sixth, thinks the former ALMS cars are quietly confident.
“They’ve got a lot more mileage on their cars with all of the stuff that we have been forced into buying. It’s a little annoying to be honest. But then again, we are racers and we do what we’re told. It’s not our deal. We’ll just do the best we can with what we’ve got.”
With all of the changes and unknowns surrounding the race, this year’s Rolex 24 could turn into a Corvette romp. Or a former P2 car could take advantage of its handling advantages and lower weight to outlast the seemingly dominant Corvettes. Either way, today’s race merits watching.