DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Feb. 1 -- For the third time in the last four years a production-based car drove to victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. This year, however, the winning No. 66 Racer's Group Porsche GT3 RS of Kevin ...
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Feb. 1 -- For the third time in the last four years a production-based car drove to victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway.
This year, however, the winning No. 66 Racer's Group Porsche GT3 RS of Kevin Buckler, Jorg Bergmeister, Timo Bernhard, and Michael Schrom, did not come from the powerful GTS class that produced the 2000 and 2001 winners but from the GT ranks, a feat not duplicated since Hurley Haywood, John Graves, and Dave Helmick won the 1977 Rolex 24 in a GTU class Porsche Carrera RSR.
"I can't believe it," Buckler, the 2002 Porsche Cup winner, exclaimed. "We knew we had a tiny chance, but the guys did what they had to do. We didn't want to talk about it too much because there are some really goods teams here. As the race went on, we just stayed consistent and didn't make any mistakes.
"We had a battle last night with the Multimatic car where we were 30 seconds apart for hours," Buckler added after claiming Porsche's 20th overall victory in the Rolex 24. "We were biting our nails the whole time."
Buckler and company, last year's Rolex 24 GT class winners, assumed the overall lead for the first time near the end of the sixth hour, after the No. 58 Brumos entry of David Donohue, Mike Borkowski, Randy Pobst, and Chris Bye, which swapped the lead back and forth with the No. 59 Brumos entry of Haywood, Scott Sharp, Scott Goodyear, and J.C. France in the early going, succumbed to engine woes.
"We were faring well," a dejected Donohue said. "I was just running the pace. After the second yellow flag, the motor definitely had a problem in a certain RPM band."
Once out front, the No. 66 car ran flawlessly, fending off a surprising challenge from the Multimatic Ford of David Brabham, Scott Maxwell, and David Empringham, which overcame an eight-lap deficit to close within 7.842 seconds of the leader. However, a second throttle spring failure and a broken header forced the Multimatic team to settle for fourth overall and first in the brand new Daytona Prototype class, 16 laps behind the winner.
"We were a little disappointed," Empringham said. "At one point, we thought we could win the whole thing. We fought really hard all through the night. Then we came back from 40th and got it up to second, on the lead lap, and had the same recurring problem [throttle spring]. Overall, for a new out-of-the-box car, to win our class first time out, we're pretty happy."
Similar difficulties befell the remaining Brumos entry, which also put some pressure on the Racer's Group machine before a slew of teething problems, including a flat tire, electrical gremlins, and an oil leak, forced the Brumos team to settle for fifth.
As a result, the Racer's Group captured its third consecutive 24-hour victory.
"I thought we could win in the last few hours, but not in the sixth hour," Bernhard said. "It was a big surprise."
Maxwell, however, was not surprised. "I knew they [the GT cars] would be tough. They're proven cars, they're not far off our pace, and they're reliable. Before the race, we were all saying that a GT car could win. I'm not surprised."
The bright red Risi Competizione Ferrari 360GT of Ralf Kelleners, Anthony Lazzaro, and Johnny Mowlem, which early in the race dropped back to 20th due to gear selection difficulties, finish second, nine laps behind the winning Racer's Group Porsche.
The Rennwerks Porsche GT3 RS, driven by David Murry, Johannes Van Overbeck, Richard Steranka, and Dave Standridge, overcame a 37th place starting position and late morning radiator repairs to complete a GT class sweep of the podium, finishing two laps behind the second place Ferrari.
After leading the SRP II class for more than 17 hours, the Lucchini Engineering Nissan of Mirco Savoldi, Filippo Francioni, and Piergiuseppe Peroni retired less than five hours from the finish, handing the lead and the class win to the No. 5 Team Seattle/Essex Racing Nissan of Ross Bentley, Don Kitch, Joe Pruskowski, and Justin Pruskowski. The Team Seattle drivers finished seventh overall, just ahead of their teammates in the No. 15 Nissan.
Andy Wallace, Michel Neugarten, Kevin Lepage, Jerome Policand, and Joao Barbosa nursed their Perspective Racing Mosler MT900R to the GTS class win despite an overheating engine and a troublesome gearbox.
"We lost 62 minutes with a gearbox change, but we didn't give up," Wallace said. "And luckily for us, everyone else had problems too."
Everyone else included the Morgan Dollar Motorsports Corvette of Charles Morgan, Rob Morgan, Jim Pace, and Lance Norick, which had to settle for tenth overall and second in GTS after the car became stuck in third gear with less than an hour to go.
Although they showed flashes of brilliance throughout the event, the rest of the Daytona Prototype field did not fare as well as the fourth and fifth place finishers.
The Bell Motorsports Chevrolet-powered Doran of Didier Theys, Christian Fittipaldi, Terry Borcheller, and Forest Barber, which on Thursday was still under assembly in the paddock, retired after three hours with engine problems, while the G&W Motorsports BMW-powered Picchio of Boris Said, Darren Law, Dieter Quester, and Luca Riccitelli suffered a variety of set backs, including an overheated ignition box that caused the car to stop on course and a damaged radiator, which occurred when Said flew off course in the chicane, mangling the front bodywork and damaging some of the rear bodywork.
By contrast, the No. 3 Cegwa Sport Toyota-powered Fabcar of Darius Grala, Joshua Rehm, Oswaldo Negri Jr., and Guy Cosmo ran a solid pace, avoiding long stays on pit road until it retired during the early morning hours in a plume of smoke.
As with most 24-hour races, the 41st edition of the Rolex 24 at Daytona went to the team that minimized the time it spent in the pits - the Racer's Group Porsche.