This weekend, the ball is set rolling on the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship season with the 55th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona. A firm fixture on the calendar of any sportscar enthusiast, the Floridian endurance classic marks the end of the short winter break and the start of Daytona International Speedway’s ‘Speedweeks’ series of events that includes the Daytona 500 NASCAR opener.
Since 1973, North America’s biggest sportscar prize has taken the form of a 24 hour contest, although it has previously been run to 1000 km, three-hour, 2000 km, six-hour and 12-hour configurations. Previously part of the World Sportscar Championship, it’s now the longest and most prestigious race in IMSA competition, attracting drivers from all corners of motorsport eager to try their hand at one third of the endurance racing ‘triple crown’.
In 2017, the four main classes: Prototype, Prototype Challenge, GT Le Mans and GT Daytona, will take to the track for what promises to be another thrilling start to the global sportscar season.
The top category of IMSA’s flagship series underwent a substantial revamp during the winter, with a new class structure facilitating the arrival of the Daytona Prototype International formula and the new global LMP2 class.
A total of 12 cars are on the entry list, with Cadillac, Nissan, Mazda, Riley, ORECA and Ligier all represented.
The curtain-raising Roar Before the 24 test gave a few indications as to which teams will be in the hunt at the Rolex 24, with the ORECA 07 LMP2s exhibiting the best pace.
DragonSpeed went quickest during the pre-season jaunt in early January, so expect Elton Julian’s team to be in with a shout during the race proper.
Ben Hanley (who set the fastest lap of the Roar) is joined by World Endurance LMP2 Champion Nicolas Lapierre, former Le Mans 24 Hours winner Loic Duval, and silver-rated driver Henrik Hedman in a strong lineup that could be pushing for a podium, reliability permitting.
Also in the hunt from the ORECA contingent are the Rebellion Racing and JDC-Miller Motorsport entries. Based on its driver combination alone, the Rebellion car heads into the race with firm favourite status: Nick Heidfeld, Stephane Sarrazin, Sebastien Buemi and recently crowned WEC champion Neel Jani make up the quartet, which boasts a pedigree of the world-beating level.
Despite the (on paper) might of the LMP2s, the Daytona Protoype International runners should not be overlooked heading into the race from which the category takes its name.
Leading the charge are the two Action Express Racing Cadillac DPis, with the #31 featuring reigning IMSA WTSCC champions Dane Cameron and Eric Curran.
Cameron and Curran are joined by Toyota LMP1 star Mike Conway and UK Sunoco Challenge winner Seb Morris in a competitive-looking lineup that should be able to keep with the other all-pro Prototype entries.
The sister AXR car also carries plenty of calibre, as full-season drivers Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi share the wheel of the #5 ‘Caddy’ with current European Le Mans Series champion Filipe Albuquerque.
The third Cadillac also boasts an intriguing set of names, particularly NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon who is set to take part in his second Rolex 24 event. Gordon is flanked in the Wayne Taylor Racing machine by Max Angelleli, who is retiring after this weekend’s race, and brothers Jordan and Ricky Taylor.
Last year, Wayne Taylor’s squad finished second overall, so 2017 offers the chance to go one better with a brand-new car at the team’s disposal.
Also of interest are the two ESM-entered Nissan Onroak DPis, belonging to the squad that won the Rolex 24 outright in 2016. Pipo Derani is back in the ESM lineup following his breakout performance at last year’s edition, sharing the #2 car with Scott Sharp, Ryan Dalziel and 2015 World Endurance Champion Brendon Hartley.
Mazda’s works DPi programme, a sole Riley entered by hometown squad Visit Florida Racing, and a Ligier JSP217 LMP2 entered by former PC outfit PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports complete the eclectic and promising first grid for the new Prototype formula.
Only a handful of five entries make up the junior prototype category, in what will be the final race at Daytona for the trusted ORECA FLM09 chassis.
BAR1 Motorsports and Starworks Motorsport lead the list with two cars each, whilst Performacne Tech Motorsports brings one car to the tri-oval.
Former IndyCar driver Sebastian Saavedra returns for his second crack at the Rolex 24 with Starworks, having made his sportscar debut with the team in 2014.
Saavedra will be joined by Scott Mayer, James Dayson and Alex Popow in the #88 machine, while the sister #8 car will be shared by Ben Keating, Chris Cumming, John Falb, Remo Ruscitti and DTM star Rob Wickens.
GT Le Mans
The factory battle in GT Le Mans is as close as ever, with fractions of a second separating the cars during the Roar test.
Ford topped the order three weekends ago, but Corvette also showed considerable pace with its pair of C7.Rs until Marcel Fassler’s #4 machine burst into flames midway through the final session.
It is understood that Corvette will be reverting to its spare chassis for the Rolex 24 following the blaze (original story on Sportscar365.com), although that inconvenience should do little to detract from the team’s performance this weekend.
The quartet of Ford GTs have been handed a minor string of Balance of Performance changes prior to the Rolex 24, with a small rear wing adjustment and a 2.0 litre fuel tank increase coming into play. Corvette hasn’t been dealt any changes, although there are alterations for some of the other GTLM runners including the Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 which receives a minimal boost reduction.
However, the Ferrari does gain an extra 2.0 litre fuel addition while the BMW M6 fleet has its fuel capacity reduced by the same amount.
Based on the closeness of the competition at the Roar Before the 24, and IMSA’s slight changes to the class BoP, all five GTLM manufacturers (Ford, Corvette, BMW, Ferrari and Porsche) should be in with a shout of victory in what usually turns out to be the narrowest category of the four.
The secondary GT category boasts a whopping 27 entries, all applicable to international GT3 specification.
That means the field has diversity as well as girth, with Audi, Acura, Lexus, Ferrari, Porsche, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Aston Martin and Lamborghini all in the draw.
Audi led much of the Roar test, and as a result the R8 LMS contingent will lose some of its air restrictor ahead of the race. Still, that shouldn’t prevent the likes of Stevenson Motorsports and Alex Job Racing from featuring prominently at the sharp end of the field.
BoP has worked in favour of the Acura NSX and the Aston Martin Vantage, with both cars receiving weight reductions and fuel capacity increases to bring them up to the level of their competitors.
The Michael Shank Racing-run Acuras are making their IMSA debut this weekend, along with the pair of Lexus RCFs entered by 3GT Racing and the works-backed Mercedes AMG GT3s prepared by Riley Motorsports.
Notable drivers to watch include: World Endurance GTE-Pro champion Marco Sorensen (#98 Aston Martin), Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay (#86 Michael Shank Racing Acura), World Endurance GTE-Am champion Emmanuel Collard (#48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini), five-time Rolex 24 winner Scott Pruett (#14 3GT Racing Lexus) and World Endurance Championship/Formula E race winner Sam Bird (#63 championship-defending Scuderia Corsa Ferrari).