51st Rolex 24 At Daytona: Preview


Daytona Prototype and GT machinery head to Daytona to begin the Rolex Series year (Photo Credit: Grand-Am)

The history of the 50th a year since behind it, and the 52nd, the start of a new era still a year in the future the 51st Rolex 24 at Daytona sits a little awkwardly between past and future.

However, the race and the Rolex Series on the whole whose classes will be preserved wholesale and incorporated with those of the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) for the new merged series in 2014 starts off in anything but awkward style.

The Rolex 24 has always had a reputation for hosting a gathering of the great and good of racing, drivers from different series seeking some winter sun, and winter racing, by the beach before parting for separate series for the remainder of the year. In 2013 that reputation remains intact – maybe even bolstered – as the entry list increasingly features names not just from US racing paddocks but European drivers giving the race the feel of a series already some way down the route to a happy merging of otherwise contrary race series.

Not just in terms of the quality of drivers is the 2013 Rolex 24 arguably the strongest of the Rolex Series’ tenure of the Daytona 24 Hours, but also in quantity.

The field will be led to the green flag on Saturday afternoon (3:30pm local, 8:30 UK time) by a Daytona Prototype class 17 strong – all third generation chassis. That number will include several new teams, including two who on the strength of testing pace at the ‘Roar Before the 24’ earlier this month or on the names driving the car for whom a winning case could be made.

The former example is the #42 Team Sahlen BMW-Riley of Wayne Nonnamaker, Dane Cameron and Simon Pagenaud, the latter is the 8 Star Motorsports team brought to the Rolex Series by Enzo Potolicchio.

The Venezuelan was part of the Starworks Motorsport team that finished second overall in 2012 after a wheel-banging battle with Michael Shank Racing, but a mid-season split with Peter Baron’s team has ultimately led to Potolicchio bringing his own Chevrolet Corvette DP to Daytona International Speedway.

The driving arsenal he has assembled around him for his team’s Daytona debut is a case in point of the race’s increasing European flavour with four former Peugeot Sport drivers – Stephane Sarrazin, Pedro Lamy, Anthony Davidson and Nicolas Minassian – making the bright orange #3 car a potential debut winner at Daytona.

For the Peugeot alumni to get to Victory Lane on Sunday they will have to beat names familiar from their duels with Audi on the Circuit de la Sarthe, Allan McNish returning for a second attempt to add a Rolex 24 win to his CV with Starworks, Mike Rockenfeller part of the Action Express Racing line-up.

Four former Peugeot Sport drivers join Enzo Potolicchio at 8 Star Motorsports (Photo Credit: Grand-Am)
Four former Peugeot Sport drivers join Enzo Potolicchio at 8 Star Motorsports (Photo Credit: Grand-Am)

Of course, while the extra endurance needed for the Rolex 24 and the prestige of the title attracts visiting drivers the race also forms the first round of the Rolex Series, and the visitors only fit themselves around the full season drivers and teams such as Wayne Taylor Racing, GAINSCO Racing and Spirit of Daytona Racing.

McNish joins Ryan Dalziel, Alex Popow and Sebastien Bourdais in the #2 Ford-Riley, his teammates for the weekend all race winners in 2012 with the team, Dalziel ending the year second in points behind repeat champions Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas and Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.

The Ganassi team – the most successful Rolex Series squad at Daytona – begin the year with their customary two car assault with drivers pulling together Ganassi’s teams from both NASCAR and Indycar teams to create two teams that while impressive – and whisper this quietly – look underpowered on paper compared to some of their rivals for the victory.

In terms of predicting a victor, the race is full of unknowns. The relatively short lap (3.56 miles) lends itself to full course cautions that can keep the top teams on the same lap – seconds apart – for much  of the race putting the emphasis on near perfection for the winning team.

Michael Shank Racing scored their first Rolex 24 win last year and bring back much the same line-up for 2013, though Marcos Ambrose joins defending winners Ozz Negri, John Pew, Justin Wilson and A.J. Allmendinger owing to an off season injury for Negri likely to limit his seat time in the #60 Ford Riley.

The team began the defence of their title in fine fashion, dominating much of the ‘Roar Before’ test, Allmendinger setting the third fastest time of the three days on track while the best time was that of Michael Valiante, leading MSR’s #6 team of Gustavo Yacaman, Jorge Goncalves and Chris Cumming.

Testing pace, however, proves little especially ahead of an endurance race. It is perhaps – at best – likely to yield pole position, though even the single lap pace of the respective DP teams has yet to be ascertained, with the Corvette DP teams almost certainly sand-bagging in testing as any of them struggled to make an impression on the top five in testing, though the 2012 race saw a similar distinction as the bow-tie teams struggled against the horsepower of the Ford and BMW units around the high-banked superspeedway.

Just as the testing times for the Daytona Prototypes were dominated by the Rileys it was the Porsche teams who led the way in the GT and GX ranks, the latter class making its debut in 2013.

Though it was the likes of Park Place Motorsports, Brumos Racing, Magnus Racing and Konrad Motorsport who took their Porsche GT3 to the top of times during the eight sessions.

The Stuttgart brand remain the best represented – numerically – on the grid with several team bolstered by the factory’s stable of works drivers. Eight of the ten (with the late addiction of Briton  Nick Tandy) Porsche works drivers are on the entry list. Their number – including Tandy, Patrick Long and Jorg Bergmeister – join America’s own Porsche specialist drivers and teams like Brumos Racing, TRG, Leh Keen, Andy Lally and Spencer Pumpelly.

Roar Before the 24 testing (Photo Credit: Grand-Am)
Audi and Ferrari line-ups for the race are boosted by star European names (Photo Credit: Grand-Am)

However, 2013 in the GT ranks is a consolidation of the growth begun 12 months ago. Where in 2012 there were isolated teams fielding Ferrari and Audi machinery built to Grand-Am specification there are now works supported team, the manufacturers calling on their own stocks of works drivers to try and prevent a repeat of the Porsche podium sweep of 2012.

Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander, both part of the team that delivered the inauguaral FIA World Endurance Championship for AF Corse join Max Papis and 2012 Rolex Series class champion Jeff Segal in one of two AIM Autosport Ferrari 458.

More pronounced – and perhaps successful – are the drivers brought into join the increased number of teams running the R8 Grand-Am.

After a phenomenal 2012 which saw Audi’s GT racer win endurance races at Bathurst, Spa-Francorchamps, Zolder and Nurburgring 2013 begins with Audi drawing from the same well of talent for a strong attempt to add a Daytona success to their list of wins.

BMW’s sole representatives in the class – Turner Motorsports – have their line-ups completed by BMW Motorsport men Andy Priaulx and Maxime Martin while Chevrolet’s sole GT runner, the Stevenson Motorsports Camaro has Tommy Milner and Jan Magnussen join regulars Robin Liddell and John Edwards.

Chevrolet’s main interest this year remains with the Daytona Prototype, the import of the Corvette Racing drivers more fmailiar with Sebring or Le Mans giving a flavour of the mix of names and nationalities that lie in the future. Milner and Magnussen’s Corvette teammates spread through the class – Britons Richard Westbrook and Oliver Gavin with Antonio Garcia in the deep blue of Spirit of Daytona, Jordan Taylor taking up the full season role with Wayne Taylor Racing joining Max Angelelli and Ryan HunterReay, the new Indycar champion a sign that for all the Rolex 24 attracts more international interest every year it remains America’s addition to the world of twice-around-the-clock racing.