Despite the pre-race focus falling on the new Grand-Am models of Audi and Ferrari making their series debuts in the 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona, the battle for GT class honours fell to a succession of Porsche teams.
Of the new machinery only the Ferrari 458 acquitted itself with any meaningful result, the no.63 Risi Competizione car ending up fifth in class after a steady, if unspectacular introduction to the Rolex Series. The Dodge Viper – a car incredibly making its Rolex 24 debut – lasted only 101 laps for The Racers Edge team, Rick Ware Racing's Mustang also enduring a troubled event, though not all their troubles were of their own making.
The pair of Audi R8 Grand-Am had their debuts blighted by clutch problems, stemming from running the production version on the cars. Both examples on show – from Oryx Racing and APR Motorsport – were delayed several times, the APR crew also spinning on the infield during the night to bring out one of only two cautions in the space of 400 weekend spanning laps that shaped the event.
The troubles were not limited to the new cars. Neither of the Turner Motorsports BMW M3 were ever factors in the battle for the class lead, despite the wealth of BMW works driving talent the squad had to draw from. The no.94 car was an early retirement through engine troubles before a list of minor problems dogged the sister no.93 entry, limiting it sixteenth in class, 36 laps off the pace set by the class winning Porsche.
Aside from the Ferrari of Andrea Bertolini, Olivier Beretta and Toni Vilander – which broke into the lead battle late, and then partly due to the flurry of caution flags in the closing hours – two Chevrolet Camaro from different teams the only non-Porsches to bother the lead battle. The Autohaus Motorsport no.88 made fleeting appearances in the top five during the night, while the better of the two Stevenson Motorsports entered cars was a more substantial feature in the opening nine hours of the race.
The three handed crew of Scot Robin Liddell, Ronnie Bremer and John Edwards lead the class in the early hours before being dealt a 110 seconds penalty for overtaking the pace car during one of the caution periods. The delay knocked the team out of the battle for much of the race, though they too made it back onto the lead lap again late in the race to finish fourth in class.
When the penalty ended the realistic challenge from the Stevenson garage the way the left open for the Porsche domination. In truth even before the problems for their would-be rivals with more than twenty Porsche on the grid – including some of the best teams and drivers in the class – it was almost inevitable that the title would come down to teams representing the Stuttgart brand.
Three teams dominated the race – Magnus Racing, Brumos Racing and the no.67 entry – one of the fleet from Kevin Buckler's TRG stable.
Immediately after the penalty for the Stevenson entry at the end of the ninth hour it was the no.44 Magnus car that assumed the lead. Driven by Porsche works man Richard Lietz, Porsche Supercup champion Rene Rast and American GT regulars Andy Lally and John Potter the green and white car was a constant in the battle at the head of the field, all the way until the crew took the checkered flag in eleventh overall, but just ten seconds clear of their nearest rivals.
Though just two GT cars finished on the class' lead lap the race punctuated by wheel-to-wheel battles – even during the long green flag runs that helped shape the race during the hours of darkness.
Most memorable among these was the battle between Rast and Marc Lieb at the wheel of the Brumos Racing no.59. Rast held the lead following the yellow flag period for a stricken DP in the infield, but Lieb – another of the cast of Porsche factory drivers in the race reeled in his rival as the sun crept above the Florida horizon.
Several time Lieb appeared to have the no.59 – in the iconic Brumos livery – in a postion to take the lead, but was never able to get the better of Rast when it mattered, several times losing out under braking off the tri-oval banking into turn one.
With Rast resisting the pressure admirably Lieb – a double GT2 class champion in the European Le Mans Series – was the man to a mistake, out-braking himself for the bus stop as he and Rast fought around lapped traffic.
Maintaining third position throughout was the no.67 car – by far the best of TRG's stable of cars – and following a 60 second penalty for the Magnus crew for working on the car during refuelling the car, featuring a wealth of driving talent in Spencer Pumpelly, Jeroen Bleekemolen, Marc Goossens and Wolf Henzler was lifted right into contention for victory as the race ticked towards the final hours, becoming part of the lead rotation as each of the lead crews worked on their scheduled pit stops.
The final – and decisive – lead change fell in the penultimate hour. After swapping the lead back and fourth in the pits Andy Lally took the lead on track away from Brumos driver Leh Keen, whose stop-soon after cemented Lally's – and Magnus Racing's position in the lead.
A final driver change to install Lietz for the final stint passed without incident as with the lead intact and, just as the caution free final 60 minutes helped Michael Shank Racing to overall victory, it kept Lietz's slender lead intact for the crew to clinck victory – the second consecutive Rolex 24 GT class win for Lally following his success with TRG the year before.
Brumos came home second – a result that still served as a fitting end to the Rolex career of Hurley Haywood, competing in – he says – he final Rolex 24. Haywood – the most successful in the Rolex 24’s 50 year history – was sharing the car with Keen, Lieb and Andrew Davis.
TRG's best car – the no.67 finished a lap behind the lead pair in third, followed by the lead Stevenson and Risi entries on the same lap.
The best Mazda – oft Porsche rivals in Rolex Series GT competition finished sixth, five laps off the lead in the hands of the Speedsource crew, never having truly figured in the lead fight.