This weekend, the 2017 endurance racing season roars (quite literally) into life at Daytona International Speedway.
A bumper entry list of 50 cars, including the debut of the new LMP2 formula, will take part in the three day ‘Roar Before the 24’ test on January 6-8 ahead of the season-opening Rolex 24 Hours three weeks later.
Typically, the Roar Before the 24 is a dress rehearsal for one of the world’s most prestigious endurance races. For the teams, it’s a valuable opportunity to dust away the Christmas paraphernalia and get to work on refining their 2017 programmes. It also helps IMSA, the series governing body, to ascertain whether any performance adjustments need to be fixed before the big show on January 28-29.
Considering the wealth of new material on-track for 2017, this Roar Before the 24 is probably the most important since the creation of IMSA’s unified sportscar championship in 2014. As we’ll see below, there are plenty of exciting things going on at the test that will whet appetites and turn heads, including new factory efforts, new cars and a completely redesigned Prototype class!
Prototype – A Brave New World
One of the biggest endurance racing stories of 2017 – and one that has ruffled feathers over in Europe – is the debut of the new-look Prototype category, featuring DPi cars from Nissan, Cadillac and Mazda plus LMP2 runners from ORECA, Ligier and Riley.
IMSA responded to the winding up of the Daytona Prototype era by gaining acceptance to form its own take on the spec LMP2 regulations that are enforced by the World Endurance Championship, meaning it could maintain a strong manufacturer presence with unique-looking machinery.
The result of two years’ hard work will be on track for all to see at the Roar Before the 24, with 12 cars registered on the entry list. DPi machinery out-numbers LMP2 by an unambiguous seven to five split, with all badges represented bar that of Dallara. The grid is expected to inflate during the season following the postponement of the Starworks Motorsport Riley LMP2, but for now 12 is an encouraging figure considering the paucity of the final Daytona Prototype entry in 2016 which attracted a mere four regular-season cars.
Our big question heading into the Roar Before the 24 is a simple one: who will be quickest? At the collective Daytona test last month only the Cadillac and Mazda DPis turned laps, while Visit Florida Racing represented the LMP2 contingent with its Riley Mk.30. Despite the low numbers (Nissan was busy readying its DPi for a late December shakedown) a trend still proliferated, with the naturally-aspirated Cadillacs topping each of the four sessions and the sole Mazda generally out-pacing the Riley.
In terms of particular entries to keep an eye on, the two Action Express Racing Cadillac DPis should feature heavily at the classier end of the timesheets. Defending champions Dane Cameron and Eric Curran are joined by Sunoco Challenge winner and British GT star Seb Morris, whilst Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittpaldi are back for another term with additional driving support from Filipe Albuquerque. Also on the hit-list will be the Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac featuring four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon in his second Rolex 24 appearance. Gordon is partnering Jordan Taylor, Ricky Taylor and Max Angelelli for the race, having attended the December test with the team.
Other notable entries include the pair of Nissan DPis entered by defending Rolex 24 winner Extreme Speed Motorsports. The Nissan has so far kept out of the public eye during its development phase but pictures were released just before Christmas and now the public will have its first opportunity to see the turbocharged machine in action. Mazda’s pair of DPi prototypes are also on the list, as are the trio ORECA 07 LMP2s from DragonSpeed, JDC-Miller Motorsports and Rebellion Racing. The latter entry is particularly exciting, with World Endurance Champions Neel Jani and Sebastien Buemi slated to drive for the Anglo-Swiss squad on its first LMP2 race since moving down from the WEC LMP1 class.
IMSA is confident that the quantity of its Prototype field will be matched by quality. All cars will start the Roar Before the 24 on an equal footing, with identical weights and fuel allowances mandated by the officials. So far, everything is looking promising for the championship’s fastest category: now all that’s left is to let the timesheets do the talking. For most, this will be the category to watch this weekend.
GTLM – Will Porsche Pack a Punch?
Last season saw the newest wave of GTE and GTLM racing cars enter global competition. In IMSA, this meant the arrival of the BMW M6, Ferrari 488 and Ford GT which went up against (with varying success) the existing models from Corvette and Porsche. In 2017, another new machine will join the grid, in the form of the new, beefed up derivation of the Porsche 911 RSR.
If testing reports are anything to go by, the Porsche should be an instant hit. It has already made its mark as the most developed Porsche GT racer ever built, and sports a new mid-engine layout (despite being technically rear-engined) that has drawn the attention of its rival manufacturers. New drivers will also be showcased for the first time, following the team’s luring of Laurens Vanthoor from Audi and Dirk Werner from BMW. Former Blancpain champion Vanthoor shares the #912 car with Kevin Estre and Richard Lietz, while Werner drives the #911 entry alongside Patrick Pilet and Fred Makowiecki.
Porsche’s movements in the driver market have required gaps to be filled elsewhere in GTLM. Replacing Werner next to Bill Auberlen in their M6 is GT3 star Alexander Sims, while DTM racer Martin Tomczyk comes in to replace Lucas Luhr in the sister car.
Taking up four rows on the entry list is the Ford contingent, featuring both the IMSA and World Endurance Championship divisions of Chip Ganassi’s mammoth GT operation. The #67 car driven by Richard Westbrook, Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon was quickest during the December test at Daytona, out-pacing the #3 Corvette by a mere four hundredths of a second. Also appearing at the Roar Before the 24 are IMSA stalwarts Risi Competizione with the sole Ferrari 488 GTE, as well as reigning Rolex 24 champions Corvette Racing with its pair of C7.Rs which usually perform well at the Daytona oval. All signs are pointing to another extremely close GTLM contest that even the Roar will struggle to pick out a favourite from!
Prototype Challenge – Challenging Times
Only two Prototype Challenge cars are on the entry list for the Roar Before the 24, although such sparsity is to be expected for a category that is clearly well past its zenith.
With the likes of Starworks, JDC Miller Motorsports and PR1/Mathiasen moving up to the Prototype ranks, only BAR1 Motorsports is left to contest the class designed for spec ORECA FLM09 open-toppers which run their final races in 2017.
In the #26 car will be Johnny Mowlem and Adam Merzon, whilst the driver lineup in the sister #20 car is yet to be finalised.
GT Daytona – Will the Works Teams Work?
One of the biggest news stories from North American endurance racing in 2016 was the arrival of Acura and Mercedes-Benz to the IMSA championship. Utilising the NSX GT3 model, Acura will run four cars at the Roar Before the 24, with two prepared by 3GT Racing and two by former Prototype outfit Michael Shank Racing.
Mercedes, meanwhile, is bringing its own factory-blessed programme to Daytona in the hope of defeating the rival mid and rear-engine cars.
Ben Keating, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Mario Farnbacher will share a Riley-run AMG GT3 with backing from the German marque, with Keating’s Riley squad also preparing a WeatherTech liveried Merc for Gunnar Jeanette (the only confirmed driver at the moment). A customer entry for SunEnergy1 Racing is also on the bill.
One entry that isn’t a Mercedes or Acura to look out for is the Porsche 911 GT3-R entered by CORE Autosport. The former Prototype Challenge title-winning squad announced midway through 2016 that it would be embarking on a renewed GT programme for Colin Braun and Jon Bennett using its factory links to the German constructor. IMSA stalwarts Nic Jonsson and Patrick Long will also get to drive the Porsche, which based on CORE’s performances in PC over the years should be one to watch in GTD.
Lamborghini is the best-represented marque at the Roar Before the 24, with eight Huracan GT3s set to turn laps. Porsche has four cars in GTD (including the CORE one), whilst Audi, Aston Martin, Ferrari and BMW also have partial representation. One Audi entry to note is the #23 Alex Job Racing machine, run by the same team that has had so much success with Porsche in North American endurance racing. 2015 class champion Bill Sweedler is named against the car, along with current LMP1 driver Pierre Kaffer.
With the factory teams bringing the heat to the customer-oriented GTD field, this 27-strong class will be under close scrutiny at the Roar Before the 24. Will Acura and Mercedes dominate straight away? Will Audi and Lamborghini top the timesheets like they did at the December test? How will the officials react to the times? If anything is certain, it’s that GTD is a goldmine for performance and that should produce some of the closest racing in the IMSA championship this year.
The Roar Before the 24 comprises seven sessions of varying length featuring all four classes – Prototype, Prototype Challenge, GTLM and GTD. Live refuelling will be allowed during the night session on Saturday, January 7. All times are local (EST).
Friday, January 6
Session 1: 10:20-12:05 (1 hour 45 minutes)
Session 2: 15:00-17:30 (1 hour 30 minutes)
Saturday, January 7
Session 3: 09:00-10:45 (1 hour 45 minutes)
Session 4: 13:05-15:50 (2 hours 45 minutes)
Session 5: 18:30-20:00 (1 hour 30 minutes)
Sunday, January 8
Session 6: 10:20-12:05 (1 hour 45 minutes)
Session 7: 14:45-15:45 (1 hour)