The 2017 IMSA season kicked off with the 55th annual 24 Hours of Daytona last weekend and once again, the GT classes didn’t disappoint. In GLTM, the No. 66 Ford of Dirk Mueller, Joey Hand and Sebastien Bourdais prevailed in a close battle with Risi Competizione in a repeat of Le Mans, while the Alegra Motorsports Porsche edged the Land Motorsport Audi for victory in a 27-strong GTD entry by just 0.29 seconds. Here’s what we learned.
1. Ford and Risi renew acquaintances
Daytona threw up a number of fascinating parallels to the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours, but the most notable was the resumption of the rivalry between the fleet of Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs and Risi Competizione’s lone Ferrari 488 GTE, looking to start 2017 as they finished 2016 at Petit Le Mans.
All four Fords turned up for the first time since June and following the pattern set at the Roar, were the class of the field in qualifying. Joey Hand topped the charts from Richard Westbrook in the No. 67 and Olivier Pla in No. 68, but in a sign of things to come, the No. 62 Ferrari of Toni Vilander was the best of the rest in fourth.
Once the race got underway, Hand led for the duration of his opening stint, but Vilander immediately moved into second and remained a persistent thorn in the side of the Fords throughout the night, despite heavy rain that helped the Porsches come to the fore.
Despite a pitlane exit line violation and a slow stop when Giancarlo Fisichella was held up in the pits by a neighbouring team, the Ferrari was invariably near the sharp end in the closing hours and a finely judged restart from James Calado put them to the lead with 50 minutes to go.
— Michelin Alley (@MichelinAlley) January 29, 2017
However, needing to save fuel to make the finish and with Dirk Mueller in the No. 66 Ford on his tail, the Briton faced a tough ask to hold on. His defences held out until lap 634, when Mueller got fully alongside at turn one and forced Calado to cede the corner.
The wily Patrick Pilet took full advantage of the Ferrari’s loss of momentum to slip into second and though another caution period removed the need to save fuel, Calado came up 0.091 short of retaking the position at the flag.
“The overall competitiveness in the category is just remarkable,” Vilander said. “We did a completely trouble-free race… What years ago might have been a victory today is now good enough for third place.
“We are happy to be on the podium, but the race is so long and there were moments where we felt we had a winning car… So that’s why at the moment it’s bitter tasting third place.”
— Toni Vilander (@toni_vilander) January 30, 2017
Their defeat was made all the more galling by again missing out to the Ford, soaking up their second major 24 hour race win in the past 12 months with the same potent driver line-up. Remarkably, it was Mueller and Hand’s first win for Ford in IMSA.
“It’s one of those oldest endurance races that everybody needs to win or to lose, and we didn’t put a wheel wrong, neither at Le Mans or here and it just paid off,” reflected Bourdais. “Dirk just did it all at the end, it always is that way at Daytona. It almost doesn’t bloody matter what happens for 23 and a half hours, everything matters from the last yellow flag.”
2. Slick pitwork counts for nothing for Corvette
After their memorable 1-2 finish in 2016, Corvette Racing arrived at Daytona hoping to secure a remarkable hat-trick, but despite electrifying pitwork from the Pratt & Miller crew, the victory always appeared a long shot.
The reigning IMSA champions gained a total of seven positions in the last two pitstops, each time putting Antonio Garcia’s No. 3 car at the head of the field, but on both occasions the Spaniard was powerless to defend.
— Corvette Racing (@CorvetteRacing) January 29, 2017
Corvette’s fastest race lap was almost six tenths off the fastest lap set by Richard Westbrook’s Ford, while the C7. R boasted only the third best straight-line speed on the banking, 2 mph down on the Ford.
After conceding the lead to Calado at the last-but-one restart and second to Dirk Mueller shortly afterwards, Garcia tried a low percentage move around the outside of turn one which allowed Patrick Pilet to pounce, ultimately finishing fourth with Jan Magnussen and Mike Rockenfeller.
“The result is pretty much what we kind of expected after practice sessions if you look at the pure speed we had,” said Rockenfeller. “Even though we had a good chance at the end, we knew it likely wouldn’t be for long because you need to have speed on the straights. We just didn’t have enough to stay ahead of the others but I have to say thanks to my teammates and my team.”
The No. 4 car of defending winners Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Marcel Fassler was turned around by Harry Tincknell’s Ford and then suffered a loss of power during hour six which dropped them out of contention.
In their second year of their respective programmes, it’s only natural to expect improved performance from Ford and Ferrari relative to Corvette, which is now in its fourth season with the current C7.R model. That said, Daytona uses a different BOP to the rest of the IMSA calendar, so it’s far too early to make comparisons between Porsche’s difficult title defence last year and the challenge facing Corvette to hold onto it this year.
Next on the calendar is Sebring, another circuit where Corvette won in 2016, and not so obviously tailor-made for the low-drag Ford and Ferrari. Particularly given the strength of their pit crew, which on any other circuit, might just have made the difference, Don’t write them off on the basis of one race.
3. New 911 RSR passes first test
During the build-up, much was made of the fact that Porsche won the GTLM class the last time it brought a new car to Daytona in 2014. However, this overlooked the fact that the previous generation 911 RSR already had a season of development in the WEC before arriving at Daytona and had won Le Mans following a thrilling duel with Aston Martin.
Any 24 hour race, let alone one held in conditions as treacherous as those seen at Daytona overnight, was hardly the ideal platform for the new mid-engined 911 to make its competition debut, but even with 30,000 testing miles under its belt, the car fared better than expected.
— Porsche Motorsport (@PorscheRaces) January 29, 2017
Despite three early punctures for the No. 911 car Patrick Pilet shared with Dirk Werner and Fred Makowiecki, both Porsches were reliable and remained on the lead lap until the No. 912 suffered suspension damage in the latter stages.
All the familiar hallmarks of a Porsche, including wet weather pace, were present and the drivers reported that the mid-engined 911 was more consistent over a stint than its predecessor, which should bode well for future customer sales.
With 10 minutes to go, Pilet could even have snatched victory after an aggressive pass on Olivier Pla was followed by opportunistic passes at the expense of Garcia and Calado, but when his tyres gave out, he switched attentions from attacking Mueller to fending off Calado.
“I gave everything, but to be honest, I think we are still missing a bit,” Pilet told Racing.GT afterwards.
“We nearly touched, it was on the limit. [Mueller] came to me after the race to say thanks for being fair,” he said. “I mean, I try, not like his team-mate [Briscoe] who was 10 laps down and blocked me for a few laps, so this was not my philosophy, but anyway it was a good show I think.
“Everything is new, Dirk is new, the car is brand new. It was a difficult race, but I have no regrets, that’s the most important.”
— Fred Mako (@FredMako1) January 29, 2017
Head of Porsche Motorsport Dr. Frank-Steffen Walliser added: “It was fantastic, I would say – Patrick was really on a mission,” he said. “For the fans I think it was really, really great to watch. I received a lot of messages from all over the world, people watching it and saying ‘wow, what a race!’
“All targets have been fulfilled, now we can do the next steps and winning GTD with this young team was even the icing on the cake.”
4. Alegra’s faith in youth pays dividends
This was the feel-good story of the weekend.
Michael de Quesada was just seven years old when his father Carlos won the GT class at Daytona in 2007. A decade on, father and son combined to score a true underdog victory with Alegra Motorsports in GTD, the second 24 hour race win for the Porsche 911 GT3-R in the space of a few weeks after Herberth Motorsport’s triumph at Dubai.
Story of the race to me is the #28 Allegra Porsche winning in GTD! An ACTUAL Pro/Am team that just beat full pro lineups. Excellent!
— Ryan Eversley (@RyanEversley) January 29, 2017
Alegra led just 38 laps in total, but they hit the front when it mattered most. Having spent much of the race just off the lead lap, few considered them for potential class winners against such stiff opposition, but that all changed when Sam Bird’s class-leading Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 suffered an engine failure and brought out a caution with two hours to go.
Porsche factory driver Michael Christensen climbed aboard and as Acura’s pace dried up with the weather and Jeroen Bleekemolen’s Riley Mercedes struggled for straight-line speed, the Dane quickly picked his way through to second, with only the Land Motorsport Audi R8 LMS ahead.
However, a slow final stop caused Christopher Mies to rejoin in fourth, and he simply ran out of laps to catch Christensen, finishing just two tenths in arrears.
“We lost the victory, but it’s so tight, it’s crazy. We are fighting for 24 hours and you lose by two tenths, it’s crazy, I never saw that,” team-mate Jules Gounon told Racing.GT.
Youth and exuberance normally go hand in hand, but at Daytona, Alegra drove with their heads. Overlooking de Quesada Senior, the remainder of its line-up had an average age of 22, while GT3 Cup Challenge USA and Canada champions Jesse Lazare (19) and Daniel Morad (26), along with Michael de Quesada, were each making their first starts at the race.
Lazare had raced against Alegra-run Morad in the Canadian championship and in a now famous exchange, received an invitation to race with the team at Daytona from De Queseda at the end-of-year banquet.
“What Carlos did for me at the banquet was something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life,” said Lazare. “I wasn’t expecting any of this, to be on the podium or win, I just wanted to go here and learn as much as I can. I’m so thankful to be here and I can’t wait to see what comes after this.”
What a race! So proud, and happy to stand on the top as a winner yesterday. Amazing job by the Alegra Motorports boys! A day to remember! pic.twitter.com/gUVJ7PifKh
— Michael Christensen (@ChristensenMK) January 30, 2017
5. Mixed fortunes for Acura and Lexus
For the Michael Shank Racing Acura team, Daytona was a step into the unknown as the car made its competition debut, but despite a few issues for the No. 93 NSX GT3 of Andy Lally, Katherine Legge, Mark Wilkins and Graham Rahal, the weekend was an overwhelming success.
Lally qualified an excellent seventh in qualifying, although he conceded that it probably flattered the car, as several teams opted to start with their Silver-graded drivers. Both cars kept out of trouble in the race and led occasionally through the pitstop cycles, before finding a new lease of life in the rain, as IndyCar ringers Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay in the sister No. 84 car lapped first and second.
Legge was at a loss to explain their wet weather performance, which came despite front splitter damage that made it “incredibly difficult to get through the chicane without closing your eyes.”
“I think Jeff [Segal] and Andy drove the cars in the Roar here for about 20 minutes and that was it, so we were surprised at how good they are,” she said. “Fundamentally they have a great level of grip and are going to be aero-positive for the future, but it didn’t feel like that when we were driving it, trust me! The track was super slick and there were guys going off and crashing into each other all over the place, so although comparatively to everybody else it was good, it was still very sketchy.”
The two cars combined led for a total of 134 laps, with both still running in the top six when Lally’s car lost drive with half an hour to go, a legacy of losing its entire bonnet on the front stretch which damaged some wiring.
— James Newbold (@james_newbold) January 29, 2017
Nevertheless, the No. 84 of Hunter-Reay, Jeff Segal, Ozz Negri and Tom Dyer finished an encouraging fifth and leads the North American Endurance Cup standings heading to Sebring.
“Everybody is really buoyed by our progress and hopefully we’ll go and get them at Sebring now,” Legge told Racing.GT.
As for fellow newcomers Lexus, run by Paul Gentilozzi’s 3GT Racing, the weekend was not without its challenges. Scott Pruett crashed out after two hours in the No. 14 RC F GT3, while the sister No. 15 car of Dominik Farnacher was leading when he suffered a massive right-rear blowout in hour nine, losing several laps.