ROLEX 24HRS DAYTONA – THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT

There are times when it’s not clear whether a pattern is starting to emerge through the chaos of an endurance race or whether madness has started to descend on the viewer. Watching the Rolex 24hrs at Daytona had that feel to it.

Certain events start to repeat at the top of the hour and, like a good action movie, forewarnings would become evident. GTLM cars 3-4 wide on the tri oval. “Pipo” Derani carving back through the Daytona Prototypes as he muscled the P2 Patrón ESM Honda back to the front of the race. Triple stinting, Damien Faulkner leading at the hour mark as the Viper Exchange man stretched out a few more laps then his GTD rivals.

To make certain we didn’t think this would get predictable there was drama and heartache early on too, just to keep the viewer on their toes and reaffirm that this was no ordinary race. I’ve always had a soft spot for the DeltaWing team. It’s been a messy divorce since I saw them live, and far too briefly, at Le Mans but finally they seemed set to be rewarded.

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They didn’t run any laps in the wet qualifying session and started at the back of the Prototypes, yet early on Katherine Legge was majestic as the DeltaWing Racing car delicately picked its way through the field. It’s not a car that can where the driver can bully its way through the field. It’s too small for that and would come out far worse. It needs a certain finesse, and in the early part of Rolex 24 Katherine Legge had exactly that. On lap 70 she hit the front. Both Derani and Legge traded the lead as they cycled through pit stops. Eventually Derani would hand over to van Overbeek, who resumed in 7th. Legge did another stint and at just over the two hour mark she led the race again, as the #02 Gannassi DP of Dixon pitted. 15 minutes later and the rest of the Prototypes would rush to pit road. This time Katherine Legge handed over to Andy Meyrick. As the 3hr mark passed Meyrick was in P4.

As darkness set in and the Stadium lights came on (Yes, Daytona is a stadium. It’s one for the bucket list) the DeltaWing briefly led again as the top 3 Prototypes pitted and Meyrick stayed out that bit longer before coming in for fuel and tyres.

Moments later and disaster struck. The #08 Starworks PC was stranded in the middle of turn one. Several cars had near misses. It begged the questions “Why was this only yellow flags? Why not a Full Course Yellow” It very quickly was, as the DeltaWing ran underneath the #08 and, violently, their race came to an end.

Back then to a battle between Le Mans and Daytona Prototypes at the front. The cutting edge LMP2 cars and the old school DPs. Fittipaldi (#5 Chevrolet DP) complained that the performance balancing wasn’t right. Time and again it was the #5 or #10 Chevrolet DPs that battled to stay ahead of both the Ligier P2s. Easy to forget that last year the Daytona Prototypes won with ease. At night, Olivier Pla, in the #60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier, took a demanding lead from Fittipaldi. Drama would hit in the early hours of the morning as the #60 stopped with Oswaldo Negri at the wheel.

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Whenever Pipo Derani got in his P2 he seemed to unlock other levels of performance. Pulling off a spectacular pass on the grass on his way past Fittipaldi. This was a car that you could muscle through the infield and that’s exactly what Pipo did. While the #5 Action Express DP fell away following an off and a half shaft failure the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing DP took the fight to the Parton ESM P2. With an hour to go there were worrying events for the #10. As the leaders lined up for the final stops Jordan Taylor, who had been ill prior to the event, spoke over the radio to say he was unwell. There were fumes and he would go no further. Max Angelelli took over the #10 DP for the run to the flag. He too would need treatment after the race, but both were ok.

This left the impressive Pipo Derani a clear run to the flag in what was an impressive performance for all at Patron ESM Ligier as they took the overall will at DAYTONA.

The GTLM race was a thing of beauty.
Porsche. BMW. Ferrari. Corvette. Four manufacturers fighting hard for class honours, and at times we had to remind ourselves that this was a 24 hour endurance race. At times it felt like several sprint races broken up with Full Course Yellows, because when racing went green it got hectic at DAYTONA.

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I should give a mention to the stunning but fragile Ford GTs. If looks won races the Ganassi/Ford Performance cars would have romped home, but as it was we were treated to several slow motion shots as invariably the #67 and #66 ground to a halt throughout the race. Debuts don’t get much tougher than this and expect the team to come back stronger for Sebring. In the words of Tony Kanaan “we NEVER give up”.

The Porsche 911s set the pace early on with Le Mans 24 Hrs 2015 winners Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy split between the #911 and #912 showing the strength of line up that teams had brought to the Rolex 24hrs. Time and time again we witnessed multiple cars wide on the banking as manufacturers fought for supremacy, but it was all about the grandstand finish for GTLM.

Earl Bamber had been leading in the #912 Porsche but with just over half an hour to go Oliver Gavin in the #4 Corvette went for a gap that almost wasn’t there. I didn’t matter. He was through. Soon enough he was closely followed by teammate Antonio Garcia in the #3. That was that then. Team orders would surely follow and a bland Corvette 1-2 would ensue.

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Only they didn’t. The call came over the radio. The pair were clear to race. American team in an American sport making sure that the team put on a show. Beautiful, and it was. Flashbacks to Laguna Seca and last lap carnage be damned. This was Motorsport. In a world where push to pass has become a gimmick witness the art of the defensive drive as Gavin fought off Garcia for an epic win.

(Go to 2hr:23mins for an epic finish)
We’ve got to announce bias in GTD. When it came to came down to it all eyes were on an honorary Texan.

For the most part the organisers did a great job of performance balancing but when it came to the GTD class there was a clear imbalance. The #28 Lamborghini Huracan was amazing. Insanely fast and it seemed set for a class victory. Setting 1:46 lap times vs 1:47 – 1:48 of the Audi, Porsche, BMW & Dodge teams. On the face of it then impossible odds for Damien Faulkner and his team as the Viper Exchange #93 went four laps down and a seemingly 1 ½ second lap time deficit to battle against.

Here though is where we come back to patterns emerging. With 3 hours to go, as the teams started to cycle through their pit stops it was Faulkner & the #93 that emerged at the top of the standings. At 2 hours to go, as the teams started to cycle through their pit stops (You guessed it) Faukner & the #93 that emerged at the top of the standings.

In the final hour the triple stinting Faulkner emerged 5th from the last scheduled pit stops having stayed out a few laps longer than the rest of the leaders. It would be a crucial decision. As they approached the final laps the running order was:

1) Babini – Lamborghini #28
2) Rast – Audi #44
3) Stanaway – Aston Martin #98
4) Catsburg – Porsche #540
5) Faulkner – Dodge #93

The first sign that some of the leaders had short fuelled as they gambled on a caution came as Stanaway dived down to pit lane with a few minutes to go. Then, while still trying to take in the GTLM battle, GTD went crazy. Both the #28 and #44 started to slow heading for the last lap. It was game over for Babini and the Lamborghini but Rast desperately moved around hunting for fuel. He survived to take the win, but amongst the madness Faulkner emerged in 3rd place to take a hard fought and thoroughly deserved podium for The Viper Exchange #93.

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That’s real racing.
That’s entertainment.

I’m hooked. I’m all in for more of this racing.

Chat to you soon.

Daithí