Endurance races have multiple layers and there are a multitude of plots and sub-plots, unseen stories and angles and facts that get filled in later. The Rolex 24 at Daytona had plenty of storylines that grabbed the headlines, but the days and weeks after the race provided an opportunity to have a closer look. The Prototype class had 13 entries and plenty of intrigue. With that, some observations and nuggets through the Prototype field at the Rolex 24:
- In past years, P2 cars showed some pace, but struggled with reliability, fragility, and less professional driver line-ups. The Daytona Prototype platform has racked up wins with the opposite – reliability, strength and solid driving strength. With that background, it was ironic that the 2016 Rolex 24 saw the winner persevere through early rear contact (at the hands of another P2 car) and late gearbox alarms to take the win while Daytona Prototypes that should have been favorites for the win suffered mechanical failures.
- Both Ganassi cars had braking issues. The #02 had an exceptionally difficult race, plagued by brake issues throughout. Tony Kanaan completed a three hour stint at about 8.5 hours into the race by losing front brakes completely and taking the car directly to the garage. A broken brake line cost 10 laps to repair. With just under three hours to go, NASCAR driver Kyle Larson was onboard the #02 when the brakes failed in the infield sending the car into the tire barrier and doing significant front-end damage and needed a flatbed for recovery. The #02 eventually finished 7th in class and 13th overall, 28 laps off the lead.
- The #01 stayed on the lead lap until the early morning hours when overheating issues with about 5 hours to go sent the car to the garage for several laps. While stars among the driving line-up included Alex Wurz and Brendan Hartley, and Andy Priaulx, it also included young Lance Stroll. We don’t know for sure one way or another, but one suspects that Stroll landed the ride due more to a business arrangement than pure merits given Ganassi’s access to other drivers like Sage Karam that didn’t drive. Given Mr. Stroll’s youth, family resources, single seater crashes in Europe, a lack of any prior experience in a Daytona Prototype, and a crash on cold tires in his first outing in the car at the Roar test, observers wondered if he was the weakest link in the driving chain. However, he acquitted himself quite well. He drove three stints of about 7 hours of total drive time with average lap times within a few tenths of Hartley, the fastest of the drivers in the car.
- The Ganassi Daytona Prototype program officially ended after the Rolex 24. The two prototypes will not run again in competition.
- The two Mazdas showed enough pace to give the team a taste of the front of the field. They’re not there yet, but were a lot closer than in all of 2015. While the engineering exercise of the diesel engine may have been extraordinary, the move to a gasoline powerplant for 2016 finally allowed Mazda to play with the rest of the prototypes. Sadly, the #70 retired after only 11 laps with a flywheel issue and gained fame as the first retirement of the 2016 Rolex 24 Hours in the hands of Tom Long. Joel Miller and Ben Devlin never got to drive. The #55 ran another 316 laps before a valve train issue ended its run an hour shy of halfway. The new engine had been in development during 2015 and racked up nearly 4,000 testing miles prior to the Roar test in January. The little 2 liter turbocharged 4 cylinder engine manages to make about 570 horsepower. The #55 wasn’t immune to more traditional dramas – the team switched steering wheel and ECU at about the 6 hour mark and also suffered a shredded left rear tire just after the 10 hour mark.
- 2015 Indy Lights champ Spencer Pigot got his first ride in the prototype and first outing at the Rolex 24. He wasn’t use to sharing a car and looked forward to starting the 2016 IndyCar campaign with RLL with March testing at Sebring and an Indy 500 run in May. All of the Mazda drivers were part of the Mazda driver development program. Pigot had a distinctive fluorescent green glow in the dark helmet which made him easy to spot during the nighttime hours. Despite Pigot’s resume, he wasn’t the fastest of the drivers in the car. That honor was reserved for Jonathan Bomarito who has plenty of experience with the car and will run for the full season with teammate Tristan Nunez.
- The sympathetic favorite early in the race was the DeltaWing. Plagued by gearbox issues throughout 2015 and the perpetual debate about what it is and where it fits, Katherine Legge charged to the front in the opening of the race with an electric drive. She drove with confidence, making bold passes into the bus stop and into turn one. In her hands, the Delta Wing raced and passed other prototypes on the track for position on its merits without gimmicks of strategy or luck of caution flags. Legge has been extremely loyal to the program for several years – potentially to her detriment – and it was marvelous to see her and the car run well. The DeltaWing skipped the wet qualifying, so started dead last in the prototype field which equated to 13th place on the starting grid. By lap 8, Legge was up to overall. By lap 27, she was leading overall and stayed in the lead for 14 laps. She reclaimed the lead on lap 70 and held it through lap 81 when she pitted to hand over to Andy Meyrick after 2 hours and 34 minutes at the controls. She was effusive when visiting the media center after her stint. She rose to the pressure of having a competitive car. She noted that the gearbox had been the car’s nemesis and admitted that they hadn’t run a 24 hour simulation, but were hopeful. It must have been a crushing moment to see Meyrick crash into the back of a stalled prototype challenge car in turn one, ending the car’s race just over an hour later. Somehow the radio message from the pits didn’t get through or was missed which left Meyrick unsighted as he arrived at the corner. Sean Rayhall and Andreas Wirth did not get to drive.
- Action Express had to be one of the favorites for the overall win coming into the 2016 event. The team not only had won the Rolex 24 several times previously, but brought a stable driver line up and a stable car. With so many other teams experiencing changes, they knew what they had and arguably enhanced their lineup with the addition of Scott Pruett in the #5 car. It was surprising then to see both cars experience driveshaft failures at separate points during the race. The #31 Whelen Corvette ran at or near the front for the bulk of the race until under 6 hours to go when a left rear drive shaft failed. The repair took about 20 minutes and 13 laps. Later, with only 3.5 hours to go, the #5 experienced the exact same problem while leading the race. For a team that has little to no mechanical failures for two years, it was a tough time for a failure to strike. The #5 lost only 11 minutes and 5 laps in the repair (remarkable – faster with practice?). The #5 Mustang Sampling post-race press release noted that the car went off track three times during the race. One was a brief nudge into the tires at turn 3 just shy of two hours into the event. Another was a brief off track tour at turn 5 just shy of the 7.5 hour mark. The third was a brief overnight detour due to oil from a troubled engine in a competitor’s car. The cars finished 4th for the #5 and 6th for the #31 – solid runs for both and both logged many laps in the lead, but they needed a perfect run for a podium.
- Is Pruett still fast? He did fewer laps than the other drivers in the #5, but had the fastest average lap time. Barbosa did the most laps by far for drivers in the #5 car.
- What about the #31? Simon Pagenaud was fastest and Brit Jonny Adam was close behind in his debut, Dane Cameron was also close and did the most laps of any driver in the car. Kudos to Cameron for logging drive times among the longest of all drivers at a competitive pace. Notably, there is no evidence that the #31 incurred any pit lane penalties at all – a very impressive feat given the number of other cars with at least one infraction.
- The “Highway to Help” Daytona Prototype sports the #50 as a nod to the more experienced driver line up. The team runs for charity and giggles rather than hardware, so they provide some additional color and character to the event. When the checkered flag flew, the team not only was running at the finish, but finished 36th overall and 8th in class. It wasn’t an uneventful run though. The car earned several pit lane penalties, had some radio problems, incurred some rear bodywork damage, brought out a full course caution just before the halfway mark when the car came to a halt to drivers’ right at turn one. The #50 went behind the wall, but emerged only 10 minutes later. With under 2 hours to go, a left rear wheel hub issue delayed the car in pit lane. Drivers Jim Pace and Dorsey Schroeder had both won in previous years. Pace, the overall winner in 1996, was clearly the fastest in the car based on average lap times.
- The #37 SMP BR-01 prototype surprisingly sat on the pole in the hands of Indycar driver Mikhail Aleshin which was quite the splash for the car’s US debut. After setting pole time in the wet Thursday session, however, the car lost its Nissan engine 21 minutes into Friday practice. The team changed to an engine with some prior run time, but was unable to get a hardship lap prior to the start of the race. Despite starting on the pole, Aleshin was third at the end of the first lap and slipped off the track at the west horseshoe on the 7th lap which cost several additional positions. The car never led a lap during the race and spent almost the first 6 hours of the race near the back of the prototype field. The car had contact with the pit exit wall and returned to the garage via the infield, dropping quickly to something like 44th The BR-01 struggled throughout the race with brake problems but finished – albeit in 28th place overall 108 laps off the lead. Nicholas Minassian was aboard when the car made a 3:30am visit to the garage for 15 minute stop. Sadly, the language barrier prevented a full understanding of the issue by your humble scribe who doesn’t speak Russian. Two technicians with laptops focused on the steering wheel which suggested that perhaps shifting electronics in the complex steering wheel were the culprit. Michael Shank has to wonder what might have been. The #60 Ligier-Honda was dominant for hours at a time. From just after the 4 hour mark, the car led more often than not in the hands of Oz Negri, Olivier Pla and AJ Allmendinger. At times, the lead stretched to 30 seconds or more. By average lap time, Pla was the fastest driver in the entire field. Unfortunately, an engine failure at the 9.5 hour mark took the car from the lead to retirement. The same powerplant went to victory lane in the other Ligier, so the platform was clearly a strong horse. Ironically, the two Ligiers got together in the braking zone for the bus stop as John Pew overcooked his brakes and hit the back of the ESM car. The Shank car needed a new nose, but the ESM car appeared to dodge a bullet that could have ruined its race.
- It was all change for the VisitFlorida #90 Daytona prototype behind the wheel and the team was rewarded with a quiet run to the podium and a lead-lap finish. Some grass on the grille and loose front bodywork in the early hours was visible evidence of a run off course at some point with Ryan Hunter-Reay. The team changed the rear wing at the 5 hour mark. The #90 appears to have incurred a single drive through penalty for a pit lane infringement (wheels spinning while up on the jacks) and that was at the 7 hour mark. It also had a power steering problem on Sunday morning that required an ECU change. Otherwise, it was a clean race and the #90 stayed in the top 3 or 4 cars for most of the race. Marc Goosens was the iron man at the controls with the most green laps run and the fastest average lap time.
- The #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Daytona Prototype Corvette again came up just short of a win. Jordan Taylor suffered from mononucleosis but still managed to show strong pace in the car and log over 100 green laps. So much attention was shined towards late joiner Rubens Barrichello, but he was the slowest driver based on average lap times and did the fewest laps in the car. While Jordan Taylor and Barrichello got the headlines, Max Angelelli and Ricky Taylor were the strong horses for the #10 entry, logging many of the green laps. Ricky Taylor tweeted after the race that he lost 9 pounds of weight through the event. Showing what kind of run is required for the win, the #10 car spent less time in the pits than any other prototype, had no pit lane penalties, and had no off course incidents. However, exhaust fumes got into the cockpit for the last few hours and ended up with Jordan Taylor cutting his last stint short and Angelelli barely bringing the car across the finish line. He was taken unconscious to the hospital and kept overnight. An extremely close call that could have resulted in disaster for the drivers in the #10 car and other competitors. One wonders whether some sort of sensor in the driver’s compartment would be a good idea since monitoring the environment for the driver ought to be at least as important as telemetry for the car’s health.
- That leaves the winning #2 ESM Patron Ligier Honda. The car took the lead with about 6 hours to go and never really relinquished it until the checkered flag. As noted previously, the ESM car had a close call with contact from the rear heading into the bus stop. In the closing laps, a gearbox temperature alarm was going off for Pipo Derani which kept everybody on edge but obviously the car finished the race. Derani was clearly the star of the show with the fastest average lap times of drivers in the car (and most drivers) and the most green laps logged in the car. In fact, his record of about 250 laps was among the most green laps run in the event by any driver overall. Johannes van Overbeek and Scott Sharp ran clean, consistent and quick laps as well. Owner Ed Brown did only a small handful of laps and deferred to the hot shoes for the vast bulk of the running. Brazilian Derani was known to those that follow the WEC and LeMans given his 2015 drive with the G-Force Ligier LMP2 team, but 2016 was his first race in the US and first Rolex 24 run. He certainly will have done his career prospects no harm, so keep an eye out for him. He will be running with ESM for a full 2016 WEC season.
- The first ever Rolex 24 win for the Honda engine almost got lost in all the excitement. Honda has had a challenged several years in US sportscar racing between prototype cars and engines, so a win must be a welcome reward for all of the work and faith. Interestingly, it also puts Honda in an odd position for the future when it isn’t sure whether it can supply engines to customers in light of ambiguities in the rules package.
- Interestingly, the Shank and ESM teams coordinated on logistics for 2016. The chassis used by ESM to win the Rolex 24 was also run by Oak Racing at the 2015 LeMans 24 hours with Nissan power. Shank is running the 24 Hours of LeMans in 2016 for the first time and will be using the Daytona winning car for that race. As ESM is running the full WEC season, ESM leased the car from Oak for Daytona who will eventually ship the car back to Europe to get it ready for Shank at LeMans. The arrangement permitted ESM to lease their car for Daytona without having to risk impacting their WEC cars and program and likewise permits Shank to show up to LeMans without impacting his US IMSA program.
All eyes look forward to Sebring and remaining questions on reliability and pace among the various prototype flavors.