Rolex 24 at Daytona and Beyond

The second most grueling endurance race in the world is upon us once again. Only the 24hr of Le Mans ranks higher for endurance racing teams and fans. Since the Rolex 24 at Daytona is first on the calendar each year it’s coming is seen as a return of hope and promise. Only Daytona is not going to end with the same uplifting thoughts as it started.

For some teams this will be the start of what will be an amazing year with which they may hang their career on, for others it will bring sorrow of which they will not soon forget. Then there are the teams that may have the perfect race, win the oh-so-coveted Rolex Daytona watches, and go on to have a season of misery and despair where they would trade the fancy watch for a run to the championship in a heartbeat.

This year begins like every other year in the world of endurance racing. New teams step up from the lower ranks, other step down into GT racing, and old foes once again battle it out for bragging rights their founders started over 50 years ago.

Ford GTLM during practice at the 54th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona
Ford GTLM during practice at the 54th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Image by kabelphoto.com

Ford is back with the GTLM Ford GT program which will include crossing the pond to battle Ferrari at Le Mans, but first we get to watch them slug it out on the high banks and tight infield of Daytona.

50 years ago the battle was a thundering Ford V8 vs. a screaming V12 Ferrari. Today’s it’s the flutter of diverter valves and whoosh of turbos spooling up. The original race cars now command tens of millions these days while sitting silent in a collection and their battles are forever etched into racing legend.

Now we have brand new cars on the track.

Ford GT comes in with a radical new modern look, designed for superior aero and sporting a turbo 3.5L V6 EcoBoost engine, similar to a version that has been used the Ganassi Daytona Prototype for a few years now.

Ferrari brings it’s all new 3.9L V-8 turbo 488 GTE, which is Ferrari’s first turbo race car built off of a street car since the F40 GT program of yesteryear. This battle once again pits  Ferrari vs Ford, and for generations of racing fans it’s a welcome sight that promises to live up to the legendary battles of the 1960s.

BMW is diving into the mix with their turbo M6 GTLM which, during testing, has shown amazing speed, but like the Ford and Ferrari, has yet to go race distance.

The teams  from Corvette and Porsche have proven cars which promise to give Ferrari, Ford, and BMW a very tough battle. However, the headline will remain Ford’s return to battle Ferrari.  Only when the checker flag drops will we know where we stand when it comes to GTLM.

GT Daytona (GTD) Class

GTD or GT Daytona class has grown dramatically since it started, and represents the largest number of cars entered in a single class for the race. The change to the FIA GT3 platform has open the doors to many new teams, faces, and cars, and the raging bulls from Bologna have charged through faster than the Cool-Aid Man.

The new GT3 Lamborghini Huracan boosts 5 entrees, which ties for the most among any manufacturer, and that’s shocking as its a brand new car to the series. The wail of these new machines promises to bring a smile to every face in the paddock.  Except for its competitors.

Not be outdone, fellow VW corporate mate Audi has brought 4 customer R8 GT3’s, which any fan of the sport knows should be somewhere near the front (if not in front) at the end. Biggest news here is twofold as Magnus Racing has switched from Porsche to Audi, in a move we never saw coming.

And Stevenson has stepped away from CTSCC GS class into 2 beautiful liveried Audi R8 GT3s which should be somewhere near the front, given their track record.

Given the professionalism of both outfits, these teams will probably be charging hard with the Audi banner all season.

Also, for those fans who stay up all night watching the race on IMSA.com, Magnus has their webcast running for another fun filled year. Magnus after dark, promises to be entertaining as always; if you have never seen it, go see it, as it’s a side of a racing team we never get to see.

Porsche’s presence at the Rolex 24hr goes without saying, as they have 5 cars ready to battle. Expect to see a Porsche  in the top 3 at the end as they always do every year with solid speed and stout reliability.

Ferrari brings 2 of their 458 GT3’s for battle and, if their past in indication of overall speed, the other teams should be very nervous.

The BMW M6 GTLM waits patiently for the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona
The BMW M6 GTLM waits patiently for the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona

Riley brings two Vipers into the fray and Turner Motorsports has brought out their brand new M6s. These two teams should never be overlooked especially with stout driver line ups and their willpower. Almost every race last year a BMW and Viper were lurking near the front so get ready for these smaller teams to hunt down their rivals by the end, if not set the pace from the get go. Let’s not forget that Turner Motorsports has the magic of Markus Palttala. He’s won a driver’s title with Turner in their BMW Z4 in 2014.

GTD Class promises to provide the most epic of battles,  not only over this 24hours, but over the entire season. The new GT3 cars provide teams with so much more technology and challenges. The increased aero bits should showcase the braking masters as they will be able to driver deeper and deeper on the rest of the field than in years past. Reliability aside, it may just be a matter of who can master their car first that wins.

All over the race track these GT3 machines should be prove to add a missing dimension from years past. As race fans we can only sit back and enjoy the sights and sounds of the GT Daytona class.

Prototype (P) Class

The Prototype class should be very interesting as the P2 style of machines from Europe have improved their reliability up and shed their fragile reputations.

The Honda powered Ligier are proving to be able to throw down magic lap times, and with another year of development on the chassis, it can finally match the Daytona Prototypes; hopefully all race long.

Mazda finally dumped its diesel in favor of turbo direct injected gas engine they developed in 2006, but have updated it for this year. Could we see Mazda with actually speed this year, not just breaking down? I am sure the ZOOM ZOOM crowd hopes so, as well as a lot of other fans. Their chassis is solid as a rock, but the new gas engine has yet to be proven.

The real sleeper is the black sheep of the WeatherTech Sportscar Championship, the Deltawing, which finally cracked the top 5 in lap times during recent tests. We can only hope better luck follows them this year. Everyone secretly wants to see them score on the podium.
Let’s hope their reliability is higher than in the past as the Daytona Prototypes will not go softly into the night with their flawless reliability. The DP’s have been around long enough that they’re almost always, without contact, not going to break down. This leaves the other teams in class having to not only match great speed, but match reliability, which is sometimes the greater battle than speed. Their balance and mastery of this over a 24hr race has been seen year after year.

Even suffering contact that would take cars out of the race, these tanks of the series endure, thundering out lap after lap, until the checker drops. We know barring major contact we will see them at the front, chugging away like a steam engine crossing the Great Plains.

Prototype Challenge (PC) Class

The Prototype Challenge, or PC class, remains a tight knit battle regardless of whether it’s a 24-hr affair or a sprint race. Equally matched machines test both team and driver skills to the max. The spec chassis and engines are reliable, so pit strategy plays a major factor in the outcome, which at Daytona is a tall order. These are probably the most fragile of the machines in the field so contact will need to be avoided at all costs.

Expect to see the TV coverage only touch on Prototype Challenge when the battles are close. This class gets very little love, even though it produces some of the best racing around.

The 54th Running Stands to Be The Best Yet

The 54th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona stands to be one of the most exciting in history and story lines should well outlive this weekend. Whoever wins the Rolex watches needs to be aware that glory can be short lived in this world, and even shorter in racing.

The fans are in for a treat as Ford takes on GTLM and already has victory in its sights bettling the cars in red from Italia. The racing should be great and mistakes could scar deep into the season.

The long off-season is over and racing fans once again can get back to business as usual. Online debates will rage until the end of season, as we will look forward to this moment next season as we do every season. This is the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Broadcast Schedule and Spotters Guide(ET)

Jan. 30-31
FS1 2 p.m.
FS2 4 p.m.
IMSA.tv 10 p.m.
FS1 7 a.m.
FS2 10:30 a.m.
FS1 1 p.m.

Download the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona spotter’s guide from IMSA, here.