Did final half-hour ruin an otherwise great Rolex 24? (UPDATED)

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IMSA officials were surely hoping this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway would be an awesome debut for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and a new era of North American sports car racing.

And outside of the horrific crash yesterday that sent drivers Memo Gidley and Matteo Malucelli to the hospital, it was looking like just that going into the final hour of the race today, with tight battles for victory ensuing in nearly all of the classes.

But instead of being hailed as an out-and-out classic, this year’s Rolex (won by Action Express Racing) will likely be remembered by some for its chaotic finish, which evolved over the final half-hour and transformed the race into something more akin to a NASCAR-style “green-white-checkered” rush.

With about 22 minutes to go, Leh Keen had just taken the No. 22 Alex Job Racing Porsche out of the pits but then slid off the track at Turn 2, and bounced into the nearby tire barriers.

The impact inflicted some front-end damage, but Keen was able to keep the car going out of that and almost immediately came back onto the track. However, that didn’t stop IMSA from throwing a full-course yellow in surprisingly quick fashion – bunching up the field for what would turn out to be a final, eight-minute dash when the green returned.

In hindsight, Keen’s incident meriting a full-course yellow was iffy at best, considering how fast he was able to get his wounded Porsche on course again. But while that may have caused an eye-roll or two, the conclusion to the GTD duel between Level 5 Motorsports’ Alessandro Pier Guidi and Flying Lizard Motorsports’ Markus Winkelhock would prove more stunning.

After the two had made contact in the bus stop chicane shortly following the green flag, Pier Guidi overshot the same corner on the penultimate lap but took the lead back from Winkelhock as the white flag came out. Then in the infield, Winkelhock and his Audi came up to battle side-by-side with Pier Guidi in his Ferrari.

The two gave no quarter to the other but didn’t appear to make contact before Winkelhock went off-course, allowing Pier Guidi to pull away for the win. Instead, IMSA chose to give Pier Guidi and the No. 555 team a time penalty for avoidable contact, which meant Winkelhock and his No. 45 squad were dubbed GTD class winners.

The decision was met with surprise and shock, and MotorSportsTalk’s man on the ground, Tony DiZinno, confirmed that IMSA officials were discussing the final outcome in GTD. Several hours after the finish, IMSA announced that they would reverse their original decision and declare the No. 555 team as GTD class winners after a review of the last-lap incident.

Article 48, Section 3 of IMSA’s TUDOR Series rulebook says that any driver who is found by the Race Director to have caused “avoidable contact with another competitor, whether or not such contact interrupts the other competitor’s lap times, track position or damages other competitor’s Cars, and whether or not such actions result in actual contact, may be warned or penalized.”

So, IMSA was within its right to issue the original penalty, even if you may think the rule is misguided because their was no contact on the final lap.

But it begs the question of why that penalty wasn’t issued right after the two had come together in the bus stop. So, even though IMSA officials have decided to overturn their call on Pier Guidi and give the No. 555 the class victory, they still appeared to have missed one.

It’s a shame we’ve had to focus on this, because outside of this and the Gidley-Malucelli crash, the 2014 Rolex was really fun to watch. And the fact that there was a very sizable crowd to attend the festivities bodes well for the new TUDOR Championship. They have several positives to build upon as they continue deeper into their inaugural season.

But one can’t help but wonder if today’s finish has put a damper on an otherwise great event.

Nearly 25 drivers already set for 2018 Indy 500… in mid-November

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Friday’s announcement that Danica Patrick would end her full-time driving career with a run in the 102nd Indianapolis 500, after also running the Daytona 500 in January, is another shot in the arm for the 2018 marquee event of North American open-wheel racing.

Surprisingly, it keeps the grid moving forward too to where nearly 75 percent of the 33 cars are already set… in mid-November, 2017.

Early confirmations of programs for the next year’s Indianapolis 500 aren’t new, but they’re seemingly coming earlier than normal this year, with a number of expected programs getting announced in the fall of 2017.

Coupled with the fact most of the IndyCar full-season grid for 2018 is set, it’s interesting to take a look at what’s already set for next year.

CONFIRMED FULL-SEASON (19)

The only things to add here are Dale Coyne Racing’s second driver in the No. 19 Honda, the road and street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing in its No. 20 Chevrolet who may or may not be able to get an Indianapolis 500 extra seat in a third car, and the expected confirmation of Carlin’s graduation into IndyCar after three seasons in Indy Lights.

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (2, Honda): Scott Dixon, Ed Jones
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (2, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan, Matheus Leist
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

CONFIRMED PARTIAL SEASON/INDY ONLY (4)

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Juncos Racing (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Danica Patrick

Here’s where it gets interesting. Castroneves is Team Penske’s confirmed fourth, and Juan Pablo Montoya could be a hypothetical fifth if the stars align – but it’s not in the immediate plans at this moment.

Patrick also makes her somewhat surprising Indianapolis comeback and with Penske, Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing not fielding her, the stars are aligned for her to drive with Chip Ganassi Racing in what would be a third car. Neither Patrick nor Ganassi said it’s happening today, but Ganassi acknowledged discussions, via NASCAR Talk.

Wilson finally gets his Indianapolis 500 shot with Andretti a year later as its fifth car. The team ran six last year, with the two Indy-only entries coming in separate partnership efforts between McLaren and Honda (Fernando Alonso) and Michael Shank Racing (Jack Harvey).

Jack Harvey is a very intriguing story for how he’ll be racing next year. NBC Sports understands a working relationship is being hatched between Shank and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and with Harvey bringing a program on behalf of AutoNation/SiriusXM to grow his role into a third-to-half season of racing, this could slot in nicely as SPM’s third car. While not “officially” confirmed, it would not be a surprise to see news revealed from the concerned parties in December.

How could Harvey become SPM three when SPM three was already announced, you ask? With the Calmels Sport with SPM program reportedly on thin ice after negative press, the unlikely union of the French team owner Didier Calmels, one-time open-wheel driver turned-sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy and SPM appears set to join the “announced and dropped before ever turning a wheel” club.

Kaiser’s four-race program with Juncos Racing was announced last month and the Indy Lights champion will likely have Chevrolet power, given the team’s existing relationship from 2017.

WHAT’S STILL TO COME

Playing it out a bit with the usual, “how many engines can each manufacturer provide” story, we know Honda ran 18 cars this year and was stretched to capacity, leaving Chevrolet with the remaining 15.

Work the math from here. Provided Carlin officially announces its entry (it still hasn’t to this point, but is known to have hired IndyCar personnel) and with Honda already stretched between its 12 previously announced full-season cars (4 Andretti, 2 Ganassi, 2 RLL, 2 SPM, 2 Coyne), with a 13th engine available at some races, Carlin would have to be at Chevrolet.

For Indianapolis, Honda already begins to work its car count further beyond those 13 (if SPM 3 gets added for more races) with Ganassi 3 (a TBD, but would be Patrick if confirmed here) and Andretti 5 (Wilson) to get to 15, which leaves just three leases at play to get to 18… again, this is in mid-November.

Provided Pippa Mann can work towards her annual appearance with Coyne, factor in a possible sixth Andretti car and an 18th Honda lease – perhaps a third car at RLL or fourth at Ganassi, SPM or Coyne – and suddenly the Honda inn would already be booked up.

Chevrolet would have the rest, and you can figure out the math from there.

It may only be mid-November, but the race to secure a berth on the grid for next May is already well underway.