Rebellion Racing. All photos courtesy of IMSA

Roar Before the Rolex 24 recap, notes, musings, observations

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The Roar Before the Rolex 24 test this weekend at Daytona International Speedway offered up a bevy of news, nuggets and other tidbits. Here’s a link to all times.

This test offered up a good appetizer of what’s to come before the main course, the 55th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona itself, Jan. 28-29. And to get the other obvious note from the weekend out of the way, it was cold.

Further posts from interviews will follow in the coming days. In the meantime, here’s some notes below:

FASSLER’S LUCKY ESCAPE

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

The hair-raising moment of the weekend came on Sunday with a fuel line triggering a fire to the No. 4 Corvette C7.R, and Marcel Fassler escaping uninjured. Per a statement from Jim Campbell, Chevrolet U.S Vice President, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, the damage was limited to the engine compartment of the car and as a precaution, the No. 3 Corvette was withdrawn for the remainder of the weekend.

Coincidentally, the No. 4 Corvette also suffered a smaller fire in last year’s Roar. Things turned out just fine the rest of the year, starting with the car’s win in a photo finish at the Rolex 24, a follow-up win at Sebring, Corvette Racing’s 100th win overall at Lime Rock, a dramatic win at Road America and the GT Le Mans class championship for Fassler’s co-drivers, Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner.

ORECA’S STRONG START

No. 81 DragonSpeed Oreca 07 and No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 81 DragonSpeed Oreca 07 and No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The new Oreca 07 makes its race debut at the Rolex 24, as the successor to the previous generation Oreca 05. Oreca’s last top-line outing in the Prototype class at Daytona came in 2014, when the Oreca 03R – the open-top version – came in best of the LMP2-spec cars up against the Daytona Prototypes in the first race of the merged IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, in fifth place fielded by Muscle Milk Pickett Racing.

This Oreca, built to the new-for-2017 LMP2 regulations, led six of the seven sessions. Rebellion Racing’s No. 13 car got down to a best time of 1:38.408 in the seventh and final session, with that car out front in sessions one, two, four, five and seven. Neel Jani was the car’s workhorse driver with his Rolex 24 teammates, Nick Heidfeld, Sebastien Buemi and Stephane Sarrazin, all in Las Vegas through Saturday for the Visa Las Vegas eRace. Elton Julian’s DragonSpeed team got one over for the fastest time overall, with Ben Hanley in at 1:38.343 in session six to finish as the fastest time overall.

JDC/Miller Motorsports also threatened the leaders with its Oreca 07 to keep pace, and ended ninth on the combined timesheets at 1:39.167. That team’s lineup is probably a notch below the two assembled from Rebellion and DragonSpeed, but it also enters this race knowing how to win the Rolex 24, having won in PC last year. Pace is one thing for these squads but whether it translates to reliability is the ultimate question mark, although the Oreca 05’s record last year in the FIA World Endurance Championship was rather stout.  Combined times for the session are linked here.

FLIP THE SPEEDS AROUND

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

The Balance of Performance shift between the December and January tests at Daytona saw the Cadillac DPi-V.Rs restricted by way of a 30mm gurney flap added, and their top speeds reduced from the upper ranges of 190mph down a bit.

The Mazda RT24-P, which had been down in December, topped out fastest for this test at 197.1 mph in session six with Jonathan Bomarito clocking that lap in the No. 55 car. The PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Gibson-powered Ligier JS P217 was next at 194.3 in the hands of Jose Gutierrez; the best Cadillac was only at 191.5 with Ricky Taylor.

Interestingly, the fastest Lamborghini Huracán GT3s – which were penalized for a technical violation in last year’s Rolex 24 – continued as the outright speed pacesetters in this test (GRT’s Ezequiel Perez Companc led the way at 179 mph), with several of the eight entered clocking top speeds faster than some of the Oreca FLM09 PC cars. The Ford GTs led the way in GT Le Mans (176.6 mph), with a mix of good top-end speed on the straights and, scarily, even better cornering speed through some of Daytona’s fast corners. A full breakdown of the top speeds as of session seven is linked here.

QUICK LEARNERS

So much for it taking a lot of time to adapt to a new car and/or a new track. Hanley and Buemi set the fastest times in their respective Nos. 81 and 13 Oreca 07s in their first times at Daytona. Rene Rast, a two-time GT winner at Daytona, did the lion’s share of running in his first Daytona prototype test with VISIT FLORIDA Racing and was that car’s quickest driver. RC Enerson was quicker for PR1/Mathiasen in his maiden sports car voyage than that car’s lead pro, Tom Kimber-Smith, in his first sports car drive, and coupled with Gutierrez, Bobby Oergel has two sub-20-year-old sneaky speedsters in his lineup. Pato O’Ward, like Enerson another Mazda Road to Indy veteran, impressed in his maiden test with Performance Tech in the PC class.

Alexander Sims – who bares an almost freaky resemblance to Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s “McLovin” in Superbad – was fastest of BMW Team RLL’s four drivers in its No. 19 BMW M6 GTLM, the John Baldessari-designed “Art Car,” 11th among all GTLM drivers. In GTD, Land Motorsport’s Jules Gounon impressed with both his speed and sense of humor. The son of ex-F1 and sports car racer Jean-Marc is an intriguing prospect. Jeroen Mul, Change Racing’s new full-season driver, looks to offer his Lamborghini car expertise and help bring that team forward. He was the fifth fastest Lamborghini driver this test, and considering there’s eight of the Huracan GT3s on display that was a solid effort.

The veterans are always going to be the stars, but it’s the young guns and/or Daytona rookies who are always going to be keen to impress in this opportunity.

GT TIMES ARE OVERALL, PRETTY CLOSE TO CALL

Ford and Porsche led the GT classes, but it's not set in stone for race week. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Ford and Porsche led the GT classes, but it’s not set in stone for race week. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The cat-and-mouse game in the GT ranks occurred once more in both the GT Le Mans and GT Daytona classes, with teams and manufacturers careful to share too much on track before any possible pre-Rolex 24 BoP tweaks.

In GTLM, the 11 cars from five manufacturers were covered by just 0.657 of a second from first to last (Ryan Briscoe, Ford GT, 1:44.380 to Richard Lietz, Porsche 911 RSR, 1:45.037).

In GTD, 27 cars from nine manufacturers were spread by a little more – 2.165 seconds – but first to 16th were covered by less, only 0.936 of a second among just five manufacturers, Porsche, Mercedes-AMG, Audi, Lamborghini and Ferrari. Those featuring from 17th on back were from Acura, Lexus, Aston Martin and BMW, none looking lost but perhaps more coy in their test programs. The GTD-leading entry was the No. 59 Manthey Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R with Sven Mueller clocking the fastest time of the test at 1:46.810.

With GTLM cars capable of more speed, as evidenced by the last pole time set in dry qualifying in 2015, a mid-1:43 lap should be a realistic target for the 2017 pole at the low end, with the possibility a low-1:43 or high-1:42 time could be achieved. In GTD, a low-to-mid 1:46 should do the trick. Those 2015 pole times were:

  • Prototype: Ozz Negri, Ligier JS P2 Honda, 1:39.194
  • Prototype Challenge: Johnny Mowlem, Oreca FLM09, 1:42.318
  • GT Le Mans: Oliver Gavin, Corvette C7.R, 1:43.488
  • GT Daytona: James Davison, Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3, 1:47.272

GET YOUR CAR-TO-CAR SHOTS IN

The Roar isn’t just a chance to test, but it’s also a chance to build your promotional material for the year. Witness the bevy of car-to-car shots that took place over the weekend, and nicely accumulated in two tweets by Peter Leung (@BaronVonClutch).

Forgetting the photographers here would be bad, because they’re the stars that made this imagery. Jamey Price put together the raging bulls in partnership with Lamborghini, while Ford’s Wes Duenkel put the quartet of GTs together. GM calls on Richard Prince for its car-to-car shots. Brian Cleary and Bob Chapman (Porsche shot below), two other all-around pros, are also veterans of the car-to-car shots for multiple teams and manufacturers.

LIVERY WATCH

Most, but not all, of the 55 cars that tested at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 were in their full regalia ahead of the Rolex 24 itself.

Those that weren’t, or were just in base carbon, white or black:

  • Nos. 2 and 22 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPis
  • No. 13 Rebellion Racing Oreca 07 Gibson
  • No. 81 DragonSpeed Oreca 07 Gibson
  • Nos. 8 and 88 Starworks Motorsport Oreca FLM09 (leftover 2016 liveries; 2017 liveries TBD)

There may be a handful of changes to other cars beyond those six mentioned above, but those are ones that figure to change for the Rolex 24 itself.

Mazda Motorsports has broken its run of having two Soul Red cars. Its two prototypes are Soul Red (No. 55) and Machine Gray (No. 70), which provides a much clearer delineation of which Mazda is which.

GOOD ON YOU, JAKE

Eidson at Road America, 2016. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Eidson at Road America, 2016. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Jake Eidson captured the inaugural IMSA Hurley Haywood GT3 Cup Scholarship, which was expanded from a program IMSA, Porsche and Yokohama started in 2014. Previous IMSA Scholarship recipients were Victor Gomez IV (2016), Elliott Skeer (2015) and Michael Lewis (2014), all of whom remain active in North American sports car racing. The open-wheel veteran, Eidson has spent several years in the Mazda Road to Indy and made a strong debut at Road America last year with Kelly-Moss Motorsports. He’ll run with that team in the IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama for a full season.

“It’s a huge honor and difficult to put together the right words,” Eidson said. “Scholarships are not something you receive often, so to have this help and race in Porsche GT3 Cup is a huge honor.”

Haywood added, “Driving a Porsche Cup car is not an easy thing to do, coming from a different discipline. It shows Jake has that innate ability to know what a car’s limit is, and go to it. It’s a testament to his talent he has that he was able to adapt so quickly.”

AUDIO RECAPS

IMSA Radio was on site for the weekend. Daily recaps from Friday, Saturday and Sunday sessions, hosted by IMSA Radio pit reporter Shea Adam, who also moderated an IMSA-hosted Women in Racing panel featuring Christina Nielsen, Katherine Legge and Ganassi crewmember Jessica Mace, are linked here.

QUOTES OF NOTE

Selected tidbits from various teams and drivers after the Roar Before the Rolex 24:

Eric Curran, No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R: “The guys on the Action Express Racing team are working hard to learn as quick as we can because everyone has new cars and new equipment. We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’re showing pretty good pace as we focus on the reliability and speed to be competitive and on top of the podium at the end of January.”

Troy Flis, Team Owner, No. 90 VISIT FLORIDA Racing Riley Mk. 30 Gibson: “Some of the issues we saw at the December test were vastly improved and we were glad to see the progress there. There is a lot of positives that came out of the Roar. With this being such a brand new car, we just didn’t have enough time to run through our whole test plan.”

Ryan Dalziel, No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi: “The test was good. We learned a lot about the car. Our speed is pretty good right now. We got through a couple of gremlins that we know we need to address and strengthen for the race. All in all, especially on the No. 2 car side, we are pretty happy.”

Marco Ujhasi, Director, Porsche GT Factory Motorsports: “The test miles that we covered over the last three days in preparation for the race were very important. We managed to tick off all the points we’d scheduled for ourselves and now we have a much better understanding of the car on this racetrack. In addition, we experienced changeable and very diverse track conditions. It was dry and wet, warm and cold – precisely what you need in race preparations to be primed for all eventualities. We feel very well prepared for the race and the premiere of our new 911 RSR. In this respect, these three days in Florida were very successful.”

Mark Egger, Lexus Motorsports Manager: “When you look at this first practice session, it’s the first official practice of 2017 before the Rolex 24 and the Lexus RC F GT3 has done very well. In general, we’re learning our race craft and race pace and the team is getting to know the vehicle.”

Art St. Cyr, President, Honda Performance Development: “It’s sure good to be back at the race track again for the start of the 2017 season. The last few days have been intense, but very productive for our new Acura NSX GT3 program. It’s always dangerous to read too much into the lap times at this point in the pre-season, but we believe we have enough understanding to show very competitively at the season-opening Rolex 24, here at Daytona in three weeks.”

Townsend Bell, No. 23 Alex Job Racing Audi R8 LMS: “I’m really proud of the AJR team and the brand new car. Audi did a great job, worked their tails off over the holidays for us, as did the whole AJR crew. We’re proud to be here. Things ran really smoothly [this weekend]. We really enjoyed it. I think we got a lot of really good information. Track temperature is probably the biggest thing here. Typically, when you come back for the race, it’s always warmer here. We got a little bit of heat here on Friday. But, it was really cold last night and this morning. I think we got a pretty good spectrum of information for something that came together late. I couldn’t be happy for the way everyone showed up ready to go.”

Cooper MacNeil, No. 50 Riley Motorsports-WeatherTech Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3: “We had 75 and sunny weather on Friday, rain on Saturday, and cold weather on Sunday so we logged miles in all condition. The Mercedes-AMG was great to drive all three days. We had a long to-do list and we were able to accomplish everything on it over the three days. We’ll be ready for the 24 in three weeks.”

Pirelli confirms tire picks for Hungarian Grand Prix

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Pirelli has confirmed its tire selection for July’s Hungarian Grand Prix in Budapest, with super-soft, soft and medium compounds to be made available to teams.

As in 2016, this year sees teams be given the choice of three compounds for each grand prix. The softest is reserved for qualifying, while at least one of the two hardest sets must be used in the race.

Pirelli announced on Thursday that it would be mirroring its selection from 2016, taking super-soft, soft and medium tires to the Hungaroring.

Drivers who make it through to Q3 will be required to complete the session on super-soft tires, and must use one set of either the soft or medium compound rubber in the race.

By way of comparison, the majority of drivers completed the race on a two-stop strategy through 2016, with Lewis Hamilton winning the grand prix.

Here’s a complete run-down of Pirelli’s tire picks so far this season.

Hamilton, Vettel return to lend their voices to ‘Cars 3’ (VIDEO)

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With less than one month to go until the release of Pixar’s new movie, Cars 3, Formula 1 world champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have both been confirmed in voice-acting roles.

The latest installment of the animated film series sees main character Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) face a new rival in the form of Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) and consider his racing future.

As in the first two instalments of the franchise, a number of racing figures are set to lend their voices, with three-time champion Hamilton being confirmed in the role of ‘Hamilton’, a voice command assistant to McQueen’s technician, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).

Hamilton shared a clip of his role on Twitter on Thursday, which you can watch below.

Hamilton previously appeared in 2011’s Cars 2 in a short segment as himself alongside NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon.

Four-time F1 champion Vettel will also be making a return in Cars 3, appearing in the German and Italian-language versions of the film in the same role as Hamilton.

“Since the first Cars film, I am a big fan and I found it very funny. When I had the opportunity in the second part to participate, I said: ‘Yes, gladly!'” Vettel said on his official website.

“I had never done something like this before. When I heard there was a third part, I was, of course, interested in being there again.”

A number of NASCAR drivers will also be appearing in Cars 3, with their characters being confirmed earlier this week.

Ford chooses Sebastien Bourdais replacement for 24 Hours of Le Mans

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CONCORD, N.C. —  Ford has chosen a replacement for injured Sebastien Bourdais at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is expected to announce the driver soon – but don’t hold your breath NASCAR fans.

It isn’t Tony Stewart, who has indicated his desire to run the renowned event.

While taping an upcoming episode Thursday of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, which you can subscribe to here, Ford Performance director Dave Pericak said the three time champion who returned from NASCAR’s premier series last year still is lobbying “every time he sees us” to race a Ford GT car.

“We love Tony, and he wants to get behind the wheel of that GT but not at LeMans” in 2017, Pericak told NBC Sports at the Ford Performance Technical Center.

However, the new driver will be relatively inexperienced on the famous Circuit de la Sarthe road course in France. Pericak said Ford’s high-tech simulator (which mainly is used for NASCAR but also is used for sports cars and street models) at its North Carolina facility would help prepare the replacement.

“We haven’t made the announcement yet, but we have picked the driver, and we will be using the simulator heavily between now and then for that driver to become fully up to speed not only in the GT but at Le Mans,” Pericak said. “There’s a great example of where we’re going to get tons of hours behind the wheel before that driver gets on an airplanes and heads over the France.

“The realism is unbelieveable. It’s a fantastic tool to have with this situation. Otherwise, you pick a driver, send him to Le Mans and take your chances. We’re going to be much more prepared. We already have the simulator ready to run that track because we ran it all last year.”

Returning to France last year, Ford won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a Chip Ganassi Racing GT driven by Bourdais, Joey Hand and Dirk Muller.

Bourdais, who suffered pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip in an Indianapolis 500 qualifying crash last Saturday, was released from an Indianapolis hospital Wednesday.

“Thank God, he’s going to be OK,” Pericak said. “We’ve talked to him, he’s in good spirits, but we’re really pleased he’s going to make a full recovery.”

Pericak said the announcement of Bourdais’ replacement was likely Thursday or Friday.

Button enjoys ‘natural’ F1 return in Monaco, but hasn’t missed driving

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Jenson Button felt his return to a Formula 1 car in practice for the Monaco Grand Prix was “natural”, but admitted he hasn’t missed driving since stepping away from the sport.

Button appeared to have made his final F1 start in Abu Dhabi last November after stepping back from his McLaren race seat for 2017, only to be drafted in for the Monaco Grand Prix following Fernando Alonso’s decision to enter the 101st Indianapolis 500.

Button passed on the opportunity to test the McLaren-Honda MCL32 car in Bahrain last month, making his run in FP1 on Thursday in Monaco his first taste of a new-style 2017 F1 car.

Nevertheless, the transition appeared seamless for Button, even though he has not driven an F1 car in seven months.

“As soon as I exited the pits, everything felt very natural,” Button said.

“The weirdest thing is when you’re behind a car or when you let a car past, because you look at it and it’s gigantic. Then you feel really uncomfortable because you think, maybe I am too close to the barriers.

“I’ve really enjoyed practice, both the long and short runs. FP2 was a bit of a struggle to really find my feet with the car. I’m braking so much later than what I’m used to here and carrying so much speed into the corners.

“Adjusting to that takes time, so with another day with the engineers and a look through the data, I’m confident that I can improve for Saturday.”

Button finished 14th in FP1 and 11th in FP2, lapping less than one-tenth of a second off the pace of teammate Stoffel Vandoorne in the afternoon, giving McLaren hope of its first points of the season.

Button remains coy about his chances, though, insisting there is still more pace to be found.

“I haven’t really thought about where I hope to finish. It’s a very mixed-up grid at the moment which I’m sure will all change again on Saturday,” Button said.

“The guys understand where I’m coming from. They know what they need to do to improve the car to suit me a little bit more and to give me a little bit more confidence. Hopefully we’ll see a step in performance on Saturday.”

Will this one-off return stir a desire to be back racing full-time for Button? Don’t count on it.

“It was funny when I did the install lap this morning, I had a little giggle to myself,” Button revealed.

“Have I missed it? No, but when you jump in the car, you definitely enjoy the moments that you have.”