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Motorsports, the damage was limited to the engine compartment of the car and as a precaution, the No. 3 Corvette was withdrawn for the remainder of the weekend.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.”

Loftus Robinson Rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for Indy 500

Photo: Dreyer and Reinbold Racing
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Indianapolis-based real estate developer Loftus Robinson will rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The relationship between Loftus Robinson and DRR goes back to 2015, when they first partnered for the “500.” The partnership continues for 2017, with Sage Karam piloting the effort for the second consecutive year.

“Being an Indianapolis-based company, we felt it has been important to partner with another local company, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in the famed Indy 500,” said Drew Loftus, co-principal of Loftus Robinson. “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has served as a great backdrop for our business’ growth. We have enjoyed our relationship with Dennis and his racing team. They have built a tremendous infrastructure to assist us and our partners through the event. We’re anxious to see Sage back on track in the No. 24 DRR Chevrolet this May.”

Team co-owner Dennis Reinbold echoed Loftus’ enthusiam. “Loftus Robinson has been one of the Indianapolis area’s top young commercial real estate companies in recent years and we are very pleased to have them back in 2017 with our Indy 500 entry,” he explained. “Loftus Robinson has utilized our racing team’s participation in the world’s greatest auto race to formulate strong relationships with their business partners as well as developing new clients right at the track. We hope to put them in victory lane on May 28 with Sage at the wheel.”

Practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins on May 15.

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JR Hildebrand cleared to return for Phoenix

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After sitting out the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama last weekend, JR Hildebrand will be able to return to action for this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), after being cleared Tuesday to drive.

The primary driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing sustained a broken bone in his left hand in a final lap accident at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9, after a collision with Mikhail Aleshin. He was re-evaluated upon returning to Indianapolis and was not cleared to drive for the Barber Motorsports Park race.

Hildebrand was on site in Birmingham, Ala. in a driver coach role for Zach Veach, who filled in for his Verizon IndyCar Series debut. Veach started and finished 19th in his first start.

For Hildebrand, the return to Phoenix comes after he paced the series official preseason open test there in February, and comes as a great opportunity to come back from a challenging start to the year. Hildebrand had nondescript runs of 13th and 11th in the first two races but was 11th in points after Long Beach, although he fell to 21st when he missed Barber.

“It’s been a tricky couple of weeks working through this injury, I’m certainly anxious to get back in the car!” he said in a release. “I feel like I’m far enough along to be able to go for it this weekend in Phoenix. I know we’ve got a good program; I want to be able to come through for the team at an event where we should be strong. The competition there is tough, I expect we will really have to be on our game over the course of the weekend. I’m looking forward to getting back in the Fuzzy’s Vodka car! Everyone has been super helpful and I appreciate the hard work that everyone has put in to be able to get me back in.”

Meanwhile team owner Carpenter makes his first start of the season in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet as part of his oval-only program.

Spencer Pigot will be back in the No. 20 car at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 13, before Carpenter’s back in for the rest of the month of May leading up to and into the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

IMSA: Henzler, Bonanomi called up for drives at COTA

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Two fill-in drivers have been confirmed for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s next race at Circuit of The Americas, on May 6.

Wolf Henzler will deputize for Kevin Estre in the No. 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR, while Marco Bonanomi will make his IMSA Prototype class debut as a fill-in driver for Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson.

Henzler will be in the No. 912 car alongside Laurens Vanthoor in GT Le Mans in the first “standard” two-hour, 40-minute race of the season, the Advance Auto Parts Showdown, as Estre will be on FIA World Endurance Championship duty the same day in the WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with Porsche’s GT Team there.

Henzler’s absence means if TRG runs its Porsche 911 GT3 R at COTA in the GT Daytona class, Kevin Buckler would need a replacement for him.

There’s another potential fill-in-for-WEC driver scenario needed if Alegra Motorsports, the Rolex 24 at Daytona winners, were to run in GTD as well. Thus far Carlos de Quesada’s team has run Daniel Morad and Porsche factory driver Michael Christensen in its No. 28 Porsche in GTD through three races, but with Christensen and Estre set to share the No. 92 car at Spa, a replacement would need to be sourced there.

Bonanomi is the second replacement that is confirmed though. The Italian, who made one prior IMSA start since the 2014 merger with Fall-Line Motorsports in an Audi R8 LMS Ultra, will fill-in for “TKS,” who returns to England to take care of his mother, who is battling cancer.

“Tom will unfortunately miss the next race at Circuit of the Americas. He needs to be able to spend time back in the UK with his mother who is presently undergoing treatment for cancer,” said team principal Bobby Oergel.

“As all the drivers who have driven with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports know, once you’re a part of our team, you’re family, and Tom is a big part of this family. It’s unfortunate that he will miss a round of the championship, but we know that family comes before racing, and we’re happy that he is able to take the time he needs to be with his family during this time.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Tom and his mother, and we are praying that she will be cancer free in the near future.”

Bonanomi has tested with the car and will share the car with Jose Gutierrez, who missed Long Beach as Will Owen filled in for him there.

“I was very happy to receive the call from PR1 to drive at their test at COTA. It was my first time driving the Ligier, but I think the test was very positive,” said Bonanomi.

“We tested some set up changes for the race that I think will be very good. The track itself is very demanding on the car and tires, especially with the extreme temperatures that can be present. The first practices during race week will be very critical to get everything just right in terms of set up, but after the test, I think we should be pretty close.”

F1 Strategy Group meeting reveals shark fin, ‘Shield’ plans for 2018

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Tuesday’s meeting of the F1 Strategy Group and F1 Commission in Paris took a couple big steps towards forward in the look of Formula 1 cars for 2018, as the cockpit “Shield” and shark fin/T-wings were among the items discussed.

This meeting included CEO of Formula One Group Chase Casey for the first time, along with FIA President Jean Todt and the key other stakeholders in the meeting.

The “Shield” concept for additional frontal protection moves up in the priority list. Per the FIA’s release, the plan is to go ahead with additional track testing this year before a 2018 implementation:

“A number of more integrated solutions for additional frontal protection have been studied, and the decision has been taken to give priority to the transparent ‘shield’ family of systems. The FIA aims to carry out track tests of this system during this season in preparation for implementation in 2018,” the release said.

The ‘Halo’ and aeroscreen ideas were trialled last year (see below):

SPA, BELGIUM – AUGUST 26: Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP sits in his car fitted with the halo in the garage during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
SOCHI, RUSSIA – APRIL 29: Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer fitted with the aeroscreen on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Meanwhile the shark fins and T-wings, which have come back to the cars this year over the engine cover, are set to be restricted to a box next year. The structural rigidity of those from some teams have come under scrutiny this year.

“Changes in the regulation boxes around the engine cover have been made so that designs incorporating the ‘t-wing’ and ‘shark fin’ will be strictly limited,” the release said.

Three other sporting and technical changes were released:

  • Measures will be taken to ensure that oil will not be used as fuel. In addition, only one specification of oil may be used for any given power unit during an event
  • Pirelli will be allowed to develop 2018 wet weather tyre compounds using previous specifications of cars and wheel dimensions
  • In the event of a red flag period during a race, the race will be resumed from a standing start

In two other bits, from the Spanish Grand Prix on May 14, the sporting regulations will be strictly enforced to ensure drivers’ car numbers and surnames will be made bigger and more visible. Although permanent numbers have come into play starting in 2014, where a driver picks one number for the entirety of his or her career, none has really been that big on an F1 base chassis.

Lastly, per the release “Representatives from the non-member teams will now be invited to meetings of the F1 Strategy Group to have access to the discussions, demonstrating the effective commitment of both the FIA and the Commercial Rights Holder to improve transparency in the sport.”