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Motorsports, the damage was limited to the engine compartment of the car and as a precaution, the No. 3 Corvette was withdrawn for the remainder of the weekend.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

CJ Wilson completes first test in Porsche GT3 Cup car

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Photo courtesy of CJ Wilson Racing
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CJ Wilson’s new career is officially underway, following his retirement from professional baseball and now having completed his first test last week at Texas World Speedway in his new 2017 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car.

Wilson, who formally announced the news he’d be transitioning into racing full-time during Rolex 24 at Daytona race week, did a two-day test at the still active oval/road course combo track in College Station, Texas. Wilson tested one of the team’s Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports (the team runs two in IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge) and then advanced into the Cup car.

Wilson got fairly close to teammate Marc Miller’s times during the test as he acclimated to both the Cup car and the Yokohama tires.

“It’s great to take another step towards my goals,” Wilson said. “We had a chance to burn through two sets of tires today and I made a lot of progress. Having Marc as my coach was incredibly helpful because we have a lot of faith in each other and communicate using the same terms. Having sat in driver debriefings for the past six years with the race team, I was able to take all the input logically and make progress each session.

“The only odd thing about the test is that nobody else was here, which was the first time I have ever been on a track completely alone, so when we did a race simulation I had to use my imagination. TWS is a really fast and bumpy track. Looking forward to getting back in the car in ten days and pick up where I left off.”

Miller added, “CJ did great job, but I expected as much. He is logical and methodical which makes him easy to help and that translated into a very quick progression along the learning curve. Like any professional athlete though he is never truly satisfied because he wants to be perfect. He took quickly to the new Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. It is confidence inspiring and such a capable platform so that suited him well in getting up to speed. Overall, it was a successful first outing and I look forward to working with CJ this season. I expect he will have a solid debut at Sebring. He better or I’m likely fired.”

A teaser of on-board footage is below, along with a couple other social posts from the test:

Danny Watts: ‘Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain’

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  (l to r) Strakka Racing drivers Danny Watts, Nick Leventis and Jonny Kane pose during the 2013 FIA World Endurance Championship Photo Call on March 22, 2013 at Potters Fields in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Watts (left) with Leventis and Kane in 2013. Photo: Getty Images
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Sports car veteran driver Danny Watts has announced his retirement from active competition, but is in the news for an entirely different reason on Monday.

The 37-year-old Brit has announced he’s gay, penning a first-person piece for the Huffington Post and also doing interviews with both Daily Sportscar and Autosport. The latter article features a well-written op-ed from author Matt Beer.

In the Huffington Post piece, Watts, an eight-time starter and 2010 LMP2 class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, wrote that hiding his sexuality in the heavily white male heterosexual world of motorsport was simply becoming too much to keep under wraps.

“There isn’t any one moment that stands out in my mind as the moment I realized I would need to live in the closet if I wanted my motorsport career to go anywhere; it was just a general feeling I got,” Watts wrote.

“All the other guys in the paddock had girlfriends, so I got one to blend in. When that relationship ended, I got another one, and so I continued pretending to be straight for seventeen years.

“Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain.

“I hope that there are a few people who are supportive. If the response I’ve had from the queer motorsport community thus far is any gauge, I feel hopeful that I’ll find a supportive group to start driving change for my queer siblings in the sport I love.”

Within the motorsports world, Watts’ name is best known to the sports car paddock, and he was a regular with the Strakka Racing team alongside co-drivers Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis. But he isn’t particularly known to the racing world at large.

This announcement comes as Watts has opted to call time on his full-time driving career and instead will focus on coaching for the future. It also represents one of the higher profile names in racing announcing his sexual orientation, which makes it newsworthy.

Despite some detractors (as you might expect), a number of other drivers and key motorsports figures have revealed their support for Watts, and why this news matters, on social media today:

Marino Franchitti returns to Mazda at Sebring

SEBRING, FL - MARCH 15:  Left to right, Marino Franchitti, Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett celebrate after winning the 12 Hours of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway on March 15, 2014 in Sebring, Florida.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
Franchitti (left) won at Sebring in 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Marino Franchitti will make his return to a Mazda entry for next month’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to be run March 18, as third driver in the team’s No. 70 Mazda RT24-P with Joel Miller and Tom Long.

The Scotsman competed in the team’s RX-8 and 6 models in the GT ranks but has been out of a drive since his role with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing last season in one of the team’s Ford GTs in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Franchitti replaces James Hinchcliffe, who was the third driver in the No. 70 car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He’ll test for the team later this week at Sebring prior to the race run in the second IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race of the year.

“A big part of those results are being with great teams and having great teammates. I’ve been fortunate in that regard,” said Franchitti, who co-drove to win overall at Sebring in 2014. “I love driving there, I always have since the first laps I did. It’s a proper old-school track. If you go over the limit, you crash, simple as that, rather than going onto some tarmac run-off like many tracks. I love the challenge of walking that tightrope. Of course, there’s the challenge of the bumps too, trying to get the car to handle over them and the beating the car and driver takes. There’s a reason people come from all over the world to endurance test their cars here, it’s the ultimate test of a vehicle and its durability.

No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“It’s so cool to be coming back into the Mazda family,” said Franchitti. “Like everyone else, I was blown away when I saw the first shots of the RT24-P and how incredible it looks, so there’s a lot of excitement at getting to drive it. I’m relieved I get a chance to test the car, as many times I’ve just jumped in and raced, so this is a bit of a luxury! Being a part of the development process of a car is something I’ve been lucky enough to do several times and it’s something I really love.”

Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan added, “He’s a proven winner there, and he’s been a part of the Mazda family for years. Just look at his record at Sebring! He has the experience that can really help our team. Because he’s driven with Mazda before, we know his personality is a great fit. That’s important to us, and it goes a long way in helping the team chemistry remain strong. He’s a great fit with Tom [Long] and Joel [Miller], just as Spencer Pigot has been great with Nunez and Bomarito.”

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.