Photo courtesy of IMSA

Reliability, unpredictability set to headline the 2017 Rolex 24

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The North American endurance race season kicks off Saturday with the 55th Rolex 24 at Daytona and more questions exist than normal going into the first race of both the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup seasons.

Namely, reliability questions exist for the series’ marquee Prototype class, which features 12 new cars split between seven Daytona Prototype international (DPi) and five LMP2 cars, all making their race debuts.

And then in the GT ranks, there’s the mix between experienced cars, teams and lineups versus exciting debuting new cars.

With the chance of rain coming on Sunday and a wide gap of experience levels, the possibilities for this race are endless, although some teams have shown their hand throughout the two days of practice and qualifying.

Notes from the week by class are below:

PROTOTYPE (Car-by-car preview)

The Cadillac DPi-V.R has led all pre-race sessions and has the pole position as well. This is not uncommon; Michael Shank Racing has done this before with a Ligier JS P2 Honda in recent years.

Cadillac’s trio of entries from Action Express Racing and Wayne Taylor Racing – who have entered their cars by their sponsor names of Mustang Sampling, Whelen Engineering and Konica Minolta respectively – come in with a wealth of testing mileage over the last five months and solid all-around lineups, with few question marks.

Their pace increase this week compared to the Roar Before the Rolex 24 has raised eyebrows and question marks in the paddock, but IMSA has sought to downplay any sandbagging allegations from other teams by referring to its detailed new data logging system and noting that if such gains were that obvious, they’d seek to enforce a penalty.

From a story line standpoint, the No. 31 Cadillac is due a breakout victory on the heels of its championship a year ago, to further enhance Dane Cameron’s candidacy for being one of the best sports car drivers on the planet (this is obvious to many of us who follow the series full-time, but perhaps not to a wider audience). The No. 5 Cadillac has the pole with the ever-present pair of Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa joined by Audi ace Filipe Albuquerque.

But it’s the No. 10 Cadillac featuring the Taylor brothers, Max Angelelli in his last start and Jeff Gordon as the headlining guest star of this year’s Rolex 24 that is the undoubted sentimental favorite. Near-perfect runs the last few years have seen this car come up short, and a win this year would be validation of their close-but-no-cigar entries in recent years.

Mazda’s battled throughout the week and has seen its outright top-end speed edge at the Roar disappear. The Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPis have flown well under the radar, and mainly seek a finish first.

The going’s been a bit tougher for the LMP2-spec cars. DragonSpeed faced the biggest hurdle with Loic Duval’s crash on Thursday forcing the Elton Julian-led team into an overnight rebuild that ended at 3:30 a.m. Friday. Rebellion’s Roar pace edge has also slipped slightly but Neel Jani did well to qualify third.

The last two PC class winners have found the step up to P tough as expected. JDC-Miller had early week issues that it hoped to have resolved by Thursday night practice. Shifting issues have hampered PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports’ Ligier JS P217 Gibson.

Lastly it’s been a tough week for the VISIT FLORIDA Racing team as it gets its handle on its new Riley Mk. 30 Gibson.

The expectation here is now that Cadillac has firmly emerged as favorite to start the DPi/LMP2 era. Whether it holds or not comes down to reliability.

GT LE MANS (Car-by-car preview)

Some six months ago at Le Mans, the GTLM class – there, the GTE Pro class – was a rather straightforward Ford vs. Ferrari affair. This 24-hour race may well shape up to be similar.

The quartet of Ford GTs from Ford Chip Ganassi Racing have gone through the week largely unscathed and have a notable edge, particularly through braking and early turn in at Turn 1. With both strength in numbers and a year’s worth of experience, the stage is set for the next chapter of Ford GT history to be written at Daytona.

“I have a great team. They really know how to do this race,” said polesitter Joey Hand, who shares the No. 66 Ford. “One year since last year, we feel a lot better, last year was the first year for the cars this race. Now we have time on it. We know the car will go the distance, and can focus on performance to make the car quicker.”

The potential spoiler this weekend as it was at Le Mans comes from the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE, the sole single-car entry class. The team only just got its car a week before the race last year and 12 months on now with a well-rounded, experienced car, figures to challenge for the win as well.

“We brought the trio we had at Petit Le Mans,” said Risi’s Toni Vilander. “There’s quite a big difference this year with having run the car for 12 months. We feel quite well prepared.”

Oddly, Corvette Racing enters more “under-the-radar” as it prepares to go for its third straight win. With a pace disadvantage, Corvette’s hopes may only come good if the weather goes bad.

“There’s a lot to be said for our experience and continuity we have within the team, crew guys,” said Tommy Milner, who watched co-driver Oliver Gavin score the incredible photo-finish win in class one year ago. “I think for us we’re hoping for colder temperatures. That’s when our car felt the best.”

Porsche was, perhaps to its benefit, disappointed with fifth and eighth on the grid as it prepares for the launch of its new mid-rear-engined 911 RSR. The class longshots are the pair of BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLMs, which have struggled all week at this circuit and rarely threatened even the top-five.

GT DAYTONA (Car-by-car preview)

In theory, GTD was meant to be the most wide-open class of the four with 27 cars entered. But Ferrari’s front row sweep has left a number of manufacturers, drivers and teams either befuddled or bemused that in this closely controlled period of BoP that one car could have seven tenths over any other.

Because the track has changed so much from the Roar, it’s affected a number of manufacturers in this class. Both Lexus and Mercedes-AMG – two front-engined cars – feel their cars will work better if the temperatures get colder, same as Corvette in GTLM.

Audi and Lamborghini, which share similar chassis but different bodywork and design, have seen their teams make changes to account for the changing track conditions. Alex Job Racing and Paul Miller Racing drivers noted their tweaks to help their chances.

Acura’s drivers are focused on the debut of the NSX GT3, with both cars hoping to make it to the morning and at least one on the lead lap. The single BMW and Aston Martin apiece will look to spoil the party.

And then there’s Porsche, with five 911 GT3 Rs, that were oh-so-close to winning last year but with realistically four of five cars as pure, solid contenders. Fewer things are as mortal locks as Porsche being in contention for a GT win at a 24-hour race and while this may not be the sexiest story line, it’s one you should expect to happen once more.

PROTOTYPE CHALLENGE (Car-by-car preview)

In simplest terms, the smallest and least rated of the four classes has five spec cars entered with one guaranteed to win, and take home the Rolex watch that goes with it.

What will be a test purely of survival will eventually see either of Brent O’Neill, Peter Baron or Brian Alder’s teams rewarded with an elusive first win at this race.

However, there is something to be said for the venerable Oreca FLM09’s reliability heading into its eighth season of active competition, and if the Prototype class entries start falling like flies, watch for a PC car to sneak into the top-five overall, or potentially onto the overall podium.

Street race in Vietnam could lead Formula One’s Asia expansion

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TOKYO (AP) — Formula One is expected to add more races in Asia, including a street circuit in the capital of Vietnam, a country with little auto racing history that is on the verge of getting a marquee event.

“We think Hanoi could come on in the next couple of years, and we’re working with the Hanoi government to that end,” Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, told the Associated Press.

There is even speculation it could be on the schedule next season, which Bratches rebuffed.

Vietnam would join countries like Azerbaijan, Russia and Bahrain, which have Grand Prix races, little history in the sport, and authoritarian governments with deep pockets that serve F1 as it tries to expand into new markets.

“This (Hanoi) is a street race where we can go downtown, where we can activate a large fan base,” Bratches said. “And you have extraordinary iconography from a television standpoint.”

A second race in China is also likely and would join Shanghai on the F1 calendar. Bratches said deciding where to stage the GP will “be left to local Chinese partners” – Beijing is a strong candidate.

Bratches runs the commercial side of Formula One, which was acquired last year by U.S.-based Liberty Media from long-time operator Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula One’s long-term goal is to have 24-25 races – up from the present 21 – and arrange them in three geographical segments: Asia, Europe and the Americas. Bratches said the Europe-based races would stay in middle of the calendar, with Asia or the Americas opening or ending the season.

He said their positioning had not been decided, and getting this done will be slowed by current contracts that mandate specific places on the calendar for several races. This means eventually that all the races in Asia would be run together, as would races in Europe and the Americas.

The F1 schedule is now an inefficient jumble, allowing Bratches to take a good-natured poke at how the sport was run under Ecclestone.

“We’ve acquired an undermanaged asset that’s 67-years-old, but effectively a start-up,” Bratches said.

Early-season races in Australia and China this year were conducted either side of a trip to Bahrain in the Middle East. Late in the season Formula One returns to Asia with races in Japan and Singapore.

The Canadian GP this season is run in the middle of the European swing, separated by four months from the other races in the Americas – the United States, Mexico and Brazil. These three are followed by the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, which means another trip across the globe.

“With the right economics, with the right structure and cadence of events across territories, 24 or 25 is probably where we’d like to be from a longer-term standpoint,” Bratches said.

Big changes are not likely to happen until the 2020 season ends. This is when many current rules and contracts expire as F1’s new owners try to redistribute some income to allow smaller teams to compete.

“There’s more interest than we have capacity in the schedule,” Bratches said, firing off Berlin, Paris or London as potentially attractive venues. “We want to be very selective.”

“Those cites from an economic impact standpoint would find us value, as do others around the world,” Bratches added. “It’s very important for us as we move forward to go to locations that are a credit to the Formula One brand.”

An expanded schedule would have to be approved by the teams, which will be stretched by the travel and the wear-and-tear on their crews. The burden will fall on the smaller teams, which have significantly smaller revenue compared with Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull.

Bratches also envisions another race in the U.S., joining the United States Grand Prix held annually in Austin, Texas. A street race in Miami is a strong candidate, as are possible venues like Las Vegas or New York.

“We see the United States and China as countries that could support two races,” he said.

Liberty Media has reported Formula One’s total annual revenue at $1.8 billion, generated by fees paid by promoters, broadcast rights, advertising and sponsorship. Race promotion fees also tend to be higher in Asia, which makes the area attractive – along with a largely untapped fan base.

In a four-year cycle, F1 generates more revenue than FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, which rely almost entirely on one-time showcase events.

Reports suggest Vietnamese promoters may pay between $50-60 million annually as a race fee, with those fees paid by the government. Bratches said 19 of 21 Formula One races are supported by government payments.

“The race promotion fee being derived from the government … is a model that has worked historically,” Bratches said.