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.

Daniel Ricciardo frustrated to crash out of home F1 qualifying

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Daniel Ricciardo made no secret of his frustration after crash out of Formula 1 qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, resigning himself to a 10th-place start for his home race on Sunday.

Ricciardo entered the Melbourne weekend aiming to become the first Australian to finish on the podium at his home race since the event became part of the F1 world championship in 1985.

Despite struggling with the setup on his RB13 car on Friday, Ricciardo looked poised to claim a top-five grid slot for Sunday’s race, only to lose control of his car at Turn 14 in Q3 and end the session in the wall.

“That was a tough one today. I don’t crash into the barriers often and the last place I want to do that is at home,” Ricciardo said after the session.

“But I feel I crashed for the right reason, as I was basically pushing and trying to find the limit and these things happen, so let’s say I’m not disappointed by the approach, it was just more of a frustrating outcome, starting 10th instead of being under the top five.”

Ever the optimist, Ricciardo said the difficult qualifying will only serve as greater motivation to fight back up the order and give his home fans a result to celebrate on Sunday.

“I knew the crowds would have also preferred to see me further up the grid and it would have been nice to put on a better performance than that but tomorrow is where the points are,” Ricciardo said.

“It’s a chance to create a bigger headline if I have a good race so that’s what will motivate me to do better tomorrow. I made it a bit more difficult for myself but it’s going to be alright.

“To get a good start in the race will be the key. I saved a set of ultra-softs in Q2, I know that not everyone in front of me has, so maybe that gives me a chance.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Valtteri Bottas disappointed with P3 start for Mercedes F1 debut

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Valtteri Bottas came away from qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix feeling disappointed despite securing third place on the grid for his first Formula 1 race as a Mercedes driver.

Bottas joined Mercedes over the winter following world champion Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire from racing, and made his first official race weekend appearance for the Silver Arrows on Friday.

The ex-Williams driver made a splash in qualifying by running teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel close, but was left to settle for third on the grid after finishing three-tenths of a second off the pole time.

“Third position is not ideal. In general I’m not happy with the result,” Bottas admitted after qualifying.

“But what I’m really happy about and proud about [is] what the team has done again with this car. I only saw a very small part of the preparation with the new car and the new era of Formula 1, and it’s really nice to see that all the work has paid off and we’re fighting at the very front.

“It seems to be very close this year, especially here. Myself I didn’t get any perfect laps in, so not that satisfied.

“Tomorrow’s the day that matters. It seems like in the race starts we’ve been quite strong. If we can keep that form I had in practice, and have a nice and clean race and get some really good points.”

Bottas’ best finish in Australia currently stands at fifth place in 2014 with Williams, with the Finn never qualifying any higher than sixth at Albert Park in his four previous attempts.

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Vettel: Front-row grid slot for Australia proof of Ferrari’s progress

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Sebastian Vettel believes that his charge to second place on the grid for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix acts as proof of the progress Ferrari’s Formula 1 operation has made over the winter.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites to take pole following an impressive showing in pre-season testing, prompting three-time champion Lewis Hamilton to name Ferrari as the leading team.

Hamilton rallied in qualifying to take pole position for Mercedes, beating Vettel by two-tenths of a second, but the Ferrari driver managed to fend off Valtteri Bottas in the second Silver Arrow and clinch a front-row berth.

The result marked Ferrari’s best qualifying result since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix – Vettel’s and Ferrari’s last pole and victory in F1 – and the German was encouraged by the result.

“I think we have a good car. I think we are working well as a team,” Vettel said.

“Things are improving. Obviously it’s nice to see that things are working, the car is working. I had a mixed day yesterday, but the confidence in the car was there from testing and I think we showed that again today.”

Vettel conceded that he felt his final lap in qualifying could have been faster, but doubts it would have been enough to catch pole-sitter Hamilton.

“In the end I was not entirely happy with my lap. I was pretty happy with the end, maybe not so much with the opening of the lap where we lost a bit too much,” Vettel said.

“But I think Lewis did a very good lap. I would have loved to, but I don’t think pole was up for grabs. Tomorrow I think we can do something in the race. The car feels good, we’ve improved it so the pace should be much better than it was yesterday when we had practice.

“It’s been a big winter for us, lots of change we’ve gone through as a team in the last 12 months, and for the better. I think the team is getting stronger.

“Obviously everyone is pushing very hard and it’s not so easy to come here with a long journey to get to Australia, but I think people are fired up and we are motivated for tomorrow.

“I think it’s the first good opportunity.”

Hamilton buoyed by sixth Australia F1 pole, ready for tight race

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Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton was buoyed by his charge to pole position in Australian Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday, but is braced for a tight race at the front of the pack.

Hamilton saw off a challenge from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and new Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to capture his sixth pole at Albert Park, and the 62nd of his F1 career.

Hamilton had doubts over Mercedes’ advantage over Ferrari heading into the new year, making his charge to pole all the more meaningful as he paid tribute to the team members after qualifying.

“It’s been a fantastic weekend so far. It’s quite amazing to come here for I think the 11th time, and it feels like it was only yesterday that I came here and had my first race here in 2007,” Hamilton said.

“I’m just incredibly proud of my team. This rule change has been huge and such a massive challenge for everyone. The guys have just worked so hard to make this car what it is today.”

Despite taking pole by almost three-tenths of a second in Q3, Hamilton is braced for a close fight on Sunday with Vettel and Bottas, the latter starting his first race for Mercedes from third on the grid.

“Valtteri did a fantastic job given it’s his first qualifying session with the team. He did a great job and it’s great for Mercedes,” Hamilton said.

“Looking forward to the race, it’s close between us all. As you can see, there’s going to be a tight race this year I think.

“I think tomorrow is about putting all the work that’s gone in over the winter, all the work that’s gone through testing and this whole weekend and really put it to work tomorrow.

“I’ll make sure I get a good night’s sleep and come back tomorrow stronger than ever.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET on Sunday.