Rolex 24 2015 Preview: Shank versus the world?

1 Comment

The above headline is not something I expected to write even one month ago, but it’s the key storyline going into today’s 53rd Rolex 24 at Daytona.

The 2012 Rolex 24 champions, Michael Shank Racing, enter today’s race as prohibitive favorites – even though one of their drivers is a high school junior (coincidentally, at the same high school I attended) and the team is about to embark on its first voyage with its brand-new LMP2-spec chassis (well, not brand-new as it has several races under its belt, but very new compared to Daytona Prototype-spec machinery).

Shank’s No. 60 Ligier JS P2 Honda, in the hands of his long-time full-season co-drivers Ozz Negri and John Pew, Daytona veteran and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ace AJ Allmendinger and 17-year-old Rolex 24 debutante Matt McMurry, topped all four of the pre-race sessions. Negri and Allmendinger led two practice sessions apiece, and Negri scored his second Rolex 24 pole – albeit nearly a decade after his first.

While the short-term goal for Shank, who is a racing “lifer” and has made his race team his primary business (unlike others where the race team is only part of the business) is a Rolex 24 win, the long-term goal is being the first to change the game for running top-level prototype machinery in North America.

You see, the DP-spec cars have always been derided as something of a redheaded stepchild in the grand scheme of things, particularly in terms of their place in the pantheon of great-looking sports cars (spoiler alert: until the last 3-4 years, they weren’t).

They have provided great racing, but, have only been raced within the GRAND-AM Rolex Series and now, the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship. In an overall scale, the DPs have not been widely accepted beyond the borders of Daytona Beach and their affiliated series.

So a P2 car winning at Daytona – particularly in the hands of a prior DP stalwart who built his business and won the 50th anniversary of the race in 2012 in a Riley-Ford DP – would send shockwaves through the sports car world.

“The new car is a bit of fresh air,” Shank said during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test. “DP is what established our team, to allow smaller teams to be competitive, and I’ll always owe GRAND-AM and the France family for that vision.

“But we needed to make a change based on where I think the world is heading for ’16, ’17, ’18 and beyond. We went to the Ligier JS P2 and we did it. You’ll talk with Philippe Dumas (from Ligier chassis manufacturer Onroak Automotive); we did the deal about Dec. 1 and have been rolling since.”

The longer-term plan for Shank is a Le Mans appearance, ideally in 2016. But 2015 will see the team lay the groundwork first.

Shank’s car isn’t the only P2 in the field, but as Krohn Racing has a new car and a gentleman driver, the Tequila Patron ESM HPD ARX-04bs are premiering and the SpeedSource Mazdas seek reliability rather than an outright result, Shank’s has the best shot of up-ending the DPs.

As this is a race preview and not merely an ode to Shank’s efforts both this week at Daytona and at the Roar earlier this month, we would be remiss to avoid the other potential win contenders.

Defending champions Action Express Racing will no doubt be the top Corvette DP contender in the hands of Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi and IndyCar ace Sebastien Bourdais. Bourdais is bullish on the team’s improvements for 2015, in what is now the No. 5 Mustang Sampling-backed entry.

“At the Roar we got the paddle shift, all the new software and everything out of the way,” Bourdais told MotorSportsTalk. “It was all good. At the Roar, we had a bit of a different aero balance with the wing we’re given. We’ll land on our feet.

“We found a couple tenths and could be quicker than at the Roar. It should be a very tight race. Ganassi is much better prepared than they were last year. The package was quite strong. Ideally, we should definitely be a strong contender for the last few hours.”

Ganassi, as hinted at, should have a much stronger shot at the overall win than it did 12 months ago.

The twin-turbo, Ford EcoBoost V6 engines are a more refined, better package than it was upon debuting last year. Either of the team’s Riley-Fords – the full-season No. 01 or “all-star” No. 02 featuring NASCAR stars Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson and IndyCar champions Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan – is a win contender provided it stays out of the garage.

“It’s night and day difference,” said Scott Pruett, a five-time Rolex 24 champion and co-driver of the No. 01 with Joey Hand, Charlie Kimball and Sage Karam. “It was a massive undertaking switching the cars over, putting in the different technologies and engine, with a twin-turbo V6, and all the things that go along with that.

“We knew coming in last year it was going to be tough at best. It was great to win Sebring, Long Beach and COTA, but now we can take everything we learned and move forward in 2015.”

Beyond those four cars, the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Corvette DP is also in with a good shout at overall victory. A win for brothers Jordan and Ricky Taylor, along with WTR longtime driver Max Angelelli would emulate the feat achieved by Wayne in 2005, with Angelelli and Emmanuel Collard.

Other potential spoilers could potentially include the No. 90 VisitFlorida.com Racing and Whelen Engineering-backed No. 31 Action Express Racing Corvette DP, but neither car has shown enough outright pace to be considered a “favorite.”

It’s not the other three classes beyond Prototype lack intrigue, but they’re also harder to pinpoint.

GT Le Mans and GT Daytona are both wide-open. Any combination of Aston Martin, Audi, BMW, Dodge, Ferrari and Porsche could win, but it will take a mix of great pace, great reliability and likely great luck to remain in contention into the Sunday morning hours.

On paper, anyway, it seems a car with a shade of orange should win Prototype Challenge in either CORE autosport or RSR Racing.

Starworks Motorsport could surprise and BAR1 Motorsports stole the headlines in qualifying with of all things, a SpongeBob SquarePants movie-liveried No. 16 car where Englishman Johnny Mowlem rung the neck out of it for the class pole in an inspired effort.

All told, today’s race should be a fun one, as 53 cars go for their chance at glory and a new Rolex watch.

ROLEX 24 PRE-RACE RECAP

Qualifying Report
Class previews: P, PC, GTLM, GTD
Roar Recap

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
0 Comments

Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.