Rolex 24 2015 Preview: Shank versus the world?

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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

F1 tests: Mercedes innovates with wheel adjustment system

Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images
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MONTMELÓ, Spain — Veteran Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest time on the second day of Formula One preseason testing on Thursday, but Mercedes still garnered more attention by introducing an innovative wheel adjustment system.

On-board footage showed defending champion Lewis Hamilton pulling the steering wheel back and forth on the front straight to apparently change the angle of the front wheels on his Mercedes car.

The team stayed tight-lipped about the car’s new feature but guaranteed it was “safe” and “legal.”

“I probably won’t shed a great deal more light than what you saw on the TV but yeah we have a system in the car, it’s a novel idea,” team technical director James Allison told F1 TV. ”We’ve got a name for it, it’s called DAS, if you’re interested, and it just introduces an extra dimension for the steering, for the driver, which we hope will be useful during the year. But precisely how we use it and why we use it, that’s something we will keep to ourselves.”

Allison said governing body FIA knew in advance that the team was introducing the new system.

“It’s something we’ve been talking to them (about) for some time,” he said. “The rules are pretty clear about what’s permitted on steering systems and we’re pretty confident that it matches those requirements. I’m pleased we got it on the car, it seems to be useful, and we’ll see over the coming days how it benefits us.”

Hamilton said he was still trying to get used to the system, but praised the team for coming up with the innovation.

“I’ve only had one morning on (it, so) I don’t really have a lot to talk about with it. We’re trying to get on top of it, understand it, but safety-wise no problem today and the FIA are OK with the project.

“For me it’s really encouraging to see that my team is continuing to innovate and stay ahead of the game, and I think that’s down to the great minds in the team and so hopefully that’ll work to our benefit.”

Hamilton led the time charts on Wednesday but was only ninth-fastest on Thursday.

MORE: Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas fastest in Day 1 of F1 practice
MORE: Sergio Perez fastest early on Day 2 of F1 Practice

The 40-year-old Raikkonen, who has a chance this season to break the record for most race starts in F1, was fastest with a time of 1 minute, 17.091 seconds in his Alfa Romea. He was 0.2 seconds quicker than Sergio Pérez with Racing Point. Daniel Ricciardo of Renault was third.

Raikkonen caused a red flag near the end of the afternoon session when his car stopped on the track with an apparent mechanical issue. The Finnish driver had spun earlier in the session, as did Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes, Romain Grosjean of Haas and Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri, formerly known as Toro Rosso.

Grosjean had the most laps among the 13 drivers who went to the track on Thursday, with 158.

Bottas was the slowest driver of the day, while Sebastian Vettel was sixth-fastest with Ferrari.

Pérez had set the quickest time in the morning session. The Mexican driver had been third fastest on Wednesday, behind Hamilton and Bottas.

Drivers will be back on the track on Friday to close out the first week of testing. Teams will have another three days to test next week.

Preseason testing has been reduced from eight to six days to help compensate for the record 22 races on the calendar, including a new Vietnam Grand Prix and the return of the Dutch GP. Midseason testing also has been eliminated.

The season opens on March 15 at the Australian GP.

The Barcelona-Catalunya track will host the Spanish GP on May 10.