DiZinno: Why Honda’s Rolex 24 overall win meant so much

Photo: Honda
1 Comment

The nature of timing, reflection and being backlogged meant I never properly recapped this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona after it happened, which was by any account a spectacular kickoff to the North American road racing season.

But in looking back, while the GT Le Mans and GT Daytona class finishes stole the immediate headlines in the aftermath of the race, arguably the bigger story from a “what this means to a particular manufacturer” standpoint was the fact Honda Performance Development did in fact, pull off the overall win.

It’s been a long time coming for Honda, and comes on the heels of a very trying 2015 season as part of a tougher season for Japanese manufacturers on the whole, save for Kyle Busch’s surprise but welcome run to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title in his Toyota.

Some 12 months ago Honda, purely from a sports car standpoint, was in transition as a manufacturer.

The several iterations of HPD or Acura chassis from 2007 through 2014, with the one exception of the 2009 Acura ARX-02a, were all consistent evolutions that were based off what was initially a Courage chassis.

The ARX-02a was the first chassis outside the box, and while it was certainly ahead of its time, various factors contributed it to being only a one-and-done project for the 2009 American Le Mans Series season.

The first all new car for HPD since that point – the ARX-04b coupe – was meant to herald a return to Honda’s competitiveness as its own constructor with a brand new chassis coming into fruition from the start of the 2015 TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, and with Tequila Patron ESM fielding two cars.

The ARX-02a lasted one season. The ARX-04b lasted one race.

A weight imbalance front-to-rear and several other niggling issues left the new car from being anywhere as near competitive.

ESM, which had opted to go to the FIA World Endurance Championship full-time for 2015, suddenly needed a backup plan. They brought the open-top ARX-03b out for two final starts at Sebring and Silverstone, then had a mad scramble to acquire two new Ligier JS P2 chassis by Spa in May.

The nightmare season for ESM would eventually bring about further change for 2016. While long rumored, it wasn’t formally confirmed until the release of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and WEC full season entry lists last week that the two Ligiers will have Nissan powerplants this year in the WEC.

It leaves Honda now out of the championship for the year, represented at Le Mans only by Michael Shank Racing in its race debut.

Where this all ties together – with that perhaps long but necessary background out of the way – is that ESM had a new shot at Daytona still with the Ligier JS P2 Honda, now with the tried-and-true Honda HR35TT twin-turbocharged V6 engine installed in the back. An engine which, even more strangely, was initially developed for a Daytona Prototype and not the LMP2 spec cars that have become the future of top level prototype racing in North America.

ESM’s chassis was one run by OAK Racing at Le Mans last year. It will be the chassis Shank runs at Le Mans this year.

Fittingly, the pair of Ligier Hondas, ESM and Shank, were the class of the field at this year’s Rolex 24. BoP helped, certainly, but was not the overriding factor in the reason for the car’s domination.

Pipo Derani, arguably the revelation of this year’s race, did the bulk of the work but teammates Scott Sharp and Johannes van Overbeek more than pulled their weight as well (Ed Brown ran only limited laps). Derani though got into the 1:39 bracket early and after 24 hours had passed, the car had nearly a one-second best lap over any of the DP-spec cars in the field.

And Shank’s quartet would have been there all 24 as well judging by its early pace, before the drama of engine woes struck and sabotaged their hopes just around midnight. It was a tough blow for Ozz Negri, John Pew, AJ Allmendinger and Olivier Pla.

To appreciate why the win for Honda and ESM meant so much is to know that last year, nearly everything that could go wrong for either party in sports cars, did. And a little less than two weeks ago, nearly everything that could go right for the two, did.

Steve Eriksen, Vice President and COO of Honda Performance Development, told me going into the race that if the reliability was there, the package was too for HPD to topple the DPs with either of its two entries.

“I think we feel really good about the package,” he said pre-race. “The new 3.5 liter is new to here, but not new to us. I have no concerns about the reliability. It built in some headroom, with any BoP type changes, to where we can deal with it.”

The road-to-track relevance is there in this engine: both entries used the aforementioned production-based 3.5-liter engine, developed for competition by HPD from the Honda “J35” series of passenger vehicle V6 engines, with improvements including twin turbochargers.

Key production-based components include the block and cylinder heads, direct-injection fuel system, valve train components, drive-by-wire throttle, alternator, sensors and fasteners. The engine even utilizes a stock Honda oil filter.

Post-race, HPD president Art St. Cyr expanded on what the win meant.

“Winning a 24-hour race is still one of the ultimate challenges in motorsports,” he said. “We’re proud to add this milestone achievement, the Rolex 24, as our first overall victory at Daytona, and our first win for the new 3.5-liter Honda engine package developed for sports car competition.

“Congratulations to Scott Sharp, Ed Brown, and the entire Patron Tequila ESM team for a truly world-class effort en route to victory. But it’s also a somewhat bittersweet day, as Michael Shank Racing consistently ran at the front of the field, and undoubtably would have also contended for the victory but mid-race mechanical failure.”

While ESM’s U.S. presence the rest of the year is limited to its next race at Sebring before it embarks on its second full season in the WEC, it has helped deliver Honda the best possible start to its year on U.S. soil.

It’s a most needed shot in the arm for both entities ahead of the rest of their respective seasons.

Jimmie Johnson open to racing Rolex 24 at Daytona in lower category to earn first watch

Jimmie Johnson Rolex 2023
Michael L. Levitt/LAT/USA/IMSA
0 Comments

Jimmie Johnson could be making his last start in a prototype Saturday, but he still might be racing sports cars at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Le Mans in 2023.

Now that he’s done racing full time in the NTT IndyCar Series, Johnson said this week that his top three priorities for 2023 are 1) racing the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day (commonly known as “The Double”); 2) the 24 Hours of Le Mans and 3) the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Winning a Rolex 24 long has been a goal for Johnson, who has three overall runner-up finishes over nine starts in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

IMSA SEASON FINALE: Details for watching the Petit Le Mans

All of those were in the premier category, but with IMSA overhauling and rebranding the class (from DPi to GTP) next season, it seems there won’t be room for Johnson to return in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac. Johnson will be teamed with Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Rockenfeller in Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale, wrapping the second season of endurance races for the Action Express entry.

“I know the landscape with the new prototype class that’s come out, and frankly there’s just not enough cars or open seats available,” the seven-time Cup Series champion said during a Zoom news conference Tuesday. “So I don’t seen an opportunity in the premier division, but I am open to the other divisions on track and would love to finally earn one of those watches.”

That could mean Johnson (who bought an engraved Rolex after winning the 2006 Daytona 500 but wants to earn a signature trophy of sports car racing) entering in an LMP2 or LMP3 or perhaps a GT car for the first time at Daytona next year. He will have Carvana’s primary sponsorship in tow next year that he presumably could bring to a team.

The rest of the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion’s 2023 schedule also remains to be solidified. But it seems Johnson is nearly a lock for a 24 Hours of Le Mans debut in the lineup of the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro, which will be fielded jointly by Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR.

“The rest of it is just early,” he said. “In the coming weeks on all fronts, conversations will continue forward. I still feel I’m on a short list for the Garage 56 program in Le Mans next year and hope to get some clarity on that in the coming weeks or months. So I wish I had more to report at this point. It’s really about not returning full time to IndyCar, and now that I’ve made that decision and letting that news be known, I really feel like I’ll get some traction here and be able to solidify my schedule for ’23.”

Depending on the interest he draws, his options should be wide open. After racing a Honda the past two years and a Chevrolet for his 20-plus years in NASCAR, Johnson isn’t under contract to any manufacturer or team next year.

Here’s what else Johnson has said about what he wants to do in ’23:

IndyCar: Though his IndyCar track record was much stronger on ovals, Johnson seems open to any part-time schedule.

“I’m running out of specific events that are bucket list races (in IndyCar), and truthfully, that’s kind of what led to my decision to not come back full time,” Johnson said. “But I still am open to tracks that are important to me, races that are important to me and doing it with people and teams that are important to me, so if something develops with Chip (Ganassi) that’s a mixed bag of road and street courses and some ovals, I’m open to it. I’m open to just ‘the Double’ or the Indy 500 alone. I really do have a clean sheet of paper and eager to see what meaningful opportunities develop and make sense.”

Though he is free to talk with other teams, Johnson said returning with Chip Ganassi Racing would be his first choice after racing with the team since 2021.

“I’ve really only spoken to Chip,” he said. “I truly feel like I’m part of the family at CGR. If I’m in IndyCar, that’s really where I want to be. I know that team. I know the inner workings of it. I do feel like we’re working hard to continue the relationship together, so that would really be my intentions if I was able to put something together and come back in IndyCar, I’d love for it to be there.”

NASCAR: Johnson mentioned again that being a past winner of The Clash and All-Star Race previously granted him long-term eligibility for those events (NASCAR since has changed its criteria), so the exhibitions in Los Angeles and North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, are on his radar.

“I do have a few years left on my eligibility for the Clash and for the All-Star Race, so I’m surprised no one has really asked or pushed hard to this point yet,” he said. “I guess I’ve been busy in IndyCar, and people assume my schedule is tied up. But looking forward, those would be easy opportunities to come back, but honestly I’ve not had an in-depth serious conversation with anyone yet on any of those fronts.

“I’d love to go to Wilkesboro. I’ve never driven on that racetrack. Lowe’s corporate offices were just down the street, so I’ve driven by it many times. I went on a long bike ride with Matt Kenseth and some friends a few years ago and actually rode my bicycle around the track. So I’d love to go back in a proper race car and event someday and hopefully that opportunity can develop.”

Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 (which put Kimi Raikkonen in the Cup race at Watkins Glen International) would provide an avenue for Johnson’s re-entry to stock cars.

“Justin’s been a longtime friend and someone I stay in touch with, and he’s certainly made it known that the Project 91 car is available if I have interest,” Johnson said. “So I would need to continue those conversations forward.”

–“The Double”: In trying to become the first driver since Kurt Busch in 2014 to race 1,100 miles at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway in the same day, Johnson believes the logistics should be easier. Namely, he won’t have a full-time commitment in either IndyCar and NASCAR, and the reduced Cup schedule for practice and qualifying should free up more time.

“When drivers did it in the past, we had a lot more on-track activity for both series, certainly on the NASCAR side,” Johnson said. “I think how the NASCAR format works now, there’s less of an ask in time. So I do feel like the potential to apply myself and have physically enough time to pull it off is there. I do think the reduced schedule and not running the full IndyCar schedule will give me the time I need before and after to seriously focus and dedicate everything I can and would need to give my best performance in both races.”