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

Photo: Honda
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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.