Roar Before the Rolex 24 preview, pre-test notes

Photo: Tony DiZinno
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – “Spring break” isn’t traditionally until March, but the kickoff to spring – or at least a break from the dreary weather that populates most of the country in January – comes this weekend with the annual Roar Before the Rolex 24, the warmup act for the 55th Rolex 24 at Daytona on Jan. 28-29.

It’s an interesting test because no one really knows each other’s hand. A fail safe is meant to be in place by IMSA’s data collection system, which is designed to monitor each car’s outright performance in the hope that the fear of sandbagging – not giving outright 100 percent performance – is alleviated.

As such, the Roar isn’t necessarily a guaranteed determination of outright pace going into the Rolex 24, but it does provide a baseline of things to look for later this month when all the chips are on the line, and the Rolex watches will be awarded, for the season opener of both the full IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season and the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup.

Some story lines to watch and observations of note are below:

THE FIRST TRUE TEST OF DPi VS. LMP2

Inevitably and invariably, even though both new prototype solutions (IMSA’s Daytona Prototype international and the worldwide for ACO-spec LMP2 chassis) are debuting simultaneously and under the Prototype category, equalizing two entirely separate platforms remains one of the bigger challenges.

An adjusted Balance of Performance table released on Wednesday should give the DPis (Cadillac DPi.V-R, Mazda RT24-P, Nissan Onroak DPi) a bit more power as the LMP2-spec cars are the baseline for BoP.

The joy and beauty, perhaps, is that certain cars will do better at certain tracks. Ultimate performance is still to come from the new beasts, and quick discussions with drivers from all three DPi models is that Daytona will only be the start of the journey in terms of pace and reliability. The LMP2-spec cars are built to the 2017 regulations from the existing constructors, and how well the five LMP2 cars (3 Oreca 07s, 1 Riley Mk. 30 and 1 Ligier JS P217) get on with the same engine yet different bodywork and aero, while also in the hands of newer teams, will be fascinating to watch.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING WHEN IT COMES TO RIDES… 

The most unfortunate news of the week thus far involves Spencer Pumpelly, last year’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge ST class champion, multiple-time GT class winner at the Rolex 24 and inarguably regarded as one of the top GT drivers in North America.

Through no fault of his own, Pumpelly is now left sidelined at the worst possible time for this year’s Rolex 24, as Change Racing announced late Wednesday his spot would be taken in the full-time lineup by Jeroen Mul, a Lamborghini-supported driver, as lead driver in the No. 16 Lamborghini Huracán GT3 alongside Corey Lewis, Brett Sandberg and Kaz Grala.

At the last minute with the likelihood that financial help came to Change with this change, Mul now has a seat that was earmarked for Pumpelly. It’s not Mul’s fault, nor is it the team’s for making the call it needed to do what it needed to do.

However, the timing is abysmal because it leaves Pumpelly almost no time left in order to find a spot for the Rolex 24. Most GTD seats are filled and while there are a handful of others available, Pumpelly’s problem now is the next dilemma – he’s a Gold-rated driver, and that would mean he could only go to a team where a Gold-rated vacancy exists. That means he’d have to be the second Platinum or Gold-rated driver in either a four or five-driver lineup; a car cannot carry more than two Platinum or Gold-rated drivers within the class.

This is eerily similar to last November, when Pumpelly was told by Park Place Motorsports he wouldn’t be retained for 2016, this despite being a major cog in Park Place winning that year’s season-ending Petit Le Mans. Park Place acquired a new Porsche 911 GT3 R for 2016, and with it came Porsche veteran Joerg Bergmeister in his place. Again, no one begrudges the likable and talented Bergmeister, and fortunately for Pumpelly, he found an opportunity with Change a month later.

Pumpelly is not alone when it comes to those pounding the pavement this weekend, but his lack of a seat considering his resume, ability, feedback and attitude can help any program he would join speaks volumes about the state of the class at the moment. His class, however, shone through in two tweets, thanking Change for the opportunity regardless:

Pumpelly’s unfortunate new position leads nicely to the next point:

ONSLAUGHT OF THE FACTORY DRIVERS IN GTD

The eight manufacturers in GTD (Audi, Acura, Lexus, Porsche, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Mercedes-AMG, BMW, Aston Martin) have a bevy of factory drivers. Of those eight, only three (Porsche, Ferrari, BMW) also have a corresponding GT Le Mans program, and thus a place for more of their factory drivers.

That means the rest are placed into GTD, which has a two-pronged effect. The first is that it raises the caliber of the class because it provides a factory presence among most cars on the grid, while the second is that it then reduces the number of opportunities for North American sports car veteran “hired guns,” who make a living at least partially – if not almost entirely – from driving race cars.

It’s easier to count the cars on the grid where there is not a factory driver placed somewhere, as either the lead pro driver or as the Platinum/Gold-rated fourth driver. Consider the likes of Mul, Paolo Ruberti, Andrea Caldarelli, Mirko Bortolotti (Lamborghini), Sam Bird (Ferrari), Adam Christodoulou and Thomas Jaeger (Mercedes-AMG), Pierre Kaffer (Audi), Patrick Long (Porsche), so on and so forth, and you’re seeing that spots reserved for would be “hired guns” are now going to those drivers employed by the factory first.

Long and Kaffer excepted, none have much in the way of full-season North American experience, and the same two plus Bird are not well known in America, except to the hardest of hardcore fans. Again, it’s no knock on them personally, but it’s painfully obvious to witness how many factory supported or extra star drivers are there for one-offs in place of those who’d ordinarily be in contention for seats, and who’ve spent years in North American sports car paddocks.

That then has an additional knock-on effect where the remaining vacancy is one for a Silver-rated driver, which creates more competition among the Silver or Bronze-rated drivers for the remaining handful of seats. Inevitably there are more of these drivers – because strangely, getting downgraded makes you more valuable to potential teams – than there are seats available.

THE WATCH FOR NEW LIVERIES

The Roar provides a great opportunity to study and memorize the new-for-2017 liveries, or in some cases, same liveries just updated to 2017 cars and models. Not all teams are in their finalized liveries yet this test – Tequila Patron ESM for instance will reveal its livery after the Roar – but most will be.

OTHER PRE-ROAR THURSDAY NOTES

  • Speaking of factory drivers, although not formally confirmed, Michael Christensen’s name was listed on the No. 28 Alegra Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R alongside the quartet of Daniel Morad, Jesse Lazare, Michael and Carlos de Quesada. Christensen would be the second Porsche factory driver placed into GTD (Long with CORE autosport).
  • Other names that appeared today on cars that weren’t on the entry list: Giancarlo Fisichella and James Calado (No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE), Marco Sorensen (No. 98 Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3), Roberto Pampanini, Christoph Lenz, Milos Pavlovic (No. 61 GRT Grasser Race Team Lamborghini Huracán GT3). Turner Motorsport (No. 97 BMW M6 GT3) and DAC Motorsports (No. 18 Lamborghini Huracán GT3) were the only two cars present in the paddock with no drivers listed whatsoever. Expect one other change to show up soon for another GTD car.
  • Of the two U.S.-based Ford Chip Ganassi Ford GTs, the No. 66 car can be distinguished with a white windshield banner with black font and red ends, while the No. 67 car is the opposite – black windshield banner and white font. The U.K.-based Nos. 68 and 69 cars should appear with their windshield colors on Friday.

WeatherTech Championship practice runs from 10:20 a.m. to 12:05 p.m., and 3 to 5:30 p.m. ET on Friday. The Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge also has two sessions, with the first starting at 9 a.m.

Meyer Shank Racing wins Petit Le Mans to take final DPi championship in dramatic finale

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Meyer Shank Racing outdueled Wayne Taylor Racing to win the Petit Le Mans and clinch the championship in a thrilling final race for the DPi division.

Tom Blomqvist, who started from the pole position, drove the No. 60 Acura ARX-05 to a 4.369-second victory over Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Action Express Cadillac.

“That was incredible,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports’ Matt Yocum. “I’ve never dug so deep in my life. The adrenaline. I did that for the guys. I was so motivated to win this thing this weekend. But I’ve got to thank everyone on the whole team.”

With co-drivers Oliver Jarvis and Helio Castroneves, Blomqvist helped MSR bookend its season-opening victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona by winning Saturday’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale at Michelin Road Atlanta.

In between those two victories, the No. 60 earned five runner-up finishes to stay in the thick of the championship hunt and trail WTR’s No. 10 Acura by 14 points entering Saturday’s race.

WTR’s Filipe Albuquerque had a lead of more than 10 seconds over Blomqvist with less than 50 minutes remaining in the 10-hour race.

But a Turn 1 crash between the Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillacs brought out a yellow that sent both Acuras into the pits from the top two positions.

Though he entered in second, Blomqvist barely beat Albuquerque out of the pits, and he held the lead for the final 45 minutes.

Blomqvist said he gained the lead because of a shorter fuel fill after he had worked on being efficient in the second-to-last stint.

“The team asked a big job of me with the fuel; I had a big fuel number to hit,” Blomqvist said. “We knew that was probably our only chance. The yellow came at the right time and obviously we had a bit less fuel to fill up, so I was able to jump him and then it was just a matter of going gung-ho and not leaving anything on the line. And obviously, the opposition had to try too hard to make it work. I’m so thankful.”

Albuquerque closed within a few car lengths of Blomqvist with 14 minutes remaining, but he damaged his suspension because of contact with a GT car in Turn 1.

It’s the first prototype championship for Meyer Shank Racing, which also won the 2021 Indy 500 with Castroneves.

“We’ve had in the last four years, three championships for Acura, the Indy 500 win and the Rolex 24, it doesn’t get any better,” team co-owner Mike Shank told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee.

It’s the third consecutive runner-up finish in the points standings for Wayne Taylor Racing, which won the first Daytona Prototype international championship in 2017. The premier category will be rebranded as the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class with the LMDh cars that will establish a bridge to racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kamui Kobayashi finished third in the No. 48 Cadillac of Action Express that also includes Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The podium showing marked Johnson’s last scheduled race in IMSA’s top prototype division. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has raced in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac lineup as the Action Express entry has run the Endurance Cup races.

Johnson said a lack of inventory will preclude him having a 2023 ride in the top category. But he still is hopeful of racing the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro in next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and possibly running in a lower class for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I’d love to be at Le Mans next year,” Johnson told NBC Sports’ Dillon Welch after his final stint Saturday. “I’d love to be at the Rolex 24. The series is going through a shake-up with the reconfiguration of the rules and classes, so I don’t have anything locked down yet, but I’m so thankful for this experience with Action. The support Ally has given us, Mr. Hendrick, Chad Knaus, all of Hendrick Motorsports. It’s been a fun two years, and I certainly hope I’m on the grid again next year.”