A year has passed since Pipo Derani’s epic drive spearheaded the Tequila Patron ESM team’s overall victory with the Ligier JS P2 Honda in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, shared with Scott Sharp, Johannes van Overbeek and Patron Spirits CEO Ed Brown.
The Daytona win followed a crushing near-miss at Sebring in 2014 and then a roller coaster of chassis changes in 2015, when the team’s new HPD ARX-04b suffered from a weight imbalance and was withdrawn after Daytona, before switches to the previous generation HPD ARX-03b and Ligier JS P2 Honda followed for the upcoming rounds.
Interestingly while ESM had the car and the lineup right last year, it wasn’t the first step towards a championship on North American soil.
Instead, the team carried out its second full-time effort in the FIA World Endurance Championship, while continuing to support the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship from team and promotional standpoints at the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup races. ESM also won at Sebring to complete a rare “36 hours of Florida” endurance race sweep, the first in nearly 20 years.
Now, for the first time in three years, Sharp’s ESM squad is back in IMSA with two cars, full-season, for this year’s campaign. Ryan Dalziel, who had the quirkiness of racing against ESM in IMSA (drove for VISIT FLORIDA Racing) while racing with ESM in the WEC, leads the full-season lineup with Sharp in the team’s No. 2 car, while the longtime Brown/”JVO” pairing rolls on in the second No. 22 car. Derani (No. 2) and Bruno Senna and Brendon Hartley (No. 22) bolster the Daytona lineups. The cars roll off fifth (No. 22) and sixth (No. 2) today.
“It’s nice. We really wanted to be here last year,” Dalziel told NBC Sports. “Unfortunately we knew (at the start) the DP/P2 battle never really favored the P2 cars. We were a P2 team and it didn’t leave a lot of options to race competitively after ’14.
“When we committed to the WEC, it was a two-year program. We did our two years, and we knew DPi was coming for 2017. But I don’t think anyone has promoted (IMSA) more than Ed Brown and Patron.”
The aforementioned DPi – or Daytona Prototype international – formula debuts at the Rolex 24 alongside the new-for-2017 LMP2-spec chassis.
ESM has continued its relationship, forged in the WEC, with Nissan. The Nissan Onroak DPi has the physical appearance and engine you’d see on a Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3, but underneath, is entirely its own piece compared to the base Ligier JS P217 chassis, especially compared to the predecessor, the Ligier JS P2. After the previous Ligier and two HPD chassis, this is ESM’s fourth car at the Rolex 24 in as many years.
“Everything is new, from the suspension and the like. Really no carryover parts,” Dalziel explained. “Between the WEC-spec and our spec there’s a massive difference in powerplants. The differential, rear end, driveshafts; basically the whole rear end is mechanically different.
“Add in the different routing on the sidepods, which is a lot of the reason why the sidepods are different. It’s not so much styling cues as intercoolers, but radiators for the turbo motor. That said, it still feels fundamentally like the previous Ligier and it means they’re using what they’ve learned.”
The Nissan Onroak prototype only debuted publicly at Sebring in late December with a two-day test and as such, it’s likely to focus more on reliability for this first race than outright performance compared to the Cadillac and Mazda DPis, which got running earlier in the fall.
“Speed-wise we don’t really know what we have,” Dalziel said. “It might be a difficult month for us. Overall though I think the package is good. If we’re reliable, we’re fast.”
An improved team bond is one of the goals for ESM’s North American return, as well. The addition of Erin Gahagan, formerly team manager at EFFORT Racing in Pirelli World Challenge, to the same role at ESM should produce a positive effect, and there’s the comfort level she and Dalziel established from their time together at EFFORT in 2014 and 2015.
“We were racing abroad, but we were focusing on restaffing over here,” Dalziel said. “We had WEC, but we built up the IMSA team for ’17. We hired Erin Gahagan, Tommy Milner’s sister, and my team manager at EFFORT. She’s built a nice group of people around here.
“We’ve done good on staffing, although we’re a bit behind on the car. We’ll see what we get. We’re not fully prepared as we’d like, but we’ll do our best.”