DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – The 60th Rolex 24 at Daytona is a celebration of history, but it’s also a gap year with the prestigious endurance race on the cusp of a new era.
Next year, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener will harken the debut of a new overall category (GTP) and top-flight prototype called LMDh that also will be eligible to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
In a nod to the convergence, Daytona has renamed the “Bus Stop” on the backstretch of its 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course as “the Le Mans Chicane.”
INFORMATION FOR THE 60TH ROLEX 24: Schedules, start times, entry lists
HOW TO WATCH ON NBC SPORTS: All the information for 24 hours of viewing
Along with the re-establishment of a bridge between two of the world’s biggest sports car races (the Le Mans hypercars also will be able to race at Daytona and Sebring), newly minted millions in manufacturer funding will pour into IMSA next year as Porsche (with Team Penske), BMW and Audi join Cadillac and Acura in the premier division.
“I think we’re on the doorstep of a renaissance period in sports cars,” said Chip Ganassi, who has added a second Cadillac for 2022 after returning to the top DPi class last season.
Bobby Rahal, whose team will field LMDh for BMW in 2023, was looking forward to the future Saturday while reflecting on the past as one of six legendary grand marshals for the Rolex 24 (1:30 p.m. ET, NBC).
Andretti: “It’s so awesome to visit with these dudes and reminisce about some of the stories. And embellish some stories.” pic.twitter.com/2XSNhyKXLK
— Nate Ryan (@nateryan) January 29, 2022
“It’s always good being here,” said the 1986 Indy 500 winner, whose first big victory in racing was Rolex 24 overall in 1981 and has won the Rolex 24 twice as a team owner (his team is fielding a BMW in GTD Pro this year). “I grew up around sports car racing with my dad, and to see the state that sports car racing is in today.
“It’s been quite a long time since it’s ever been as good as it is today and maybe not ever. It’s good to be part of it.”
While much of the focus is on the future, the 2022 Rolex 24 is expected to deliver another slugfest amid freezing temperatures and hot-blooded rivalries across a 61-car, 235-driver field that is the largest entry list in seven years.
Here are five things to watch during the 60th Rolex 24 at Daytona:
—Traffic management amid GT madness: While IMSA’s top class will be rebranded next year, there already has been an overhaul of the GT class for 2022. The demise of the factory-driven GTLM division has spawned the creation of GTD Pro, which features elite drivers but in production-based GT3 cars (with the same parameters and tires as the pro-am lineups of GTD).
With 35 combined entries in GTD and GTD Pro, that’s nearly double the number of cars from last year that will be clogging the banking as the slowest class. That will make life trickier for the other half of the field as the 26 faster prototype cars were accustomed to catching traffic at more variable rates of speed with the faster GTLMs (which had more mechanical grip through the corners with a specialized tire).
After winning last week’s qualifying race, defending Rolex 24 winners Filipe Albuquerque and Ricky Taylor said they were caught off guard by the positioning of some GTs (and some former GTLM drivers weren’t accustomed to being passed at certain sectors of the track).
“That speed gap between a prototype and GTD, that was once 20 in class vs. 35,” said IndyCar on NBC analyst Townsend Bell, who is racing a Lexus in GTD. “You just have more frequency of closing rate than you would historically. It gives those prototype drivers just really no time to relax. Constantly coming across slower traffic in GTD. It’s got to be taxing.”
It’s particularly challenging for the No. 3 Corvette, which handily won the Rolex 24 last year on the way to the final GTLM season championship. Corvette Racing has lacked pace since retrofitting its two cars to meet the GT3 specs and some Balance of Performance aerodynamic tweaks from IMSA since the Roar Before the Rolex 24 haven’t helped much.
“We have a ton of competition and were excited for the competition, but we’re definitely not where we wanted to be or expected to be,” No. 3 driver Jordan Taylor told NBC Sports. “We expected to be more in the hunt battling with everyone, so it has been frustrating so far. But yeah, it’s still 24 hours. A lot is going to happen. We can only do what we can control, and that’s execute the best races we can and come Sunday, hopefully we’re in the hunt and have a competitive car.”
—Cold temperatures: The Daytona Beach area is under a freeze warning with temperatures forecast to dip into the low 30s overnight (the race’s record low is 28 in the 1966 race; this likely will be the coldest race since 1980 hit 32 degrees).
That could be a nightmare for drivers heavily dependent on getting heat in their tires.
“We’ve had it cold here, but never as cold as being forecast,” two-time Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande said. “I don’t know what it does to the engines, but I know the out lap will be tricky with new tires. It is a race about survival and not making mistakes.”
Said Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Sebastien Bourdais: “It’s not exactly a known territory. We’ll just have to take it a little easier and ultimately once you get past that really terrifying experience on the out lap, then it’s mostly OK. For sure, restarts can be quite tricky, too.”
Taylor said veteran drivers will be mindful of the risk vs. reward, particularly on the graveyard shift.
“The middle of the night doesn’t matter here,” he said. “Everyone is going to want to be fast and have good out laps, but at the end of the day, there’s going to be a yellow that bunches everyone back up. You just have to stay on the lead lap through the night. If I lose 5 seconds on an out lap and don’t go off, I’m happy with that because I know an hour later, a yellow can come out and close that 5 seconds back up, so it’s not worth the risk to really take that chance. Over the night stint is when you test the limits of making the time on cold tires and then Sunday is when you go racing.”
—Tire pressures: After two tire failures late in the 2021 Rolex 24 derailed a winning bid by Ganassi’s No. 01 Cadillac, IMSA will enforce a new tire pressure rule this year.
Michelin will set a recommended operating window, which IMSA officials will enforce for the first time in series history through real-time monitoring of telemetry. Penalties would start with a warning and then be ratcheted up through a drive through and 10-second penalties.
During his recent “Off Track” podcast, Wayne Taylor Racing driver Alexander Rossi said there was “100 percent concern” about the rule’s debut.
“The first time they’ve ever done this is in a 24-hour race with 30-degree temperature changes,” Rossi said. “ So yes, we feel we have a pretty good idea and understanding of the delta that we need. But also there’s performance in the tire pressures just in general, up or down. You’re not going to want to push the envelope too far one way or the other.
“So how everyone deals with it, and ultimately if you’re fifth (and break the rule), is anything going to happen? Maybe. If you’re leading by 18 seconds? Probably. It’s an interesting wild card that exists now. (Tire pressures) are one of the biggest thing you can use between drivers. Having an offset in pressures is really the only balance adjustment you can make switching between drivers, and it’s pretty much gone.”
Said van der Zande, who suffered one of the failures while chasing winner Filipe Albuquerque in the final hour last year: “It’s going to change the whole dynamic of the setups of the car. It’s always the same. You think you’ve got the car to win from last year. You come to the race the next year, and things change. They’re giving us a pressure now to run, which is probably for safety. So we have to work around that and find a new balance in our car with the setup.”
How the rule is enforced could be interesting, especially during the overnight freeze.
“If it’s 2 a.m. and the mist has come in, how will this be dealt with?” Rossi said. “Will they be like, ‘OK, it’s a lot colder now.’
“It’ll be wild. It’ll certainly add some potential chaos, especially in the closing stages if things don’t happen as people expect. In Formula One, they tried to do this and then realized it was way too difficult to police and said oh, never mind.”
“Like officiating in general, as long as they’re consistent, then we can deal with it,” Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson said.
Noting “it’s not by accident that they have punctures,” Albuquerque is curious about the impact on the competition.
“Maybe it’s going to be a race down to the wire and last lap again and less punctures will happen, but on the other hand, we have more cars,” he said. “It’s going to be chaotic as always in the Daytona 24 Hours, which makes this race so beautiful and so emotional, so down to the last lap. It may equalize everyone but need to wait and see.”
—Making history: Albuquerque and Rossi are teaming with Ricky Taylor and Will Stevens to deliver team owner Wayne Taylor a record fourth consecutive victory in the Rolex 24 (breaking a tie with Ganassi’s 2006-08 run).
Beyond its revolving lineup of superstars (Fernando Alonso, Scott Dixon, Kamui Kobayashi) in its winning cars, WTR’s streak also has been impressive because the No. 10 switched from Cadillac to Acura last year without missing a beat.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson also is trying to win the Rolex 24 for the first time in his ninth attempt. He said the superstar lineup of his No. 48 Ally Cadillac make this year his best shot yet.
—Crossover country: While the race has only one full-time NASCAR driver (Austin Cindric is part of the No. 15 Mercedes in GTD Pro), the 2022 Rolex 24 will serve as a quasi-spring training for the NTT IndyCar Series.
With offseason testing heavily restricted, there are 12 full-time IndyCar drivers in the 2022 Rolex 24 getting a jump on making laps in a high-downforce car ahead of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener Feb. 27.
That includes an LMP2 entry with championship rivals Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta teaming with incoming rookie Devlin DeFrancesco.