IMSA: Roar Before The 24 analysis

IMSA: Roar Before The 24 analysis

IMSA

IMSA: Roar Before The 24 analysis

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Article photos by LAT Photographic

Marshall Pruett Roar gallery #3

More than a year of work by a staff comprised of American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am officials was put on public display last week in Daytona, and based on what took place over three days at the Roar Before The 24, sanity prevailed.

The process of getting to the Roar was a bumpy and occasionally flight-filled ride, but the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, its International Motor Sports Association sanctioning body, and almost 60 entries gave a fine account of themselves from Friday through Sunday.

The weather was as varied as the cars and classes at the Roar, with Friday’s dark, windy and frigid conditions replaced by warmer but cloudy surroundings on Saturday. A steady appearance by sun and mostly clear skies closed the event on Sunday, allowing teams to gather a significant amount of data than can be applied to whatever the forecast calls for during race week.

There were a few surprises that emerged during the Roar, and plenty of work by IMSA and its teams will be required to return in just over two weeks when practice begins for the 52nd Rolex 24 At Daytona. Here are a few thoughts, observances and interviews to close the Roar and look ahead to the TUDOR Championship’s season opener:

Coming off of a Rolex DP championship with Wayne Taylor Racing, Corvette DPs continued their 2013 ways, leading seven of eight sessions held during the Roar. Corvette DPs built on the Coyote chassis led those seven sessions, Corvette DPs went 1-2 in five sessions and WTR’s Dallara-based Corvette DP was second fastest in two sessions. In addition to the speed they displayed, Corvette DPs also account for more cars within the DP portion of the Prototype class, owning six entries for the Rolex 24. Ford, through its two EcoBoost turbo-powered Chip Ganassi with Felix Sabates entries and a single car from Michael Shank Racing, has three. The 10th and final DP currently entered for the Rolex 24 belongs to the Highway To Help Riley-BMW outfit. By the numbers, and owing to the speed they just showed, it’s hard to imagine something other than a Corvette DP team taking overall honors this year.

Slowing the GTD cars will be among the priorities for IMSA when the series returns to Daytona. The little dragsters were ranked second among the four TUDOR Championship classes on top speed, distancing themselves from all of the Prototype Challenge cars and the entire GT Le Mans category. The fastest DPs hit 192-193mph on the straights during their best laps, and with a significant straightline advantage due to their relative lack of downforce, the fastest GTD cars managed 182-183mph. Compare that to one of the best P2 top speeds from Sunday, a 186.8 from Extreme Speed Motorsports, and there isn’t much separation.
The best PC top speed, a 175.9 from CORE autosport owner Jon Bennett, is well down from GTD, and the top GTLM speed was nearly identical to what Bennett achieved. The concern with the extra 6-7mph the GTD cars carry has nothing to do with stacking the four classes by top speed, and centers on how the P2 cars and all of the PC and GTLM cars intersect with the GTDs during the race.

“We can only compare ourselves to the GTD cars and they are going way faster than us in a straight line, which is kind of a pain,” Porsche GTLM factory driver Jorg Bergmeister told RACER. “We cannot pass them out of Turn 6, and they are too far gone by the time we get to the chicane, so we have to wait and hope to pass them in the infield again. They need to slow them down because the advantage is too big. They have so much top speed that you have to make take some risky moves to get by them into the braking zones and into the corners. You get there and if there’s one ahead of you, you have to dive in and hope it goes OK or else you get stuck behind them.”

IMSA added a 25mm (one inch) wicker to the rear wings of all the GTD competitors before the Roar, yet the top speed advantage was still too high. It’s possible to use to a taller wicker, but with limited aerodynamic options to balance the front aero, there are practical limitations IMSA will have to deal with. Simply increasing the rear wing angle and tacking on taller wickers will lead to 24 hours of scary, understeering cars, and with the GTD class accounting for almost half of the grid, the safest option would be to reduce power.

   The PC class has become a hotbed for a lot of very good drivers who were unable to find one of the few rides left in Prototype. IndyCar drivers Ana Beatriz tested with Starworks Motorsport and will return to race with the team at the Rolex 24, E.J. Viso, who was close to signing with the OAK Racing P2 team, accepted the invitation from Chapman Ducote to join him in BAR1’s PC car, GP2 runner-up Sam Bird made his Daytona (and North American) debut in Starworks’ second PC car and quickly topped the time sheets, the underrated but highly rapid Tom Kimber-Smith found a new home in 8Star’s PC entry and it’s likely more signing will take place before the race. Most of the drivers RACER spoke to at the Roar that were looking for rides had their sights set on PC, which could see the costs rise with demand.

Spirit of Daytona experienced a yearlong kick in the pants last season, followed by a hammer blow at the November test at Daytona when Richard Westbrook’s No. 90 Corvette DP was destroyed when it blew a tire, went airborne and was pummeled by the track surface upon landing. Watching the Troy Flis-owned operation rebound during the Roar by setting the fastest lap in four of the eight sessions was a nice touch, and coming off such a forgettable 2013, Westy and co-drivers Michael Valiante and Mike Rockenfeller have now become one of the pre-race favorites to win the Rolex 24.

One of the benefits of having North American sports car racing under the NASCAR banner is the use of its NASCAR Wire Service, which sent out Roar updates to its expanded media list one that reaches far beyond the usual sports car-loving outlets. Of the many tools NASCAR can use to build awareness and interest in something other than its various stock car series, this seems like a smart promotional initiative to embrace.

Mazda Road To Indy talent was on display once again, and in an expanded capacity. The Ganassi team made the biggest endorsement of young open-wheel talent, bringing 2013 Firestone Indy Lights champion Sage Karam into its den of champions and veterans. For a kid who’s completing his senior year of high school at the moment, it’s a learning experience he’ll surely benefit from when he makes his next open-wheel move. Don Panoz signed American Formula 1 hopeful Alexander Rossi to drive the DeltaWing at Daytona, and also put 2014 Indy Lights championship contender Gabby Chaves in the car on Sunday. Mazda’s two-car P2 lineup is loaded with its Road To Indy graduates, using Joel Miller, 2012 Indy Light champ and 2013 IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year Tristan Vautier and three-time IndyCar race winner James Hinchcliffe to pilot its diesel prototypes. Other Mazda Road To Indy drivers were hunting for drives, including Pro Mazda driver Spencer Pigot. Porsche put thousands of miles on its Le Mans-winning 991 GTE-Pro chassis last year with a two-car WEC program, but the muscular cars were never subjected to the kind of driveshaft angles and loadings that Daytona International Speedway presents. Multiple driveshaft failures kept the Nos. 911 and 912 GTLM cars off track and in the garage as Porsche and their partners at CORE autosport sought answers to the problem. Look for the cars to return with beefier solutions connecting the transmission to the wheels.

They only accounted for eight of the entries at the Roar, but it sure was great to hear turbos in action again at Daytona. The pair of Mazda P2 diesels are quiet, as one might expect, as is the 4-cylinder turbo DeltaWing, and ESM’s two twin-turbo Honda V6-powered P2s have never been that loud, but Ford’s trio of EcoBoost V6 twin turbos put some serious force through their exhaust pipes enough to appreciate their difference among the naturally-aspirated cars. Angry turbos and the fearsome power they produced helped to make the IMSA GTP (and GTO) series one of the most popular forms of racing in the 1980sand it’s not a bad thing for the TUDOR Championship to continue embracing with its prototypes and GT cars.

Ford’s early exit from the Roar was a surprise, but it shouldn’t alarm sports car fans. The Blue Oval suffered engine problems during testing at Daytona in December, which necessitated new units to be installed, and another issue was found at the end of Friday that led to Michael Shank’s team to perform an engine swap. It’s never fun, and it can be slightly embarrassing, but it’s part of the learning process for any new program. The Mazda P2 program, also brand-new, has been changing motors on a regular basis, including during the Roar, as they learn more about their SkyActiv 4-cylinder turbos in Prototype configuration. Exhaust failures sent both Ford-powered Ganassi cars and the lone Shank EcoBoost home early, and while it might sound like the Roush Yates-built powerplants are in trouble, both teams, thanks to the upcoming engine homologation date closing in, were trying out development exhaust systems. With IMSA requiring all engines to be homologated by Jan. 18, look for Ford to have new exhausts, likely with thicker wall tubing, in place for testing and validation before the deadline.

DP fuel mileage is down approximately 15 percent in Rolex 24 spec, from 27 laps to 24 laps on a full tank. With the new high-downforce diffuser, it was down to 21-22 laps. Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan says the positive feedback on the camo livery his C7.Rs wore at the Roar took him by surprise. “It’s the last thing any of us had in mind,” he told RACER. “We just wanted something unique while we were testing, but the response we’ve gotten has been pretty incredible.” Asked if they’d consider it as a base livery for a one-off event, Fehan said: “I don’t think our partners would go for it, but seeing how much our fans have liked it, you can never say never.”

Extreme Speed Motorsports driver David Brabham made a family-themed detour after the Roar before flying home to England, driving down to Sebring to see his nephew, 2013 Pro Mazda champion Matthew Brabham, test an Indy Lights car. “Matty’s coming right along. Quite proud of how much he’s achieved already,” he said.

Former Indy Lights competitor Gustavo Yacaman spent the 2013 season learning the ropes in sports car racing with Michael Shank Racing, and after a strong test with the French OAK Racing squad, the young Colombian told RACER he could be joining the P2 team for the entire TUDOR Championship schedule and more. “I’d spoken with them before, they weren’t sure what they wanted to do but they wanted to test, and I did quite a lot of laps with them,” he said. “They were happy with my performance and we have a verbal agreement for the full year. I’m just waiting to hear back from them once they get back to France. I’m also talking about doing Le Mans with them.”

Along with signing some genuine stars, the team has a reputation for accepting drivers with more money than talent, which has, at times, diluted their overall effort. Yacaman doesn’t expect that to be the case with OAK’s full-time Prototype program in America. “They aren’t fooling around here; they think this championship is really going to grow and they want to show how serious they are and they told me they don’t want to really take money’ guys who can’t produce for them here, so that’s a big factor for me. They also want to sell cars here, and they need good drivers to perform so they make that happen.”

Level 5 Motorsports Ferrari GTD driver Townsend Bell showed off one of the most popular new firesuit models in use during the test. Sparco’s HOCO TEX suit retails for $2300, looks light a light jumpsuit instead of the bulky multi-layer suits normally worn by drivers, and according to Bell, it’s barely noticeable in the car. “This thing is pretty amazing it must weigh less than a pound,” he said. “The fabric it uses is nothing like I’ve ever seen. It’s soft and light. Very cool.”

Race engineer Tom Brown helped turn Dragon Racing’s IndyCar season around when he joined the team at Toronto last year, aiding Sebastien Bourdais to score a second and a third at the 2 In T.O. doubleheader. The Frenchman would find the podium again at Baltimore and led comfortably on the Fontana oval until something broke on his car. With Brown’s stock on the rise in IndyCar, it was a surprise to see the Scot in the Daytona paddock with the CORE autosport team, where he’s returned to engineer their PC entry for team owner Jon Bennett and driver Colin Braun.

“I had some options in IndyCar, but they were all late-in-the-year deals, and I really liked working with CORE so coming back to work with them was an easy choice,” he told RACER. “They do everything you could want from my position, and they’re incredibly professional in everything they do. It’s one of the best teams I’ve worked with in any series.” Brown also expects to continue helping Dragon Racing in May, where team owner Jay Penske intends to field an entry on the road course and in the Indy 500.

Just as the Corvette DPs dominated the Prototype class last weekend, Porsche went one step further with its 911 GT America GTD cars posting five of the six fastest laps during the test. Flying Lizard Motorsports claimed the fastest GTD lap in its Audi R8, but P2-6 went to Porsches. Two R8s followed the Porsches and a Porsche closed the top 10, giving German cars every a lock on the 10 fastest GTD times. The best Ferrari F458 was 11th in class, the lone SRT Viper was 21st, the top Aston Martin was 23rd and the one BMW Z4 was 26th.

2013 Rolex GT champions Scuderia Corsa had a somewhat quiet outing at the Roar. Its red Ferrari F458s were far from fast, and as team owner Giacomo Mattioli told RACER, with the majority of the Prancing Horses resting in the bottom half of the GTD time sheets, IMSA might need to tweaks its Balance of Performance specifications.

“We’re waiting for it,” he said. “I was very surprised to see they took 200rpms away from us; there’s no reason for that. Hopefully we’ll get it back. Some of the manufacturers have new cars, so I understand they want to help them to be competitive, but they should not make some of the current cars slower to do this. I can only hope this balance is not final. Our car is reliable, which will allow us to be competitive, but I don’t think we will be a favorite if things stay the same. It’s very difficult right now.”

 
Dane Cameron got to grips with Turner Motorsport’s new BMW Z4 GTD car over the weekend, and as the lap times showed, there’s a lot of development that will be needed to move up the grid. “It’s a badass-looking car, so that’s good, but it’s a work in progress,” Cameron told RACER. “It’s the only GTD Z4 of its kind, and like we’ve seen with other new GT3 cars here, it takes time to get it sorted with the Continental tires, the (spec) Crawford rear wing and everything else that’s different about racing the car in America. We’ve had help from the Marc VDS team, we have (factory BMW driver) Augusto Farfus here helping and it’s an ongoing project, for sure. Like the GTLM BMWs, we’re hurting on top speed, so we’ll keep working on what we can and hope we get a break from the series.”

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