The air at last year’s Roar Before the 24 at Daytona International Speedway was filled with a charge as ALMS and Grand-Am teams came together for the first big test of the new TUDOR United SportsCar Championship. One year later, the charge wasn’t as strong, but don’t mistake that as a negative statement about the series. If anything, last week’s Roar felt like a normal event – a series turning up to handle its business – and we learned a number of things about the season that lies ahead.
The obvious purpose behind the three-day test is for teams to get ready for the Rolex 24, and most in attendance accomplished their goals. Behind the scenes, the Roar also provides IMSA with its first (and last) snapshot of how the cars in three of its four classes perform relative to each other (the spec PC class being the exception).
The data generated from the test will allow IMSA to lockdown Balance of Performance tweaks leading into the race, yet as I mentioned in our notebooks last weekend, the gamesmanship among teams and manufacturers to hide the last few percentage points of outright speed from the series was on and cracking from the very first session.
Think of the efforts to cloak those final tenths of a second in the Prototype class as what you’ve seen in a marathon, or the Tour de France, where the lead pack is running quickly, but there’s a clear effort by almost everyone to match the leader’s pace – even if they’re capable of sprinting ahead.
Looking at the gap between the fastest Prototype car and the second-place runner in the six dry sessions on Friday and Saturday, the margins were 0.099, 0.120, 0.161, 0.027, 0.015, and 0.576 seconds.
Barring the big half-second gap turned in by defending Rolex 24 and series class champions Action Express Racing in the No. 5 Corvette DP (an ‘oops,’ if you ask me), a P2 with Honda power, Ford DPs, and the Corvettes all did a remarkable job of pacing each other at the test.
The new HPD ARX-04b P2 coupe (ABOVE RIGHT) was on a steep learning curve throughout the Roar, which limited the Tequila Patron ESM team’s outright speed, and the Krohn Racing Ligier JS P2-Judd was also quick at times, but wasn’t a regular visitor to the Prototype peloton.
Speaking with numerous DP team principals and drivers at the roar, there was a general note of surprise about the year-to-year increase in competitiveness among their P2 rivals, and of the P2 owners and drivers I spoke with, the sense of resignation that stifled their enthusiasm prior to the 2014 Rolex 24 was nowhere to be found.
We won’t know what kind of BoP changes to expect among DPs and P2s for a few more days, but we do know the numbers from the six dry sessions revealed Corvettes posted the fastest lap three times, followed by two from Ford and one by Michael Shank Racing’s Ligier-Honda (ABOVE). The fastest lap of the event also belonged to Corvette, thanks to Jordan Taylor’s 1:39.181 recorded Saturday morning.
It’s also worth looking at the cars that ran second in those sessions, and with the exception of the first and sixth outings where Corvette DPs went 1-2, sessions 2-5 saw a mix of Corvettes, Fords, or the MSR Ligier-Honda sharing the top two lap times. Another notable occurrence came on Friday where the Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Ford EcoBoost DPs led both outings on Friday, then fell back on Saturday, running no higher than second on one occasion.
If the Roar is an event where everyone tries to hide in plain sight from IMSA, Ford made a smart adjustment after Friday and let other teams take the top spot on the time sheets. MSR ran second on Friday with its standard downforce package, and led one session on Saturday after switching to its low-downforce kit. The Corvettes from AXR and WTR, which finished 1-2 in last year’s Rolex 24, dominated on Saturday with three out of four fastest laps and the aforementioned fastest lap of the event.
As expected, the DPs won the top speed battle on the banking, the P2s won the infield and in the braking zones, and with 40 or so cars from the other classes ready to cause drama throughout 24 hours of racing, the tug-of-war could be a good one. If there’s a concern, it’s the limited amount of fast and sorted P2 cars capable of mixing it up with DPs. If trouble finds the MSR car, it could be another round of DP domination.
Looking at the lap times and trap speeds, if you’re Scot Elkins, IMSA’s outgoing VP of technical regulations, it would be hard to tip the scale in favor of any Prototype manufacturer after the Roar, and he agreed with that assessment when we spoke this morning.
“From our standpoint, we’re still going through the data, but it looks like it was a pretty reasonable case of ‘don’t touch it’ in Prototype,” Elkins said. “The one car that looks like it could use a little help is the Ligier-Judd, so we’re going to see what needs to be done there; but overall, it looks like we’re going to go with what we’ve got.”
The one outlier in Prototype is the DeltaWing, which was quick like a bunny throughout the first two days of the test and even managed to post the fastest top speed – over 194mph – at the Roar. With some changes coming to the car for the race that should improve its reliability, its top-5 potential is quite high. The DWC13’s constantly changing technical specifications make it hard to gauge where the coupe will fall among the other Prototypes, but it could be ready to surprise the leaders.
The ACO-based GT Le Mans class saw Aston Martin, BMW, Corvette, and Porsche lead the six dry sessions, and many of those runs had first and second split by a tenth or less. Without going through a complete repetition of what I wrote about Prototype, apply the same gamesmanship to GTLM and any adjustment, as Elkins confirms, would be minor.
“GTLM looks pretty solid, and the one thing we need to keep reiterating is that the baselines the teams showed at the Roar is the speed we expect see in the race, and that’s not limited to GTLM,” he added.
The one outlier in GTLM was Aston Martin and its factory Vantage V8. The 2014 Rolex 24 was far from pleasant for the British team as the BoP relegated its entry to an afterthought, but with IMSA’s allowance of its low-downforce/drag Le Mans body pieces, the No. 98 car was swift throughout the Roar. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the rumbling Aston dialed back a touch when the final BoP figures are published.
The PC cars ran without a uniform engine spec at the Roar; the new, lower torque/higher peak power camshafts were not ready for every engine, and as a result, some cars tested with them while others will have them at the start of practice next week. We’ll have a better handle on how the field fits within the other three classes at Daytona once the race weekend gets under way, and with the stated goal of speeding the PCs up and creating some separation from the GT classes, I can only hope it comes to fruition.
GT Daytona stood out as the one class with some meaningful adjustments to be made in order to establish parity. Porsche’s 911 GT America led four out of the six representative sessions, and did so with three different teams. The Viper Exchange team led the other two sessions, and like Prototype and GTLM, most outings ended with small margins separating first and second place.
Defending class champions Turner Motorsport showed up with the strong urging from IMSA to partake in BoP data gathering for its BMW Z4 on Sunday, and was quick (in the wet) with Markus Palttala at the controls. I’d look for the Porsches to gain a bit of weight or lose some air flowing to the engine for the Rolex 24, and for Dodge to receive a similar downward adjustment. The TRG-AMR Aston Martin team had sporadic pace, and was impacted by a thrash to perform a complete chassis change overnight on Friday. They did not have clear running with its best drivers to give a proper account of their capabilities.
Audi’s R8 was quick at times with its two teams, while Ferrari appeared to struggle. The ratio of Pro to Pro-Am talent in the Prancing horse camp is, to be honest, a bit pear shaped and surely factored into their limited showing at the Roar. The F458 chassis in GTD trim was slowed via BoP as the 2014 season came to a close, and it looks like IMSA could unwind the screws a wee bit to bring the Ferraris into the conversation at the Rolex 24.
Turner’s BMW, which was unable to set speeds and times in the dry, could be GTD’s outlier depending on in and what kind of adjustments are sent its way.
Elkins wouldn’t name the model in need of the most BoP attention, but did concede GTD would likely have more adjustments than the other classes.
“Everything looked pretty reasonable, but there’s one manufacturer we need to do a little bit of work with,” he said. “Anything we do going into the race is going to be minor tweaks. We did fuel flow testing with every car on pit lane to see where their flow restrictors need to be, and we’ll adjust their capacities to fit what they need, too. We did that for everybody.”
Wind the clock back to last January, and the Corvette DPs were the fastest and most prepared among the Prototypes. This year, the Fords are on their game and could have some speed waiting in reserve. P2s, in a general sense, no longer look like second class citizens, and if reliability and crashes don’t intervene, we could see a memorable duel among V8s, turbos, tubeframes, and carbon fiber coupes.
GTLM has the same tantalizing potential, and if we’re lucky, a 10-deep swarm of factory and privateer GT cars will wage an epic, race-long battle royale. If it rains – and I’m talking a serious downpour for most of the event, put some money on one of the Michelin-shod GTLM cars to vie for the overall win.
The Porsche North America 911 RSRs nearly matched the Prototypes on Sunday at the Roar, and that was in a light drizzle. With the gummy Michelin wets and the weight sitting over the rear axle on the 911 RSRs, a repeat of the 2003 Rolex 24 results where TRG took overall honors could be on the cards.
PC is PC: They always put on a hell of a show, and will mingle among themselves until they reach the checkered flag.
GTD is the class that defied prediction at this point. Provided the two leading manufacturers at the Roar are brought in line, and the ones needing a boost are elevated, it should be another 24-hour blanket party.
We’ve seen the numbers, evaluated the lap times and trap speeds, sorted out the haves and have nots, and now it’s up to IMSA – and their teams and manufacturers – to do their annual pre-Rolex 24 dance.
The quality of the race is in the hands of the data crunchers and the lobbyists. Every team and every driver will insist they are at a disadvantage – even when it’s clear that some hold an advantage, and we’ll put our faith in the series to weed through the false pleas and rule in a fair and equitable manner.
Who will win the 53rd Rolex 24 at Daytona overall and in each of the three classes where BoP plays a major part of the outcome? We’ll have those answers on Jan. 25 shortly after the last car crosses the finish line.