There’s an old adage, “To finish first, first you must finish.” Back in the day in endurance racing, that meant saving your car, running as conservative a pace as you dared, and only pushing if absolutely necessary. The reason had everything to do with mechanical reliability.
But times have changed. Prototype sports cars such as the Cadillac DPi-V.R are so reliable that they can be pushed to the limit even over the course of a twice-around-the-clock race like the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Today, to finish first, first you must…drive it flat-out from the start.
“Being on the edge, and on the limit of things for such a long period of time is intense,” says two-time Rolex 24 winner Jordan Taylor. “Your heart rate is up; the mental and physical capacity all comes into play, especially if you’re behind the wheel for a three-hour stint. By the end of it, the racecar’s fine, but you’re exhausted…”
Thanks to fighter-pilot levels of G-forces during braking and cornering, the physical demands on a driver are high. But at a place like Daytona International Speedway, there is still a chance for a driver to catch their breath and relax a little, if only for a moment. Astonishingly, that tends to be at full throttle while riding the storied Florida track’s famous banking.
“Sure, I can hold my head up quite easily,” says Jordan’s Wayne Taylor Racing teammate, Renger van der Zande. “But right from the start of a stint, as soon as I get on the banking, I always relax by resting it on the headrest. Recovery and conserving energy is so important, so out on track, you find moments to save every little bit you can.”
Between driving stints is intense, too – and perhaps just as critical as when a driver is behind the wheel. According to van der Zande, it’s key to eat, rehydrate and sleep every chance he gets. Every driver has their own routine, but they all amount to the same thing: to be mentally and physically ready when you climb back in that racecar.
The multi-class racing in the WeatherTech Championship adds to the mental challenge. At one time, prototypes had a speed advantage on the straights as well as through the turns. But with the low-downforce GT Daytona class cars going like stink in a straight line now, much of the traffic has to be dealt with in the turns, making it all the more fraught.
“When you’re racing through traffic, you have to be so focused,” says Taylor. “You’re working with some extremely diabolical variables. Is it the professional or amateur driver in the car you’re about to pass? Are they going to see me? Is it better to go inside or outside? How is their car handling? You’re sometimes having to do this several times per lap. You’re making split-second decisions, but without backing off, because you’ve probably got another prototype right on your tail.”
Think about that for three hours at a time…
“There are lots of fast drivers, but you want someone who’s going to gel with you,” says Jordan Taylor, summing up the importance of driver chemistry to the success of a sports car team.
But finding an optimum combination of drivers is no easy task. Driven, ambitious and competitive people are not always known for their ability to share. Yet sports car racing is a team sport, just as much as basketball or football, so finding a way to make the sum of these potentially volatile parts greater than the whole is essential.
“With Renger (van der Zande) joining the team last year, there weren’t any ego issues,” says Taylor. “That’s key to it. If one of us found something on-track that could help the other, we were always eager to share the info. Having guys like Fernando (Alonso) and Kamui (Kobayashi) come in for Daytona is another opportunity to learn and benefit from their experience.”