Countdown to the Rolex 24: GTP

Michael Levitt/Lumen

Countdown to the Rolex 24: GTP


Countdown to the Rolex 24: GTP


Call it a renaissance. Call it a revolution. Call it a new dawn. Call it a golden age of sports car racing. However you want to frame it, there’s no question that the LMDh formula, convergence between IMSA, ACO and FIA, and parity with the Hypercar platform are an exciting new beginning.

Call the eventual champs of the inaugural WeatherTech SportsCar Championship? Not even going to try. Definitely not if there’s money on the line.

Four new race cars from four manufacturers run by six teams. The addition of electrification with a spec hybrid system. New pit stop procedures. For everything that is proven and familiar, there is something new. Even the name of the class, Grand Touring Prototype, is familiar, but also new again.

This weekend’s Rolex 24 At Daytona is the debut of the new class with an old name, and it’s generated an excitement that hasn’t been seen in years. WeatherTech Championship stalwarts Acura and Cadillac are returning with the ARX-06 and V-LMDh respectively. Porsche is in IMSA prototype competition for the first time since the RS Spyder with its new 963, joining forces with Penske Motorsports, which ran the RS Spyder program in the beginning (and also launched Acura’s DPi program). BMW comes back to prototype racing after an even longer absence, having last competed at the top levels of sports car racing in 2000 with the V12 LMR, and bringing its longtime U.S. partner in RLL along to campaign the M Hybrid V8.

The various strengths of each program are easy to pick out. Acura and Cadillac have tons of recent IMSA prototype racing experience, with a quartet of strong teams between them. No manufacturer has more sports car racing experience than Porsche, and few race teams in history have performed better than Penske (not to mention the on-again, off-again relationship goes back to Roger Penske racing a 550 Spyder). BMW has its engineering expertise and the strength of RLL, which has run successful campaigns in IndyCar and sports cars.

The LMDh cars are longer, wider and heavier than the DPi racers they replace. They have more power and less downforce. The total combined output of the internal combustion engines and the Bosch-supplied MGU, which can deliver 67hp, is 670hp. The hybrid system is spec, but the software is up to the manufacturers, meaning there is some leeway in how and when the power from the electric motor is supplied. It is an entirely new prospect for the teams to wrap their heads around.

Is Porsche-Penske domination a slam dunk? Well, not quite. Richard Dole/Lumen

At first glance, there’s a certain, “Well, duh!” factor to this. How do you bet against the might of Porsche and Penske? Well, all these manufacturers and teams have taken the fight to, and won, against Penske and Porsche at various times and in various series in the past couple of decades. And there are too many variables with so much new this season.

“It’s exciting. I truly believe it’s a prime time for sports car racing,” declares Felipe Nasr, the 2021 WeatherTech Championship DPi champion with Pipo Derani for Action Express and Cadillac. Nasr will be driving the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports 963 with Matt Campbell, and Michael Christensen joining in for endurance events. “It’s a great opportunity for drivers, for manufacturers, for teams to to really showcase this new regulation. And the cars look awesome, they drive great. A lot of good competition out there. All I can say it looks pretty promising. And it’s been quite some time — we’ve been hoping for something like this merge to really happen.”

The other car from Porsche Penske Motorsports, No. 6, will be driven by Mathieu Jaminet and Nick Tandy for the full season, supplemented by Dane Cameron for the endurance events. Porsche had the earliest start among the manufacturers, getting on track nearly a year ago, and the most testing miles as it measured and refined the durability of the 4.6-liter, twin-turbo V8 and other components of the Multimatic-built chassis. Many of those miles, however, were testing the spec hybrid components from Bosch, Williams Advanced Engineering and Xtrac. We’ll have a better idea how that testing paid off on Sunday.

Cadillac will have two partner teams fielding its V-LMDh. Jake Galstad/Lumen

Cadillac had less time, but was almost as aggressive in its testing program as Porsche as it prepares to run its 5.5-liter naturally aspirated V8-powered V-LMDh in the WeatherTech Championship. Unlike Porsche, Cadillac is splitting its efforts between two partner teams, Chip Ganassi Racing and Action Express Racing. CGR will run the No. 01 Cadillac for Sebastien Bourdais and Renger van der Zande, one of two driver pairings returning intact from 2022. Scott Dixon is the third for the Rolex 24. AXR’s No. 31 will be piloted by Pipo Derani and new partner Alexander Sims, with Jack Aitken joining in for the endurance races. In addition, CGR is adding the No. 02 car at Daytona with Earl Bamber, Alex Lynn and Richard Westbrook as they prepare to run the World Endurance Championship. The amount of testing aside, the teams are facing much uncertainty.

“I think everybody’s feeling unprepared; it’s the general feeling when you have a brand-new car and you show up to Daytona, being a January race, the hardest one of them all,” said Bourdais. “You can never feel prepared, and even less so when it’s a brand-new car with a brand-new set of rules like this. The time frame was was tight. There’s been a lot of testing, but mostly reliability, tire testing and all our procedures and car balance. We’ve really just scratched the surface. The last time we were here, we didn’t even know what the amount of energy was going to be, what kind of BoP we’re going to be on. So it’s just so much to try and figure out that you’re always going to show up and feel unprepared. But I think everybody’s worked really hard at at Cadillac and I’m just looking forward to get going with the challenge.”

Cadillac partnered with Dallara for the V-LMDh, just as it did with its DPi car, so that may lend an air of familiarity for a small team like AXR, which took the DPi title in 2021. Derani is guardedly optimistic that the team is ready for the challenge.

“It’s the beginning of a new era, which is great to be part of and we’re all very excited. But with some sort of cautious feeling to it, because it’s still so early in the project on our side of the garage, and I believe in everyone else’s as well. With the amount of complexity of the cars, you always want more testing — you’ll never feel like you are fully prepared. But I think with the amount of testing we did, considering the new regulations and the amount of new things, I think we’re fairly confident that what we got done, it’s gonna help us a little bit to not suffer so much.”

Meyer Shank Racing’s Acura has been the rabbit of the GTP field thus far. Richard Dole/Lumen

Acura rolled out its 2.4-liter twin-turbo V6-powered ARX-06 built with partner ORECA shortly after Cadillac. The car has been quick out of the box, setting fast times nearly every session for the Roar Before the 24 before Tom Blomqvist put the No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing with Curb Agajanian ARX-06 on pole for this weekend’s 24-hour race. Blomqvist will share the No. 60 with Colin Braun as he attempts to defend the drivers championship he won last year with Oliver Jarvis.

“I believe ORECA, Acura and HPD have built a really good car, fast car,” Blomqvist says. “Now it’s down to making sure we iron out any reliability issues, everything we may or may not encounter, and then for the teams to execute and get the most out of the package. It’s going to be a real intense season — it was strong last year, there were some good cars but this year, it’s even harder. The competition has raised to another level.”

The second Acura will be campaigned by Wayne Taylor Racing, recently partnered with Andretti Autosport. The 2002 championship came down to a fight between MSR and the WTR No. 10. Ricky Taylor and Filipe Albuquerque are the other driver pairing in addition to van der Zande and Bourdais to return intact. Louis Deletraz will also be in the car for the endurance races, with Brendon Hartley in the lineup for Daytona.

“I think you want to keep something consistent,” says Taylor. “We’re very lucky to have that in the driver lineup. We have Louis and Brendon coming into the team, but they’re definitely not short of experience. So just the car is really new. But that’s what all the focus is on for learning for this year.”

With the least time in testing, BMW M Team RLL might be the stealthiest of the GTP contenders. Richard Dole/Lumen

BMW has had the least testing of its pair of M Hybrid V8s. BMW partnered with Dallara to build the car powered by a 4-liter twin-turbo V8 derived from the marque’s DTM program, and chose longtime GT racing partner BMW M Team RLL to field the car in IMSA competition. Nevertheless, like Cadillac, the team got through the Roar relatively trouble-free, although seldom near the top of the time sheets.

It’s been a long time since BMW has run a prototype, and while team principal Bobby Rahal has extensive experience racing sports cars, his team hasn’t fielded a prototype — although it is a winning IndyCar Series outfit. The drivers, by and large, have come from the GT ranks. So for BMW, everything is coming from a different direction than with the other manufacturers and teams. Connor De Phillippi, who will partner with Nick Yelloly in the No. 25 BMW, sees that as a positive.

“I’m never a big fan of, ‘This is how we ran in the past, this is how we have to do it,’” he says. “I’m a big fan of open ideas. We’re relying a lot on our engineering staff, so we have a lot of experienced guys. Todd Malloy’s my race engineer — he’s been an IndyCar, he knows he knows what he’s doing. So I have all the faith in the world in him.

“We’ve run through quite a few setups, different philosophies; we’re still trying more. We’re not locked into, ‘This is how you have to run the car,’ which is good. It allows us drivers to give feedback and make the car how we want to drive it, because what works for one guy maybe doesn’t work for another. So I think it gives us a little bit of an advantage to find a little bit more speed. Maybe we don’t start running as quick as the others do, because they have that initial baseline. But I think it allows us to kind of have a free mind and try to find our own own package that’s going to be most efficient for our car.”

Phillipp Eng and Augusto Farfus will be the full-season pairing in the No. 24 BMW, Marco Wittmann and Colton Herta joining for Daytona. Herta is also on the entry list for the No. 25 for Daytona, along with Sheldon van der Linde.

With everything being new, there’s little to base expectations on, beyond manufacturer and team reputation and the time they’ve had to prepare. Acura has shown the pace throughout the Roar Before the 24, but nobody knows what the reliability of any of the cars will be. The Rolex 24 At Daytona will likely be littered with mechanical failures despite the thousands of miles of testing. The team that overcomes them most quickly, both in the race and in post-event dissections and analysis, is likely to be the team that comes out on top at the end of the year.