It was all change at the top of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship for the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona. The new GTP class brought a crop of never-raced LMDH cars, with new manufacturers Porsche and BMW joining Acura and Cadillac, new teams, and new technology. It was a dive headfirst into the unknown.
Twenty-four hours later, it looked very familiar. Cadillac vs. Acura. Meyer Shank Racing vs. Wayne Taylor Racing vs. Chip Ganassi Racing. And at the end, like a year ago, It was an MSR victory for Tom Blomqvist, Colin Braun, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud over WTR, another Acura one-two. It was the third Rolex 24 at Daytona victory for Shank and the second in a row for the team, Blomqvist and Pagenaud, and the third consecutive for Acura and Castroneves as all involved made history with the first LMDh victory in the new era of Grand Touring Prototype.
“The odds of this happening I gave probably five or 10 percent,” said Mike Shank. “This thing has been such a huge job and there’s 200 people from every department that made this happen to have it come together, win the race and finish one-two with Wayne Taylor and Andretti and us. It’s just amazing. I just don’t really know what’s going on. I’m a bit tired. I was so stressed. Our car had a gearbox problem all night. I mean all night. And we could not fix it. We decided just to run it until it blew up.”
It didn’t blow up, and the drivers weren’t even really aware of the problem that Shank said started at lap 200.
Acura, with both MSR and WTR, had been fast since the first session of Roar Before the 24 testing. MSR in particular led most of the sessions and scored a dramatic pole position thanks to Blomqvist. That pace advantage held throughout the race with the exception of some middle-of-the-night running.
“My life was made easier with the car that I had on under me today, and all week really,” said Blomqvist. “I can’t really thank everyone at HPD and Acura, ORECA and even WTR really, because this has kind of been a joint effort from from the early days. The first time we hit the ground running with this car, it was, ‘Wow, I think we’ve got something here.’ And every time we drove, we were quick and we obviously thought everyone was playing big huge games, because we’re always quick. I think it proves just how good our car is. And that’s just congratulations really to to everyone who’s been a part of this project.”
The No. 60 was especially strong on restarts, and if the car wasn’t already in front, it likely would be by the time the field got to the International Horseshoe.
“We were good at the restart. So I was confident with them behind that I could manage the situation better. But once the No. 10 got here, I was a little bit more nervous because I knew they were probably the second-fastest car on track. And I have enough experience with Filipe (Albuquerque; No. 10 WTR Acura)) to know he’s going for it if he sees an opportunity. But I just kept it cool, just trusted what I had and kind of just basically tried to get every little bit of performance out of the car, and thankfully I was able to do that. But my life was made a lot easier just this week by every single one of us at this team,” added Blomqvist
Wayne Taylor Racing’s Albuquerque, Ricky Taylor, Louis Deletraz and Brendon Hartley couldn’t mount a challenge at the end, despite pulling themselves into second from three laps down after breaking an oil filler tube that they attempted to fix, but couldn’t. On top of that, their planned strategy was thwarted by an equipment failure. Second was as good as they were going to get, ahead of the No. 01 Cadillac of Sebastien Bourdais, Renger van der Zande and Scott Dixon. That trio’s pace brought them back into the fight after getting rear ended early in the race, forcing them to change rear bodywork and go a lap down. Their sister car, the No. 02 of Richard Westbrook, Alex Lynn and Earl Bamber, was fourth after an intra-squad battle in the closing stage.
The No. 25 BMW Team RLL M Hybrid V8 was the first car to hit major trouble, and eventually would replace both an MGU and two batteries, and ended up 83 laps behind. The No. 24 BMW was never really on pace, but stayed in contention for the majority of the 24 hours. Porsche Penske Motorsports had difficulties with the No. 7 early, and it had two trips to the garage, replacing a battery in at least one of those. The No. 6 Porsche had potential to get into the fight until it expired with a little more than two hours to go. The No. 31 Action Express Racing Cadillac was running strong until pre-dawn contact with a GT car.
LMP2 was a comeback story in more ways than one. The No. 55 Proton Competition ORECA of Fred Poordad, Francesco Pizzi, James Allen and Gianmaria Bruni had a crash during the Roar, then a bigger one with Pizzi in the second practice session. The latter caused the biggest headaches for the team, as it forced them to miss the night practice – with two drivers required to have night drive time in order to drive in the dark during the race. One of those drivers received a waiver, the other didn’t, so they were down one driver during the night.
The team got the car back together in time to get a shakedown in the final practice.
Five cars entered the final stages of the race with a chance for victory, including the No. 52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports entry of Bean Keating Paul-Loup Chatin, Alex Quinn and Nicolas Lapierre that had been dominant in the early going. Chatin brought the car back into the fight after a penalty put them a lap down, but a late spin and stall for Lapierre dashed their hopes for victory.
Allen entered the closing minutes having to pass two cars — the No. 88 AF Corse car and the No. 04 CrowdStrike Racing ORECA to take the victory — an unlikely proposition.
“I honestly…didn’t really think we were in with much of a shot,” said Allen “I was behind the AF Corse car for quite a while and I could see the CrowdStrike car building a gap more and more and more. So by the time I did get past the AF Corse car, there was quite a distance and honestly, I was not at all thinking,‘Am I going to catch this guy?’
“Slowly but surely the gap sort of kept coming down and I could see that even from like the penultimate lap I was getting a good run. Going to the start finish line I actually got in front before for the start finish line, so I thought no point trying to force an issue or take any crazy risk, I’ve got the straight line speed, I can do it still. I didn’t come out the bus stop thinking, ‘Have I done this properly? Do I have enough? Do I have enough time? Have I got an exit good enough?’ And luckily I did and got him right at the line. I don’t think I was breathing coming out of (Speedway Turn 4) up to the start line. It was such a crazy moment for me. I don’t think I’ve ever had anything like that and I’m probably not sure I will ever again. It was really such an amazing feeling.”
Another look at the crazy finish in LMP2!
After 24 hours, James Allen wins by 0.016 seconds! #Rolex24 pic.twitter.com/41eY4LJOE7
— Motorsports on NBC (@MotorsportsNBC) January 29, 2023
Allen passed the No. 04 with only feet to spare, denying George Kurtz, Ben Hanley, Matt McMurry and Esteban Gutierrez victory in the team’s Rolex 24 debut by just 0.016s.
The AF Corse squad of Francois Perrodo, Matthieu Vaxiviere, Julien Canal and Nicklas Nielsen finished third.
LMP3 turned into a reliability run, with the No. 17 AWA Duqueine of Anthony Mantella, Wayne Boyd, Nico Varrone and Thomas Merrill winning that contest, finishing 12 laps ahead of the No. 33 Sean Creech Motorsports Ligier driven by Lance Willsey, Joao Barbosa, Nico Pino and Nolan Siegel. The No. 33 looked like a lock for victory, being two laps up, until the car had gearbox trouble.
“The other boys were laughing at me because every two minutes on the radio I was asking how long was left,” said Boyd of the AWA victory. “We were just in such a fortunate position at the end with how many laps we were ahead and that’s when things can go wrong. So it was just trying to position ourselves on the track and to avoid any trouble at all.”