Cooper MacNeil was missing one trophy in his racing career, and after WeatherTech Racing won GTD PRO in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, he has it. MacNeil was racing in his final IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship race, stepping aside to concentrate on the family business. Running a full-season GTD PRO effort int he No. 79 Mercedes-AMG, the team brought Daniel Juncadella and Jules Gounon on board, supplemented by Maro Engel for the endurance races, and started the season in the best way possible.
“First win in 13 tries here at Daytona,” said MacNeil. “This is my last race that I’m doing, so honestly couldn’t be happier with with winning here with Mercedes, WeatherTech and Proton. It was a difficult race. You know the IMSA WeatherTech championship is one of the most competitive endurance sports championships in the world, certainly in America. And then you come here at Daytona and everybody talks about the watch and everybody strives to put everything together to win the watch. And that’s exactly what what we’ve done for 13 years in a row. We came close in ’15, finishing second, but this year, the Mercedes was in contention basically the whole time. That’s just a testament to the hard work from not only the team, the crew, WeatherTech, Proton all those guys and girls, but Mercedes as well. They build build one hell of a car and not only that, they give us a lot of tremendous support, both on and off track, and they give us their best drivers that they have with Maro, Dani and Jules.”
Engel had the finishing duty after waking up Saturday morning and saying that he’d had a feeling and wanted to finish, even though the plan was for Gounon to take the final stint. He ended up with a big fight on his hands – including getting shoved off track by a GTD car – with the No. 3 Corvette and the No. 14 Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3, as all three took several turns at the lead in the final hours.
“it was definitely a dogfight,” declared Engel. “And it always is a crazy exciting finish to this race, especially in the GT categories. The situation in the Kink, Turn 4, was a bit unnecessary, but we survived that scare. I had a pretty big jump through the air and sideways all crossed up, but was was able to gather together and not not slam into anyone coming back on track. Yeah, then it was just a big fight between the Lexus the Corvette and us and so happy to deliver this this result altogether for the WeatherTech racing family.”
Jordan Taylor, Antonio Garcia and Tommy Milner finished second in the No. 3 Corvette, a much happier result than last year’s first race in GTD when the car had no pace. Ben Barnicoat, Jack Hawksworth and Mike Conway were third for Vasser Sullivan Lexus.
After several competitors struck trouble, Heart of Racing found itself not only scoring a GTD victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, but doing so ahead of the entire GTD field including the PRO class. The No. 27 Aston Martin Vantage driven by Roman De Angelis, Marco Sorensen, Ian James and Darren Turner used the fact that it was out front with one or more GTD PRO cars between them and the competition to great advantage and managed a 5.363s victory over the No. 44 Magnus Racing squad to make it an Aston Martin one-two.
“I actually think having that buffer helped us a little bit, but in the end when I had this power cycle that I had to do on track, we were kind of a little bit behind again,” said Sorensen, referring to a moment late in the race when the car stopped and he had to reset the electronics. “So it all kind of moved around during during the race. We were definitely one of the quickest cars out there I would say and had the pace to be in the front. So having the pro cars in between, in the end at least, I kind of just knew that we had to work to stay in front of them and that would help help a lot.”
It was a great start to De Angelis’s defense of the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship GTD title as he embarks on a full-season campaign with Sorensen.
“It’s still kind of surreal to be here,” De Angelis declared. “I think especially for Ian… I think he said it’s his 21st start and to finally win it, I’m super fortunate to have won with him, having done my first one with him and that’s kind of where our relationship started. But it’s just very emotional. I hope the pictures don’t come out of me bawling my eyes out when won; it’s pretty embarrassing! I’m just super happy for the Heart of Racing. Everybody who I was co-driving with did an amazing job.”
The drama in GTD began on Thursday morning, when Lucas Auer crashed the No. 57 Winward Racing Mercedes-AMG that Philip Ellis had qualified on pole last Sunday. Auer suffered broken vertebrae in the crash, and the car was destroyed. The Winward crew flew back to Houston to grab the car the team campaigned last season, drove it to Daytona with an early Friday arrival, then embarked on an all-night thrash to get the car ready for the race.
Starting at the back, Russell Ward had a monster stint to get the car near the front. It would be in the thick of the fight for the lead for the rest of the race, including with last-minute sub for Auer Daniel Morad at the wheel, until a late-race restart. Ellis was trying to charge through the GTD PRO cars to get to the Heart of Racing Aston when he made contact with the No. 3 Corvette, breaking suspension bits and putting pay to the potential Cinderella story.
The No. 32 Team Korthoff Motorsports Mercedes-AMG with Mike Skeen, Mikael Grenier, Kenton Koch and Maximilian Goetz seemed best poised to take advantage of Winward’s struggles, and was at the front for the majority of the event until darkness gave way to morning light. That was when the team experienced a brake problem that took several laps to repair; After a promising run, they ended up 15th, 20 laps down.
John Potter, Andy Lally, Spencer Pumpelly and Nicki Thiim finished second in the Magnus Racing Vantage after showing they had the pace to run up front from the first session of the Roar. Third was the No. 70 Inception Racing McLaren 720S of Brendan Iribe, Ollie Millroy, Frederik Schandorff and Marvin Kirchhöfer.
The No. 66 Gradient Racing Acura NSX GT3 Evo22 had a strong run given it was one of the driver’s GT3 debut. GTD rookie Sheena Monk and Katherine Legge made their deal to run the car late, and supplemented by Acura GT3 ace Mario Farnbacher and Gradient’s Marc Miller, they ran to fourth, seventh overall in the GT field.