“You would have put quite a lot of money on it just being staggered — someone is on the lead lap, someone is 10 laps down — and it came down to the very end,” said Honda Performance Development President David Salters after the 61st Rolex 24 At Daytona.
Salters was, naturally, in a jovial mood. The two Acura ARX-06s in the field finished one-two. Meyer Shank Racing with Curb Agajanian won its second consecutive 24-hour race with the brand with Tom Blomqvist, Colin Braun, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud over the Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Autosport squad of Filipe Albuquerque, Ricky Taylor, Louis Deletraz and Brendon Hartley. Finishing on the same lap, but on this day perhaps not quite in the same league, were the two Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillacs.
It was a result few expected. The GTP cars were all new, unproven and unraced. It was repeatedly stated that the attrition rate would be high with many of the cars predicted to spend significant time in the garage. Even Pagenaud said he thought it would be the “24 hours of mechanics.” And while the four cars that finished on the lead lap experienced some small issues, four others — two each from BMW and Porsche — experienced major issues.
But the Acuras and Cadillacs rolled on with no significant problems and good speed. The Acuras, though, were particularly quick, and especially the No. 60 with Blomqvist at the wheel. So when the might of Penske and Porsche didn’t meet expectations, how did Acura come up with the winning formula to conquer all in the first race for the new LMDh formula?
“I think the lovely thing is now, none of us need to talk about BoP,” Salters says. “It was the same. The aero box was the same, we measure the power on the rear axles, and the weight of the car was the same.
“So knowing that, when we grabbed the rulebook two years ago, how do we make the best car? I think if you go and look at the car and the packaging of the engine and stuff and the fact that we made a brand-new hybrid powertrain, you’re looking for such small differences everywhere, and we tried to do that within the framework of what we’re allowed to do.”
The LMDh formula is a pretty tight envelope, and one that’s not particularly stretchy. Weight and maximum power defined and well-regulated. Single adjustable aerodynamic device. A maximum downforce level across a set of circumstances. Spec hybrid unit. There’s not a lot to play with.
“The aero box, the weight, the engine power, trying to just make the car… I’ve been lucky enough to work with some legends, let’s say, and light and low to the ground was pretty good, and in the middle of the car was pretty good, so you’ll see some methodology about our car that’s much more sophisticated when it comes down to weight distribution. It comes down to all the things that make a car, but the car is the sum of its parts, so we sort of concentrated on each bit. There’s never a smoking gun in this stuff. There’s all the bits of the car that go to make it fast, but we concentrated on each one to make the best race car that we could — and I guess we did,” Salters says.
Much was made of Porsche’s head start in testing, and its endurance tests that included a 26-hour test on the bumps of Sebring. But it didn’t matter. One of the Porsche Penske Motorsports 963s had several visits to the garage for ESS problems. The other ran well until late in the race before stalling twice then expiring in a puff of smoke, Porsche stating it suffered a gearbox failure. The Acuras and Cadillacs (the No. 31 Action Express Racing Cadillac V-LMDh finished 12 laps down due to repairs from contact, not mechanical failure) just kept going. It wasn’t perfect, but it was close enough. And between Acura and Cadillac, Acura, especially MSR’s entry, had the edge on speed.
“You’re trying to push the development as far as you can, but make sure you make it work,” Salters explains. “I would always go on the side of, make the fast car first, so we probably did in one continuous run with the car, four or five hours. But we did lots and lots of that. And then on the dyno, we have a full hybrid powertrain. That thing did tens of thousands of miles, and the car did tens of thousands of miles. We just didn’t put it all together (into a 24-hour run). But apparently it’s OK.”
Acura won the Rolex 24 At Daytona and occupied two-thirds of the podium, but don’t expect the crew at HPD to spend a lot of time celebrating. The 24 taught them hundreds of lessons, and next up is Sebring, a track where its DPi car never saw a lot of success. It’s straight back to work.
“We’re still learning the car. A car is the sum of its parts. We’ll regroup — what can we do better? We did some things great, and some things we had to put to one side. We’ll see there are some things we didn’t do great, so we’ll have a review and figure it out,” Salters says.
“It’s how you manage energy. The software of this car is open — that’s lovely. That’s helped us attract actually the next generation of engineers. If you go and wander around our pit stand, it’s a very diverse, young group now, which is awesome, to be honest with you. So we’ll keep pushing. We’ll find some areas. Out teams are brilliant, and we’re still learning a bit the setup of the car. We’ve made great strides, but we started a bit late, honestly speaking.”
Salters was justifiably pleased with the efforts of his teams. But he knows however successful they were, they won’t always be as the season goes on. There will be trials — there will be times when competitors are quicker and they will be beaten. Salters considers that all part of the program.
“There wasn’t much in any of it, to be honest with you, so massive respect to our competitors,” he says. “They’re world class; we’re world class. These are the biggest companies in the world, aren’t they? They definitely know what they’re doing. So both of us, between us and GM, we’re game fit. We’ve just come off the end of a pretty hectic season, and back to it. I think probably ‘match fitness’ is the right word. That just means the others are coming, and it’s going to be amazing, isn’t it?
“Isn’t that brilliant for our fans — Acura fans, IMSA fans, all the manufacturers’ fans? And in terms of sports car racing, all the people on pit lane at the start of this race, I’ve never seen anything like that. That was astonishing, And it’s real racing — ding-dong, right to the end, 24 hours. How does that work?