The End of 2017 & 2018 Begins
Ulrich Kniep, February 24, 2018
The Petit Le Mans, Road Atlanta, was the last race of the 2017 season, ending with a collective sigh of relief. All went well and continues for 2018; DPI, LMP2, GTLM, and GTD competitively achieved close extraordinary racing. I believe the re-aligned Team Penske with their new Acura DPI car left no doubt they will be a force to be reckoned with in 2018. It’s a potent combination with drivers like Montoya, Castroneves, Pagenaud, and the addition of Curran, Taylor, and Rahal.
Congratulations to the organizing bodies who instituted BOP “Balance of Performance” adjustments, a clever way to ensure every car in each class performs on equal terms regardless of engine size, weight, horsepower, or aerodynamics. That’s quite an accomplishment and a long-time coming.
The LMP2’s deafening sound, in particular, those Gibson engines, are a little like the old V8 Cosworths with some spitting and coughing between gear shifts. I don’t know why, but I can’t get away from the theory that cars with loud engines just look and seem faster. If correct, the Porsches should be blindingly fast, yet the majority of the time they end up chasing the Fords, Corvettes, and Ferraris, not necessarily in that order. I know I’m wrong as proven by the GTLM Fords. No offense to any team, but they sound more like a snowmobile engine, yet that snowmobile-sounding engine could be a jet engine based on their performance. They’ve won Le Mans, Daytona and are extremely competitive here and across the pound. I guess I’m wrong.
The last three months drag on, boring until the 2018 season begins with the Daytona Roar. I’m ready for the first trip.
While the rest of the country is blanketed by snow-storms and frigid temperatures, the Daytona Roar in relative warmth at “The World Racing Center” Daytona International Raceway is revving up for the season start. The “Roar” is really an extended test session. It’s an opportunity for all teams to test their improved or new hardware for the 2018 season prior to the 24 hour race two weeks later.
Marketing sponsors are ingenious in knowing what entices race fans to attend, providing an Alonso or Stroll in LMP2. It works, fans like myself and thousands of others show every single time in anticipation of what’s to come. Everything here is going to be repeated with more intensity for the 24 hours and then the 12 hours of Sebring.
Daytona is not a Le Mans, nor is it a Spa or Sebring, more like a “Roman Colosseum,” well-lit, steep, very steep, high speed embankments, and an infield atmosphere that’s like a giant Rock n Roll concert. I can see the raucous Roman spectators yelling and screaming for more, except it’s the 21st century and we are dressed in our own version of toga shorts and t-shirts, yelling and watching race cars not chariots lead the battle.
As I left for home at the end, I knew I’d be back in two weeks for the actual 24 Hours of Daytona. What I call the first “real” race of the season. My camera developed a mechanical problem during the weekend and many photo opportunities were missed, specifically one where Alonso ran straight across my path. The damn thing just shut down. When I come back, the camera will be ready. No more missed shots.
The Rolex 24 at Daytona
For the last 25 years I’ve traveled here to watch the prototype and GT cars compete in the first “real” race of the season. With newly organized teams, cars, and regulations, it’s the best of North America with 25 country’s preeminent rivals participating. Every infield of the area is packed with RVs and tents. Parades of people walking to and from, crowded tight, speaking in foreign languages of every nationality, talking amongst themselves in a constant banter of excitement. Exhilarating to be here again!
The garages are bustling with mechanics working on the cars, inspecting every bolt and nut, changing parts or entire engines. Drivers, team members, media and marketing people all moving around in constant, almost orchestrated motion. Various teams are getting ready to practice the driver change required during the race. While one team practices other drivers from competing teams watch and jokingly make gestures in how slow their competitor is. Timing is everything during the driver change and precious moments can be lost if not accomplished smoothly and quickly.
Rene Rast, Tristan Nunez, and, Oliver Jarvis, driving for the new Mazda Team Joest, have fun watching the Jackie Chan team synchronize their drivers. If a driver is over 30 in this sport, specifically the LMP2 and the GT classes, then they are old. These guys are young in appearance, but absolute beasts when racing. In spite of the competition between each team and drivers there is an unmistakable level of camaraderie and respect for each other. They are a traveling “family,” these mechanics, engineers, drivers, and staff who pack up and meet again at the next race. It’s what they love and know.
One can’t ignore or at least be tempted to stop at one of the food vendors where the strong aroma of cooking food and tantalizing junk is calling to you. It’s $10 for a sausage and $8 for a bud light. There’s a crowd here as well. Most spectators bring their own grills, food and coolers. I did as well, but an occasional meal on the run is necessary to keep going for 24 hours. Grills are fired up everywhere as the mingled smoke and smells from burning charcoal, oil, and fuel waft up through the air with the added smell of juicy burgers, hotdogs and steaks. The ear-bursting music from your neighbor is part of the Daytona camping experience, usually until 4 or 5 a.m. Some bring ear-plugs for this reason only; others to make the racing experience more subdued as the engines scream and roar through the night around those tight turns. It’s a party atmosphere at Daytona and I can almost guarantee that no one sober ever gets a good night’s sleep, at best drifting in and out only to be awakened at five a.m. from the noise of the last beer can being popped.
It would be redundancy to the fourth power if I wrote about the actual race details so long after the race. By Sunday evening of the race or the latest by Monday morning, we all knew the most intimate particulars of the 24 hours of Daytona.
I’m too late in crafting my writing skills to rehash what you already know, but am still passionate to talk about this sport called racing. How this obsession for the sport takes hold of us I don’t know. But attach itself to our souls it does. Each race, each Daytona, Sebring, or Le Mans holds a place in our memory and this Daytona was no different.
The prototype No.5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPT Car achieved something never before accomplished during this race, covering 808 laps and driving over 2,876 miles with occasional but not much drama. Aside from a few yellows with some overheating, the intermittent flat tire or a minor incident, the race was flawless despite the evening rain.
The prototypes ran up front as expected with the No. 5 Cadillac continuing during this endurance race into the morning hours with a three lap lead. The race was won unless a problem developed. None of any consequence did. What a race it was. It may look smooth, but any endurance race is grueling and this one was no different. The Penske team looks strong as expected, a little unlucky during the race but for the upcoming racers no one should be surprised of a win early in the season.
The “snowmobile engines” of the GT Fords did win in both first and second position with their “jet engine” performances. Could it be that there was a little sandbagging going on in qualifying? I don’t know, but it did cross my mind. The Corvettes never could quite catch them.
The GTLM Hurricanes- what a show this one was. Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 67 Ford GT took first place over No. 66. The Grasser Racing Team definitely made an impression at this race winning with their No. 11 Lamborghini Huracan GTD. That’s not to pass over the astounding performance of Michael Shank Racing Team’s Acura NSX GT3. Watch this team very closely during the Sebring race.
The LMP2s. Ah, these teams are incredible. Who could forget their performance in the 2017 24 hours of Le Mans race when the Jackie Chan DC Jota team surprised everyone by almost winning that race. The same could have potentially happened in this race with the No. 54 CORE Autosport ORECO driven by Romain Dumas, Colin Braun, Loic Duval, and Jon Bennett. Finishing third, they won the Pro-Am Endurance class.
These DPIs and LMP2 prototypes are raw power unleashed at races, beautiful, gleaming, and streamlined with technology to push the limits of endurance.
As published in Sports Car Illustrated