P4-2018-04 – Too Fast to Win
By Tom Fielitz
The Rolex 24 at Daytona is an iconic race that every manufacturer wants to win. This year marked the seventieth anniversary for Porsche in racing and twenty years since Vic Elford won overall at the 24 Hours of Daytona in a 907. The Porsche goal this year was not an overall victory, but instead a victory in the prestigious GT Le Mans class. This production based class is now the focus for the big manufacturers like Porsche, BMW, Chevrolet, Acura, Ferrari and Ford. Each manufacturer has a huge investment in two car teams with no expense spared for drivers or equipment. Now that Porsche has dropped out of the top tier prototype racing, all of their effort is going into a pair of 911 RSRs that might as well be prototype cars due to their race chassis and mid-engine placement. In other sanctioned race organizations, Porsche has found ways to work the rules to gain advantage. But, this is the IMSA Weather Tech Sports Car Championship and they have found a balance of performance formula that effectively equalizes the competition. Go too fast and your car will be slapped with extra weight, restricted air inlet size or fuel limits. If you are found sand bagging your performance the penalties can be severe. The rules may seem draconian, but the competition equates to close racing and unpredictable finishes.
At the Rolex 24, being the first race of the season, it is always fascinating to see what each manufacturer has brought new to the competition. All the teams save their best effort for qualifying and put their top driver behind the wheel. Corvette took the pole position with an outstanding effort from Jan Magnussen, only one second behind the slowest of the 20 prototype entries. Joey Hand was only .019 seconds behind in a Ford GT. Porsche qualified third and fourth with Laurens Vanthoor and Patrick Pilet both just .1 second behind. Porsche definitely had the speed so now it would come down to race strategy and endurance, both Porsche strong points.
Besides the balance of performance, IMSA has a race format that equalizes the competition. In the occurrence of a yellow flag, the field bunches up and cars that are a lap behind are able to pass the pace car and make up the lap. In past races, this has meant that many cars would remain on the same lap and the advantage of faster cars was negated. Teams count on this strategy and often have won the race with good pit work. Things like fuel mileage and tire wear can determine the winner in the last hour of the race.
The 2018 Rolex 24 was not going to be one of those races. In theory having a field of 20 very fast prototype entries driven by the elite of racing drivers would have thrown the race into chaos. In past races the differential in speed between the three classes of cars caused many collisions and yellow flags. In this race, the GT Daytona and the GT Le Mans cars had almost equal top speeds and were only about ten miles per hour slower than the prototype cars. Also, the driving talent was so high and equal that there were only minor collision incidents. The bigger issue was the number of flat tires that occurred. The other factor was the weather. Daytona usually has a rainy period that tests every driver’s skill. This race had only a brief shower during the night time that was so light that most teams stayed on slick tires. A driver mistake or mechanical glitch that caused a long pit stop could take a car instantly out of contention. This was the case for RSR car number 911. The Pilet, Tandy and Makowiecki entry went into the tire wall twice in solo wrecks and fell many laps behind the leading cars. The 911 entry ran second several times and even led the race briefly when the rains came. As the race progressed, the Ford GT team covered the first two places with a Corvette close behind. The Porsche RSR number 912 finished sixth, but eight laps behind the winning Ford. Porsche will have to wait until next year and wonder how fast they need to go to win once again.
In the GT Daytona class for private teams, Porsche had three groups fielding a 911 GT3 R but they faced eighteen other strong GT3 class contenders with factory based cars from Lamborghini, Mercedes, Acura, Lexus and Ferrari. Ferrari took the front row and the Wright Motorsports GT3 R qualified ninth-a full second back. On the warm up lap leading to the start, the Wright Porsche GT3 threw the race away right before my eyes. Aggressively weaving to warm up the tires, the car violently speared into the guard rail just beyond the Porsche Coral. It spent most of the first hour of the race being rebuilt in the garage. At the end of the race, the highest placing GTD Porsche was the Park Place Motorsports GT3 R finishing eighteenth in class and 77 laps behind the winning Lamborghini)
The 56th running of the Rolex 24 was more like the race used to be twenty or thirty years ago when a team could win with pace and flawless execution and have a multiple lap advantage over its rivals. As expected the pace was so fast that the winning GT Le Mans class Ford GT covered 783 laps or 2,787 miles, easily eclipsing the prototype record of 762 laps set back in 1992. The prototype class went an astonishing 808 laps which should stand for many more decades.