It’s only January, but the 2016 international racing season gets underway this weekend as the Rolex Daytona 24 Hours kicks off the US-based IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
The circuit used at Daytona International Speedway poses a unique challenge in sports car challenge. After a tight and twisty in-field section at the start of the lap, the track swings out onto the steep banking of the fearsome tri-oval for three-quarters of a lap, broken up only by a bus stop chicane on the back straight.
To be quick at Daytona you need precision and bravery, particularly on the big, banked turns where even a small mistake can have dire consequences. At least overtaking is easy there, though not on the in-field where there is little margin for error, as some big crashes in recent years have shown.
This year’s edition of the race could prove to be one of the most unpredictable in years as yesterday’s wet qualifying session threw up some surprising results. Mikhail Aleshin was fastest in the headline prototype category, setting a time of 2:05.793 in SMP Racing’s Nissan-engined BR01 LMP2, over half a second quicker than Pipo Derani in the ESM Ligier Honda. By contrast, the bespoke Daytona Prototype machines were nowhere to be seen, fastest among them the WTR Corvette which was over two seconds off the pace.
Aleshin told IMSA.com: “I think the conditions were surprising for everyone. During qualifying I was never quite sure while braking for any turn if I was going to be on the optimal line and not hitting the wall – but this is racing. You have to take risks sometimes.”
But Aleshin wasn’t the fastest man on track. That honour went to 2015 Le Mans winner Nick Tandy, driving a works GTLM Porsche 911 RSR, with a time of 2:01.408, over four seconds quicker than Aleshin. Indeed, the treacherous conditions suited the heavier, more stable GT cars, which filled the top seven positions. Frederic Makowiecki was second in another Porsche, while John Edwards was third in the new BMW M6 GTLM. The hotly anticipated Ford GT could only manage ninth in class and 15th overall with Joey Hand at the wheel. But he was unconcerned about the new machine’s low key debut, saying: “Our main goal with this is not really to throw down the ultimate lap in this first race, it’s to finish 24 hours.”
It’s not unprecedented for a GT car to win a race overall quickest much quicker prototype machinery. Indeed Tandy himself did exactly that last year in a soaking wet Petit Le Mans. Conditions are looking better for the race, but the winter weather in Florida is almost as fickle as ours. If it does turn out to be a dry race, though, an overall win by a GT car would be highly unlikely.
The 54th Rolex Daytona 24 Hours gets underway at 2.40PM local time on Saturday 30 January.
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By Only Motors