The 24 Hours of Daytona.
No other race in North America carries this much suspense and anticipation. It's our crown jewel race, and is considered a leg of the Triple Crown of endurance motorsport--along with Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring. Such prestige means that not only the best race car drivers on this side of the Prime Meridian strap helmets on--but hot shoes from all over the world vie for seats and the chance to go down in motorsport history as a winner here. Daytona sets the mood for the season, and helps both fans and teams alike hedge their bets for the year--determining who's a threat and who needs to go back to the drawing board. The Roar Before the 24 is supposed to carry that torch, but since everyone is sandbagging anyway (see how IMSA's new Big Brother technology is making it harder to do that), we usually reserve judgment for the main event. Daytona itself is the measuring stick, and this year was no different.
What we learned this year:
The DeltaWing will dominate the Prototype class...
...if it can keep from blowing up. This high school weirdo of a car showed shocking speed with none of its usual 'splody characteristics, and actually lead the race for quite a while before crashing out in the 4th hour.
The new HPD motor in Michael Shank Racing's Ligier may be his redemption for making the early jump to the P2 chassis from DP.
MSR retired in the 10th hour due to an engine failure, but that may have just been a fluke, as the same motor won the race overall in ESM's Tequila Patron-liveried Ligier. Before the retirement, both cars shared the lead.
The Ford GT is FAST. Like...fast fast.
Despite reliability issues leading to a disappointing finish way down in the order, it was clear to everyone watching that the new Ford is just as threatening as its bodywork suggests. The alarming speed with which is reeled in its GTLM competition on the high banks had Corvette fans' stomachs in knots.
Lamborghini should have been racing here years ago.
Even though they missed the podium, the Huracáns posted the fastest lap times in GTD. Sure, the V10 power has to help, but we can't help but wonder how well that familiar slippery "raging bull" shape would have done at this race in decades past.
GTD is THE class to watch this year.
As if trying to make up for being the slowest (barely) class, GTD serves up the most variety. And if the (as yet unofficial) race results are anything to go by, that variety also comes with perfectly-matched performance. Every GTD manufacturer is represented in the top 10 finishers in the class, and the top 7 read more like car-eligibility list than a finishing order. Audi R8, Porsche 911 GT3 R, Dodge Viper GT3-R, Aston Martin Vantage GT3, Lamborghini Huracán GT3, BMW M6 GT3, Ferrari 458 GT3. Only in 8th place do the models begin to repeat--and in nearly identical order too.
Most of the new cars can go the distance.
For the teams, there's only a short time between Petit Le Mans in October, and the Roar. Every year, some team(s), barely gets their cars in on time for the Roar or may even be waiting until the big race itself. This year, Scuderia Corsa and Risi Competizione had to wait until nearly the last hour for their 488s (actually, Scuderia got their 488 GTE for GTLM, but won't get their new 488 GT3 for GTD until Sebring). For those guys, Daytona is either just another test session or a lost cause. Both 488s entered in GTLM finished, and did so in the top 10 in class. As mentioned earlier, both Ford GTs had issues during the race, but were able to return and finish. The BMW M6 was very strong. The No. 100 looked great until crashing into retirement, and the No. 25 finished in the top 5. In Prototype, Mazda debuted a new gasoline motor in both of its Lola-Multimatic chassis, and wore the #55 on one in homage to their Le Mans win 25 years ago. The cars showed much better pace than they ever did with the diesel power plants. Unfortunately, 24-hour victory would not be in the cards for the team this year. Both cars retired with mechanical failures. Over half of the GTD-eligible cars are brand new models from Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini, and BMW. At the end of the race, only 3 were counted as "Not Running": two due to crashes, the third from running out of fuel in the closing laps. Overall, a good showing, and testament to the reliability and hardiness of new race cars right out of the box.
There is over a month before the next race of the season at Sebring. It is not only the second stop of the regular season, but also the second leg of the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup. The time will give teams who had reliability issues a chance to get things figured out for another grueling test of endurance. What you can't learn or break in 24 hours at Daytona, you will learn (and break!) during 12 hours at Sebring. The notoriously rough course is also our next trip during the North American racing season, and we'll be back to see if our Daytona assessment of the competition holds up.