DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—The IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship officially opened its 2017 season when cars took the track on the morning of Friday, Jan. 6 for the first of three days of the Roar Before the Rolex 24.
The Roar, as it is known, is the first public test for the teams planning to contest the Rolex 24 at Daytona a few weeks hence.
This year’s Roar has attracted 55 cars: twelve in the restructured Prototype class, five Prototype Challenge cars, eleven in GT Le Mans, and 27—yes, more than two dozen—in GT Daytona.
The list includes teams coming over from Europe to run the Rolex as preparation for over the World Endurance Challenge or ELMS, plus teams contesting the four-race North American Endurance Cup (NAEC)mini-series, plus one-off entries from teams which just want a shot at the prestige of winning one of the world’s most important 24-hour races.
Make no mistake: the Rolex has regained its status as an important endurance race, status it earned in the 1960s but surrendered after the turn of the century when North American sports car racing split into the American Le Mans Series and the Rolex Sportscar Series.
With the merger of the two series in 2014, and the steady development of the resulting IMSA sportscar championship, The Rolex is once again started attracting top teams from around the world, and more important, factory support from auto makers Aston Martin, Audi, Cadillac, Mercedes, Nissan, Lexus, Mazda, Acura, Ford, and Lamborghini, along with the staples, Corvette, Porsche, Ferrari, and BMW.
The Roar driver line-up shows the appeal of the race: it includes five-time Rolex winner Scott Pruett, four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon, and four-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon along with over 150 other drivers from around the world and across the racing spectrum.
The Roar Before the Rolex 24 continues with on-track action from 9 A.M. until 8 P.M. Saturday and until 3:45 P.M. on Sunday.
Roar tickets can be purchased at the gate or online at the Daytona International Speedway website.
Rebellion Quickest All Day
Multiple World Endurance Championship P1-Privateer champions Rebellion Racing had the quickest car on track in the morning session. This Swiss team, which has moved to the LMP2 class in WEC and will also contest IMSA’s NAEC with its P2 Oreca-Gibson.
Rebellion driver Neel Jani turned in a lap of 1.39.164 at 129.2 mph, 0.332 seconds quicker than the best effort of Ricky Taylor in the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R. Defending champion Dane Cameron, who set the fastest lap during the December tests in the #31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac, was third quickest at 1:41.140.
Rebellion repeated its rapid performance in the afternoon session, when Jani lapped at 1:39.160, marginally better than his morning effort .
The Swiss driver had never even visited Daytona, let alone raced there. “This is my first time at Daytona ever,” he said. “I saw the track today, the banking and how steep it is. You wonder … how can you drive on that? But, you get used to it quite quickly.”
Even though the car had done almost no running at all prior to the Roar, it was quickest in the class and extremely reliable. “I wouldn’t read that much into that,’ Jani joked, saying it was still early days, and also mentioned the car needed a lot of set-up work.
Ricky Taylor in the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac was the quickest of the DPis in both sessions, about seven-tenths slower that Jani, bespeaking the accuracy of IMSA’s initial efforts at balancing the two sub-classes.
The Dpis were quicker on acceleration, Jani noted—they had a definite edge in torque—but the P2s seemed to be better under braking. “You give up something at one end and get it back at the other end,” he explained.
Former Indianapolis winner Buddy Rice has returned to racing, and proved he hasn’t lost any speed by setting the quickest mark in the prototype Challenge class, lapping Daytona’s 3.56-mile road track in the #20 Bar1 Motorsports Oreca FLM09 in 1:44.025 at 123.1 mph.
Johnny Mowlem in the second Bar1 entry, the #26, was quickest in class in the second session with a significantly faster lap of 1:42.701.
Corvette Fights Ford in GT Le Mans
Jan Magnussen earned Corvette Racing top honors in the GTLM class, hustling the #3 C7.R around the banking and through the infield in 1:44.760 at 122.3 mph.
Ford got the edge in this age-old rivalry with Sebastien Bourdais in the #66 Ford GT setting quick time at 1:44.773—not up to Magnussen’s morning mark but quickest of the second session.
Ford brought a quartet of its quasi-prototype Ford GYs tp the Roar, and will for the Rolex. Plainly the factory wants its return to endurance racing to generate 50 years’ worth of stories, as its first assay did.
Connor De Phillippi in the #29 Montaplast by Land-Motorsport Audi R8 LMS was quickest in GTD, with a lap of 1:47.629 at 119 mph.
Former Continental Tirwe Sportsa Car Challenge champion Andrew Davis topped the afternoon session in GTD, with the #57 Stevenson Racing Audi R8 LMS GT3 setting a time of 1:47.553, slightly quicker than the morning mark.
During the December test days, the quickest cars are already lapping in practice more quickly than the pole winners from 2015 (2016 qualifying was slowed by rain, so times aren’t comparable.) Whether or not this year’s Rolex reaches a record distance depends mostly on caution periods and weather conditions, but if the race stays green, the cars are quick enough.