IMSA Wire: BMW Wins Emotional GTLM Victory in Rolex 24

After more than 22 hours of tight competition, the weather forced an unprecedented early ending to the Rolex 24 At Daytona, but the racing and star players kept things dramatic and interesting for the whole span of the twice-round-the-clock event.
A second red flag flew at Daytona International Speedway Sunday afternoon because of heavy rain showers with an hour and 45 minutes remaining in the scheduled race – the first time in history the race has had two red flags. And after much discussion, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series executives decided to call the 24-hour race official – 10 minutes early – because of the bad weather.
Two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso, who drove the final stint for the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac, earned the overall victory for the team – the organization’s third total and Alonso’s first. He joins elite company with fellow F1 champions Mario Andretti and Phil Hill – to have also won a sportscar race at Daytona. 
Brazilian Augusto Farfus was the driver of record for the winning GT Le Mans (GTLM) class driving the No. 24 BMW Team RLL BMW M8 GTE team – having flown in as a substitute for the team’s regular driver Tom Blomqvist, who had travel issues. Americans Connor De Phillippi and Colton Herta, along with Austrian Philipp Eng, co-drove the Bobby Rahal-owned car with Farfus. Rahal, the 1986 Indy 500 winner, also won the Rolex 24 overall title as a driver in 1981.
“I don’t think any of the cars in our class had more than 20-30 seconds lead throughout the whole race,’’ Farfus said. “The GTLM [class] is always professional, extremely talented drivers.
“We have seen through the years this race is getting more like a sprint than an endurance from the start to the end. … Even in this weather we were all fighting.’’
The winning BMW team’s sister car, the No. 24, was co-driven by one of the historic event’s best feel-good stories of triumph. Former IndyCar champion Alex Zanardi, who lost both legs in a racing accident in 2001, drove that No. 24 BMW for more than six hours in his first competitive laps in the United States since his injury.
Zanardi did three driving stints total for six hours and 17 minutes, even as the team dealt with some mechanical problems in the car. Ultimately, Zanardi’s team finished ninth in class. Zanardi, however, absolutely finished first in many hearts the world over as he made his inspired return to competition stateside.
After a slow driver change in his initial driving stint Saturday evening – having to use a back-up version of Zanardi’s specially designed steering wheel – there were no more major issues for the popular champion. He said after the race, that in all the driver change practices with the team and in all the meticulous design work to develop the innovative steering control, there had never been a hiccup like that.
His work at Daytona, however, will be best remembered for overcoming obstacles and doing so with a positive spirit and bright smile.
“I should say bittersweet, but in reality more sweet than bitter,’’ Zanardi says of his race.
He spoke about the heart-touching enthusiasm and encouragement he received every day at the track from fans and teams too. And if there is anything he hopes his Daytona story can do, it’s to bring optimism and hope to others facing big challenges in their life.
“If someone can receive some type of inspiration from what I do, it fills my heart with pride,’’ Zanardi said. “But all I can do is tip my hat and continue my journey.”
As for the race, the final red flag played a crucial role in the GTLM class finish. Richard Westbrook had been leading the tightly contested class in the No. 67 Ford GT for Ford Chip Ganassi Racing only minutes before cars were stopped on pit road for heavy rain. He made an emergency pit stop for fuel in the Ford GT as the red flag came out, not only relinquishing the lead, but ultimately suffering a penalty for pitting while the pits were closed.
Once the race was declared official, a 60-second penalty was assessed to the No. 67, relegating them to fourth in class, as the No. 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR driven by Patrick Pilet, Nick Tandy and Frederic Makowiecki moved up to third.
“I’ve driven in many conditions in my life, in the fog, in the rain, but nothing like that.’’ said Westbrook, a former Rolex 24 winner.
“Obviously we’re looking at the radar and knew the weather was going to get worse and worse but you can’t ever bank on them throwing a red and then them calling the race. But that is in the back of your mind.
“The best place to be in the lead and at that point we were controlling the race and pulling away. Obviously we had to pit and everyone was going to have to pit a few laps later, but we were the unlucky ones today in that they threw the red flag just after we pitted.”
The victory was especially important for BMW as the manufacturer’s longtime race executive Charly Lamm passed away this week and its winning drivers dedicated Sunday’s win to him.
GRT Grasser Racing Team Goes Back-to-Back with Lamborghini in GTD in Rolex 24 At Daytona
Christian Engelhart says that, to be perfectly honest, he had no idea he was leading his ultra-competitive IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona (GTD) class in the Rolex 24 At Daytona until his team gave him the good news just as a red flag flew with under two hours left in the race.
Because of steady rain showers, IMSA ultimately called the race official 10 minutes short of its intended 24-hour length. And Engelhart conceded, with a smile, his work maneuvering through the field under rainy, uncertain conditions on the Daytona International Speedway road course had resulted in one of his greatest triumphs.
“We were actually one lap down when I started the stint,’’ Engelhart said. “So, I managed to overtake the leader so that, when the yellow came out, we got a wave by and rejoined the pack, but we were very, very far behind. At this point, I asked what position we are, and I think we were P8 or P9, something like this, he said on the radio.
“And after that, I never got any more information. I was just pushing. When the red flag came out, I didn’t know I was first. I was told then that we were first. I thought we were still fighting, and I was giving everything to come to the front, and I didn’t expect that we were already. 
“So quite a surprise, a positive one, of course.” 
Engelhart took the lead, officially, two laps before the red flag, helping his co-drivers on the GRT Grasser Racing Team – Rolf Ineichen, Mirko Bortolotti and Rik Breukers – to their second consecutive GTD class victory.
Former Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso drove the No. 10 Cadillac Prototype to the overall victory for Wayne Taylor Racing.
It’s the second consecutive class win at the Rolex for this Lamborghini team however, especially impressive in such a highly competitive class – which also features the most cars – 23 – in its class. The winning Lamborghini led 23 laps. The seventh-place No. 33 Mercedes actually led the most laps (141) in that class.
The only all-woman team in the race competed in the GTD division, as well, and had four of racing’s most accomplished female drivers in Katherine Legge, Simona De Silvestro, Bia Figueredo and Christina Nielsen. They finished 13th in class. Legge had a brief off-course excursion in the team’s No. 57 Acura NSX GT3, but the team rallied back from it.
“It’s disappointing to have a situation like this so close to the end of the race, but it’s super tricky conditions out there and it could happen to anyone,’’ Nielsen said of the incident. “We didn’t see what happened, but these conditions are difficult to manage. We were just saying, if you’re playing tennis and you drop a ball, you just get a new one and try again. Here, if you make one mistake, there are high consequences.
“It looked like the car had a wipe from the tire wall on it and had some front-end damage so there was contact with the wall. Props to the Heinricher Racing and Meyer Shank Racing guys for getting the car back out on track. But all we can focus on now is collecting points because we’re out of contention – but one or two points can matter in the end, I’ve been there before.”
The team’s other car, co-driven in part by NASCAR race winners Justin Marks and A.J. Allmendinger, finished fifth in class. Allmendinger – the 2012 Rolex 24 overall champion – spent the Rolex weekend pulling double duty in his new gig commentating for NBC Sports and also driving the No. 86 Acura NSX.
“It was nasty out there, on the border of ridiculous, but I get it – it’s the Rolex 24, not the Rolex 19,” said Allmendinger, who spent much of his driving time in the rainy conditions.
Adam Sinclair