Winward Makes Winning First Impression at Rolex 24

By John Oreovicz
IMSA Wire Service
 They say you only get one chance to make a first impression.
Winward Racing certainly aced that test in its IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship debut.
A regular in IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge competition, Winward stepped up to the WeatherTech Championship by fielding the No. 57 Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT Daytona (GTD) class of the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
With 19 entries, GTD featured the largest contingent in the 49-car Rolex 24 field. Yet after a hard-fought race twice around the clock at Daytona International Speedway, Indy Dontje, Russell Ward, Philip Ellis, and Maro Engel claimed the class victory for Winward, leading home a 1-2 finish on Sunday for Mercedes-AMG.
It was the first win for Mercedes-AMG in IMSA GTD competition, the first WeatherTech Championship race win for all four Winward drivers, and it was delivered by a team making its first professional 24-hour race start.
Quite a first impression.
“We didn’t come here with a lot of expectations,” said Ward, the son of Winward Racing team principal Bryce Ward. “It was a learning experience, moving from GT4 in the Michelin Pilot Challenge to GT3 in the WeatherTech Championship, and me and my crew have been preparing for this for a whole year.
“At the end of the day, our team wanted it more than everybody else,” he added. “There were faster cars out there, but we just drove the wheels off the thing.”
It wasn’t a completely smooth ride for the Houston-based team despite leading the majority of the final five hours. The No. 57 ran first in its class for 162 of the final 167 laps, despite the drivers having to cope with poor cockpit ventilation and a non-functioning drink system.
That didn’t stop the Winward Mercedes from engaging in a lengthy and spirited battle with the No. 21 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GT3.
Three quarters of the way through the race, Daniel Serra managed to get the Ferrari past the Mercedes, only to lose the advantage in a subsequent pit stop.
Matteo Cressoni took over the Ferrari in the pit exchange, and shortly after the stops, Cressoni tried to pass Ellis in the Mercedes around the outside of Turn 1.
Ellis was forced slightly in the grass, and the Mercedes got out of shape and bumped the Ferrari into a gentle spin. The No. 21 car lost two laps while bodywork repairs were made and finished eighth in class.
That left the No. 57 Winward car holding off the similar No. 75 Mercedes fielded by Sun Energy 1 and driven by Raffaele Marciello, Luka Stolz, Mikael Grenier and Kenny Habul. Engel was 16.329 seconds clear of Marciello at the checkered flag after completing 745 laps on the 3.56-mile Daytona road course.
“Really, really proud to deliver this victory with these three guys,” Engel remarked. “Didn’t put a foot wrong the last 10 days, and I can’t praise the team enough. They did an awesome job. We maybe didn’t have the fastest car out there, but on a long run, on a stint, we were super competitive.”
The all-night duel in GTD between the No. 57 Mercedes and the No. 21 Ferrari was one of the highlights of this year’s race.
Ellis was relieved that IMSA did not assess any penalties for the late-morning clash between the intense competitors.
“We were battling with the No. 21 car for 16 hours,” Ellis said. “Practically the whole race we were going at it with those guys. It was hard racing, but fair racing – that’s the way we like it, and I think the spectators want to see that as well.
“Both of us came out of the pits on cold tires,” he explained. “I think he saw the opportunity to make a move early, and the tires weren’t quite there yet. Maybe he just misjudged it or was taking a bit too much risk. He squeezed me off a little bit, which was enough to upset the car. Unfortunately, I hit him.
“It was very unfortunate for the 21 car – you don’t want to see battles end this way. It did this time, and fortunately we didn’t have too much damage on our car.”
As it stands, the Rolex 24 is Winward Racing’s only planned appearance in the WeatherTech Championship in 2021. The team intends to focus on its entry in the Pilot Challenge, where Ward shares a Mercedes-AMG GT4 with Dontje. They finished fourth in the 2020 series standings and eighth in the 2021 season-opening BMW Endurance Challenge At Daytona in the Grand Sport (GS) class.
Will Winward’s success in the Rolex 24 motivate the team to reconsider and enter additional WeatherTech Championship races?
Stay tuned.
Adam Sinclair