Bumper Crop Bodes for Bumper-to-Bumper Rolex 24 Excitement

With a bumper 61-car entry spread over five IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship classes, anticipation is rife for the 60th running of the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
 
Though they won’t be racing the mighty Daytona Prototype international (DPi) purebred machines for the overall win at Daytona International Speedway this weekend, the production-based GT classes are garnering added prerace attention. Cars in the Grand Touring Daytona (GTD) and the new Grand Touring Daytona Pro (GTD PRO) classes make up more than half the field, representing 35 starters, with 22 in GTD and 13 in GTD PRO.
 
That’s a substantial amount of GT traffic that the faster prototypes will have to negotiate. Plus, with GTD PRO and GTD both based on the same GT3 specification and using the same Michelin tires, their speeds are quite similar.
 
The excitement and precariousness of driving in traffic was evident in last weekend’s 100-minute qualifying race to set the Rolex 24 grid. Filipe Albuquerque and Ricky Taylor, who won the qualifying race in an effort to repeat as the Rolex 24 overall champions in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura ARX-05 DPi, witnessed it firsthand.
 
“If that’s a glimpse of what the Rolex 24 is like, I don’t think people are going to sleep – fans and drivers and teams,” Taylor said.
 
“It’s really busy. There’s definitely a new dynamic and it takes a bit of a learning curve to get the rhythm,” he added. “I’ll definitely go back to watch and study this race before the 24 Hours to understand the flow of it more.”
 
The faster prototypes often use GT cars as a “pick” to box in a competitor when working through traffic, but GT drivers have the same capability.
 
Mirko Bortolotti drove the final stint of the qualifying race in the No. 63 TR3 Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 to win the GTD PRO class. Bortolotti said successfully using traffic was the key for chasing down the leading No. 79 WeatherTech Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R.
 
“If you know how to position yourself, you can put yourself in the right spot at the right time – even with the DPi cars,” Bortolotti said. “You can really get some benefit in traffic, and that’s what helped me close the gap to the leaders.”
 
‘It’s Going to Be a Weird Racing Dynamic’
 
The amalgamation of the GTD PRO and GTD classes under the same GT3 spec presents an additional twist. In past years, the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class had a substantial speed advantage on GTD. Any difference between GTD PRO and GTD is now created purely by the quality of teams and drivers. GTD entries must include Silver- or Bronze-rated drivers, while GTD PRO is almost exclusively Platinum and Gold drivers and most teams enjoy substantial factory technical support.
 
While GTD PRO entries should theoretically be slightly superior to GTD, the reality is the convergence of the two could create a bit of a free-for all, with 35 cars battling for overall position in addition to their place in class.
 
“It’s going to be a weird racing dynamic,” predicted longtime BMW factory pilot Bill Auberlen, who will share the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M4 GT3 in GTD with Robby Foley, Michael Dinan, and Jens Klingmann in the Rolex 24. “I could have a factory Porsche GTD PRO car ahead of me, and then the car I’m battling in GTD is ahead of him. We’re going to be intermixed with the same BoP (Balance of Performance), the same tires, the same fuel strategy, same everything.
 
“I don’t know how it’s going to work out, but we’re going to see,” he concluded. “It looks like it’s ramping up to be a really good race.”
 
The expanded GT field has created the biggest change in circumstances for Corvette Racing, which won the 2020 and 2021 GTLM crowns. The Rolex 24 is the first race for the GT3-compliant version of the mid-engine Corvette C8.R that will be made available to customer teams starting in 2023.
 
The two Corvettes find themselves starting in the unusual positions of sixth and seventh in GTD PRO. The drivers are aware of the traffic battle ahead.
 
“Now you need to pay attention to those that maybe are not in contention but who could gamble big on strategy and maybe be up front at the end of the race,” No. 3 Corvette co-driver Antonio Garcia said. “There’s a lot of strategy to be played and that’s why our engineers are such a good tool to have. It’s going to be tougher, but it’s not the first time we are going up against so many cars.”
 
The most important factor for an endurance race with multiple classes is cooperation between the faster and slower cars. The key is to maintain a cool head and stay calm.
 
Albuquerque has a unique perspective since he’s a Rolex 24 winner both in prototypes and in a GT car.
 
“It’s 24 hours, so you’re always going to catch traffic here or there,” he said. “I won the race in a GTD, and you know what you need to do. Entering the corner and getting out of the corner, you are always on the mirrors.
 
“Sometimes it’s our fault (the faster class car/driver), but they (slower cars/drivers) also have to position themselves. Everyone is fighting for their own race, but we need to coexist without having contact.”
 
Live coverage of the 60th Rolex 24 begins at 1:30 p.m. ET today on NBC and IMSA Radio.