The long and the short of sports car racing’s 2022-23 offseason comes to a close this weekend with the 61st running of the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
The long of it? Fans have gone cold turkey since the final moments of the Motul Petit Le Mans 17 long weeks ago. The short of it? Competitors have had 17 short weeks to put a wrap on ’22 and prepare for Round 1 of the 2023 IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship.
No competitors have been more pressed for time than the manufacturers, teams and drivers preparing for IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class. Based on an all-new rules package, the new GTPs boast hybrid powertrains marrying traditional internal combustion engines with Bosch’s Motor Generation Unit, an energy recovery system including batteries supplied by WAE Technologies and an Xtrac gearbox.
Given that the GTP rules were finalized in September 2020, the participating manufacturers (Acura, BMW, Cadillac and Porsche) had perhaps 18 months to design, build and begin testing their new cars in partnership with approved chassis makers Dallara, Multimatic and ORECA.
Fortunately, Porsche did the lion’s share of the early testing of the single-source hybrid system enabling the rival OEMs to hit the ground running with their cars with most of the bugs worked out of the hybrid components. Nevertheless, the ultra-compressed timeline from clean sheet of paper to competition debut left a near vertical learning curve, not to mention a monumental challenge for the “supply chains” of development and spare parts.
And just to make things more interesting, the first true test of the GTP cars comes in a 24-hour race. Thus, attrition may well play a greater role in the race than in many a year; not just which cars will still be circulating at the finish, but how quickly teams address the glitches almost certain to appear in the cars’ complex systems in the heat of competition. Similarly, with spare parts in short supply, drivers will need to walk (or drive, as the case may be) a finer line than ever between aggression and discretion amid traffic, lest they damage irreplaceable running gear and/or body parts.
Given that Porsche did the brunt of the grunt work on the development of the powertrain’s non-internal combustion components – not to mention their formidable partnership with Penske Racing – logic suggests the two Porsche Penske Motorsport Porsches would have an advantage when it comes to attrition.
On the other hand, the Acuras of Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian and Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Autosport appeared to have a clear, if modest, speed advantage over the rest of the GTP field during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 testing. Then again, the all-new Acura engine is just that, all new, while the BMW, Cadillac and Porsche engines are all derivatives of competition-proven powerplants. Ultimately, it’s anybody’s guess which combination of car, team and driver will prevail, but it sure will be fascinating to see how it all plays out.
Changes in GT Classes Too
The bright, shiny new GTP objects have understandably garnered the bulk of preseason attention, but they won’t be the only new cars competing in the Rolex 24. Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche are debuting new cars in GTD PRO and GTD classes in the forms of the Ferrari 296 GT3, Lamborghini Huracán GT3 EVO 2 and Porsche 911 GT3 R (type 992).
GTD PRO also sees intriguing new dimensions, with the defending champion Pfaff Motorsports’ plaid Porsche in the hands of a new driving team with Klaus Bachler and Patrick Pilet (with third driver Laurens Vanthoor) replacing Matt Campbell and Mathieu Jaminet. No less intriguing will be Corvette Racing’s sophomore season of GTD PRO after what can only be described as a learning campaign with the Corvette C8.R GTD in ’22.
For all that’s new about GTD PRO and GTD, the tried-and-true Mercedes-AMG GT3 exercised its considerable muscle during the Roar, witness the fact that the No. 57 Winward Racing, No. 75 Sun Energy 1 and No. 32 Team Korthoff Motorsports Mercs qualified 1-2-3 in GTD, with the No. 79 WeatherTech Racing Mercedes grabbing the GTD PRO pole.
In contrast, the No. 47 Cetilar Racing Ferrari and the No. 19 Iron Lynx Lamborghini were the quickest of the new cars in GTD, qualifying ninth and 10th, while the No. 63 Lambo of Iron Lynx Racing headed the newbies in GTD PRO in sixth spot on the grid. Surprisingly, the new Porsches struggled for speed in qualifying with the No. 9 Pfaff entry just eighth out of nine GTD PRO starters and the No. 16 Wright Motorsports 911 down in P14 in the 24-car strong GTD field.
Could Surprises Come from LMP2 and LMP3?
In contrast to GTP and the GTD classes, the story of the Le Mans Prototype 2 and 3 (LMP2 and LMP3) categories is one of status quo. Led by the No. 33 Sean Creech Motorsport and No. 36 Andretti Autosport entries, the LMP3 Ligier JS P320s ruled in the Roar, sweeping the top five qualifying spots, and look like the chassis to beat this weekend.
As for LMP2, on paper the No. 52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA LMP2 07 looks the car to beat, given that Ben Keating notched his fourth Rolex 24 pole more than a second clear of Francois Heriau in the first of the two TDS Racing ORECAs that will take the green flag in P2 and P3. However, Keating’s margin wasn’t quite what it appeared as qualifying took place in blustery conditions on a green track.
Always a fiercely contested class, LMP2 warrants closer scrutiny than ever this year. While they average six or more seconds a lap slower than the GTP cars, the LMP2s are the closest thing to bulletproof you’ll find in a race car. Should enough of those brandy new GTP cars falter, it would be a golden opportunity for an LMP2 runner to make a bid for a spot on the overall podium.
While that would be a remarkable upset, stranger things have happened, especially during the Rolex 24 At Daytona.