Anticipation of New Era For IMSA Prototypes Provides Incredible Excitement and Intrigue

Anticipation of New Era For IMSA Prototypes Provides Incredible Excitement and Intrigue

Jan. 24, 2017

Steven Cole Smith

IMSA Wire Service

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There’s seldom any shortage of excitement at the Rolex 24 At Daytona, North America’s toughest, most prestigious sports car endurance race.

For the 55th running of the Rolex, though, the excitement has started long before the green flag drops Saturday afternoon. That excitement is about what’s on the grid – an all-new field of Prototype race cars, the fastest, most technologically advanced machines ever in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

While they will race the entire IMSA season, they make their world debut this weekend and unlike any other sport you can think of, the very first event is the most grueling one there is.

It’s been a long time coming.

Four years ago, beginning with this race, the GRAND-AM Rolex Series and the American Le Mans Series joined forces, creating the WeatherTech Championship. Both of the groups had their own marquee Prototype class, with cars that, to the average fan, looked similar, but were very different under the skin.

The two cars made power differently, too. The GRAND-AM Daytona Prototype cars excelled in straight-line speed. The ALMS cars excelled in braking and handling. IMSA did not want to simply eliminate one of the two Prototype classes, because they thought it was important to protect the investments the teams made in the cars.

So, IMSA re-wrote the rules to make the Daytona Prototypes and the P2 cars competitive with each other, all the while letting the teams know that for 2017, there would be a new set of rules. This allowed the teams an opportunity to amortize their investment in current race cars, while planning to field the new model.

That time has come. A dozen brand-new Prototypes are entered – seven known as “Daytona Prototype international” cars, or DPi for short, and five LM P2 cars.

Wait – didn’t we just say the new Prototype car is meant to consolidate the DP and P2 cars? We did, and it does. DPi, and LM P2 cars use the same chassis, built by one of four approved chassis constructors: Dallara, Ligier, Multimatic/Riley and ORECA.

The differences appear in engine and bodywork. DPi cars are powered by a variety of different engine manufacturers – three to be exact: Mazda, Nissan and Cadillac. Each of these cars also uses manufacturer-specific bodywork aimed at aligning certain features of the manufacturer’s production vehicles with the DPi race cars.

There are two Mazda twin-turbo four-cylinders in the Mazda Prototypes, twin-turbo V6 engines powering the of Nissan Nos. 2 and 22 Tequila Patron ESM prototypes, and three normally aspirated Cadillac V-8s, The No. 5 Mustang Sampling team won the WeatherTech Championship Prototype title the first two seasons (2014-15) and the team car, the No.31 Whelen Engineering car, won the 2016 championship. These teams are switching from Corvette Daytona Prototypes to new the new Cadillac DPi-V.R.

The No.10 Wayne Taylor Racing Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R. is co-driven by Taylor’s two sons, Ricky and Jordan, for the full season, alongside longtime endurance specialist Max Angelelli, who is retiring after this race following a very successful 30-year career.

The No. 10 Cadillac also has a high-profile guest driver: Four-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion Jeff Gordon, who retired from stock car racing, but says he “can’t wait” to get back behind the wheel, having raced with the Wayne Taylor team in 2007 to a third-place finish in the Rolex 24. Both Gordon and the No. 10 Cadillac DPi have done an extensive amount of testing and practice, and the team is expected to contend.

The LM P2 car essentially is more of a European specification, especially attractive to those teams that want to run the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France each June. The cars built to the P2 specifications should be able to enter Le Mans, with one restriction: The ACO, which sanctions Le Mans, insists that all P2 cars have to run the same engine a 4.2-liter V-8. There are several Gibson engines running in the Rolex 24, and three that are expected to race all season, the No. 90 Visit Florida Multimatic-Riley, the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier and the No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports ORECA.

The No.2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan DPi team returns with its secret weapon- diminutive, soft-spoken Pipo Derani, who was in the car when it won both the 2016 Rolex 24, and the 2016 Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, the second race on the WeatherTech Championship schedule, and 12 of the most taxing hours in motorsports because of the roughness of the historic World War II-era Central Florida track. Derani’s late-race run to the front at Sebring was one of the most compelling moments of 2016, and clearly makes this team one of the favorites this weekend.

And there’s the Rebellion Racing No. 13 ORECA fielded by this very accomplished European team, staffed by exceptional drivers. One of them arrived with the car just prior to the Roar Before the 24 test – Neel Jani had never even seen Daytona International Speedway, had never driven this particular car, and had never even driven a P2 car. And we went out and set fast time in the first of seven sessions.

The No.81 DragonSpeed ORECA, set the fastest overall time in testing at the Roar. This team’s lineup of drivers – Henrik Hedman, Nicolas Lapierre, Loic Duval and Ben Hanley – make them a force to be reckoned with.

A sentimental favorite in Prototype, though, has to be the two Mazda Prototypes, Nos. 55 and 70. The manufacturer came close to winning last year in WeatherTech Championship competition after a couple of uncompetitive seasons, but the team is still looking for its first win. Armed with a new DPi machine, hopes are high that it will come this season. If it does, expect tears in victory lane.

The Prototypes may be the premier class, but there is another class of prototype cars on the grid – “prototype” essentially referring to cars that are built from the ground up as racers, with no real attempt to pattern them after street-going cars.

The other prototype cars are the Prototype Challenge entries, easily identified as they are the only “open cockpit” cars, meaning there is no roof and you can see the driver. The PC class came to the WeatherTech Championship through the ALMS and this is the last year for the cars, which are all built on the same ORECA chassis, powered by the same Chevrolet V-8. There are five PC cars in the 55-car Rolex 24 field, and it’s tough to handicap the field, though the two Starworks Motorsport entries –No. 8 and 88 – represent a lot of experience and many wins over the years.

NOTES:

Speaking of experience: Most IMSA races are two hours and 45 minutes long, easily handled by the two regular drivers. But Daytona always brings in some interesting guest drivers to share the load and this year, it’s a gold-star roster.

Aside from Jeff Gordon in the No. 10 Prototype, look for IndyCar champ Scott Dixon (No. 67 GTLM Ford GT), with teammate and Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan in the No. 69 Ford GT, one of four in the class. Current IndyCar racer Sebastien Bourdais is in one of the other Chip Ganassi-fielded Ford GTs, the No. 66, class winner at Le Mans last year. In Prototype, IndyCar racer and Orlando resident Spencer Pigot is in the No. 55 Mazda Prototype. Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice is in the No. 20 PC car, and could be there all season.

While Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal is fielding a two-car BMW team in GTLM, his son Graham, an IndyCar winner from 2016, is driving the new Michael Shank Racing No. 93 Acura NSX. There’s no problem between son and father – it’s just that Graham’s IndyCar is powered by Honda, which owns Acura, and the company wanted to keep him in the family. His Acura teammates include Katherine Legge and Ryan Hunter-Reay, both with IndyCar pedigrees. Legge will be in the Acura all season.

Memo returns: Ask any IMSA regular about the worst crash in recent memory and odds are the first one mentioned would be Daytona Prototype driver Memo Gidley’s absolutely devastating crash in the third hour of the 2014 Rolex 24. Gidley’s Gainsco Daytona Prototype was dominating the race when a Ferrari suddenly slowed in front of him. Gidley pulled out to pass another car, not knowing the almost-stopped Ferrari was there, and ran into the back of it.

Gidley’s DP was destroyed and it took a long time to remove him from the car. He survived, and has recovered, much to the delight of a legion of fans the personable driver has.

Memo and his wife, Mari, will attend the Rolex 24 as guests of IMSA. “I’m looking forward to saying ‘thank you’ to so many people that were part of helping me when I was injured. IMSA and everybody associated with this race gave me a lot of support and I want to say thanks. Even though many have been in contact on email or over the phone, I haven’t seen them in person for three years. When you work to help somebody, it’s always nice to see how it ended up, and I want them to see how strong I am and that I’m back. I also hope that my recovery can inspire anybody else dealing with something similar.”

Gidley has been cleared by doctors to race, which is considered a genuine miracle by those who witnessed the crash. Does he have unfinished business at Daytona? Likely this visit will help him decide.

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