Qualifying Race Provides Great Teaser for Rolex 24 Excitement Ahead
By David Phillips
Talk about an embarrassment of riches: Thanks to the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship’s inaugural Motul Pole Award 100, five – count ’em, five – teams have a whole week to savor the fact they won the pole position for the 2021 Rolex 24 At Daytona in their respective classes.
But the benefits go far beyond a week’s worth of bragging rights. The winners get a leg up on the competition in the team, driver and manufacturer championship standings. Sponsors, suppliers and manufacturers have a week to promote their success and, of course, drivers, mechanics, engineers and other members of the winning teams have a little spring in their steps during the week to come. And while mechanics throughout the paddock have extra work ahead refreshing their cars after 100 minutes of competition, the good news is that – apart from some relatively superficial damage – all 47 starters came away from the event unscathed.
So, what did we learn from Sunday’s 100 minutes of competition at Daytona International Speedway?
Oh my, keep an eye on DPi: The Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class certainly appears evenly balanced. Sure, several Cadillacs led at one stage or another before the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi V.R of Pipo Derani and Felipe Nasr took the win. Among those leaders was the No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac, as CGR wasted little time showing it will be a force to reckoned with upon its return to the DPi class. And though the No. 48 Ally Cadillac Racing team evidently used the race as something of a refresher course for Jimmie Johnson after a 10-year absence from the Rolex 24, the fact that Kamui Kobayashi set fastest lap is proof positive of their potential.
But before assigning Cadillac to the 2021 Rolex 24 win column, bear in mind the No. 55 Mazda of Oliver Jarvis and Harry Tincknell led convincingly at times and came home P2. As for the Acura contingent, it’s true the No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian Racing and No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura ARX-05s had quiet races en route to fourth and fifth place, respectively. Given it was the first time either had run the Acura DPi in anger, however, it’s likely both teams had their sights set on mileage rather than victory lane.
Then again, from their postrace comments it’s clear neither Derani nor Nasr was exactly convinced Acura and Mazda were showing their full hands. But what would sports car racing be without a little gamesmanship among the competing manufacturers and drivers? We’ll have to see what, if any, adjustments to the Balance of Performance regulations are mandated in the coming days before we know what IMSA’s technical gurus think about all that.
Other prototype classes surprisingly entertaining: Early indications are the Le Mans Prototype 2 and 3 classes will be well worth watching in 2021. With only a couple of regular competitors last year, LMP2 was a bit underwhelming. While it may be too much to expect all 10 LMP2 cars entered in the Rolex 24 to run the full WeatherTech Championship, half a dozen regular entries will rate as a major upgrade in the class over last year – even if PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports is still the team to beat. If you had any misconceptions on that score, remember that Ben Keating and Mikkel Jensen rebounded from a spin on the pace lap to take the class victory – but only after Jensen passed Centilar Racing’s Antonio Fuoco for the lead in the waning moments of the race.
In my opinion, LMP3 was a pleasant surprise. The addition of the class to the championship was criticized in some corners as a transparent effort to boost the overall number of entries. But the LMP3 competitors showed they very much belonged at Daytona, particularly given the pedigree of drivers like Joao Barbosa, Spencer Pigot and Matt McMurry, to name a few. And for all the talk about the potential problems of mixing the LMP3s with the similarly paced GT Le Mans (GTLM) cars, the competitors in both classes managed to run 100 minutes without any major issues.
When the green flag waves next weekend, there will be no problem picking a prerace LMP3 favorite, as Moritz Kranz and Laurents Hoerr followed up their win in Saturday’s Scouts of America 145 IMSA Prototype Challenge with another win Sunday in the No. 6 Muehlner Motorsports America Duqueine M30-D08.
Competition is furious in GT classes: As for the GT classes, it remains to be seen how compelling the GTLM will be given since there figure to be just two factory efforts in the form of BMW Team RLL and Sunday’s victorious Corvette Racing team. As ever, though, the Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE will surely be a formidable opponent but the team’s participation in additional WeatherTech Championship events is undecided. Will the privateer No. 79 WeatherTech Porsche 911 RSR-19 be a genuine threat to the works teams? The fact it led well into the Motul Pole Award 100 is encouraging, although it had as much to do with strategy as speed. Still, if the Porsche can keep the ‘Vettes and Bimmers honest, that will be a bonus.
And what more is there to say about GT Daytona (GTD)? Far and away the best-subscribed, most deeply competitive class in the series, GTD is a real crapshoot when it comes to picking a favorite at any given race or for the overall championship. For sure, Bill Auberlen, Robbie Foley and the No. 96 Turner BMW M6 GT3 must start as Rolex 24 favorites in the wake of Sunday’s win. After all, championship points and a handsome trophy were at stake, and 17 other competitors tried their darnedest to take home the honors. Just as they will next weekend when they try to prevent Auberlen from notching another win.
The Motul Pole Award 100 offered plenty of entertaining racing as well as some tantalizing hints as to what to expect in next weekend’s Rolex 24 At Daytona. One thing we can say for sure: there will surely be a plethora of unexpected twists and turns between Saturday’s 3:40 p.m. ET start and Sunday’s finish 24 hours later.