By David Phillips
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – And a new racing season dawns, as it has for close to six decades, with the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
Unique among the world’s headline motorsports events, there are no competing races on the international calendar this weekend. Thus, the Daytona International Speedway paddock is akin to a scene in a "Star Wars" cantina this week, such is the diverse cast of characters attracted to the event from throughout the motorsports universe.
While waiting to see what will unfold in the five categories when the green flag waves Saturday, take a moment to savor the fact that the race will feature drivers from NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula 1 in addition to the stars of the 2021 IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship.
In contrast to years gone by, there’s something of a baseline on which to make predictions thanks to last weekend’s Motul Pole Award 100. Sure, it would be easy to say the class winners from that 100-minute qualifying race are this weekend’s favorites. Why not? That makes as much sense as anything when it comes to the black art of prognostication.
By that measure, watch the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R, the No. 52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA LMP2 07, the No. 6 Muehlner Motorsports America Duqueine M30-D08, the No. 4 Corvette Racing C8.R and No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 to be atop the podium come Sunday afternoon.
But that’s way too easy. Besides, the one (and only) thing that’s virtually guaranteed about the Rolex 24 is all five of last Sunday’s winners are unlikely to repeat.
When it comes to the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class, keep an eye on not just the No. 31 Cadillac but the "other" defending champions, namely the No. 55 Mazda Motorsports DPi that won the Daytona sprint race last July and finished second in the Motul Pole Award 100. Also keep tabs on how the two Acura ARX-05s perform in their debuts with Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian and Konica Minolta/Wayne Taylor Racing, the latter of which happens to be the two-time defending Rolex 24 champions.
Now that the Acuras are being campaigned by competing teams, it’s unlikely they’ll work together as seamlessly as they did in Team Penske livery. And then there’s the return of the kings, namely eight-time Rolex 24 champion Chip Ganassi Racing, in the maiden outing in the No. 01 Cadillac DPi. Bet against them at your peril.
Similarly, in looking at Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2), start with the defending Rolex 24 winners DragonSpeed along with 2020 WeatherTech Championship LMP2 champion and pole winner PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports. But don’t forget that last year’s Rolex 24 LMP2 field was half of this year’s 10-car entry, more than half of which lapped within a second of the fastest lap of last weekend’s race.
And while it’s true the new Le Mans Prototype 3 (LMP3) class has no defending winner, consider that Muehlner Motorsports America won twice last weekend with drivers Moritz Kranz and Laurents Hoerr – in the Motul Pole Award 100 and the IMSA Prototype Challenge race, the Scouts of America 145. Muehlner will be going for the Daytona hat trick, but bear in mind this will be the first 24-hour race ever for the LMP3 Duqueine D08s and Ligier JS 320s.
The two GT categories are sure to provide plenty of action. Yes, GTLM is down to six entries in a pair of Corvettes, two BMWs, a Ferrari and a Porsche. But in Corvette Racing, BMW Team RLL and Risi Competizione, the field boasts three teams that have long defined the GTLM category, even as WeatherTech Racing looks to take on the GTLM competition in a Porsche 911 RSR-19 after several winning seasons in GTD.
With GTD you get quality and quantity: think Acura, Aston Martin, Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Lexus, Mercedes-AMG, Porsche; also think Wright Motorsports, Vasser Sullivan Racing, Turner Motorsport, Scuderia Corsa, Pfaff Motorsports, GRT Grasser. The list of GTD heavyweights goes on and on and on.
There are a million things to watch so I’ll pick four named Earl Bamber, Oliver Gavin, Laurens Vanthoor and Richard Westbrook from the perspective that it’ll be fun to watch the GTLM veterans mixing it up – and likely trading some paint – with the GTD crowd.
A final point that applies to all five classes. Only two drivers took the wheel of any given car in the Motul Pole Award 100. That means the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Chase Elliott, AJ Allmendinger, Robert Kubica, Simon Pagenaud, Austin Dillon, Timo Glock and Gianmaria Bruni are tanned, ready and rested for the Rolex 24. How the "bench" drivers perform this weekend will go a long way to determining their team’s fortunes starting at 3:30 pm ET Saturday.
Watch and enjoy.