Keep an Eye on These Up-and-Comers, Veterans in New Places and First-Timers
By John Oreovicz
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – More than 300 drivers will compete in IMSA-sanctioned events at Daytona International Speedway in January, with 59 hours of on-track activity, culminating with the 61st running of the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
With four distinct series (the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires, IMSA VP Racing SportsCar Challenge, IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge and, of course, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship) and 10 classes of competition, it can be a challenge to keep track of all those aces behind the wheel. Every driver has a backstory.
With that in mind, here are a handful of drivers new to IMSA, or perhaps in new circumstances for 2023, who bear watching at Daytona International Speedway and throughout the season:
Alexander Sims – This 34-year-old Englishman has a wealth of experience across many racing platforms, including several forms of sports cars (most recently in GT classes with Corvette Racing and BMW M Team RLL) and Formula E open-wheelers. For 2023, Sims is tabbed to join Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac V-LMDh, from the Action Express Racing stable that has produced five IMSA championships since 2014. Sims hasn’t raced a prototype sports car since 2012, but his impressive form as an endurance driver for Corvette the last two years (including nearly claiming a class win in the 24 Hours of Le Mans) caught the eye of General Motors and Cadillac.
Colin Braun – Braun, 34, is another driver who has been on the sports car stage seemingly forever (actually since 2005, when he made his IMSA debut at age 16). He’s logged plenty of seat times in prototypes, highlighted by a pair of wins in 2018 when he and Jon Bennett bested the theoretically faster Daytona Prototype international (DPi) cars in an Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) machine. Braun counts three Daytona class wins among his 22 career sports car victories, and this year, he will seek IMSA’s ultimate prize, co-driving with defending champion Tom Blomqvist in the No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian Acura ARX-06 in the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class of the WeatherTech Championship. Braun’s father, Jeff, is a renowned racing engineer.
Pietro Fittipaldi – Along with his younger brother Enzo, Pietro Fittipaldi represents the latest generation of the renowned Brazilian racing family made famous by his grandfather, Emerson Fittipaldi. Pietro was focused on open-wheel cars, making half a dozen IndyCar starts in 2018, and he served as a relief driver for the Haas Formula 1 team for the last two years. Last year, he tested the sports car waters in the European Le Mans Series, and for 2023, he’ll compete fulltime in the WeatherTech Championship’s Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMPS) class in the No. 51 ORECA LMP2 07 prepared by Rick Ware Racing.
Klaus Bachler – A 31-year-old Austrian, Bachler has been affiliated with Porsche throughout his racing career. Along with veteran Frenchman Patrick Pilet, he makes up a new driver lineup for the No. 9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R that won the 2022 WeatherTech Championship GTD PRO class title in the hands of Mathieu Jaminet and Matt Campbell. That duo has graduated to rides with Porsche Penske Motorsport in the GTP class, opening a golden opportunity for Bachler and Pilet to continue the Plaid Porsche’s title-winning legacy.
Roman De Angelis – Just 21 years old, Roman De Angelis is one of sports car racing’s brightest young stars. He won Aston Martin Racing’s 2021 Academy shootout, and he won the GT Daytona (GTD) class championship in the 2022 WeatherTech Championship. This year, he and Marco Sorensen are sharing the No. 27 Heart of Racing Aston Martin Vantage GT3 for the full season, with Darren Turner and team principal Ian James joining for the Rolex 24.
Sheena Monk – A veteran of IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge competition, where she co-drove to four podium finishes (including two in 2022), Monk moves up to the WeatherTech Championship this year. She and Katherine Legge will form the full-season all-female driver lineup for the No. 66 Gradient Racing Acura NSX GT3. Legge, a four-time WeatherTech Championship race winner, has long served as a mentor for the 33-year-old Monk.
Kay van Berlo – This 22-year-old from the Netherlands is combining a rapidly advancing racing career with studying for a degree in business administration at the University of Miami. Van Berlo was part of the winning Le Mans Prototype 3 (LMP3) team last year in the Rolex 24 At Daytona and Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen. He very nearly won the 2022 Porsche Carrera Cup North America Presented by the Cayman Islands championship, falling short when his car suffered a technical issue during the final weekend. He continues successful relationships with Porsche and Kellymoss Racing, which is fielding a fulltime WeatherTech Championship entry (the No. 91 Porsche 911 GT3 R co-driven by Alan Metni) for the first time.
Bill Auberlen (pictured above) – IMSA’s most successful driver (65 race wins in top-level series) shows no sign of slowing down at age 57. He’s back to continue his successful run with BMW and Turner Motorsport, one of the most successful enduring partnerships in the history of sports car racing. Auberlen has a new full-season partner this year with Chandler Hull in the No. 95 BMW M4 GT3. They’ll be joined by a pair of BMW standouts, John Edwards and Bruno Spengler, in the Rolex 24.
Romain Grosjean – Known for his exploits in Formula 1 (10 podium finishes and one famous fiery crash), the 36-year-old Frenchman has focused on the IndyCar Series for the last two years. But he’s let it be known that – in addition to IndyCar – his long-term future is in sports cars as a factory driver for Lamborghini. He’s making his Rolex 24 debut in the No. 63 Iron Lynx Racing Huracán GT3 EVO2 in the GTD PRO class. Later this year, he will begin developing Lamborghini’s LMDh prototype that is expected to debut in the WeatherTech Championship and the FIA World Endurance Championship in 2024.
Robert Wickens – Wickens created some of the most stirring moments of the 2022 racing season when he co-drove a Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Hyundai to consecutive Touring Car (TCR) class race wins in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge with Mark Wilkins. The second triumph was especially memorable because it came on home soil for both drivers at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, just days after Wickens and his wife, Karli, welcomed their first child to the world between the races. Wickens is back in the No. 33 BHA Hyundai Elantra N TCR this year but teamed with Harry Gottsacker.
Courtney Crone – The recipient of IMSA’s second annual Diverse Driver Development Scholarship, Crone will show her skills fulltime in 2023 in a Le Mans Prototype 3 (LMP3) fielded by Forty 7 Motorsports in the new VP Racing SportsCar Challenge. The 21-year-old Californian competed in the LMP3-only IMSA Prototype Challenge the last two years with a best finish of fifth place.
The “Bus Bros” (Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin) – Team Penske is known for its buttoned-down decorum, but that hasn’t stopped IndyCar drivers Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin from becoming hilarious social media sensations as the “Bus Bros.” Their WeatherTech Championship debut at the Rolex 24 is all about business, however, sharing the No. 8 Tower Motorsports ORECA that won the 2022 LMP2 championship with lead driver John Farano. The effort is widely viewed as a way of getting Newgarden and McLaughlin prototype seat time in preparation for future endurance driver opportunities with Porsche Penske Motorsport’s GTP program.