A Rolex 24 Win in GTD PRO and a Pair of Strong Showings in GTD Bode Well
By Mark Robinson
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – As is usually the case, the Grand Touring classes – GTD Daytona (GTD) and GTD PRO – provided some of the most intense racing throughout the entire Rolex 24 At Daytona. And Mercedes-AMG cars were in the thick of it in both classes.
One came out a winner, the No. 79 WeatherTech Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 in GTD PRO, following a three-way donnybrook to the finish with competitors from Corvette and Lexus. Two other Mercedes entries – the No. 32 Team Korthoff Motorsports and No. 57 Winward Racing Mercs – ran at or near the front in GTD for most of the 24-hour marathon until separate issues dropped them in the finishing order.
Still, it was an impressive debut to the 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship for the respected German marque.
“What a fantastic race!” gushed Stefan Wendl, head of Mercedes-AMG Motorsport customer racing. “For our brand, to win the GTD PRO class here for our second Rolex 24 victory is an amazing success. On the other hand, we also have a teary eye because of our other customer teams. Winward Racing put in a fantastic performance to fight their way from the back of the field to the front, only to be taken out of the race by an unfortunate incident in the final hour.”
The No. 79 WeatherTech Racing Mercedes, shared by Cooper MacNeil, Daniel Juncadella, Jules Gounon and Maro Engel, led a class-high 229 laps in the race. Gounon turned the fastest GTD PRO lap (1 minute, 45.451 seconds) and Engel turned back challenges from the No. 3 Corvette and No. 14 Lexus to lead the last 25 laps and win by 3.916 seconds.
The Rolex 24 win was the second for Engel and first for Juncadella, Gounon and MacNeil – the latter announcing before the event that this would be his final race.
“A hell of a way to end my IMSA career,” an emotional MacNeil said.
In GTD, meanwhile, Team Korthoff started second on the grid and quickly asserted itself as a car to beat. Co-drivers Mike Skeen, Mikael Grenier, Kenton Koch and Maximilian Goetz led 227 laps until a front wheel bearing faltered in the 18th hour, sending the No. 32 to the garage for repairs. The car returned to finish but 20 laps down in 15th place.
Do You Believe in Miracles? Almost for Winward Racing
The fact that Winward Racing was even in the race was a miracle, following a heavy crash in practice two days before the green flag that destroyed the chassis and sent driver Lucas Auer to the hospital with fractured lumbar vertebrae. It sent things into a whirlwind of emotion and action, according to team co-owner and co-driver Russell Ward.
After rushing to the hospital to check on Auer’s status, Ward and the team arranged for three crewmembers to fly back to Winward’s base near Houston, load the spare chassis into a trailer and truck it to Daytona overnight. While that was happening, crew still at Daytona tore down the crashed car to salvage as many useful parts as possible.
The spare chassis – which won last year at Road America and VIRginia International Raceway but hadn’t been on track since a crash in the season finale at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta – arrived at Daytona International Speedway at 11 a.m. Friday, Jan. 27, less than 24 hours from when it had to pass safety inspection in order to race on Saturday.
The Winward crew toiled feverishly from the moment the car arrived until around 4 a.m. Saturday – nearly 17 hours in all – to assemble the race car. They received a physical and emotional lift when members of the Iron Lynx crew stopped by to help. Competitors on the track, yes; but friends within the paddock too.
“It was awesome to see the Iron Lynx guys coming,” Ward said. “We got a message from their team manager saying, ‘Hey, my guys are coming over there’ – their idea – and they stayed quite late into the night.
“We were able to get probably about three hours of sleep and then back there at 8:30 in the morning so that we could make tech and safety inspection. That’s how tight it was.”
Ward was the opening driver, but without a chance to turn even an installation lap, the initial plan was to pit following the formation laps just to make sure everything was operating properly.
“After doing the formation laps,” he said, “we’re looking at the car, everything is warm, all the systems are good and it’s like, ‘Well what do you think, do you want to start? Let’s go ahead and start the race.’ And it was perfect.”
A fortuitous full-course caution on the first race lap allowed Ward a chance to exhale for possibly the first time in two days, and to reflect on what the team had accomplished.
“It gave me a moment to take in the enormity of the task that the team had overcome,” he said. “I couldn’t help but think of the struggle the guys had went through and how well they had stepped up to the challenge, and I started tearing up. I think the in-car camera caught it!”
Of course, that was just the beginning of the 24-hour grind. Ward, along with co-drivers Philip Ellis, Indy Dontje and Daniel Morad (named as the last-minute Auer replacement) steadily moved the No. 57 Mercedes to the front, taking the GTD lead for the first time just over four hours into the race.
The No. 57 led a total of 177 laps and was in the fray for a podium finish on a restart from caution with just 34 minutes to go. Unfortunately, in the crowded charge through Turns 1 and 2 of the infield section, Ellis made contact with the No. 3 Corvette and was knocked into the wall separating the track from the pit lane – in the same spot where Auer’s nasty crash happened almost precisely three days earlier. The No. 57 sustained significant left-side damage and retired 13th in GTD.
Despite the devastating ending, Ward emphasized that “it wasn’t all doom and gloom.”
“We left everything on the table, and it was probably the most incredible race we’ve ever done,” he said. “We started from the back and made it all the way up to the front, and we led for a long time. We came here to give it our all. It was a blast. … It’s a sad way to end it, but we’ll be back.”