Results at the Rolex 24 Bode for a Very Competitive Season Ahead
By Tony DiZinno
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Naturally, a lot of eyeballs will fixate on full factory or works-supported efforts from Ford Multimatic Motorsports and Corvette Racing by Pratt Miller Motorsports throughout the 2024 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
Then with Vasser Sullivan’s Lexus, Pfaff Motorsports’ new McLaren and Heart of Racing Team’s updated Aston Martin all either taken out of the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona through no fault of their own or delayed by gremlins, some of the Grand Touring Daytona Pro (GTD PRO) regulars were nowhere to be found in contention for the class win.
What that revealed, however, was that some of GTD PRO’s recent additions shone in their debuts in the 13-car class.
Class winner Risi Competizione is no stranger to the class, having been a consistent presence in IMSA since the 1990s. Securing a victory with Ferrari on Jan. 28 was popular for many.
Meanwhile, AO Racing went the entirety of 2023 without a podium in the Grand Touring Daytona (GTD) class, its maiden WeatherTech Championship season. Its best finish was sixth.
After that debut campaign, the Chicago-area team led by PJ Hyett and Gunnar Jeannette decided rather than to simply run it back with no changes, they’d grow even bigger.
AO Racing expanded from one fan-favorite dinosaur car in GTD to two fan-favorite cars with “Rexy” now roaring up from GTD to GTD PRO and “Spike” the Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) dragon premiering in that class. The team grew with them, and they made an immediate positive impact.
Sebastian Priaulx scored the GTD PRO class pole and together with championship debutant Laurin Heinrich and Porsche factory ace Michael Christensen, the No. 77 AO Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R (992) completed a flawless and faultless drive to second in the race, behind the erstwhile dominant Risi Ferrari 296 GT3.
“It’s been a very long lead-up and off-season of preparation to get to this point,” Jeannette explained. “It all seems surreal. We’ve done our first race in 2024 with two cars, two programs and two characters.”
“It was great to see both programs lead their classes at various points in the race. With that, the team operated absolutely flawlessly. We spent the least amount of time in pit lane, and that’s a strong testament to the pit crew, the engineering calls, and to the drivers.”
With Priaulx fighting an illness through the latter stages of the race, Heinrich and Christensen drove a combined 17.5 hours between them to keep the car in contention. Heinrich drove over 10 hours on his own.
“My teammates supported me really well with all the questions I had before the race. We extended our package to the max,” Heinrich said.
Reigning GTD champions Paul Miller Racing also stepped up from GTD to GTD PRO and rallied through late-race heartache in its new iHeartRadio-backed entry to secure a podium in its class debut.
A cracked brake rotor in the final two hours negated the win hopes for the No. 1 BMW M4 GT3, driven by Bryan Sellers, Madison Snow, Neil Verhagen and Sheldon van der Linde. Repairs meant van der Linde, who set the fastest GTD PRO race lap, was hamstrung with a car without an ABS system and with a double-stinted right front tire to make it home to the finish.
That meant it was a bittersweet podium for the team, as team owner Paul Miller explained.
“If you had told us a week ago, a month ago, that we would finish third in the Rolex in our GTD PRO debut, I think everyone would have been thrilled. But, to have it happen like this when the potential for victory is so close, it just hurts,” Miller said.
“That being said, I’m so proud of this entire crew, the team and the drivers. It took everyone taking a step up to battle with the big teams in GTD PRO, and I’m glad we came out swinging.”
BMW factory driver van der Linde, in his team debut, was left wanting more after coming so close to victory.
“We had to make an unscheduled stop and that put our plans of winning this race on hold,” he said. “Then we had an ABS failure, so I drove the last two hours without ABS, and that is not easy in these cars.
“But I learned a lot. It was super fun to be with this team for the first time and hopefully I’ll be back with them to try and get that Rolex again. This is the closest I’ve ever come, so hopefully next year, we can try it again.”
Most of the 13 GTD PRO entries from the Rolex 24 are expected back next month at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. Nine of those cars are slated to compete for the full season. It all adds up to a highly competitive season to watch in the popular class.