DAYTONA, FL – IMSA kicked off their 50th Anniversary Season last weekend with the 2019 running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona. The 57th running is clearly one that will be talked about for years. This year’s marquee featured a loaded field with some of the top driving talent in the world. Most notably, WEC teammates from Toyota Gazoo Racing, Fernando Alonso and Kamui Kobayashi, filling out the remaining roster spots for Wayne Taylor Racing and BMW racing legend, Alex Zanardi joining BMW Team RLL. In total, the entire driver field is representing 27 different nations. Another major milestone for this 2019 rendition was the feature of the first all-female squad, currently competing in the GTD field. The squad debuted featuring Christina Nielson, Katherine Legge, Simona De Silvestro, Ana Beatriz, and Jackie Heinricher, piloting the #57 Meyer Shank Racing Acura RSX GT3.
The qualifying sessions on Friday saw multiple class records broken and proved that this year’s race was going to be more competitive than ever. In the DPi category, the #77 Team Joest Mazda DPi driven by Oliver Jarvis earned the pole with a record lap time of 1:33.685, averaging 136.792 mph, besting the previous record of 1:33.875 set back in 1993. That put the Mazda well ahead of the pace of the second and third place Team Penske Acuras. Pole position temporarily redeemed the continuously struggling Mazda program, which constantly encountered some perilous luck in previous years at this race.
Competitors in the LMP2 class had a one in four chance of taking the class pole, only four cars contesting this year’s race in that class. The #81 Dragonspeed ORECA machine, being driven by James Allen, posted a class-best 1:35.904 to secure the pole.
There were considerably more fireworks in the GTLM class session. Porsche ace Nick Tandy destroyed the previous GTLM track record for the class by nearly half a second, recording a lap of 1:42.257, averaging 125.325 mph in the beautiful Brumos liveried #911 Porsche 911 RSR. Jan Magnusson had held the previous standard of 1:42.779 in his #3 Corvette C7.R. Magnusson also bested his previous record, recording a 1:42.583 to put the C7.R in second. The #67 Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT rounded out the top three in third.
In the GTD class, featuring one of the largest classes to date with 23 cars entered, Marcos Gomes dropped a 1:45.257 to secure pole position in the #13 Ferrari 488 GT3. Just 0.067 seconds over the #33 Team Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3 in second place. The #86 Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 secured the third spot. Nearly half of this class recorded a time within 1 second of the pole time, setting the stage for a thrilling class showdown.
The #77 Team Joest Mazda DPi took the green flag on Saturday, still showing the same blistering pace from qualifying the day before, and the 24-hour sprint race was on. The DPi class would see 4 lead changes during the first hour of the race, with the #6 Team Penske Acura DPi leading at the end of Hour 1.
Darkness took over the track quickly due to an overcast day. Throughout the campground, campfires roared to life early on and the smell of bonfire began to mix in with the smell of race fuel. The infield Ferris wheel lights began to glow brighter. Flames from the exhaust of downshifting cars became more pronounced. The magic of night racing began to spread around the infield.
At the end Hour 6, The race was under caution following an incident between an LMP2 and DPi car in Turn 1. The #31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi held the overall lead in the DPi class following a decision to stay out under yellow. The #18 DragonSpeed ORECA held the lead in the LMP2 class, the #4 Corvette Racing C7.R was leading GTLM, and the #33 Team Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3 held the front of the fiercely contested GTD class.
Remember how we mentioned that Mazda had their first big moment of redemption following their incredible qualifying effort? Well, Hour 7 was were the dream of a Rolex redemption began to crumble for Mazda Team Joest. The #55 car randomly came to a stop on track, was able to get re-fired and make its way back to the garage. Then a few moments later, the #77 car had flames burst out of the rear of the car, bringing it to a halt at the bus stop. The team discovered a fuel leak on the #55 car causing the issue they quickly repaired, but were never able to make up the ground they lost, finishing nearly 150 laps down from the leader. The #77 car would have to be retired due to the damage from the fire.
At the halfway point in the race at the end of Hour 12, the field was under the 8th caution of the race, brought out when the #4 Corvette Racing C7.R stopped on track. Under this flag, the #6 Team Penske DPi was in the overall lead as cars shuffled around. In LMP2, the #18 DragonSpeed ORECA car was still in the lead, putting all other LMP2 machines a lap down at this point. In GTLM, the #911 Porsche 911 RSR inherited the lead from the stalled #4 Corvette. The GTD class was still led by the #33 Team Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3, held by a slight margin over the #63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GTE.
The wee hours of morning brought trouble as the skies opened and torrential rain began to fall around 5:00am. Standing water on track and the worsening conditions contributed to several incidents as drivers attempted to adapt to the conditions. Eventually the yellow flag was waved and cars spent over an hour lapping behind the new Audi safety car. With conditions continuing to worsen and no sign of the weather letting up, the race director decided to red flag the race. As the morning light continued to rise, the campground was emptying out, RVs were packing up and there were still no cars on track with no time frame for when or if the race would resume.
At the conclusion of Hour 18, the field was still parked on pit lane. The running order at this point saw the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing DPi sitting in the overall lead, followed by the #6 and #7 Acura DPis in second and third respectively. The LMP2 class had #81 Dragonspeed leading with a 3-lap advantage on the #18 sister car that had led the first half of the race. The GTLM class was headed up by the #62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE, followed by the #912 Porsche 911 RSR in second and the #66 Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT behind.
Around 8:45am, the call was made to send cars back on track. Almost instantly after the green flag was waved, attempts at resuming the breakneck race pace resulted in a major multi-car incident at the start/finish line between some GTD contenders, immediately bringing the caution back out. After a long wait sorting out this incident and heading back to green, the GTLM class leaders would make contact with each other entering Turn 1 on the second lap of that green flag run, but the incident would not draw another yellow flag.
This window would give Jordan Taylor enough of a window to bring the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac DPi back into the overall lead. Shortly after that, a quick driver change put Fernando Alonso back into the car to try to hold the lead as conditions began to deteriorate yet again. Alonso would piece together a tremendous stint, retaking the lead from the #31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi after a tiny mistake coming off the banking from that car. Wayne Taylor Racing held that spot until a record second red flag halted the race with just under two hours remaining.
The race would never be resumed from this point, officials will call the race just before the full 24-hour window. This handed the overall victory to the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac DPi team. In LMP2, despite crashing into a tire barrier just before the red flag, the #18 DragonSpeed ORECA team would hold on long enough for the red flag to seal their victory. The biggest surprise of the race came in GTLM, where the #25 BMW Team RLL M8 GTE team took the class title after inheriting the lead following an emergency stop by the #67 Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT only mere moments before the red flag was thrown. It was an emotional win for BMW, coming on the heels of the sudden loss of Charly Lamm, the longtime team manager of BMW Team Schnitzer and an influential figure within the entire BMW Motorsports program. In GTD, the #77 Grasser Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evo would secure back-to-back class victories for Lamborghini at the Rolex 24 for the first time for Lamborghini.
Fans may feel shorted following a Rolex 24 race that saw only 21 hours of actual run time due to the red flag stoppages, but there is good news. It’s only a short wait until the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is back on track at the next leg of the Michelin Endurance Cup, the 12 Hours of Sebring on March 16th, 2019. Fans in attendance will also be treated to a double feature as IMSA is joined by the FIA WEC for the first race of their Super Season in 2019, the 1000 Miles of Sebring on March 15th, 2019. It’s sure to be an exciting jam-packed weekend as the biggest road race Motorsports show in America continues the Florida campaign.