GTP Reborn

Race winner. [photo by Jack Webster]

by Jack Webster & Eddie LePine

Last week the Rolex 24 at Daytona was held, the first race in the 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. It also marked the beginning of a new era in sports car racing in the US and around the world – the debut of the new GTP class of prototypes.

Since the beginning of last year, manufacturers and teams have been working around the clock building and testing their new GTP Hybrid cars. Manufacturers Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW are to be commended for designing and building such complex and innovative cars in a relatively short period of time. And, of course, hats off to IMSA under the leadership of John Doonan for putting the entire GTP plan together and pulling it off.

We first saw these cars being unveiled at the last WeatherTech race of the 2022 season, Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, and we were impressed. Since that first public debut, all of the GTP cars have been undergoing extensive testing programs to get them ready for their racing debut at one of the toughest races of the entire season – the Rolex 24 at Daytona. All of these cars showed up at Daytona with many miles already on their odometers (if they had such instruments on board) – and they were pretty well sorted by the time the Roar Before the 24 rolled around the weekend prior to the actual racing debut of the class at the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

There were a total of nine GTP cars on hand at Daytona for the Rolex 24 – three from Cadillac, two from Porsche, two from Acura and two from BMW. At the Roar, they were all pretty close in lap times and were all running in the 1:34 – 1:35 range, almost the same lap times at the previous season’s DPi class of prototypes. When the dust had settled at the Roar, Tom Blomqvist put the MSR Acura on pole, closely followed by Felipe Nasr in the Porsche 963 and Ricky Taylor in the WTR Acura. The Rolex 24 promised to be a competitive debut race for the class, with the main concern of everyone involved being reliability – could these new cars run the 24 hours without major problems?

Tom Blomqvist, somewhat prophetically said after qualifying on the pole: “There’s a lot of anticipation going into next weekend. I’m very grateful for what we achieved at the Roar. Getting the pole was really nice and it gave the guys a lot of morale – an energy boost let’s say. There’s 24 hours of racing and there a lot of unknowns. Hopefully we can put this bad boy in victory lane once again.”

The following week, teams worked on race set up on their cars in the practice sessions for the 24-hour race. For once, Daytona was blessed with decent weather for the entire week, with temperatures in the 70’s and low 80’s and not too cool temps at night. As long as the teams could keep these complex new GTP machines on the track and out of the pits and garages during the race, it looked to be a very competitive race.

Once the race started, the MSR Acura which started on pole, shot into the lead and held it for the first couple of hours. The top eight GTP cars were all on the lead lap, separated by less than 10 seconds. Only the #25 BMW was sidelined, having been stranded on track with hybrid system issues and at the 85-lap mark, it was 55 laps down from the leaders.

The race continued into the night, with the GTP cars running flat out and exchanging the lead over and over again. One hour it was Cadillac, the next it was Porsche, the next it was Acura once again. However, a pattern was emerging as the race went on – the Acura’s seemed to be just slightly faster than everyone else.

One of the Penske Porsche’s went behind the wall with battery issues and was out of the picture for the win and eventually retired from the race. In a testament to the overall GTP field’s quality and preparation, all of the other eight GTP cars managed to finish the race, with six of them finishing in the top six overall, with four of them on the lead lap!

In the end, it was the Meyer Shank Racing Acura which took the win, with drivers Tom Blomqvist, Colin Braun, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud sharing the driving duties. The win wasn’t without some nail biting going on in the MSR pit box, as the gearbox had been running at very high temperatures since about lap 200. Team boss Michael Shank made the decision to keep going and if it failed, it failed. The crew kept topping off the gearbox oil on every pit stop hoping it would not burn up. Fortunately, the gearbox held together and history was made.

Remarkably, it was the second year in a row that Blomqvist, Castroneves and Pagenaud shared the winning MSR Acura entry and the second year in a row that the MSR squad defeated the Acura of Wayne Taylor Racing. In Helio’s case, it was his third win in a row at the Rolex 24 (in 2021 he also drove for Acura, but it was the Wayne Taylor squad). The driver who finished the race for the Wayne Taylor Acura, Filipe Albuquerque (who won the race in 2021 with Helio Castroneves as one of his teammates), was particularly gutted at the finish, as he gave it his all in his attempt to chase down Blomqvist. Two years in a row he finished second behind the MSR Acura. Missing the win by 3.028 seconds in 2022 and 4.190 seconds in 2023. If things had been just slightly different (mere seconds in 48 hours of racing), Albuquerque might have been the one celebrating three wins in a row! IMSA’s GTP drivers are all incredibly good – Formula One good.

Tom Blomqvist after the race: “The first time we hit the ground running with this car for the very first time, it was, wow, I think we’ve got something here. Every time we drove we were like, this is – we’re quick. We obviously thought everyone was playing big huge games because we were always quick but I think it proves just how good our car is.”

A legitimate record crowd (the largest we have ever seen at the Rolex) witnessed the re-birth of the GTP prototype class at Daytona, the GTP name resurrected from the IMSA glory days of the 1980’s and 1990’s. If this first race is any indication, it is going to be a fantastic season of IMSA WeatherTech racing. More manufacturers have announced their intention of joining the GTP ranks and we expect the GTP field to continue to grow both this season and into next year.

It feels like a new golden era of endurance sports car racing has just been reborn. Welcome to IMSA GTP racing, 21st century style.

Join us at Sebring to see round two. It is going to be fantastic.

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