Rolex 24 Preview

Mike Rockenfeller about to get into the Corvette. [Eddie LePine Photo]

Mike Rockenfeller about to get into the Corvette. [Eddie LePine Photo]

By Jack Webster & Eddie LePine

The Roar before the Rolex 24 is now in the history books, and the first chapter of IMSA’s 50th Anniversary season is complete. Next up will be the real deal – the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

At the Roar, it was evident that most of the gains made by the teams overall were due to the new tire supplier – Michelin. If you take a look at 2018 race lap times versus the 2019 Roar, you will see significant gains by all the teams that were new to Michelin (Dpi, LMP2 and GTD). In GTLM, the lap times were more in line with 2018, as all the runners in this class were also on Michelin rubber last year.

What to expect in the 2019 race? Well, look for Mazda to continue to be quick, as they were out of the gate at the Roar. They even broke the track record (unofficially), which was set back in 1993. The time by the Dan Gurney’s led AAR Eagle Mark III was 1:33.875, and the Mazda RT24-P did a lap of 1:33.398. Look for the record to officially fall during qualifying for the Rolex 24.

The Mazda Team Joest guys showed up with fire in the belly and ready to race, and were either on the top of the charts or in the top two or three in every session. The off-season personnel changes at Joest (in particular adding Leena Gade and Brad Kettler to the mix), looks to have worked very well and you would have to count them as a favorite to take the top step of the podium after 24 hours of racing.

Of course, Cadillac is not just going to step aside and hand it to them, as they were fast as well. Favorite among the Caddy contenders has to be the Wayne Taylor outfit, with Fernando Alonso added to the driving lineup (sure to be a fan favorite at the track). You can’t count out dark horse CORE Autosports either, who topped the charts in session 7 during the Roar with their newly acquired Nissan DPi. Multiple champion driver Romain Dumas has a knack of being in the right car for 24 hour races, so don’t count these guys out.

In GTLM it looks to be a barnburner of a contest. At the Roar, Porsche, Ferrari, Ford and Corvette took turns at the top of the charts in the different sessions, with BMW close behind. Again, sure to be a fan favorite will be Alex Zanardi in the BMW. Last year Ford took the class victory, with a 1-2 finish. After winning only one race last season, Corvette is looking to get out of the gate strongly in what will be the last Rolex 24 for the venerable C7.R before switching to new machinery next season.

GTD as usual is anyone’s race to win. At the Roar, Mercedes-AMG, Porsche, Acura and Ferrari took turns at the top of the charts, all separated by just fractions of a second. This class also saw an increase in speed, thanks to the new Michelin rubber. Last year Lamborghini took the win at the Rolex, and despite not being at the top of the charts at this year’s Roar, they are right there in the hunt once again. It would literally be impossible to pick a certain winner among the quality cars and drivers in this class. Quick speeds along with staying out of trouble will determine the winner in GTD. Of course, that is pretty much the case in all the classes.

Finally, the LMP2 class has but 4 cars entered for the Rolex 24, with off-season rules changes putting them firmly behind by giving the DPi cars more power. Hopefully, this Pro-Am class survives as a viable alternative to the manufacturer driven DPi class. Racing cannot thrive long term without strong independent privateers (just look back to the GTP era – once the privateers left, the series was dead). We are all hopeful that some European teams take a look at IMSA and join in the fun over here later this season.

The 2019 Rolex 24 at Daytona, the first round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (and the first round of the Michelin Endurance Cup), will mark the start of what promises to be an outstanding 50th year celebration for IMSA. It is going to be a flat out 24-hour sprint race, and we can’t wait for the start.

If you want to see the finest sports car racing on the planet, get to Daytona in a couple of weeks. You will not be disappointed.

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