I first came to this race in 1971, so this would be my 50th year at the Daytona 24 hours. It is an interesting exercise to look back at what has changed over the years.
The track has changed quite a bit since I first attended. Back in 1971 it was 3.81 miles in length and the track had NO chicane, now it is 3.56 miles long with a chicane on the backstretch. The chicane was first used in 1983 and was an attempt to control top speed and save the tyres in the banking. The pit complex and garages are totally different with fewer pits today than in 1971. In reality, only about 55 cars can be accommodated today without sharing pits, but back in the 1970s up to 100 plus cars might be entered for qualifying.
The other huge change is track lighting. In 1971 it was very dark at night as there were no lights around the circuit, but today it is lit up like a Christmas tree! There have been some significant improvements in track safety and today safety barriers and guardrails line the infield. In 1971 the circuit was much more dangerous. Some of the infield was lined with 3-foot dirt mounds, which sometimes acted as launch ramps, not barriers! The drivers of today probably would not even want to race on the circuit of 1971 deeming it potentially unsafe.
The cars of 1971 while just as fast as the ones today for top speed, if not faster, but they were more dangerous and more unreliable than the cars of today. In 1971 there were several ‘factory cars’, maybe twelve or so including the Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512 models. Most of the field was made up of private entrants and frequently the cars were self-built from a basic street GT car, such as the Porsche 911S. Today all the cars entered are factory-built cars. Reliability in 1971 was terrible compared to today. In the 1971 race, 73 cars were entered, 50 qualified, but only 21 finished. In 2020, 38 cars started and 32 finished. BoP (Balance of Performance) did not exist in 1971 and rules were very generic in structure, with weight, engine size and overall dimensions the only real factors. Today all the cars are built by factories to a homologation specification.
Cars in 1971 would routinely qualify at one speed and race quite a bit slower, as the cars would not last the distance at qualifying speeds. Today, the cars are over designed and run flat out for the whole 24 hours. Speed differentials in 1971 were huge, the gaps between the fastest qualifiers and slowest would probably be more than 30 seconds a lap. In 2021, the gap was probably less than 15 seconds. Pace cars and full course yellows in 1971 were extremely rare, broken cars were just left on the side of the road, and crashes were cleaned up under local yellows. Due to safety concerns and insurance reasons, this just could not happen today. In 1971 broken or damaged cars could be repaired and still have a chance at winning the race, today although a few laps can be made up under full course yellows, long repair spell doom for any chances overall victory.
Drivers and teams
In 1971, there would routinely be two drivers per car entered, today there are at least three and frequently four. The standard of driving in 1971 was disparate. You had professional drivers such as Donohue, Hobbs, Rodriguez, Siffert, Revson, Elford and others, but the bulk of the field was made up of drivers with a lot less experience. In fact, many could be classified as club racers, whereas today you must be a rated driver with an FIA license to even enter. The 2021 field has a much more qualified driver list. You even have such entries as Colton Herta, an INDY car winner driving a GTD car, and Joao Barbosa, a two time overall winner driving an LMP3 car. In 1971 the driving was completely different from today. You wanted someone who could maintain a consistent pace at the level the team decided was quick enough to win, but not break the car. It was difficult to do, to drive on that edge of outright speed and reliability of the equipment. Today the cars are over designed and exceptionally reliable, you just drive them flat out for 24 hours.
The 2021 edition of this race promised to be interesting for sure. Despite the Covid19 pandemic, the entry was up from 2020 with 50 cars entered and 49 starters. The pits can only hold about 55 cars, so that is near capacity for Daytona in its current configuration.
The 2021 edition had some idiosyncrasies that had not been seen before
Would the pandemic affect the race? Yes and no. IMSA has had a lot of practice running their events under the pandemic during 2020, basically running their whole schedule from June – November 2020, albeit under ‘Covid19 Protocols’. Some races were limited spectator events, some were no spectator events, some were run under changed venues due to conditions in the various states at the time. However, IMSA became particularly good at getting the job done, considering the conditions they had to work under. Daytona would run under these same protocols, with limited spectators (maybe 25,000), or about half of the number of 2020 spectators. Teams were limited to their garages and pits, while spectators were limited to their areas (no access to the paddock, pits or garages), everyone had to stay in their ‘bubble’. The racing itself, though, was unchanged and while some spectators were perhaps unhappy with the arrangements and protocols, it seemed clear these things were required to even run the event at all.
IMSA has developed an ingenious technical system to deal with all the required medical protocols. They have a computer database of all team members and officials and every evening you would receive a cell phone message with a medical questionnaire to be completed. Once completed, you would get a text with a QR code that would be scanned the next morning when you enter the circuit through an exclusive team entry point. There the personnel would be temperature checked and receive a medical sticker on your credential for that day.
Would there be any cars, people wondered? Yes, there were. Fifty cars were entered which was more than 2020. A new class was allowed in 2021, LMP3, but the classes of DPi, GLTM, LMP2 and GTD (FIA GT3) remained basically the same as in 2020, apart from some BoP adjustments.
Would anyone interesting show up? Answer yes! The dynamic of cars, teams and drivers underwent a big shuffle for 2021. The entry of 50 cars is quite remarkable given the pandemic, but the mix of drivers was equally remarkable. One could argue that the 2021 Daytona 24 had the most superior mix of drivers of every discipline imaginable. NASCAR champions, Daytona 500 winners, Indy car champions and drivers, Formula 1 drivers, rally drivers, and of course most of the great sports car drivers of this time. Despite the pandemic, IMSA assembled a stellar field of cars and drivers. Some of the afore mentioned drivers:
- NASCAR 2020 champion Chase Elliott would drive one of the Action Express Cadillacs, the Whelen entry with Pipo Derani, Felipe Nasr and Mike Conway [Ed – Toyota LMP1 driver].
- Robert Kubica, the ex-F1 driver from Poland was driving an LMP2 car.
- Jimmie Johnson, seven-time NASCAR champion would drive the second Action Express Cadillac which was fielded jointly by Action Express and Hendrick Motorsports.
- Although the factory Porsche GTLM squad had dropped out of IMSA for 2021 they gave the cars to Proton Racing, who announced just a few weeks before the race, that they would run the whole IMSA schedule with the car under the WeatherTech banner. Porsche has of course announced that they are working on an LMDh car for the converged prototype rules in 2023 (Audi has announced this as well).
- 2018 Daytona 500 winner, Austin Dillon, was entered in an LMP2 car. Given the increased NASCAR focus on road racing, one can understand this. Although Austin mentioned that driving a stock car around the Daytona road circuit is not really related to driving an LMP2 car!
- Chip Ganassi is coming back to IMSA, with a Cadillac DPi. Drivers for the season would be Renger van der Zande and Kevin Magnussen of F1. Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson would be on hand for the enduro races. As usual Ganassi would do everything in a first-class manner.
In a big change from previous years, the ROAR (an IMSA sanctioned test weekend that was always held in the the first week of January) was moved to the weekend before the race. Under the Covid19 protocols, this was a particularly good development. Teams would then just be travelling for about ten days in total, staying in Florida between the ROAR and the race. An added development to deal with was the now added 100-minute race on Sunday 24th January which would determine the grid, in lieu of qualifying later in the week. For the 2021 season, IMSA is now giving points for qualifying, so this race during the ROAR took on some added significance!
The ROAR proceeded under good weather and was won by the #31 Cadillac of Felipe Nasr and Pipo Derani, with the Mazda in 2nd and the #5 Cadillac 3rd. However, several cars ran into trouble in the post-race tech inspection where it was found that the #31 was underweight, and Wayne Taylor’s Acura had a non-homologated wing Gurney. Both cars were relegated to the back, but since there were only seven DPi cars, it was not a severe penalty. The #81 Porsche GT3 of Hard Point Racing ran with the wrong drivers, so was also relegated.
Several cars did not even make the qualifying race. The #16 Wright Motorsports Porsche crashed heavily in the Saturday night practice as did the ERA motorsports LMP2. The crews were already working on repairing these for the race the next week.
One entry had already been scratched a few days before the ROAR, that being the Black Swan Porsche, as team leader Tim Pappas had contracted Covid19 the week before racing in Dubai.
There was plenty of whining and complaining about the BoP especially in the DPi and GLTM ranks. Everyone was accusing everyone else of sandbagging (going slower than possible to try and impact BoP changes from IMSA). IMSA, however, has technical staff that monitor these cars very carefully. They have run all the cars except LMP3 and GTD in their own NASCAR wind tunnel in North Carolina, so pretty much know what is possible and what is ‘normal’. The only BoP change was an extra 20 kg added to the BMWs between ROAR and race. Take from that what you will…
The teams had the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday during the week to prepare the cars for the first practice on Thursday for the actual 24-hour race on the weekend. Wright Motorsports faced an uphill battle, as their car was unrepairable with a bent chassis from the crash. Lucky for them, the Black Swan Porsche had withdrawn, so they bought that chassis, and started the huge job of rebuilding the car from the ground up by swapping all components over from the one chassis to the other. In a twist of fate, this was their old spare car that they had sold to Black Swan at the 2020 24-hours, when Black Swan had destroyed their car! ERA Motorsports, likewise took the car down to the bare tub to check crash damage, rebuilding it for the race.
The big announcement during the three off days was, that, effective from end of the 2021 season, the GTLM class is to be disbanded. In the future, IMSA will have GT3 Pro and GT3 amateur classes. The only ones to be affected are Corvette, but they did announce that they are looking at making a GT3 car. BMW is already working on a new GT3 car.
The practice sessions proceeded without any major incidents. There was no qualifying, as that had been determined a few days before by the results of the ROAR qualifying race.
To accommodate live TV coverage, the start was pushed back to 15h40 Saturday afternoon. The drama started immediately, as for some reason, the Mazda would not start, reportedly a gearbox issue. The mechanics worked feverishly as the two pace laps commenced, and they finally got going during the pace lap. Oliver Jarvis raced around at full speed and caught the back end of the GT field just before the flag. They would now have to pass 48 cars to win!
Due to some concerns about LMP3 cars getting in the middle of the GT race, the start was a split one, the Prototypes went first followed by a gap of about 20 seconds to the GT cars. The prototype start went well, but the GT one not so well. Before the start line the BMW of Spengler ran into the back of the Proton Porsche GTLM of Cooper MacNeil causing a complete melee at the start. Somehow, all the other cars got through but MacNeil lost the rear bumper of the Porsche, and although he made it back to the pits, he lost 14 laps with repairs.
The starting section of the race can only be described as ‘choppy’ and the field seemed nervous. Some of the LMP3 teams, who by rule all started with their bronze driver, had issues. Off-roading, hitting other cars, getting hit by GTLM cars, all contributed to several early yellows. One yellow went on for about 10 minutes, to resolve pit exit sequence issues. At the end of the yellow after the GT cars pitted (in IMSA, the Prototype and GT cars do not pit at the same time), they all for a second forgot where they were and went for the pit exit en masse as in a NASCAR race. They were two and three cars wide resulting in chaotic merging as the pit lane narrowed to one lane. Some exited out of order, and it took about 5 more laps of yellow for IMSA to resolve the situation and get everyone in the correct order. Penalties of course followed for improper pit exit.
There were quite a few early penalties for contact, most of them by the BMWs. They had at least four or five penalties for punting off other cars. Each one comprises a pit drive through, which given the slow down and pit speed, costs you almost a lap. The LMP3 cars, for the most part, ran generally slower than they had qualified at. There were concerns these cars would not even make the 24 hour distance, as they were built for sprint races. Brakes and clutch were suspect, and there was in fact a mandatory 8-minute pitstop for the LMP3 cars, so that they could all change the brakes.
The teams must have forgotten the pit rules as the new season started. There were quite a few penalties for pitting in a closed pit, too many men over the wall working on the cars, and several running the red stoplight at the end of pit lane. This was in addition to all the contact penalties.
As it got dark things settled down a little and there was more green flag running. After nine hours, it seemed the Cadillacs had a traffic advantage due to their 5.5-litre engines. They occupied four of the top five spots. However, the DPi cars were all on the lead lap and in relatively close contact, separated only by pit stops.
In GTLM, the Corvettes led from the Risi Ferrari with the BMWs in fourth and fifth places after all their penalties. The Proton Porsche was running well, and quickly, but was still 12 laps down, having made up two laps. In GTD, the AF Corsa Ferrari led from the #1 Lamborghini followed by the Porsches of Pfaff and Wright, no-one had a real advantage, it seemed.
The LMP3 field was spread out, with only three of the cars still in close contact, the Muehlner Duqueine chassis, and the two Ligiers of Riley and Sean Creech Motorsports. The others had lost laps due to crashes or other repairs.
During the night, the Mazda DPi lost three laps due to various issues including faulty tail and brake lights. Inexplicitly, the two GTD Porsches of Pfaff and Wright ran into each other taking out the #5 Cadillac in the process. The #5 lost 46 laps in the garage for repairs, but continued.
As daylight reached the speedway, the pace seemed to pick up. Daybreak is usually viewed as a victory by the teams, as now they know they are on the downward slope. Yet, there were still almost nine hours to go. The GTLM cars picked up the pace, the #24 BMW of Edwards, Krohn, Farfus and Wittman, despite its penalties, had clawed its way back and ran with the Corvettes, and the Risi Ferrari was also right in the mix. The #3 Corvette team however was in for a rude awakening. IMSA had setup a Covid19 test centre for the international people who needed a negative test within 72 hours to board their airplanes for Europe. At around 08h00, Antonio Garcia got his test result – it was positive! To the chagrin of the GM (General Motors) squad he was immediately removed from the Speedway by track personnel. This put the #3 car in a bind, as Jordan Taylor and Nicky Catsburg would now have to do the rest of the race themselves. Complicating matters they had been saving Garcia as the ‘finisher’, so now they also ran afoul of the drive time limits per driver. IMSA, in its wisdom, adjusted the drive time limits so that they could continue, which was the only fair thing to do, given the circumstances.
In DPi, the top five were pretty much still together. The #31 of Derani, Nasr, Conway and Chase Elliott had gone into the garage with a gearbox stuck in 3rd gear. Nascar champion Elliott had acquitted himself well at his first attempt, but he acknowledged he needed more time in the car to get better. Austin Dillon, the former Daytona 500 winner was also doing well, his LMP2 car running fourth in class. In GTD, the battle was between the AF Corse Ferrari and the Mercedes AMGs of Sun Energy Team led by Kenny Habul and Luca Stolz, and the Winward entry led by Maro Engel.
Near noon, Kevin Magnussen (or K-Mag as he became known) in the Chip Ganassi Cadillac, was given his second penalty for engaging gears during a pit stop while the car was on the air jacks. While he was, for the most part brilliant behind the wheel as expected, he still has a few things to learn about sports car racing. No doubt he will be a star this year in IMSA as he seemed happy in this team and with the car. He remarked in an earlier interview, that these cars were a lot of fun to drive, and more difficult than Formula 1. He mentioned Formula 1, with all the aids is a much easier car to drive, and he revelled in having to work at this type of racing.
At this point, the GTD AF Corse Ferrari and the Mercedes of Engel who were battling for the lead, ran into each other, the Ferrari coming off worse for wear and dropping down to eighth. In LMP3, the Riley car had edged away from the Sean Creech entered car by three laps due to some driver errors in the Creech car. The Muehlner car was third, but well back after some suspension repairs were required.
As the race wound down, some strategy came into play as the DPi top 5 were all still within striking distance for the win. At the edge of the fuel window, Ganassi stopped his Cadillac, put on four fresh tyres, and put Renger van der Zande in. Wayne Taylor stopped his Acura later in the stint, thereby putting in less fuel, resulting in a shorter stop. They changed left side tyres only, and he left Felipe Albuquerque in the car. As we got down to the final ten minutes, the #01 Ganassi car closed on the rear bumper of the Acura. It seemed clear the Acura had the speed in the banking but was struggling in the infield, most likely due to older tyres. However, with just seven minutes to go, van der Zande got a flat tyre and had to pit. He would end up fifth.
Albuquerque, however, had no time to relax, as Kobayashi was only five seconds behind in the #48 Cadillac. That was the way they finished, with the Acura some five seconds ahead of the Cadillac, with the Mazda recovering to finish on the podium not far behind.
In GTLM, the Corvettes took a 1-2 over the #24 BMW. The Proton Porsche finished last but made up a few more laps to end 10 laps down. The car was competitive on speed, so Sebring should be better.
In LMP2, the ERA Motorsports car which had crashed during the ROAR, ended up winning. The Riley Motorsports Ligier won LMP3 by three laps over the similar Sean Creech entered car.
In GTD, the Winward Mercedes of Engel, Ward, Ellis and Dontje won over the similar Sun Energy car with Lamborghini third. The Wright Porsche recovered to finish fourth. The Hard Point Porsche GT3R of Bamber, Nielsen, Legge and Ferriol were tenth in GTD. The Pfaff GT3R driven by Campbell, Vanthoor, Kern and Robichon were twelfth, while the Team TGM GT3R was classified 17th, but some 200 laps behind due to a gearbox failure.
It was an exceptionally good race in most of the classes and IMSA is to be commended for organising and executing this event given the circumstances of the pandemic. Likewise, the teams had to endure more than just racing to get it done, having to deal with extra days on the road and all the medical checks. It was good job by all involved! The next event on the schedule is the Sebring 12 Hour in March.
Written by: Martin Raffauf
Images by: Martin Raffauf & IMSA