Martin Raffauf’s 2018 Daytona Notebook takes a comprehensive look at the whole Daytona race week. Martin has been going to Daytona in one form or another for 47 years, so one could say he is something of an expert on the race. Editor
The Daytona 24 Hours was first held in 1962. Well actually, the 24 Hour first ran in 1966, the first four races run being called the Continental and running three hours in 1962 and 1963, and 2000km in 1964. Dan Gurney won the inaugural event, followed by Pedro Rodriguez, and then Pedro and Phil Hill for the 2000km in 1964. In 1966, the race was lengthened to 24 hours, copying Le Mans. The first 24-hour event was won by Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby in a Ford GT40 entered by Carroll Shelby (they also won the 1965 2000km event).
The race has continued to the current day, and is the only major 24-hour race in the United States. The track has changed slightly over the years, as it started as a 3.81-mile circuit comprised of 99% of the NASCAR banked oval, with an infield road course section. Over the years, the infield section has been modified slightly, and a chicane added on the back straight, so now the circuit length (road course) is 3.56 miles. It’s a very difficult race to win, the 31-degree NASCAR banking puts a big load on both suspensions, tyres, and drivers. In years gone by, they would sometimes start upwards of 80 cars in the race. Traffic was always an issue. They only start up to 60 cars now (due to circuit and garage area rework there are only 60 pits now). Lights have been added around the circuit, so it is not as dark at night as it was in days gone by. However, Daytona, due to the time of year it is run, races over 50% of the event in darkness (unlike Le Mans).
I once asked the late Bob Wollek, which was the harder race, Le Mans or the Daytona 24 hour. He immediately answered, no question, Daytona. He indicated the banking was tough on the drivers, car and tyres, but worst of all was the traffic. There is much more traffic to deal with than at Le Mans due to the much shorter circuit length. Even with only 55 cars, it is said a top prototype may pass up to 20 cars per lap, so it is still a busy place.
I first attended the 24-hour in 1971 where the race was won by Pedro Rodriguez and Jackie Oliver in a Gulf 917. I have been working in some fashion at every one since, and have watched the characteristics of the race change markedly over the last 15 years or so. In the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, the race was a true endurance test. Cars were not as strong then as they are today and frequently broke and it was always a test to run as fast as possible but to not break anything. The cars of today are technically much improved and totally over designed. The BoP (Balance of Performance) limits the damage that can be done by over driving (air restrictions, boost limits etc.). The cars are driven almost flat out for the whole 24 hours. In recent history, the race in all three classes, has usually come down to who had the quickest car in the last two hours or so.
The 2018 race looked to be very similar. IMSA has done a very good job over the last three years after the buy-out of ALMS by the Grand-Am series, in creating a very competitive series. The rules are similar to Le Mans and the FIA/ACO with a few marked differences. For 2018 there are three classes, Prototype, GTLM and GTD. The DPi prototype cars are the same basic chassis as Le Mans LMP2 cars, but with much more flexibility in engine choices and manufacturer selected bodywork options. There are quasi-factory efforts from Cadillac, Mazda, Acura (Honda) and Nissan. FIA/ACO LMP2 cars with the spec Gibson engine are also eligible and run in the same class.
GTLM basically consists of factory entered GT cars from Corvette, Porsche, BMW, Ford and Ferrari. These cars are the same as the FIA/ACO GT Pro class, albeit with some BoP changes specific to IMSA. The GTD class is a privateer-based class, but using FIA GT3 based cars (a big departure from the ACO), again with BoP (Balance of Performance) changes from the FIA. These cars are ostensibly private entries but get ‘factory support.’ There are Porsches, Audis, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Lexus, Acura NSXs, BMWs and Mercedes.
The driver line-up for 2018 in all classes was outstanding. No less than former IMSA champions, Indy 500 winners, Formula 1 race winners, and even current Formula 1 drivers, Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll were present. The GTLM field includes probably some of the best GT drivers on the planet.
From a Porsche perspective, there were only five entries this year, which has got to be an all-time low. I recall earlier races where Porsches made up almost half the grid. This year there were two factory-entered GTLM RSRs, again run by the CORE Motorsports team in the USA. In addition, we had three GTD class RSRs. From a driver standpoint, the Porsche squad is bolstered somewhat this year due to the demise of the LMP1 program last year. Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber return to the IMSA season (along with some other events). The news in GTD, is the appearance of Christina Nielson in a Porsche, the reigning IMSA GTD champion of the past two years in a Ferrari 488.
All cars entered in the Daytona 24 now attend a 3-day test session at the beginning of January which is called ‘the Roar’ (before the 24). This is basically a 3-day open test, which is very beneficial to the teams (especially those coming from Europe). IMSA uses test data from these sessions to set the BoP parameters for the race. Historically, teams have tried to ‘sandbag’ to show lesser performance to try and impact the BoP settings. Due to advancement in engine management and the IMSA wind tunnel testing (for Prototype and GTLM classes), this is proving to be much more difficult. All cars use a specified Bosch built ECU, which means IMSA always has readily available information, so the ‘baggers’ are caught quickly. As an added pressure on the teams, IMSA has decreed that there would be a qualifying session for garage and pit spaces at the test session. So, this puts added pressure to show what you have, prior to any BoP changes, or get stuck with a bad pit or garage.
Last year’s race was the first for the new IMSA DPi cars and as such it was kind of haphazard, as none of the cars had any real running history. This year, these cars are well sorted. Even the new Penske run Acuras, as well as the Joest run Mazda Dpi, have had massive amounts of testing towards the end of last year.
In GTLM, Porsche has had one year under their belts with the new (in 2017) mid-engine RSR. The BMW squad has brand new cars the M8 GTLM, run once again by the Rahal-Letterman-Lannigan team. Chip Ganassi is still running the Ford GTs, and the Corvettes are unchanged. The lone Ferrari in GTLM is once again under the guidance of Giuseppe Risi and his team.
GTD has the widest range of car types, including Ferrari 488, Porsche RSR, Acura NSX, Lamborghini Huracan, Audi R8, Lexus, BMW and Mercedes. These are basically all restricted FIA GT3 cars.
The ROAR was run on January 5-7, 2018 but the weather was unseasonably cold in the USA, even in Florida. Temperatures were just below freezing (32ºF, 0ºC) at nights and the days were dry but cold with highs of only 40-55ºF.
The qualifying session on 7 January yielded the warmest temperatures of the event, at 60ºF. The GTD class fastest time was taken by Mirko Bortolotti in a Lamborghini Huracan. Patrick Long was third in the 911 RSR he would share with Christina Nielsen, the reigning GTD champion. However, the first 18 cars were all covered by just one second!
The fastest GTLM time was the Ford GT of Joey Hand, while the Corvettes used a slip streaming strategy to gather second and fifth places. Earl Bamber got the #912 RSR up to fourth but the #911 of Patrick Pilet did not run due to a technical problem. Again, all the cars were within less than one second, except the two BMW’s, which were over a second back which was to be expected, as they were brand new cars.
In the prototype class, the Cadillacs seemed to run to their full potential taking the first four spots led by Felipe Nasr in the #31 Action Express entry. Nasr’s time was 1:35.8, which, while it is the quickest we have seen in many years, is not a record time. That was set by PJ Jones in a Dan Gurney Toyota GTP car in the early 1990s at 1:33.8 on the current circuit of 3.56 miles. After the Cadillacs, it got interesting, as all the rest of the pack were well back. It was not clear if they were making a full effort or not. In fact, one prototype and one GTD car were banned from one session for ‘sandbagging.’ So, it was clear, some were waiting for the race and did not care about garages or pit assignments! Alonso did well at 1:37.5 in his Ligier LMP2, as he was still learning the car, the circuit, and getting used to driving with a roof, with co-drivers, and in something that needed headlights, none of which he had done any time recently. He continued to approach things very sensibly in a measured manner, much as he did at Indianapolis in 2017.
Practice/Qualifying – Race Week
The weather had relented, and the temperatures were much warmer than the ROAR three weeks before. Practice was uneventful, and everyone just went about their preparations. Based on the ROAR data, IMSA had made some BoP changes. Based on their overwhelming performance at the ROAR the BoP for the Cadillac DPi engine was throttled back with a smaller restrictor. The Cadillac is now running a 5.5-litre V8 engine as opposed to the 6.2-litre one last year. The Nissan and Acura DPi run a 3.5-litre V6 twin turbo. The Joest Mazda squad use a 2.0 litre Inline 4 turbo. All the LMP2 cars run to the FIA/ACO specification and use the 4.2-litre Gibson V8.
A general observation was that the LMP2 cars had more top speed than the DPi, but were slightly lacking in downforce. Reportedly the LMP2 cars reached just under 200mph on the front straight exiting the turn 4 banking, the DPi cars a few mph less.
Qualifying proved to be an exciting affair. Helio Castro Neves cranked off a good lap in one of the Penske Acura DPi (Acura being Honda’s USA premium brand) and was getting ready for the press conference when he was beaten on the last lap by Renger Van der Zande in Wayne Taylor’s Cadillac by 0.007 seconds. In any case, the IMSA BoP staff had hit a home run with their changes. The top 13 cars were within less than one second. Fernando Alonso had improved on his ROAR time to a 1:37.008 (pole time being 1:36.083) and was 13th. Alonso was driving the United AutoSports Ligier, and was beaten by no less than five Oreca LMP2 models. The consensus is that the Oreca is still the better, and quicker, car. The FIA has apparently allowed the other manufacturers to make a ‘one off’ update. I don’t think Ligier or Multimatic have sorted out their ‘update’ yet. No one else seems to run a Dallara except the Cadillacs.
In GTLM, Jan Magnussen took the pole in the Corvette. He was closely followed by the Ford GT of Joey Hand, and the two works Porsches of Vanthoor and Pilet. In terms of qualifying, the Porsches have the speed and the first six cars were within less than one second, the two BMWs being last. The BMWs did lower the time gap from the ROAR, but they still have work to do. They figure they are six months behind as it is a brand-new car. The GTLM class are all currently running on Michelin tyres, these are not spec tyres, in fact the teams have multiple compounds to choose from. What has become apparent over the last few years in this class, is that some cars work better or worse on the tyres, depending on the circuit and the temperature.
GTD pole was taken by Daniel Serra in the AF Corsa Ferrari. The Grasser racing Lamborghini qualified in third, but was subsequently disqualified and relegated to last starting position when they failed the tech inspection restrictor test (with engine running, the air inlets are blocked, if engine continues to run you have failed). The three Porsches did not fair too well as the #58 Wright car had Robert Renauer qualify ninth, while the Manthey car was down in twelfth. The Park Place car did not even attempt a time as they had a technical problem.
The race started badly for the Porsche brigade, as the #58 Wright Motorsports RSR crashed heavily on the pace lap. It wasn’t clear what happened but there was extensive damage, and even the fuel cell was leaking. It took the crew over two hours to repair it, and they started the race some 60 laps down.
The race started under cloudy and warm conditions. The pace seemed very fast, with everyone pushing hard and attempting to stay on the lead lap of the leaders in class. Amazingly there were very few full course yellows requiring the pace car. This was no doubt due to only 50 cars at the start, although there still seemed to be a lot of traffic issues, with contact and some off-road running, especially in the chicane on the back straight.
As darkness fell, there was a brief rain shower and Alonso’s car took the lead briefly, although I believe it was driven by Lando Norris at the time. Alonso endeared himself to most fans and the press quite well because after doing three stints early, he came into the media centre and did an interview and took questions from all – very professional, and he is a class individual. He commented that the goal was to remain on the lead lap until Sunday, although he acknowledged that might be difficult, as he did not think the LMP2 cars had the speed to maintain the pace of the faster DPi cars.
In GTLM, the Fords took the lead from the start and were pushing hard. The Corvettes stayed on the lead lap, but did not seem to not have the speed of the Fords. The Porsches seemed to be fine early in the stint, and then drop off as the tyres wore. The Risi Ferrari 488 seemed to be just biding its time, and the BMWs as expected, brought up the rear due to a lack of outright speed.
GTD was evenly matched, with many cars on the lead lap and constant jockeying for position. As the race wore on to half way, the battle at the front came down to the two Action Express Cadillacs and the two Penske Acuras, and they started to distance themselves from the others. Several cars had punctures which destroyed bodywork. Notable in this regard, were the two ESM Nissans, the Joest Mazdas, Wayne Taylor’s Cadillac, the Spirit of Daytona Cadillac and several of the LMP2 cars. The driving was aggressive and there was a bit of off-roading, cutting curbs and so on, which I am sure had something to do with it. There were quite a few flat tyres in the GTLM field as well, so this was not limited to the Continental runners. The trick was, when you picked up a puncture, to make it back to the pits without tearing off the bodywork with the flailing tyre carcass. Some were able to do this, some were not.
Around midnight the #911 Porsche GTLM crashed in the chicane, apparently, Nick Tandy was helped off the road by a prototype car and impacted the tyre barriers. A lengthy repair followed in the garage, but they continued. Subsequently they would make multiple stops to replace various undertray components (no doubt a result of the crash), falling well behind. The #912 ran on, but just did not have the outright speed over the course of a full stint to keep up. As this race was developing with very few (a record low) number of yellow pace car periods, outright speed over the course of a fuel stint was critical to keep up.
The Ford GTs of Chip Ganassi were running like the Swiss railway system – dependable, reliable, and on time. They continued to circulate at a pace that everyone else could not seem to maintain, and they had no issues. For some of the laps they would drive around together in tandem. If they could hold this pace, they would not be beaten.
GTD continued to be a real battle with frequent lead changes among a few Lamborghinis, a couple of Ferraris, an Acura, Audi and a Mercedes. The Porsches were out of the hunt, as they were just too slow to keep up with this bunch and were several laps down at this point. The #58 Wright car was running well, but was many laps behind due to their late start in the race. They did have a few pit fires, most likely due to some residual problem from the earlier crash.
Around 1:15 am, Alonso’s plan went awry, when he had a lengthy garage stop to fix the brakes and change the master cylinders. He had also had a puncture earlier as well. At around 3:00 am, the #22 Nissan DPi of Pipo Derani, who had been making somewhat of a comeback after earlier issues, came into the pits on fire and was retired.
In the early morning around 4:00 am, the battle at the front took a few unexpected turns. The #6 Penske Acura went into the garage for 40 minutes with alternator trouble. A little later, the #7 Acura had some garage time due to accident damage hitting another car (or getting hit). At around 7:00 am the Wayne Taylor car had another puncture which ripped up bodywork and a cooler, and the car was retired. The two Action Express cars were now by themselves at the front followed by only the LMP2 cars, several laps down. The two Nissans were both out and one of the Mazda’s had the engine expire, the other was many laps down after many problems, and punctures.
By mid-morning Sunday, the Action Express Cadillacs were in cruise mode. Team Manager, Gary Nelson, told me (after the race) that both cars started to overheat with about four hours left, and throttled back their speed to keep the engines cooler. Both cars had this issue, and in fact the #31 lost three laps in the garage trying to cool and clean the radiators and engine. The #5 also made a trip to the garage for cooling, but managed it in one lap instead of three. They were lucky, as everyone else had pretty much fallen by the wayside by that time. This is a common issue at Daytona, as there is a lot of sand and grit there, and the radiators tend to get clogged up over time and the engines are running hot by late Sunday morning.
In GTLM, the Fords maintained their pace, and no one else was even in the hunt, although one Corvette struggled to stay on the lead lap.
The GTD race remained a tight battle. By late morning the race was down to two Lamborghinis, an Acura, a Mercedes an Audi and one Ferrari. Amazingly the #11 Lamborghini, which had started dead last, was now leading the field, but not by much. At this time, the Park Place Porsche went to the garage for an extended door repair, as the door would not stay closed. Apparently, the rules for GT3 (IMSA GTD) are that the car must run exactly as homologated. So, using tape, wrap ties, or bearer bond to keep a loose door shut is not legal, and the car had to be repaired with Porsche door latches. A lengthy bit of work for a crew who had been up for some 30 hours by then.
As the Cadillacs slowed in the last hours, the #54 Core Autosport Oreca managed to get onto the same lap. This was the new Oreca of Jon Bennet and Core Autosports (the American team that runs the factory Porsche squad). He was ably partnered by Colin Braun, Loic Duval and Romain Dumas. In the end 808 laps were completed, marking a record. The old distance record, which was set by John Paul, John Paul Jr. and Rolf Stommelen in 1982 in a Porsche 935 had finally been broken. In 1982, the JLP 935 covered 719 laps of the 3.84-mile circuit or 2760.96 miles. This year Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi and Felipe Albuquerque covered 808 laps of the 3.56- mile circuit or 2876.48 miles.
Positions three through eight were all LMP2 cars and the two Penske Acuras rounded out the top 10. In GTLM the two Fords won by two laps over the Corvette, everyone else was well back. The Fords even beat the old distance record as well with 763 laps. The Porsches came home sixth and ninth.
In GTD, it was a battle down to the end with the Grasser Lamborghini of Bortolotti, Ineichen and Perera, beating the Acura of Mike Shank Racing, the Mercedes of Riley Motorsports, the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari and the Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini by just seconds (although official results show one lap), as the GTD field was split by the leader at the checkers. The Lamborghinis had finished first and third, their best result ever at Daytona. Chris Ward, the Lamborghini Racing manager in the US was not too happy after qualifying, but had to be pleased at race end. The three GTD Porsches, after a myriad of issues, finished in 18th, 19th, and 20th places.
In the battle of the Formula 1 drivers, Lance Stroll was 15th in one of the Jackie Chan LMP2 Oreca cars, and Alonso finished 38th overall after several major issues with the car.
The race was sort of a throw-back to the old days. This was a flat-out race for 24 hours with limited down time due to pace cars or yellows (a total of four pace car intervals as compared to 21 in the 2017 race). Lack of outright speed quickly became a liability that could not be overcome by reliance on pace cars to reclaim distance lost. The strategy to just cruise around until Sunday, and then race, was a losing one, as by then, you could be laps behind. Any issue, be it mechanical, or driver error was quickly fatal, as the time just could not be made up the way this race played out. The larger than normal crowd was treated to a good, well run event.
Next on the IMSA schedule, Sebring, another iconic race.
Written by: Martin Raffauf
Images by: Martin Raffauf, Porsche Motorsport, Ford Chip Ganassi Racing, Mazda/Drew Gibson