JANUARY 26, 2015

Once again the Rolex 24 At Daytona lived up to its reputation as North America’s greatest endurance race, and worthy of mention in the same breath as its European counterpart, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Spectators at the Daytona International Speedway and a global television audience were treated to a feast of top-flight sports car racing in a contest of brutal attrition. You did not need to be the fastest car to win, you needed to have the best prepared. The fastest drivers were not essential, the most determined were. A single strategy did not need to last from the outset, it needed to adapt to an ever-evolving race. Knowledge and experience paid dividends in a sometimes hectic race. Chip Ganassi Racing stole the show for a sixth time (the team’s previous wins were in 2006, 07, 08, 11 & 13), its #02 car driven by Scott Dixon (New Zealand), Tony Kanaan (Brazil) and Americans Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray besting the 53 car field over the course of the race.

Master strategists
Although the margin of overall victory was slim, a mere 1.334 seconds, it does not reflect the inevitability of the result as the race wound down. The lead changed hands 59 times in the race and five times in the 22nd hour of the race. It did not change at all in the final hour when the Ganassi Racing strategy at last bit firmly, and unshakably. Dixon got into the car at 10.38AM. He did not step out until the race was won three and a half hours later: “The team was constantly working on strategy. When we realized we were going 3 or 4 laps longer on the (pit-stop) sequence, we knew we would spend less time in the pits.” This edge was enough. Something Chip Ganassi recognized: “I wish I could explain how close that race was in the last three or four hours. The win is a tribute to the combination of complete concentration by every single person on the team including the engineers coming up with their game of chess.” It was evident that Ganassi’s team had checked and rechecked their moves throughout the race.

A prize worthy of the challenge
To compete successfully in endurance motorsport requires a palette of attributes. Beating the 24 hours at a test like Daytona is one thing, winning the race is another matter completely. The reward for doing so is apt: one’s name in the history book and a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. According to the five-time winner of the Rolex 24 At Daytona, Scott Pruett, this race “is all about the watch”. Shane Lewis is in agreement, ahead of the start he could be seen on the grid proudly sporting his Cosmograph Daytona which he won in the GX class in 2013: “I wear it everyday in the race car. Once you win Daytona and you have the watch on your wrist the race feels different. Walking through the paddock is completely different, a situation I didn’t appreciate before.” Both Pruett and Lewis can attest to enormity of the obstacles that litter the path: the factors that need to align for the ‘perfect’ run. Like other winners, Pruett and Lewis understand what it takes to succeed and to be part of the tradition that surrounds this legendary race. It takes character.

Only 29 out of the 53 starters would be running by the end of the race. None of the class pole winners would convert that success to victory. Pruett would suffer misfortune too as his car, #01 Chip Ganassi Racing, would falter two hours from the end and fail to finish. Lewis too faced disappointment as #66 RG Racing struggled to recover from a series of problems early in the race and finished 96 laps behind the winner. At least the car finished. Two former F1 drivers Rubens Barrichello of Brazil and Italian Giancarlo Fisichella are proof that success in one type of motorsport is no guarantee of success in another. Both have competed here twice. Neither has managed to finish the race.

A fine line between success and failure
2015 was an ever-evolving race, rewarding patience and determination, punishing weaknesses in strategy and preparation. Cars that looked to have matters under control lost their way and places. Cars that struggled early on worked their way back into contention. Opportunity was ever present for the bold and resolute, while good luck and misfortune stalked the pits and the track hand in hand.

For #54 the final 20 minutes were particularly cruel. Fielding the same winning line-up as 2014 and starting on the front row of the Prototype Challenge grid, CORE Autosport were strong contenders to defend their title. For much of the race they were in control: “We had a great 23 hours and 40 minutes,” said driver and team owner Jon Bennett, adding “Racing is full of unknowns, that’s part of the adventure we signed up for and it looked like it was going to have a fairy-tale ending.” A heartbreaking sequence of events would leave their plans in tatters and their car a smouldering ruin.

Colin Braun, one of the quartet of drivers, explains: “I was passing a slower Prototype car. I’m not sure if he missed his braking mark but he pretty much squared me up into the right rear tyre and I think that broke the rear suspension. I got spun onto the grass and thought I could limp back to the pits. I think the suspension collapsed on the exit of the bus stop (chicane) and I hit the wall pretty hard.” Adding salt to the wound, the car burst into flames – at least Braun walked away unscathed.

The eventual class winners #52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports seemed almost embarrassed by their victory, knowing a competitor´s ill-luck had played a major part. Their race had not been easy though, and they had had their own share of difficulties. The win was as much testament to the ethos of never giving up as it was to preparation and strategy. Mechanical issues had led to the car being six laps off the pace for a long period. Mike Guasch summed up the team’s attitude: “There’s always a lot of attrition in this class and we knew we just had to keep digging, digging, digging to stay in it.” The digging paid off.

True theatre
Drama was ever present during the 24 hours as the number of retirements built. Occasionally there was black comedy too. Two-thirds through the race #44 Magnus Racing suffered an oil leak that led to another car spinning off and crashing. While fixing the leak, the Magnus Racing team discovered a dead possum in front of the rear-engined car. It had apparently been hit hours earlier in an unrelated incident. The driver at the time, Andy Lally, is a vegan and supports animal-rights. Elsewhere, every time the #4 Corvette got itself into a strong position in its good work would unravel straightaway. Its third and final incident proved fatal to its challenge. During a restart from a caution and while leading the GTLM class, it ran into the back of another car tearing its right front fender away. #4 eventually finished third. Its teammate, #3 would run a near perfect race and win. Small consolation.

Florida is known as the sunshine state, and while it did rain on the morning of the start the race was conducted in bright sunshine during daylight hours and clear skies at night. The temperature was unseasonably low, reflecting the winter storms that have struck the east coast of North America this weekend. This had an impact on tyre grip, particularly in the early hours of Sunday morning. It did nothing to cool the enthusiasm of the expectant crowd filling the infield. The 53 cars represented an array of automotive talent - Audi, Aston Martin, BMW, Chevrolet, Dodge, Ferrari, Ford, Honda, Mazda, and, Porsche. The driver line up was exceptional and from around the globe.

 

The right stuff
Special characters right through the team are required to win at the Rolex 24 At Daytona, a fact clearly demonstrated in the highly competitive GTD class, the largest on the grid. The #93 Dodge Viper GT 3R was prepared by Bill Riley whose name is most famously associated with designing a string of victorious Prototypes including the 2015 #02 Chip Ganassi Racing. #93 driver and team principal Ben Keating was quick to acknowledge the extraordinary part Riley played in his team’s victory: “Bill is extremely passionate about what he does. Bill is everything from A to Z, from the machine shop, to the engineer, to the strategist.” Driver Al Carter widened the tribute to the whole team: “I know how difficult [victories] are and what has to go right. These guys have been working together for the last couple of years. They won this race because of their ethic. For me its very special.”

The 54th Rolex 24 At Daytona is scheduled for the weekend of 30 – 31 January 2016.

The 2015 Rolex 24 At Daytona in numbers:
53 cars started, 29 cars were still running after 24 hours
Distance driven by winning car: 740 laps/2,634.4 miles
Average speed of winning car: 109.76 miles per hour
Laps led by winning car: 297
Winning margin in Prototype class: 1.333 seconds
Fastest lap: 1:39.576 in lap 598 by #60 (AJ Allmendinger)
18 periods under caution
6th overall win by Chip Ganassi Racing
2nd overall win for Scott Dixon (previous in 2006)

A partner of track racing in Daytona Beach from its beginnings in the late 1950s, Rolex has been Title Sponsor of the Rolex 24 At Daytona since 1992, and this year extended the partnership a further eleven years. All winning drivers are presented with a Cosmograph Daytona, the chronograph Rolex dedicated to racing drivers on its launch in 1963, and which marks brand’s longstanding connection with the Daytona International Speedway.

 

 


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