The 2016 North American racing season kicked off on the last Saturday in January with the running of the 54th Rolex 24 at Daytona. Held on the 3.56-mile Daytona International Speedway, the 24-hour classic entered into its sophomore year as part of the merged American Le Mans Series (ALMS) and the GRAND-AM series. Now branded as the WeatherTech Sportscar Championship, the merged series has, in 2016, grown and gained momentum – much of that due to the arrival of the exotic Ford GT in the GTLM class. A direct competitor of the Corvette C7.R, the Ford is the newest entrant in the highly contested class. Also debuting was the BMW M6 GTLM and the Ferrari 488 GTE, while Porsche showed up with its revised 911 RSR. For many months, the media played up the age old rivalry of Chevy vs. Ford, or Ford vs. Ferrari, and the expectations were that the race would prove to be highly competitive in the GTLM class. In the Daytona Prototype (DP) class, 2016 marks the end of the line for these cars. This class, along with the LMP2 cars, would be the ones fighting for the overall race win. This season is a transition year for the prototypes, with 2017 ushering in the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class, which will be based on the new LMP2 chassis coming online.
The sanctioning body (IMSA) also revised its method of achieving the Balance of Performance (BoP). 2015 was a rather controversial season with the manufacturers, and the fans. As a result, in the GTLM class, the Corvette C7.R, along with the other entrants received a revised aero package that allows for more performance. This came about as a result of the move, in 2016, to euro spec GT3 cars in the GTD class. These cars are evenly matched in terms of speed with the GTLM class, so there was a need to expand the speed gap. New data recorders have also been installed to gather telemetry that wasn’t being looked at before. This all translates into a BoP that is data driven, and levels the playing field while reducing the sandbagging. The Corvette DP’s stayed roughly the same, while the LMP2 cars received a revised BoP that would allow them to race for an overall win. Corvette Racing came into this race as defending Rolex 24 champions in the GTLM class. In 2015, the No. 3 Corvette C7.R had the top spot on the podium.
Qualifying for the race took place on a very wet Thursday afternoon. Since the forecast for race day called for sunny skies, teams opted to exercise a fair amount of restraint. As a result, the top seven times were all in the GTLM class, which qualified in dryer conditions. The Corvette DP’s went out later in wetter conditions. While posting slower times, the DP class would still be at the front when the green flag dropped.
When that green flagged dropped at 2:40 pm on Saturday, the prototype field took off with the LMP2 cars pacing the field. In the GTLM class, the Porsches were equally pacing the class, with the top nine in-class all running in the 1:45-minute range. Half of the Chevy vs. Ford battle was put to rest within 15 minutes after the start when the No. 67 Ford GT piloted by Ryan Briscoe slowed on track and was forced behind the wall with an electrical issue. It returned 16 laps down. In the first few hours, there were numerous lead changes in the prototype class, most taking place between the ESM Honda LMP2 and the DeltaWing. The Corvette DP’s were 20 seconds adrift of the lead. The No. 66 Ford GT experienced brake line trouble 90 minutes into the race and spent a great deal of time on pit lane.
As the race progressed, pit strategy played itself out, along with a few yellow flag sessions that allowed the cars to bunch up and swap positions. The new GTLM BoP was proving to be quite even, allowing competitors to race tightly. With almost 4 hours in the books, the C7.R’s were now running first and third in class with the top eight GTLM cars separated by 39 seconds. The No. 5 Corvette DP had an off due to cold tires, which resulted in minor body damage. By the 5th hour, the overall lead continued to chance. The No. 31 Corvette DP piloted by Dane Cameron was now at the front, being chased by Max Angelelli in the No. 10 Corvette DP. They were only 0.3 seconds behind. As the race shifted into the night hours, the close racing continued. Pit stops kept shuffling the order in all the classes. There wasn’t one given car in any class that was walking away from the rest.
At the 10 hour mark, the No. 5 Corvette DP was on top with Scott Pruett behind the wheel. At the midway point the Corvette DP’s were first and second overall, but the lead kept changing. Throughout the night, the lead swapped numerous times between the Corvette DP’s, the Riley DP’s, and the ESM Honda LMP2. With 8 hours left, the Bowtie armada continued to be at the sharp end of the field with the No. 5 Corvette DP running first, while the No. 4 C7.R also at the front of the GTLM class. At sunrise, the No. 10 Corvette DP was leading the race while the No. 911 Porsche was now leading in the GTLM class. As the time passed, the lead changes continued. With less than four hours to go, the No. 4 Corvette was dealt a crushing blow when it was handed a stop plus 60-second penalty for ignoring the red light exiting pit lane. Right after that, the race leading No. 5 Corvette DP was forced to go behind the wall with driveshaft issues. At this point in the race, penalties or mechanical issues can be a disaster for any team with winning aspirations.
As noon approached, the No. 10 Corvette DP was at the front but was about to be hunted down by the ESM Honda LMP2. At the time, it had a 14-second lead but was quickly being reeled in by the Honda, and with two hours left – passed the Corvette DP for the lead. This was a lead that held until the drop of the checkered flag.
In the GTLM class, the lead changes continued and the No. 912 Porsche was now leading after the No. 3 C7.R with Antonio Garcia at the wheel came in for a pit stop. With less than an hour left, the race began in GTLM. The No. 4 C7.R with Oliver Gavin behind the wheel had managed to make up the time it had lost with the penalty and was only 7-seconds behind the leader. When the No. 912 Porsche pitted for fuel and tires, the No. 4 C7.R was at the lead with the No. 3 C7.R in the second spot 18 seconds behind. After the No. 4 C7.R pitted, it handed the lead back to the No. 3 C7.R, while the No. 912 Porsche was back in second. When the No. 3 C7.R pitted, it again handed the lead to the No. 912 Porsche. The decisive moment in the GTLM battle took place with about 30-minutes left when the No. 4 C7.R had a bump and run with the Porsche, which handed the lead back to the No. 4 C7.R. Running on fresh tires, the No. 3 C7.R was quickly hunting down the No. 912 Porsche, and with just 20-minutes left, it passed it for the second spot. It was now a pair of Corvette C7.R’s at the front. The battle for the GTLM win was all Velocity Yellow. From the pits, the orders came that they could race each other for the win but absolutely no touching. The Porsche was sitting six seconds behind, just waiting for both Corvettes to take each other out. Lap after lap they battled until the drop of the checkered flag. At the line, the No. 4 C7.R driven by Gavin crossed the finish line 0.034-seconds ahead of the No. 3 C7.R piloted by Garcia. The margin of victory set a Rolex 24 record. Both Corvettes completed 722 laps for 2,570.32 miles.
The 2016 edition of the Rolex 24 lived up to the promises of closer balanced racing. The much-hyped rivalry between GM vs. Ford never really materialized. The Ford GT is just too new to challenge for an endurance race win, however, they showed a great deal of speed, and once they sort the reliability issues out, will be potent challengers. The Corvette DP’s were clearly not the fastest this year but still competitive – a sign that the BoP has leveled the playing field in the prototype class. Next on the schedule will be the equally grueling 12 Hours of Sebring.