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Intrigue from flag to flag

January 24, 2014

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If there were questions in anyone’s mind about the rising of sports car racing both in the United States and around the world, those questions are bound to dissipate this weekend as some of the world’s best cars, drivers, teams and component suppliers gather in cold Daytona Beach for the 52nd running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Granted this race doesn’t have the cachet of the midsummer 24 Heures du Mans classic, which runs primarily during daylight hours; if anything, the shorter, steeply banked Daytona infield/oval circuit is the more challenging venue for the 63 qualifiers (of 68 entered competitors from around the world) that will take the green flags on Saturday afternoon. At Le Mans, the entry is limited to 56, the number of available garages, and the circuit is far longer than Daytona at 8.451 miles to 3.56 miles. Because of the Florida track’s limitations, drivers and teams will be extremely busy throughout the 24-hour duration.

I t remains to be seen whether this will turn into a series of 24 1-hour sprint races as it has in previous years. Some folks say it will, others believe this debut of the TUDOR United Sports Car Championship (TUSCC) may be more measured.

I think we can expect a good deal of rubbin’ and racin’ come Saturday and Sunday, thanks to the circuit itself. And the number of athletes performing on this circuit, their very different skill sets and the capability of the machinery involved is bound to be thoroughly tested over the duration.

The opening salvo came in a protracted qualifying session on Thursday afternoon. Conducted class by class, the short periods showed that the Daytona Prototypes, which had been quickest in pre-season testing, will be quicker in the race. The more agile but production-based LM P2 entries flat couldn’t keep up, as second generation driving star Alex Gurney owned pole position in his Corvette DP. The first seven qualifiers drove Daytona Prototype entries.

The DeltaWing, driven by Katherine Legge in time trials qualified eighth and the first P2 car belonged to Muscle Milk Racing, its Nissan ORECA in 11th. LM PC ORECA spec cars occupy the upper-middle area of this crowded grid with the first GT LM production-based car, an SRT Viper in 25th place. The GTD class begins in 34th position with Audi’s top R8 on pole.

There were cars and drivers that had difficulties in qualifying that will likely show their hands during the race itself. The No. 3 Corvette C7.R had an electrical problem that prompted an earlier-than-expected engine swap rather than q quick fix. There were post-qualifying penalties that will swing the pendulum farther once racing begins in earnest.

The most important thing to watch come Saturday afternoon and into Sunday’s final thrusts is consistency. Who stays out of trouble, who gets into it? Which cars stay together and which fall by the wayside? Everybody’s bound to have a hiccup or two so there will be plenty to watch throughout as the strategy games play out.

While I’ve been questioning the wisdom of Chip Ganassi switching horses from his championship-winning BMW power to Ford’s EcoBoost engines, which are still in teething and weaning phase  I think it was the challenge of doing something different that captured Ganassi’s attention. No doubt a few pennies – or millions of them – changed hands as well.

It appears the well-developed Corvette DP cars might run away and hide, but you never know – that’s why we hold these exercises, isn’t it? There are pundits in the media that are predicting a GT romp to overall honors by Sunday afternoon. This, too, could happen as it did when GT cars were the stars of the show at Daytona.

What intrigues me, more than anything else, is the prospect of having many different cars, drivers, teams and component suppliers vying for a very, very big win to start the year and this new series. It could go anyone’s way in the chill of Daytona. That many European teams have made this voyage to Florida speaks to the importance of the Rolex race. As a “turnabout is fair play” gesture, Automobile Club de l’Ouest president Pierre Fillon throws the green flag; Jim France did the honors last June at Le Mans.

I’m interested to see if Audi can take a second straight GT victory (they’re in the GTD class, not the GT LM category) and whether the GT LM fight will go down to the American competitors of Corvette vs SRT Viper? Or will it be Ferrari, BMW, Aston Martin?

Whatever the outcome, the intrigue from flag to flag will be intense.

Words and Photo By Anne Proffit

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