DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — New hybrid engine technology held up over the first seven hours of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, where a new era of sports car racing began as IMSA became the first North American series to use the technology.
The twice-round-the-clock endurance race that began Saturday debuted brand new cars for the top GTP class, which uses a hybrid powertrain combined with a traditional internal combustion engine. But the tight timeline to prepare the new cars, the technology itself and supply chain challenges have created an air of uncertainty as to the durability of the GTP cars.
All nine GTP teams feared their cars might not make it to the finish and the overall Rolex winner would come from a lower class. But through nearly seven hours, only two of the GTP cars had issues, with seven still in contention.
Action Express Racing led seven hours into the race after new driver Alexander Sims handed the Cadillac over to Pipo Derani.
“It’s my first-ever stint in a prototype in IMSA and I’m just getting my head around things, how to gauge traffic, how to manage gaps to get a good run out of the corner,” Sims said. “It’s early in the race and we just have to stay in it and keep it clean.”
One of Roger Penske’s new Porsche’s was running second, with a Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac running third. Helio Castroneves, part of the last two winning teams, spun running second for defending race winners Meyer Shank Racing to drop the Acura to sixth.
Colton Herta in a BMW for Bobby Rahal was seventh in GTP. The sister BMW car had a mechanical problem in the first hour of the race to drop from contention, and the second of Penske’s Porsche’s also had a problem to fall 19 laps off the pace.
“Bummed for those guys. It’s a new process for everybody,” said Scott Dixon, making his 20th consecutive start in the endurance race for Ganassi. “We’ve seen in testing it’s expected. It’s expected. Sometimes it’s out of your hands. We’ll see how it continues.”
The Bus Bros. of IndyCar were quickly knocked out of contention in their Rolex debut because of a very early issue with their Tower Motorsports entry.
John Farano, owner of the car, hired IndyCar stars Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin, as well as rising talent Kyffin Simpson, for the entry in the second-level LMP2 class. But it was Farano who crashed the car last weekend in qualifying and then stalled the car Saturday less than 10 minutes after the race began.
McLaughlin said that a water bottle leaked onto the electronic control issue to cause the stall. Farano took the car to the garage and the team was down nine laps and running last, in 61st, when he got the car back on track.
“By the time we got the car back, we’d lost a few laps, and by the time they sorted the problem, we lost even more laps,” McLaughlin said.
He added that it’s been a disappointing first Rolex for he and Newgarden, Team Penske teammates who have developed a deep friendship and YouTube series called “The Bus Bros.” in which they showcase their racing lifestyle.
“I was really excited. I was like choked up at the race start, so many people walking up and down pit lane,” McLaughlin said. “So many people have come out to support us, especially IndyCar drivers, and for that to happen so early sucked.”
Later, Simon Pagenaud in the Acura for Shank was given a warning for spinning the Tower car. Asked after what happened, Pagenaud said “I thought it was Newgarden” of his former Team Penske teammate. He also said he passed the Tower car on the high banking and “the spotter told me it was Newgarden and that felt quite nice.”
Pagenaud concluded with a raised eyebrow toward the Bus Bros. sense of humor.
Meanwhile, fellow IndyCar driver Colton Herta also suffered a setback in his bid to finish first and second in the top GTP class. Herta was scheduled to drive in both BMWs — giving him two chances to win the Rolex watch, as well as finish both first and second — when one of the BMWs had an issue less than an hour into the race. It happened before Herta’s scheduled stint in the car.
IMSA has made a huge splash this weekend with the debut of hybrid engines in the top GTP class. It makes IMSA the only North American series using hybrid technology and has drawn immense interest to the series.
The GTP class has four different manufacturers — double the number in last year’s race — with BMW and Porsche new to the class alongside stalwarts Acura and Cadillac. Lamborghini has announced plans to enter the series before the end of the year.
The hybrid debut Saturday created the largest crowd for the Rolex in its 61 years as the unofficial opener of the racing season. An official attendance figure was not provided.
“History is being written starting today,” said Rahal, co-owner of the two BMW GTP entries.
Rahal moved up to the top class for the new era, while Penske returned to sports car racing and hopes to take his two Porsches to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June. Michael Andretti, meanwhile, partnered with Wayne Taylor Racing to join the grid and a Saturday morning news conference of the seven GTP team owners was comprised of five owners of IndyCar teams.
All the GTP team owners stressed the importance of IMSA, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) and the Federation International de l’Automobile (FIA) merging rules that has widened IMSA’s participation and given North American sports car teams a chance to race Le Mans.
“This seems to be a real platform for us to take sports car racing to the next level here in the United States,” said Penske, “and then to be able to compete on the international platform at Le Mans for our teams and our brands will be special. I look at competing with these folks as going to be terrific.”