Featured: The 2019 Rolex 24 at Daytona Was 23 Hours And 50 Minutes Of Grueling Motorsport

The 2019 Rolex 24 at Daytona Was 23 Hours And 50 Minutes Of Grueling Motorsport

Alex Sobran By Alex Sobran
January 29, 2019
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Photography courtesy of Rolex

The first race of the 2019 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season—and the first major international endurance event of the year—was, in a word, saturated. Literally with water, figuratively with drama and history .

Rolex invited me to attend the 24-hour race weekend, and as you can imagine being the guest of the title sponsor meant excellent access, which began in this case with hot laps around the circuit sitting shotgun with five-time 24-Hour-winner Scott Pruett in a Lexus RC-F that was more than capable of moving its speedo needle past the 150 mark on the banking. Only one other driver, Hurley Haywood, has earned that many overall wins at this event, and of course he was in attendance at this year’s race to enjoy himself and congratulate Scott on his role as Grand Marshal in his first year not competing.

Histories and legacies were in clear focus during the weekend, and 2019 marking the 50th anniversary of the series’ sanctioning body, IMSA. As such, the always-impressive group of historic race cars with history on this track were gathered in the infield following their parade laps, but were bolstered this year by a number of their modern relatives running throwback liveries on track for the main event.

Picking up where their Pink Pig and Rothmans tributes left off at last year’s Le Mans, Porsche painted their two factory entries for Daytona in a Brumos-themed design featuring a #59 motif inside the famous blue and red stripes, harking back to the 911 RSR that Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood drove to overall victory in 1973. Ford brought out a striking pair of GTs done up in Motorcraft and Castrol liveries, and the purple, orange, and pink of the Wynn’s-sponsored Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT Daytona (GTD) class was always a welcome sight whenever it the pack came around for another lap. And though it wasn’t an update of any scheme from the past that I’m familiar with, the red tartan of Pfaff Motorsport’s Porsche GT3R struck a decidedly old-school pose of its own.

The weather behaved itself on Saturday, but just before 5AM on Sunday the sky sprung a leak that stayed open for the rest of the race, which was divided between entertaining displays of highly-skilled multi-class racing and an almost comic spectacle of hydroplaning as the dwindling number of competitors waded and forded in vain across a track that had become quite maritime after hours of sustained curtain-variety rain.

Watching a string of some of the world’s most accomplished sports and formula and prototype and stock car drivers run wide and deep into the runoff zones suggested that things were going to come to end under something other than a green flag, and in-car camera feeds on Sunday morning were just shots of dashboards surrounded by an imposingly opaque grey broken up by the occasional tracers of bleary red brake lights. The race was officially called after 23 hours and 50 minutes, in which time only 13 hours and 41 minutes were raced under a green flag.

Before the rains came and pushed everyone back indoors or under awnings though, the level of competition had the course thick with spectators outlining the snaking inner section and huddled in the stadium seats above the banking that peels off into Turn One, and at night the fires that spring up in pits or in holes scooped into the infield dirt took on a candle-like quality from across the track which only adds to the surreal feeling you get as a spectator of a day-long race—sort of like the jelly weirdness that a word takes on when you say it out loud over and over again.

When you smell the remnants of hundreds of collective hamburgers and burnt chunks of charcoal on your clothes unpacking back at home the next day, you can’t help feeling nostalgic for the race weekend despite it being part of the very recent past. The weather crimped the whole thing a bit short of its potential, but there was no lack of content for the highlight-reel. In all four classes (DPi, LMP2, GTLM, and GTD, in descending order of potential lap times), there were multiple teams swapping positions for the lead, and thankfully none of the accidents that came in the rain resulted in anyone being injured, which made the drama of cars crashing out exciting as opposed to sobering. Dangerous conditions indeed, and a testament to the safety of the sport today.

The rate of attrition was high on Sunday, with cars crashing out and returning to the pits and garages for more serious repairs at regular and short intervals. Unfortunately the lap record-setting Mazda factory team (run by Team Joest, which directed the Audi Le Mans teams’ dominance in the not-so-distant past), had no dearth of problems with their DPi cars regardless of how wet the track was, and both of their potential winning machines suffered major issues (like the motor eating a turbo in the #77 car), eventually leading to the retirement of the two-car team that had put in a record-breaking lap to qualify on pole and was a favorite for the overall win.

Alonso had a strong finish in the Daytona Prototype International (DPi) class, winning the big trophy in the #10 Cadillac DPi-V.R despite radioing in his vote to end the race early when he was still running in second place in what would be the final laps. He passed Felipe Nasr in another Cadillac DPi-V.R minutes before the second red flag of the race that would send the cars into the pit lane for the remainder of the race. In a similar fashion, BMW took the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class win when the #25 car driven by Augusto Farfus passing the Richard Westbrook and the #67 Ford GT as it went into the pits on what would be the last lap of the race. BMW decimated the class win to Charly Lamm, the recently-retired director of BMW Team Schnitzer who sadly passed away on the eve of the race. He was a crucial piece of the BMW V12 LMR’s triumph at Le Mans in 1999, making the dedication of another 24-hour race win all the more poignant.

The LMP2 class win (or more accurately, the ORECA/Gibson LMP2 class win, seeing as that was the only machine represented between the four entrants in the class) went to Dragonspeed’s #18 car, which was shared between former F1-driver Pastor Maldonado, Roberto Gonzalez, Sebastian Saavedra, and Ryan Cullen. Lead changes and mid-pack duels were frequent sights in the well-attended GTD class, but at the end of the (almost) 24 hours, the #11 Lamborghini Huracan entered by the GRT Grasser Racing Team won its division for the second year in a row.

Eventually the 2019 Rolex 24 Hours will become part of the “classic” bracket, the prototype Cadillacs that have taken overall wins for the last three years will look old with enough time and progress stacked on top of them, and the details of what happened before the finish will slowly wither with age until the story is reduced to a Wikipedia page or a simple record of the entry list and finishing order.

For instance, had Ford managed to stay out one more lap before the last red flag, the Castrol car would have had excellent odds at winning the competitive GTLM class (made up of five very serious factory teams, listed in their finishing order: BMW, Ferrari, Porsche, Ford, and Chevrolet) but a brutal hand of bad luck that gave them a pit penalty on top of the poor timing of their final pit stop allowed the BMW and Ferrari pass just before the last laps of the race—following a rather draconian penalty for not being able to pit after the red flag because they happened to already be in the pits meant they didn’t even end up on the podium.

Then there was the story of Alex Zanardi’s inspirational return to the racer’s cockpit in the #24 Team RLL BMW M8 GTE. Using hand controls connected to his unique steering wheel, he was able to maintain a competitive pace when things were running smoothly, but a fluke accident in the pits took the car out of commission for a few hours for a steering rack replacement (when Zanardi was attaching his wheel before his next driving stint, the car was in the process of coming down from its air jacks and subsequently bent the connecting pins). If you just look at the results, you won’t know why the #24 finished 18 laps behind its winning sister.

Being able to witness all of this is a privilege that I don’t take for granted, and while I feel for the teams that had their podium chances jettisoned with the rain water running down the banks, all victories were well-deserved, and the 57th edition of the race pointed auspiciously towards the future. Scott Pruett sums it up best: “The race, over the last 24 hours, demanded the highest level of commitment, focus and dedication and the drivers have been inspirational. It is so amazing to see these drivers on the podium because so many of them are my friends, whether it’s Alonso and the Wayne Taylor team or the BMW squad – they all deserved victory.”

Thanks again to Rolex, for supporting the history and future of this staple of sports car racing, and for having us out to witness the latest notch.

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