The 2016 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona took place over the weekend of the 30th-31st of January. It was the first race to take place at the new and improved Daytona International Speedway after the recently finished $400 million facelift. The race was a fitting curtain-raiser to the Daytona 500 that will take place on Sunday the 21st of February 2016. That race will struggle to put on a closer finish than the one witnessed in the GTLM class.
The 54th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona was the first under the IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship banner, Weathertech having replaced TUDOR as the series title sponsor in 2016.
The race week had started in monsoon conditions on Wednesday and Thursday with qualifying taking place on Thursday afternoon. It resulted in the GTLM Porsches heading all other competitors just as they had finished the 2015 season with a win at Petit Le Mans.
Corvette Racing qualified in sixth place overall with the #4 Corvette C7.R driven by Brit Oliver Gavin and in eleventh place overall (eighth in the GTLM Class) with Jan Magnussen doing the qualifying duties for the #3 Corvette C7.R. Corvette Racing drafted in two new third drivers for the Rolex 24, Mike Rockenfeller in the #3 and Marcel Fassler in the #4.
Marcel had previously driven for Corvette Racing in 2009. Both drivers are full-time Audi factory drivers who have both won Le Mans outright and in effect Corvette Racing borrowed them for the race, thanks to Doug Fehan’s personal friendship with Doctor Wolfgang Ullrich the head of Audi Motorsport. Mike Rockenfeller (known as Rocky) won the Daytona 24 Hrs overall back in 2010, unbelievably this was the first time Marcel Fassler had ever been to Daytona let alone raced there!
The race started at 2:40 p.m. on Saturday afternoon Eastern Time thankfully under beautiful blue Florida skies. Because the race is started by class, it meant that despite qualifying ahead of everyone else, the GTLM Class cars would be starting behind both the Daytona Prototype class and PC class cars. From the start of the race it was clear that IMSA had finally got the balance of performance right in the GTLM Class. All eleven of the entries were in an eleven car train looking to constantly overtake one another. Ford arrived at Daytona bullish, but left sheepish as both of their brand new Ford GT race cars struggled with reliability issues throughout the race. The #66 eventually classified 31st overall and 7th in GTLM and the #67 which was 40th and 9th in GTLM.
Corvette Racing was competing with two brand new chassis built for 2016 FIA / ACO specifications and where sporting new side logos with the words “Made in America.” They featured stars and stripes plus silhouettes of both Michigan and Kentucky, a subtle dig at Ford as they build their GT race cars in Canada.
The cars look fantastic, with much more aggressive aerodynamics than the previous version of the C7.R. Up against them Porsche had two new 911 RSR cars the #911 and #912. BMW had entered two completely new M6 GTLM cars the #25 and the #100 so numbered as 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of BMW. Ferrari entered three brand new 488 GTE chassis.
The race was unrelenting in the GTLM class and after 8 hours of the race there were still 8 cars battling nose to tail for the class lead. It would be almost impossible to count the number of position changes during the classes’ race as pit stops, traffic and race craft all led to numerous changes on almost every lap.
All the drivers in all the classes this year did a fantastic job of not hitting each other, for the most part, and the only problem for the GTLM cars seemed to be mechanical reliability. As mentioned previously, both Fords struggled with mechanical gremlins, but they weren’t alone. The #100 BMW crashed out overnight with what appeared to be a brake rotor failure. On Sunday morning, the Porsche #911 – which was fighting for the class lead along with its sister car and both Corvettes suddenly pulled into the garage area to have a driveshaft replaced. It appeared a bearing or seal had failed.
The #72 SMP Ferrari also struggled and eventually finished 41st overall and 10th in GTLM. The #100 BMW was classified 11th and last in GTLM because of its relatively early crash. The #911 Porsche was classified 8th in GTLM splitting the Fords.
Despite the long 12 hours of darkness the GTLM train was still a rollin’ but with the #911 dropping back it was down to six cars for the win; both Corvettes, two Ferraris, and one each from BMW and Porsche. The first to drop back was the #62 Ferrari driven by ex-Corvette Racing driver Olivier Beretta, amongst others–down to five.
The final few hours were incredibly tense and nail-biting as it was looking good for Corvette with the #4 leading. It was followed closely by the #3 and the #912 Porsche in close attendance.
One of the 21 Full Course Cautions (FCC) caught out Marcel Fassler in the #4 Corvette. Having done an immaculate pit stop, the team watched in dismay as Marcel went through the red light at the end of the pit lane; a cardinal sin in the eyes of IMSA. The #3 was so lucky not to be caught the same way as it was following the #4 closely at the time. Marcel was called into the penalty box and had to serve a stop plus 60 second penalty dropping him off of the lead lap. It looked bleak for the #4 Corvette crew.
Marcel drove a fantastic next stint and managed to unlap himself just before another FCC. This allowed him to get back to the rear of the train of cars, but at least he was now on the same lap again. The final stint of the race for Corvette Racing saw Antonio Garcia – winner in 2015 with teammates Jan Magnussen and Ryan Briscoe – in the #3 car and “The Closer” Oliver Gavin in the #4 car.
Olly has been with Corvette Racing a very long time, but he is still as fast and as hungry for wins as he ever was. Five Le Mans victories, but zero Daytona 24 Hours victories meant that a lot of pressure was on him personally and for the sake of his teammates Tommy Milner and Marcel Fassler.
The final two hours of the race were tense to say the least as the #912 Porsche, #68 Ferrari and #25 BMW refused to yield. Olly had to work his way through traffic to each of these targets while also keeping out of the way of the Prototypes who were equally focused on their own battles. One hour to go and it was #912, #4, #3, #68, #25; all with a great chance of the win. Olly managed to get around the Porsche at the second horseshoe on the infield part of the circuit as the Porsche ran a little wide and left, just about enough room for Olly to get through. There was a slight touch, but nothing to worry the race officials.
With twenty minutes to go it was #4, #912, #3 and then Antonio Garcia got a run on the Porsche and managed to snatch second place. Now a dilemma, would Corvette Racing Program Manager, Doug Fehan, allow both drivers to race each other to the finish or would he call a halt and tell the drivers to hold station? The clue to the answer is in the name of the team. Corvette Racing means Racing Corvettes so Doug said go for it, just remember the one rule when racing your teammate which is no contact between the cars.
With each of the 10 laps over the final twenty minutes the #3 Corvette C7.R got closer and closer to the back of the #4 and eventually with 5 minutes to go in the 24 hour race the cars were nose to tail. The final lap was breathtaking as Antonio got a better run out of the bus stop chicane going onto the high Daytona banking. With the tow from the hole punched in the air by the #4 car he was being sucked onto the back bumper of his teammate. At the very last minute he pulled out to pass, but couldn’t get it done and the #4 held on to win by 0.034 seconds or half a Corvette C7.R length at the finish line.
Back to back victories in the GTLM Class at Daytona for Corvette Racing is a stunning achievement and a testament to all the hard work the team put in over the winter designing, building and testing the latest version of the C7.R. The next race for the team will be the 12 Hours of Sebring on March 19th. Let’s hope IMSA use their newly found scientific method of balancing performance to check all of the data from Daytona before they make any changes before Sebring.