HOWDY, AUDI – It's not that Audi was embarrassed in its Rolex 24 debut with the new Grand-Am iteration R8 a year ago, but with two customer teams each in their first 24-hour race and only some Audi Sport Customer Racing support, it was always going to be tough to succeed in their first go.
No other manufacturer upgraded its Daytona attack for 2013 more than the four rings, and it showed. Though it was still labeled Audi Sport Customer Racing for the four R8s that competed this year, this had a factory feel to it.
Nearly three dozen members of ASCR arrived from Germany to service the pair of APR R8s and the single entries from Alex Job and Rum Bum Racing. All bar the AJR R8 set up next to each other on pit road. An armada of European driving stars was placed in the cars. The team names followed “Audi Sport Customer Racing” on the entry list because it definitely felt as though it was Audi first, then the American team second.
The car improvements year-on-year include the rear wing sitting further back and mounted higher than in 2012, with a softer suspension setup and some other aero adjustments on the front of the car.
An incredible last hour saw seven cars in contention for the GT class win, including three of the four Audis. The winning No. 24 – in the hands of three Daytona rookies in Filipe Albuquerque, Edoardo Mortara and Olly Jarvis, along with Dion von Moltke – recovered from a penalty for avoidable contact and a late-race splash of fuel to secure the win.
The win was an important one for Alex Job Racing, which last won its class at Daytona in 1999 with a Porsche. Job will run full GTC season in the American Le Mans Series with WeatherTech support, but still seeks additional funding for further Grand-Am appearances.
Rene Rast, one of the 2012 GT class winners, was as fast as advertised aboard the No. 52 R8, and nearly stole the win at the finish for Stephen Hooks' fledgling but improving APR Motorsport squad. He co-drove with Marc Basseng, Frank Stippler and Ian Baas.
Had it not been for one-time F1 racer Markus Winkelhock running out of fuel on the final lap in Rum Bum's debuting No. 13, Audi would have swept the GT class podium. In a field as deep as this year's was in GT, the Audi assault was truly worthy of the brand's name and reputation in endurance racing.
Make no mistake, Audi has now officially arrived in Grand-Am, and its presence and influence for the rest of this year and 2014 can only increase on the strength of this performance.
PORSCHE'S POOR LUCK – For the second consecutive year, Porsche swept a class podium at Daytona. Problem is, this year it was the debuting Caymans that locked up the new GX class top three, and Porsche does not support any Cayman effort.
The 18 GT3 Cups entered in GT finished no better than fifth and for a manufacturer that had secured 10 of the past 12 podium positions in the Rolex 24, that's quite a disappointment. Granted, it wasn't a pace issue – Porsche posted the four fastest qualifying laps and the fastest race lap – but more a case of nearly anything that could go wrong, did.
Polesitter Nick Tandy, Porsche's newest factory driver, had a first-hour puncture. Park Place Motorsports' No. 73 endured a litany of issues – wheels, contact and a three-minute penalty – that removed a car with a lineup including Patrick Long and Spencer Pumpelly. The MOMO/NGT Porsche, too, had its qualifying time deleted but made it back to the lead in the race, before suspension failure. Patrick Pilet set the race's fastest lap in that car, 1:47.983.
Late in the race, both defending champions Magnus Racing and Job's No. 23 Porsche tried to gamble on fuel but each failed, falling to fifth and sixth by the flag. Surprisingly, neither of Porsche's longtime flagship Grand-Am teams, Brumos (No. 59) or TRG (No. 66, 67, 68), had much to offer during the week. A 20th-place finish for TRG's No. 66, with Jorg Bergmeister, Dominik Farnbacher, Kuno Wittmer and Ben Keating, was the best result for that quartet of cars. TRG's all-gentlemen No. 68 was the guilty party for three full-course cautions.
MAZDA'S MISERY – Porsche's issues were nothing by comparison to Mazda's, in the debut race for its new SKYACTIV-D turbodiesel Mazda6 in GX.
Available parts and a laundry list of mechanical maladies early in the week – primarily engine and transmission issues – blunted Mazda's charge before it ever really got going. In a little more than an hour of running, none of the three Mazdas entered could run a lap faster than 2:01.461 (the last-ranked fastest GT lap was 1:53.560 by the lone Mazda RX-8) and were lapped by the overall leaders just past the 10-minute mark of the race.
The No. 70 and No. 25 cars retired after losing a cylinder, while the No. 00 car experienced a rear main seal failure. Neither problem had been encountered in more than 400 hours of dynamometer testing. Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan summed up the disappointment.
“Racing is a challenge. Launching a new product is a challenge. Launching a new car in America's premier 24-hour race is a really big challenge,” Doonan said. “Our on-track testing was limited in part due to the timing of our Mazda6 production car launch which prevented the team from getting on track as early as desired. The easy way out would have been a midseason debut, but Mazda has never taken the easy path.”
To add insult to injury, the lone RX-8 entered finished the race a serviceable 17th in GT with the privateer Racers Edge squad. It's likely the RX-8's Rolex 24 swansong, as it has been out of production for more than a year.
ODDS AND ENDS – APR's 2012 driving duo of Dion von Moltke and Dr. Jim Norman both won their class with different teams, von Moltke in the AJR Audi (GT), Norman in the Napleton Cayman (GX). South African von Moltke, 22, now holds class wins at Sebring (ALMS GTC) and Daytona in the last 12 months.
Mark Wilkins was the first of two last-minute fill-ins at the AIM Autosport/Team FXDD No. 69 Ferrari F458, joining as a fifth driver when Guy Cosmo had to have endoscopic surgery. Cosmo withdrew and Craig Stanton was added as another replacement, but drove only minimally. Lazzaro and Wilkins ran the last six hours of the race, both turning in a remarkable effort in a car that was down on straightline speed and against some very highly rated international drivers.
Fellow Ferrari squads AF Waltrip (eighth) and Extreme Speed Motorsports (ninth) recorded their first Rolex 24 top 10s. NASCAR star Clint Bowyer not only kept the No. 56 AF Waltrip F458 in one piece in his stints, but had many in the press room in a laughing fit during his interviews. A sample:
“The guys on the pit box don't sleep,” Bowyer said. “I was asking them, what stint they sleep, and they don't. They have an espresso machine and I have a case of 5-Hour (Energy drink), so we'll charge on. What time is it, anyway?
“Seven-thirty?” he repeated when given the answer in the press room, “We're almost to halfway, right?”
The debuting 8Star Motorsports Corvette squad, run by Enzo Potolicchio, overcame differential failure, cleaning out the radiator and cooling systems, and gearbox issues to finish 10th in the 17-car DP field. Potolicchio co-drove with four former Peugeot drivers, Anthony Davidson, Pedro Lamy, Stephane Sarrazin and Nic Minassian. Davidson and Sarrazin were making their first Daytona and DP starts.
Ryan Eversley (No. 38 BGB Motorsports/Luna-C Clothing Porsche Cayman) was one of two drivers to record a podium finish in his class in both the Rolex 24 and supporting Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge BMW Performance 200. He finished third in both GX (Rolex) and ST (Continental). A busy race for the Georgian also saw him take over Continental's Twitter account at times and appear as a guest co-host on Magnus Racing's live 24-hour race webcam.
After a one-month break, the Rolex Series heads to the Circuit of The Americas in Austin on March 1-2, for the second round of the season. Most of the DPs that ran in Daytona will be present, although the GT and GX grids are likely to be less stout.