Rain-plagued race cut short for the first time since 2004
BY: STEVEN COLE SMITH
On a local TV station’s evening weather segment on Saturday, the meteorologist said she couldn’t remember the last time she forecast 100 percent probability of significant precipitation for the entire coast-to-coast Central Florida viewing area.
You can’t argue with 100 percent, and “significant” turned out to mean seven-tenths of an inch or rain per hour. After hour. After hour.
And that’s why there were two red flags in the 57th annual Rolex 24 at Daytona, the season-opener for IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, with the second one ending the race. History will show that the competition was called with 11 minutes to go, but it was really more like a couple of hours. Daytona International Speedway is a bowl, and bowls fill up. Despite considerable effort on the part of IMSA and the mostly NASCAR crew, it was just too wet to keep racing to the end.
Bummer. This was turning out to be one of the most exciting, eventful Rolex 24s in years, right up to 4:27 a.m. Sunday, when the rain began falling lightly. At 4:55 a.m., “lightly” no longer applied, and all the cars came in for grooved rain tires. Which were certainly better than the slicks, but in the last 20 laps, after hours of rain puddled up on the track, one car after another hydroplaned off the track or into another car or two. The radar predicted that the heavy rain would start at 5 a.m., and apparently you can’t argue with the radar, either.
So when the pace car, which had been leading the field around the track at a slow-to-moderate pace, nearly spun into the wall, the driver led the field down pit road and parked. Formula 1 ace Fernando Alonso, who happened to be leading in the No. 10 Taylor-Konica-Minolta Cadillac DPi, climbed from his race car and walked up to the Audi pace car, opened the door, and leaned in.
“I just wanted to make sure he was alright,” Alonso told Autoweek. Turns out the pace car driver who nearly crashed had already turned over the duties to another driver, but Alonso expressed his concern to the replacement that the track was undrivable.
In the LMP2 class, Roberto Gonzalez, Pastor Maldonado, Sebastian Saavedra and Ryan Cullen in the No. 18 ORECA LMP2 won.PHOTO BY MOTORSPORT IMAGES-LAT
Would he have said that had he been running second?
“Absolutely,” Alonso said, and added that he had been calling for the race to at least go under caution, if not stopped altogether because conditions, including visibility, were unsafe.
It was a limp, sadly soggy ending that nobody wanted, apparently even Alonso, who knew that if the race was called, he’d win. It was and he did. And despite the circumstances, it was “perfect,” he said.
So it’s two straight wins for the team, which also won the 2018 season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. While the word “dominating” does not quite apply to the victory for Alonso and co-drivers Jordan Taylor, Renger van der Zande and a surprisingly comfortable Kamul Kobayashi, a Platinum-ranked racer from Japan, they were the class of the field, going slow when survival depended on it, fast when they needed to be to win. Experience, and Cadillac power, won out.
Second was the No. 31 Whelen Cadillac of Eric Curran, Felipe Nasr and the versatile Pipo Derani. Third was the No. 7 Penske Acura DPi of Hélio Castroneves, Alexander Rossi and Ricky Taylor, brother of winner Jordan Taylor, and son of team owner and former race winner Wayne Taylor. Rain robbed us of a to-the-wire battle between the top two Cadillacs, which were decidedly the fastest cars in the closing stages.
In GT Le Mans, the No. 25 Team RLL BMW M8 GTE of Augusto Fargus, Philipp Eng, Commor De Philippi and Colton Herta, son of IndyCar racer Bryan Herta, took the win. The No. 25 was the sister car to the No. 24 BMW, driven in part by Alex Zanardi, who lost his legs in an IndyCar crash in 2001. Zanardi used an adaptive steering wheel that allowed him to brake, shift and accelerate as well as steer, which was quickly replaced by a regular steering wheel when one of Zanardi’s teammates took over.
A couple hours into the race, the steering shaft was damaged during a pit stop, and the team lost eight laps while it was being replaced. They rallied to a three-lap deficit, but other things started to go wrong, and the No. 24 finished 32nd overall in the 47-car field, ninth in class. Still, Zanardi said, he is “going home very happy.”
In the GT Le Mans class, Augusto Farfus, Connor De Phillippi, Philipp Eng and Colton Herta co-driving the No. 25 BMW M8 GTE.PHOTO BY MOTORSPORT IMAGES-LAT
As an aside, Zanardi suggested that several turns in the 3.56-mile road course are overdue for repaving, because in the rain it was like “driving on glass.”
Race director Mark Raffauf acknowledged that most of the pavement is close to 20 years old, and while repaving isn’t his responsibility, it could be about due.
Second in the GT Le Mans class was the No. 62 Risi Ferrari 488 GTE of Davide Rigon, Miguel Molina, Alessandro Pier Guidi and James Calado. Third was the No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR of Earl Bamber, Laurens Vanthoor and Mathieu Jaminet.
In the abbreviated LMP2 Prototype class — which is being phased out, one reason that there were only four entries — the winner was the No 18 Dragonspeed Oreca-Gibson of former Formula 1 winner Pastor Maldonado, Sebastian Saavedra, Roberto Gonzalez and Ryan Cullen.
And in GT Daytona, it was the second straight Rolex 24 win for the No. 11 GRT Grasser Lamborghini Huracan GT3 of Rolf Ineichen, Christian Englehart, Mirko Bortolotti and Rik Breukers. Second was the highly regarded No. 29 Montaplast Audi R8 LMS GT3, followed by the No. 12 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3. The sister car to the Audi finished 33rd overall, 13th in class.
Overall, it’s hard to fault IMSA for its handling of the race and its premature end. Raffauf said the decision was made about 2 p.m. that they’d call the race, but it seems plausible that they could have called the drivers back to their cars and circulated slowly for a few laps, then wave the checkered flag as the field went by. Instead, the damp flagman waved the flag over an empty track, as the driverless cars sat on pit road.
In the end it was a good Rolex 24 that was shaping up to be a great one. Sad, but unavoidable.