2016 Rolex 24 Preview

The usual curtain-opener to the motor racing calendar year and the first round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Season as it will be known as this year will be held at the famous Daytona International Speedway for what promises to be an intense 24 hour event. 54 cars will line-up in four different categories on Saturday afternoon. With stars from Formula 1, WEC, IndyCar and NASCAR, brand new GT cars making debuts and restricted running in the week leading up to the race due to the weather including a crazy qualifying session on Thursday, there is a lot of anticipation for a cracking 24 hour race.

Despite being quickest in the soaked qualifying session, Nick Tandy did not clinch the pole position as (sensibly), the cars will line up in their classes on the grid. This leaves Mikhail Aleshin the surprise polesitter, with SMP Racing in the lone BR Engineering in the field. Alongside will be the impressive Pipo Derani for ESM. The 2015 winners of this race Chip Ganassi Racing could only manage fifth and seventh on the grid with their Ford Daytona Prototypes – the recently ‘retired’ Alex Wurz and 2015 IndyCar champion Scott Dixon behind the wheel of those cars respectively. Reigning champion Joao Barbosa could only manage a lowly 12th on the grid, only ahead of the DeltaWing in class, which did not set a time.

One would expect the Ganassis and the Corvettes to make up ground pretty swiftly in the race, but with some big names quite far down the field and with limited dry running in practice, that may be easier said than done. However it is a long event and traffic management will be key. Ganassi’s line-up in the 01 car is inexperienced in Daytona terms but massively experienced in categories elsewhere. It will be great to see what the likes of Brendon Hartley and Lance Stroll can do, and this race could well be the final race for Alex Wurz so he will aim to go out on a high. Also of note is former F1 star Rubens Barrichello in the 10 Corvette, making his first notable start in the States since his lone IndyCar season in 2012.

One of the stars of qualifying was Briton Johnny Mowlem, who was significantly quicker than his rivals in the Prototype Challenge class. Second in class was Stephen Simpson. However in fifth and sixth in class were the Starworks Motorsports cars of Alex Popow and Sean Johnston. Both of these cars are running some hotly-tipped youngsters in addition to known quantities from Europe so it will be interesting to see what they can do in the race. The 54 CORE Motorsports car did not set a time and will start from last in class.

As the winners of the class title last year, watching the 54 work its way from the back should be great to watch. Similar applies to the 52, which has 2015 class winner Tom Kimber-Smith on board. I expect the 20 to try and open up a gap as early as possible but we will see whether they can control the race from the front as it pans out. Caution periods may come into play with this one so tactics will be everything.

Nick Tandy, who put in a stunning drive to co-win Petit Le Mans in 2015, was also quickest in qualifying and thus starts at the front of the Daytona field in the GTLM class, with class champion Patrick Pilet and the very quick Kevin Estre at hand. However alongside Tandy is the sister works Porsche of Fred Makowiecki. The brand new Ferrari 488 managed fourth on the grid in the hands of Alessandro Pier Guidi in the 68. However Ferrari struggled massively in the wet qualifying, bringing out a red flag following a crash for the SMP Racing car. Last year’s winner Jan Magnussen was just eighth in class, ahead of the two brand new Ford GTs and Gianmaria Bruni in that 72 SMP Racing Ferrari.

Porsche are perfectly poised to mount a strong challenge at this race. However whilst the likes of the BMWs and the Corvettes will be known quantities to them, an eye must be kept on both the brand-new Ferraris as well as the Ganassi-backed Fords. I would expect the two Porsches to assist one another if need be, and try to control the race from the front.

A stunning array of GT3 cars will close out the grid on Saturday, fronted by the Porsche 911 of Norbert Siedler, the first of 22 cars in this class. Of note, last season’s class champions Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler will be in the middle of the pack at the start. The 007 Aston Martin, which is backed by F1 driver Sergio Perez, will line up 44th on the grid out of the 54 starters.

GT3 racing is fantastically unpredictable, and with so many entrants, for the first few hours at least this is likely where much of the action is going to be. With several Porsches towards the front in qualifying, it will be tough to bet against them for the win, but 24 hours is such a long distance.

The 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona is available to stream on IMSA’s website.

Image: Getty Images

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