The 61st and my 33rd(!)
Words and 100+ photos by Steve Erlichman
The 2023 Rolex 24hrs was the 61st running of the classic enduro and my 33rd visit. My first one was in 1979. The end of January has always been about the Daytona 24hrs for me.
We always arrive for the Rolex 24hrs on the Wednesday before the race. It’s not technically a spectator day but we still managed to get to the garage area to check out tech inspection that’s been going on all afternoon.
On Wednesday night IMSA hosts a public display across from the speedway at IMSA headquarters. The event kicks off with music, guests and a nice party atmosphere that attracts more and more people every year. Motorcycle cops shut down the busy International Speedway Blvd at 6PM.
A number of teams display their race cars across the street at Daytona One Plaza. The parade of race cars crossing a busy suburban street is always a spectacle. Many teams from all classes racing during the weekend joined the party.
A new era
I witnessed the IMSA Camel GT era at Daytona with Porsche 935s and the original GTP Lolas, Porsches, Jags, etc. What I call the “malaise years” of Grand Am with the WSC cars followed. Daytona Prototypes were next after which the exciting DPIs came along.
Now we come to the next era in sports car endurance racing with the LMDh/IMSA GTPs as the top class. These new high-tech cars can also race in the World Endurance Championship and at the 24 Hours of LeMans. They’ll race alongside the new LeMans Hypercars which are using new hybrid/internal combustion powertrains.
No less than five car makers have committed to the LMDh formula. Four made their debut at the 2023 Rolex 24hrs. Cadillac entered 3 GTP cars, Porsche 2, BMW 2 and Acura 2. Lamborghini will join for the 2024 season. Four makers have also committed to the LeMans Hypercar formula as well which kicked off for the 2021 season. Theoretically all of them could compete at the 2024 Rolex 24hrs. Cadillac and Porsche will be in the WEC and at LeMans this year with BMW joining next year. A couple of Porsche customer teams will also join the fray. Ferrari and Peugeot have since joined Toyota with their own Hypercars.
Chevrolet also showed their NASCAR Cup car-turned-LeMans-racer for the Garage 56 initiative showcasing future technologies(!). Announced drivers will be Jenson Button, Mike Rockenfeller and Jimmie Johnson. Near record qualifying pace
A large high quality field
Most of the news was about the new GTP cars but there were also three new generation GT3 cars entered in the GTD Pro/GTD classes. Porsche had their new 992 generation GT3R represented by four teams running six cars. Three of the new Ferrari 296 GT3s were entered by two teams and five of the new Lamborghini Huracan Evo2s were represented by three teams. There were also four Mercedes AMGs plus entries from Lexus, BMW, Aston Martin, Acura and Corvette. This the last year that Corvette can race their adapted GTLM car in IMSA GTD. They debuted their bespoke GT3 racer during the race weekend (see photo below) and expect to have at least two customer teams running the new car later this year.
A total of 33 GTD cars were entered for the 2023 Rolex 24hrs along with 10 LMP2s, 9 LMP3s and the 9 GTP cars. A total of 61 cars took the green flag at 1:40PM on Saturday.
An international field of drivers included some of the world’s best endurance racing drivers. They joined several current Indy Car drivers for the race including Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, Joseph Newgarden, Scott Dixon, Scott McLaughlan, Rinus Veekay, Devlin Defransesco and Roman Grosjean.
Who lined up first in class
Qualifying was held the week before the race during The Roar weekend. Thomas Blomqvist put the Meyer Shank team’s Acura ARX-06A on the pole with a time that was only 0.6 secs off of the outright qualifying record set by a Cadillac DPi in 2021. Not bad for a debut race. The pole for LMP2 was set by iron man 50+ year old car dealer Ben Keating in the Wynns’s liveried PR1 Mathieson Oreca for the second year in a row. The LMP3 pole was taken by the Sean Creech Ligier driven by Nico Pino. AMG GT3s took both GTD class poles. The Winward Racing #57 car driven by Philip Ellis actually besting the GTD Pro Weather Tech AMG driven by Mario Engle.
GTP reliability…or not
There was much talk before the race of the reliability of the GTP cars and how many would still be running at the finish. Could the reliable LMP2 cars known to be ultra-reliable win overall? They lap only 3-4 seconds off per lap compared to the GTP cars, Only the next 24 hours would tell.
From the start the #25 BMW M Hybrid V8 had troubles that sent it to the garage area for over 2 hours. They returned to the race over 100 laps down. Later in the race the #7 Penske Porsche 963 would also spend a lot of time in the garage changing the hybrid battery system. The #6 Penske Porsche didn’t make the finish. But these were the only technology-related glitches for the new GTP cars. Which made everyone at IMSA and the four GTP manufacturers very happy.
At the end it again was the #60 Meyer Shank Acura that won for the second time in two years. Driven by Tom Blomqvist, new recruit Colin Braun, Helio Castroneves (his third Rolex 24 win in a row) and Simon Pagenaud (his second) who earned the coveted Rolex Cosmograph Daytona watches for the overall and GTP class win.
The WTR Acura finished second for the second year in a row. All of the GTP cars were running at the finish except for the #6 Penske Porsche. The #7 car recovered to finish fourteenth overall. The #24 BMW finished sixth and the #25 BMW made the finish albeit many laps down.
The Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac V LMDHs ran both the Acuras hard all race long. It was the only outing in IMSA this year for the #2 Ganassi Racing Cadillac. It will transfer over to the WEC for Sebring in March and take the Cadillac brand back to LeMans for the first time since 1950. The Ganassi cars finishing third and fourth.
The Action Express Cadillac also ran well but finished down in the final standings.
Winner by a nose
The closest battle to the finish was in the LMP2 class. For the final 2 laps the #55 Proton Oreca driven by James Allen and the #04 Crowdstrike APR Oreca driven by Ben Hanley were even as they crossed start/finish. It was only under the checkered flag that the Proton car inched ahead to take the win by 0.016 of a second in one of the closest finishes in race history.
The LMP3 win driven by Wayne Boyd was taken by the AWA Duqueine #17 .
Heartbreak and triumph for AMG in GTD
The pole positions for GTD Pro and GTD were taken by Mercedes AMGs. Unfortunately for the GTD pole Winward team, AMG factory driver Lucas Auer had a massive practice crash in turn one wrecking the car. Worse still was that Auer suffered spinal injuries serious enough for him to be transported to the hospital and eventually home to Austria. IMSA allowed the Winward team to substitute another chassis by claiming Force Majeur although backup cars are not allowed in IMSA competition. Still they flew a couple of crew guys back to the shop in Texas where they loaded up another of their fleet of AMG racers and headed back to the speedway.
They arrived back at the Speedway very late on Friday. By evening the team had transferred as many parts as they could from the crashed car to the new chassis (an IMSA requirement) to take the green flag at the back of the field. Winward Michelin Cup driver Daniel Morad jumped into the breach to replace Auer with no time in the car before his first race stint. They would climb to the top of the leader board a couple of times during the race.
Race winner in GTD was the #27 Heart of Racing Aston Martin of Sorenson, James, DeAngelis and Turner. The GTD winner would finish ahead of the GTD Pro winner!
The GTD Pro winner was two places behind the Aston in the overall finishing order was the pole sitting Weather Tech Mercedes-AMG run by Proton and driven by Engel, McNeil, Juncadella and Gounon. This gave Proton Competition two class wins in the same race.
For complete results, click here.
The 2023 Rolex 24hrs is in the books
The start of a new era in sports car racing bodes well for international endurance racing. One which is still growing as Lamborghini joins the party for next year’s race along with customer Porsche 963 teams later this year. Hopefully in time for the Watkins Glen 6 Hour race in late June. I’ll be there and you’ll want to be there too.