The New Era of WeatherTech Championship Hybrid Prototype Competition Begins with a Most Memorable Race
January 29, 2023
By Holly Cain
IMSA Wire Service
The debut of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s newest class not only lived up to expectations, but arguably outperformed it with one of the most dramatic runs to the Rolex 24 At Daytona overall victory in recent memory. It all unfolded in front of a rapt international television audience and a record crowd at Daytona International Speedway.
Meyer Shank Racing’s Tom Blomqvist drove the pole-winning No. 60 Acura ARX-06 to a 4.190-second victory, to win the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class win in the first race with hybrid-powered prototypes. It was the second consecutive and third overall Rolex 24 victory for the Meyer Shank team, which led a race-best 365 of the 783 laps, crossing the stripe 4.190 seconds ahead of Filipe Albuquerque in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura ARX-06 from Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Autosport.
The Cadillac Racing Cadillac V-LMDh cars from Chip Ganassi Racing finished third (with driver Renger van der Zande in the No. 01) and fourth (Earl Bamber in the No. 02). The top four cars were separated by 11.176 seconds after 24 hours of racing on the 3.56-mile Daytona International Speedway road course.
“I knew we had a fantastic car, unbelievable,’’ said an excited Blomqvist, who won the 2022 Rolex 24 in his first race with Meyer Shank and went on to collect the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class championship. “I just have to say, a massive ‘well done’ to everyone who’s been a part of this project.
“What a car we’ve built and I’m so grateful to be able to drive that and be trusted with the duty to take it to the finish. Amazing, I was a bit nervous because the (No.) 10 car was definitely the second fastest car when it came down to it. But yeah, we held it off and had to take it to another level to secure this victory.’’
Blomqvist shared the car in the race with Colin Braun, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, the latter duo also part of last year’s Rolex 24 triumph. Today’s victory, in fact, is Castroneves’ third straight in the iconic race, tying late sports car legend Peter Gregg for most consecutive overall victories in sports car racing’s renowned season opener.
“This team is amazing. This is absolutely a dream come true,’’ Castroneves, the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner said after once again convincing his teammates and team owners Mike Shank and Jim Meyer to climb the track fence in celebration. “So happy to start the year like that and keep it going.’’
Pagenaud, Castroneves’ teammate on the Meyer Shank IndyCar team, was also all smiles, earning his second straight Rolex winner’s watch.
“I think I’m getting used to it,’’ he joked, adding, “I’ll tell you what, it was tough out there but it was fun. I’m going to savor this one.”
The MSR No. 60 Acura led the final 97 laps despite having to repair the gearbox midrace and worrying whether it would indeed make it to the end. It marks the third straight Rolex 24 overall victory for Acura, which also won with the WTRAndretti team in 2021.
Nine hybrid prototypes made the highly anticipated debut of the GTP class in the race. All but one were still running at the finish, including the top six overall finishers, an impressive outing for a car making its first competitive showing in one of the longest, most grueling events on the schedule.
The celebratory feeling went from track to pits to company brass. The first win in a totally new car elicited both relief and confidence. The finish of the race, the reliability and competitiveness a good sign for all.
“It feels unbelievable,’’ said David Salters, president of Honda Performance Development (HPD), which developed the race winner. “The real privilege is to work with those people (Acura teams) and achieve days like today. We all know it doesn’t happen all the time. Was it worth it? It’s been two years and I think it’s the best thing I’ve been involved in in my whole life.
“If that isn’t a demonstration of precision-crafted performance, I don’t know what is,’’ Salters added. “It’s a landmark moment. It’s the pinnacle of sports car racing.”
Proton Competition Wins Photo Finish in LMP2
By Mark Robinson
The No. 55 Proton Competition ORECA LMP2 07 went from the scrap heap to the top of the heap in the Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) class at the Rolex 24 At Daytona. Three days after the car was significantly damaged in a Rolex 24 practice session, James Allen eked out the narrowest of victories by just 0.016 seconds over Ben Hanley in the No. 04 Crowdstrike by APR ORECA.
An intense four-car battle over the final 90 minutes led to the photo finish, with the Proton and Crowdstrike entries swapping the lead with the No. 35 TDS Racing and No. 88 AF Corse ORECAs. Hanley went to the front with 20 minutes left in the No. 04, overtaking Job Van Uitert in the No. 35 with a bold pass leading to the infield section that involved contact between the cars and sent Van Uitert off course and to an eventual fourth-place finish.
Allen moved ahead of Nicklas Nielsen in the No. 88 AF Corse ORECA and into second place with seven minutes to go, then the 36-year-old Australian set his sights on Hanley ahead. Lapped traffic allowed Allen to slice the deficit and nearly grab the LMP2 lead on the next-to-last lap. Unsuccessful in that attempt but instilled with confidence, Allen drafted Hanley through Turns 3 and 4 of the Daytona oval on the last lap, pulled alongside in the trioval and nudged ahead as they took the checkered flag.
“Going into the final lap at the start, I saw that I actually did get in front of him before the line,” Allen said, “so I thought there’s no point trying to force any late-braking moves or anything silly. I could just get him going down the final straight and that’s kind of what I did.”
Even though he wasn’t sure he did.
“The spotter came over the radio and said we won, and I still didn’t believe it,” Allen admitted. “I was like, ‘Are you sure?’”
It was quite the recovery for Allen and co-drivers Fred Poordad, Francesco Pizzi and Gianmaria Bruni, who each collected their first Rolex 24 victory. The No. 55 ORECA sustained significant damage in a practice crash on Thursday, but the Proton crew worked overtime to repair it for the race.
“Luckily, ORECA makes a very strong tub because it was still intact,” explained Allen. “But the drive shaft was buried in the diff and took the gearbox with it. The whole rear end and all the bodywork had to come off, all the suspension. It was a very long job. It was really a big job by everyone on the team and I really appreciate it. They managed to get it done and the car was on the grid.”
No. 17 AWA Team Cruises to Victory in LMP3
By Godwin Kelly
“It was a relief (to see the checkered flag),” Boyd said. “All the boys were laughing at me because every two minutes on the radio I was asking how long was left.”
Most other cars in the class faced mechanical or other issues during the race. The margin of victory for the No. 17 AWA Duqueine over the second-place No. 33 Sean Creech Motorsport Ligier JS P320 was a whopping 12 laps.
“My teammates built that lead,” Mantella said. “My job was to keep the car clean and stay out of trouble.”
The No. 17 car went to the lead for the first time on Lap 315, pushing past the No. 33 Sean Creech Ligier JS P320. Those two cars had a pitched battle until Lap 634 when the No. 33 went behind the wall for lengthy repairs to fix a shifting issue.
“I was actually more nervous (with the large lead) than fighting with the other car,” Varrone said. “It was more nervous than when we were fighting another car because, if you lose, that’s OK. But if you lose with such a massive lead, it would hurt more.”
It was the first IMSA victory for Mantella, Boyd and Varrone. Merrill now has two career IMSA wins.
When the Creech entry had mechanical problems, no other LMP3 car was able to give chase. Creech climbed back up the leaderboard to score the second-place finish.
“As always, a hard-fought (Rolex 24),” Creech said in a post-race tweet. “Once again, we brought it home P2. Proud of a super effort by the entire team to keep us on track in a race of survival.”
Sean Creech Motorsport, which will run the entire series, didn’t go home empty handed, leaving Daytona with the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup points lead.
Rounding out the podium was the No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Ligier with drivers John DeAngelis, Christopher Allen, Connor Bloum and Cameron Shields.