The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship will open a new era this weekend as the season kicks off with the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It will be the first race for the new hybrid GTP prototypes, which has generated a lot of anticipation from fans. It’s also the first time since 2000 (when BMW raced the V12 LMR in the American Le Mans Series) that they will be competing in the top prototype class.
The Daytona event really starts the week before the race with the “Roar Before the 24” testing weekend, which was open to fans and included the qualifying rounds for the race. There were six practice sessions for the GTP cars before qualifying, and Acura had the quickest car in nearly all of them. Acura continued to set the pace in qualifying, with former BMW M Motorsport works driver Tom Blomqvist putting in a superb 1:34.031 lap in the #60 Meyer Shank Racing Acura ARX-06 to get the pole as time ran out on the qualifying session, which was red-flagged for several minutes after Nick Tandy wrecked his Porsche 963. The two BMW M Hybrid V8 prototypes qualified in seventh and eighth out of nine cars, with the Porsche that Tandy wrecked ending up in ninth. The BMWs were around seven-tenths off the pole time of Blomqvist, with Philipp Eng putting in a 1:34.723 lap in the #24 car and Nick Yelloly a 1:34.846 in the #25.
The car that wins the Rolex 24 may not be the fastest car, but the one that is the most reliable, as all the GTP teams are still coming to grips with the new cars and sorting out reliability issues. “Of course, it would have been nice to start from the very front, but in a 24-hour race starting positions don’t really matter too much,” said Eng after qualifying. “We didn’t focus on outright pace in all the practice sessions we had. It was much more about making the car behave predictably and be driveable for us. That’s key in an endurance race like this – especially with a new car. It’s most important that reliability and operations are good. If you tick these two boxes, then you’ve already made it quite far.” Eng will team up in the #24 car with Augusto Farfus as well as Marco Wittmann and IndyCar star Colton Herta. The #25 car will be driven by Nick Yelloly, Sheldon van der Linde, Connor De Phillippi, and Herta, who will be getting seat time in both cars.
There will also be three M4 GT3s entered in the GTD PRO and GTD classes. Turner Motorsport will compete in the GTD PRO class at Daytona with Bill Auberlen, Chandler Hull, John Edwards, and Bruno Spengler in the #95 car, as well as in the GTD class with the #96 car driven by Robby Foley, Patrick Gallagher, Michael Dinan, and Jens Klingmann. Paul Miller Racing has their #1 M4 GT3 entered in the GTD class as well, with Bryan Sellers, Madison Snow, Corey Lewis, and Maxime Martin doing the driving.
The M4 GT3s were well off the pace in qualifying for the Rolex 24. Mercedes-AMG GT3 cars took the pole in both classes, and locked out the first three spots in GTD. Bill Auberlen qualified the #95 car seventh out of nine cars in GTD PRO with a 1:48.505, which was around 1.7 seconds off Maro Engel’s pole time in the WeatherTech Racing Mercedes. The best BMW qualifier in GTD was Madison Snow in the #1 car with a 1:48.526 lap, which was 2.4 seconds off the time of Philip Ellis in the Winward Racing Mercedes. Robby Foley qualified the #96 car in twelfth with a 1:48.756.
On a social media post, Bill Auberlen commented, “Let’s hope IMSA gets the rules/BoP (balance of performance) correct and we have a chance to compete for the win. They have missed it quite a few years in a row but I’m hoping they have all the info they need to get us there!” The BMWs may not have had the pace in qualifying, but it’s a long race and the M4 GT3 has already proven that it can go the distance and win a 24-hour race, when Team WRT won the Dubai 24 Hour earlier this month. That being said, the Mercedes and Aston Martin cars that showed great pace in qualifying are also well-developed and reliable. There will also be some new cars in the GTD PRO and GTD classes at Daytona, with the new Ferrari 296 GT3 and Porsche 911 GT3 R making their race debuts.
The IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge series will also open its 2023 season at Daytona, with a four-hour race this Friday before the 24-hour race gets underway on Saturday. There are five of the new BMW M4 GT4 race cars entered in the GS class, which was a total of 31 cars on the entry. Auto Technic Racing will have Rob Walker and John Capestro-Dubets in their #25 car, Fast Track Racing will have Toby Grahovec teamed up in the #26 car with Garrett Adams and factory driver Neil Verhagen, and Stephen Cameron Racing will return to the series for the second year with drivers Sean Quinlan and Greg Liefooghe in their #43 car. Turner Motorsport will also have a pair of M4 GT4s entered, with Robert Megennis and Cameron Lawrence in the #95 car and Robby Foley and Vin Barletta in #96.
You can find out more information about the Daytona races, including broadcast times, on the IMSA site. —David Haueter
[Photos by LAT Images]