Well that was eventful!
The first four hours were so intense I needed to take a break for a bit. Completely unlike last year’s relatively quiet race, this year incidents happened thick and fast. Whether it was close, tight racing or incidents of minor contact delaying cars or sending them into spins. Thankfully nothing major in the early stages and the race was able to stay green flag for much of the time. It settled into a rhythm after that.
The evening and overnight racing was fantastic. The top DPi cars were passing and repassing. Alonso (Cadillac) passing Castroneves (Acura) about 8 hours in was a particular highlight. The GT classes were having their usual fights. Even the sparse LMP2 was eventful.
At one stage quite deep into the race was a train of 7 DPi cars running 4 seconds apart, all for position, with Alonso taking over 7th. After a yellow he restarted 5th and in the next half hour raced his way to the class lead against the likes of Helio Castroneves (Acura), Rene Rast (Mazda) and Alexander Rossi (Acura).
Nick Tandy (Porsche) was similarly impressive in GTLM. He overtook Oliver Gavin (Corvette) and James Calado (Ferrari) in quick succession.
GTD is always hard to follow because there are so many cars and so many position changes, either by on track passes or by pit strategy. The purple 33 Mercedes was up front quite a lot, so was the green Grasser Lamborghini.
Sadly the quick Mazda DPis expired, as I said in my preview I feared they might. I had hoped to be wrong. The pole-sitting 77 car of Oliver Jarvis had an engine problem originally reported has a turbo failure, not sure if that’s the final diagnosis. This was about 2 laps after the sister 55 car went to the pits with electrical gremlins which cost 15 minutes or more. Then while I was sleeping the 55 had some other problem which caused it to retire.
I had a sleep break from around 4am UK time, about 16 hours to go. I’d been trying to go earlier but so much was happening and I’d eaten a lot of Haribo, that sugar rush kept me up! I wound up sleeping an hour longer than planned, but on rejoining at 9:30am UK the rain had started falling at the track. Still dark over in Florida of course where it was 4:30am.
And rain would be the story from here. When the rain started it mixed things up but didn’t cause many problems that I saw, everyone got across to the wet tyres and they were all cautious in the conditions, We continued to see great racing in every class.
In the wet, Fernando Alonso was 2 or 3 seconds per lap faster than anybody else in class! Absolutely remarkable performance.
Jordan Taylor got into the no.10 and picked up where Alonso left off earlier. He again was several seconds per lap faster than the competition. This proved to me firstly that Jordan continues to be an under-rated driver and secondly that it wasn’t an accident. It looked like drivers and team had deliberately dialled it in well for the wet. Kobayashi overnight put up a real stout defence against Juan Pablo Montoya of all people! Even had Juan on the apron in avoidance. Somehow I missed most of Renger van der Zande’s driving but he’s perfectly at home in this company. There’s no doubt the driving crew of the no.10 had the edge in this race.
Not to say the other teams weren’t on it, because they were, but the no.10 met everything head on. The Mazdas were quicker when they ran, the Penske Acuras were up there all race, but the Taylor car seemed able to drive away in damp conditions, even from the other Cadillacs.
Once the rain started it never really let up. That lead to more Safety Car periods and red flags.
Tommy Milner suffered a terrifying aquaplaning spin into the tyre wall at turn 1. He was cleared OK but the response crews weren’t with him for at least 5 minutes while the race director let the pit sequence play itself out. I get the sporting imperative and usually agree with it, but Milner’s hit was pretty hard and I’d have liked to have seen someone there considerably more quickly.
The rain intensified so we stayed yellow for an hour, which turned into a red flag which in turn lasted 1 hour 45 minutes.
We got a restart which lasted half a lap, at the back of the field cars went spinning into the tri-oval and turn 1. At this point Twitter erupted. Half the people wanted it stopped, half the people considered it a test.
For as long as it was wet-but-driveable, I was in the latter camp. Racing in the rain is an under-rated skill in modern racing where the emphasis is to mash the gas at all times. Endurance racing is just that, a test of endurance, backing off when necessary to get the car home. But the line is thin when rain intensifies. It quickly flips into dangerous territory.
The moment it became clear drivers were aquaplaning into spins at low speed, after allowing plenty of room for braking and a gap to the car ahead, it was unsafe to continue and the race should be stopped. Arguably they left it a little too long but they made the right call in the end.
Still, for a time it looked raceable and it looked like some guys did a ‘Spa ’98’, kept their right foot in as they entered a wall of spray. I think in an endurance race perhaps it is prudent, if you are at the back at the restart, to lift off the right foot? Maybe that’s just me.
The ensuing Safety Car period lasted 1 hour 45 minutes or so because during the yellow the rain had intensified again, the track was getting deep puddles on the racing line and the grass was saturated. It was obviously not in a condition to race. And I thought that would be it.
Yet at nearly 4pm UK time we were green again, but again only for a lap or so. Cars were aquaplaning across turn 1 if they got even slightly off line. Personally again they could’ve backed off, but the rain was harder now and the track was waterlogged, so the margin was much more difficult to judge than it was earlier.
40 minutes later at another restart Toni Vilander piles into the back of a Porsche he couldn’t see. Again, would you drive into a wall of spray? Did he have a choice? Maybe he didn’t, maybe someone would’ve driven into the back of him if he had slowed earlier. After all, the Porsche had backed off because another car was slowing ahead.
And it was sketchy. Drivers in all classes were spinning out when they hit puddles that were deeper than the lap before, because they couldn’t see them through the spray. And that was going too far, trying to restart in those conditions, the track was getting worse all the time.
I do appreciate the series and the track crews kept trying, they never gave up, but it was too heavy.
So with barely 3 green flag laps in some 5 hours, I did feel like I was robbed of a great run to the flag. Not the fault of the series or the drivers just a consequence of the weather. It happens.
And what of my picks to win?
Winner: No.10 Konica Minolta Wayne Taylor Cadillac – Fernando Alonso, Kamui Kobayashi, Jordan Taylor, Renger van der Zande.
My Pick: No.7 Acura Team Penske – Helio Castroneves, Ricky Taylor, Alexander Rossi.
Incredible race from the start and right through the night. After some 8 hours the top 7 cars were still just 5 seconds apart, okay after a yellow, but still impressive after long green flag running not to have gaps of laps. Shame to see the quick Mazdas go. The Nissan caught up a bit and was fast with Duval and Dumas aboard, but I still think Bennett should stand down from driving.
Rubens Barrichello was a star for JDC-Miller. The team still new to the Cadillac and generally a little off the pace, Rubens in the wet was a master just as he always was.
Winner: No.18 DragonSpeed ORECA 07 Gibson – Pastor Maldonado, Sebastian Saavedra, Ryan Cullen, Roberto Gonzalez.
My Pick: Won!
Class was close in the first half of the race but imploded in the rain. No.18 closed down an 4 lap deficit when the sister DragonSpeed car crashed, to then hold a 4 lap lead over Performance Tech. Then 18 was crashed with a lap to go in seriously heavy rain and limped to the pits at the last red flag.
Winner: No.25 Rahal LL BMW M8 GTE – Colton Herta, Ausgusto Farfus, Connor De Phillippi, Philipp Eng.
My Pick: No.67 Ganassi Ford GT – Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook, Scott Dixon.
Finished 4th after falling to the back early on, recovered all the lost laps to lead until they pitted under yellow, 2 laps before the final red flag. Eventful.
A fortuitous win for BMW, but a heartening one after the death of Schnitzer’s Charly Lamm on Thursday. Excellent overnight performances from Nick Tandy (Porsche) and James Calado (Risi Ferrari) left me assuming one of those would win.
And the fantastic Alex Zanardi. What a legend. Their car was delayed by some 20 laps but they never gave up.
Winner: No.11 GRT Grasser Lamborghini Huracan – Mirko Bortolotti, Christian Engelhart, Rik Breukers, Rolf Ineichen.
My Pick: No.48 Paul Miller Lamborghini Huracan – Bryan Sellers, Corey Lewis, Ryan Hardwick, Andrea Calderelli.
Finished 17th, 70 laps down to the class leader, after being involved in a startline accident in heavy spray along with at least three other cars. Also sent to the back at the start of the race for not getting enough night laps for one driver.
Another slightly fortunate win. The 33 Riley Mercedes of Bleekemolen etc. was in control much of the race and was leading until a pitstop late on. They were caught out when IMSA announced the race was going green, so they pitted for strategy, then half a lap later the series threw the first red flag. 7th wasn’t representative.
That’s not to say GRT Grasser are undeserving – they were Riley’s main rival all race long. They battled back from early delays. It was a very good job from them and they earned it. It’s very possible GRT could’ve beaten Riley on pace if the race had stayed dry.
Good performances in the field included the AIM Vasser Lexus (3rd), the Audis slow on the straights in the dry but with extra downforce quickly regained ground in the wet, the Shank Acura cars including the all-female drivers who were one of many cars to fall back due to accident damage suffered in heavy rain but before that were solidly inside the top 10 in a class of 23 cars.
EDIT: 4 days after the race the 2nd-placed Land Motorsport Audi was demoted to the back with a drive time infringement of just 15 minutes, which seems draconian to me. This promotes one of the Lexusususus to 2nd.
Like last year the rest of the IMSA season will be well worth watching. It is surprising to me how many general motorsports fans don’t watch it, especially outside the US when it has free streaming. Do give it a chance.
Coming up next is another iconic event, the 12 Hours of Sebring on Saturday March 16th.
Interestingly, for the first time the FIA WEC will run a 1000 mile or 8 hour race on the Friday night. It’ll be fascinating to find out how logistically this will work – and who will “do the double”!