Considering all the things that could’ve gone wrong, it’s a pleasure to be able to report to you all the things that went right in the first ever United Sportscar Championship race. And furthermore I’m happy to report that it was one of the most absorbing and dramatic endurance races I’ve watched in many years.
NASCAR haters and cynics, put the knives away – the TUDOR series is here to stay on this evidence.
Survival of the fittest is perhaps the best way to describe the prototype classes – a top four made up entirely of Corvette DPs shows that previous experience and a tough skin count for a lot. The chief stumbling block pre-race centred around balance of performance in this class; last year at Le Mans, the organisers used BoP as a stick to beat the non-European GTE teams out of contention, and there were fears that NASCAR bias would show itself here in a similar way when merging the Grand-Am Daytona Prototypes together with the ALMS LMP2 cars. That the DPs largely ruled the roost was more down to natural factors like top speed and experience on the high banks – both of which the LMP2s lacked.
Therefore a fifth place overall for the Muscle Milk squad – easily the best of the ALMS P2 machines – is a respectable result considering the team and car’s inexperience here. And word is that the battle will be much closer at Sebring, a more natural home for the P2s. The organisers beforehand threatened to slap down any teams guilty of sandbagging, but luckily no such penalties came out. And when even the normally bulletproof Ganassi Riley machines were suffering problems ranging from pitstop dramas to chipped floorpans, merely being within three laps of the winners at the finish was a good achievement for Luhr, Graf and co’s ORECA Nissan.
At the sharp end the Prototype tussle was a real arm-wrestle, and eventually Joao Barbosa kept Max Angelelli at arm’s length on the final restart, clinching victory for the Action Express squad ahead of the Taylor family operation by 1.5 seconds after 24 hours. It was well deserved; Barbosa and co-drivers Sebastian Bourdais and Christian Fittipaldi set a storming pace despite running half the race with a faulty gear shifter, and their stamina and concentraton was rewarded with a shiny new Rolex watch and victory in a crown jewel of world motorsport.
Prototype Challenge was slightly less thrilling, but no less worthy. The priorities for these guys, having never seen the Daytona banks before, was simply finishing – of which many didn’t. Therefore Core Autosport’s victory in class with drivers Colin Braun, John Bennet, Mark Wilkins and James Gue was just reward for hanging tough when others fell away around them.
The individual GT catagories from each series were kept seperate. Right decision. Both the GTLM (ALMS) and GTD (Grand-Am) classes produced great racing in their seperate series, so here they were allowed to continue where they left off – with the ALMS GTC cars slotting neatly into the GTD class.
The GTLM catagory was once again a pulsating fist-fight between manufacturer titans. It was a ripper of a contest, a true battle of stamina where contenders rose to the top then fell away. The pole-sitting SRT Vipers dominated the early going but fatigued badly. The brand new C7R Corvettes were quick but fragile. And in the end it was a straight fight between the Germans – Porsche North America and BMW RLL. The 911 car of Lietz/Tandy/Pilet hung on the claim victory by just 2 seconds at the end of 24 hours, and were it not for a lapped GTD Ferrari drifting into the path of Joey Hand’s Z4 as he hunted down Pilet, it may have been even closer. Certainly it was a battle that constantly evolved throughout the race, and once again eclipsed anything the European WEC has produced in recent years. Here’s hoping politics don’t interfere again at Le Mans this year.
If the GTLM and Prototype classes went down to the wire, the GTD battle stretched that wire to breaking point. Level 5′s Ferrari had held off all comers, but suddenly Allesandro Pier Guidi had to somehow hold off the rampaging Marcus Winkelhock in Flying Lizard’s Audi R8 in a battle more suited to a touring car race. On the final lap Winkelhock attempted a desperate move on the outside at the high-speed Turn 4 kink – and was within inches of pulling off an astonishing victory pass. On initial viewing, it seemed like Pier Guidi had barged Winkelhock off track. And the IMSA officials agreed. Within seconds of the chequered flag, news came of a penalty for ‘avoidable contact’ for car 555, gifting victory to the #45 Audi. And this was IMSA’s one big mis-step in the whole event. They reacted far too quickly.
As it transpired, Pier Guidi had held his line brilliantly in the narrow kink corner, and Winkelhock simply ran out of grip and room. Common sense had to prevail, and fortunately it did; a few hours later the penalty was overturned, and Level 5 were declared GTD victors after all. As much as the initial decision was wrong, it was refreshing to see officials admitting their mistake and rectifying it – I doubt the FIA would admit to such a balls-up. What could’ve tarnished a great race was thankfully resolved without fuss.
All of this threatened to be overshadowed in a horrific crash five hours in, when Memo Gidley’s Chevrolet DP swerved to the left of a lapped car at high speed – and smashed straight into Matteo Malucelli’s GTD Ferrari, slowed by mechanical troubles to a crawl and hidden from Gidley’s view by the lapped car. It was a scary accident, and the racing world held its breath. To everyone’s immense relief both Malucelli and Gidley were declared OK in hospital several hours later, and despite both suffering injuries, both will live; which is all that matters.
Aside from this, the event largely passed without incident. The NASCAR haters’ fears appeared to come true as a caution flag was thrown with 20 minutes to go for the #22 GTD Porsche falling off the track. But unlike many ‘debris’ cautions thrown by NASCAR in recent years, there was a genuine reason for the flag. The officials had consistently thrown cautions for incidents like this throughout the race, and consistency is all one can ask for from officials in sport.
The fact is, the knives have been out in some quarters for the USCR series. Ever since the two premier sportscar racing series in North America merged, the cynics have been out in force; mostly betrayed fans and European WEC fans who hate the thought of a NASCAR-related organisation (Grand-Am) tarnishing their road racing master race. They cried about bias towards Grand-Am teams, fixed race results, manufactured excitement, fictional boardroom politics, and more.
Happily, it looks like the cynics will be going home disappointed. The 2014 Rolex 24 was a belter of a race. It wasn’t perfect, but considering the waves of hate beforehand, it could’ve gone a whole lot worse. The optimism of many race-goers, fans and teams was well-founded.
Roll on Sebring.