Rolex 24: Watch and Learn

Rajan Khanna/The Avion Newspaper

Christopher Weil/Correspondent

The world of motorsports had their eyes focused on the 56th running of the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona as two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso made his endurance racing rebut for United Autosports. Considered to be the formal start to the entire racing year, the Rolex 24 is one of the most prestigious endurance racing events with drivers from all different racing series looking to capture the checkered flag with their team. The journey to the finish is a long one, with the entire process being far longer than just 24 hours.

Everything for the Rolex 24 officially began in the first week of Jan. with The Roar Before the 24. The Roar is a three day test where teams will bring their cars to Daytona for a shakedown with the goal being for the racers to test out any new parts or upgrades while also trying to figure out the optimal setup for the car. Mercedes-AMG driver, Jeroen Bleekemolen, said, “We would love to take more wing off of the car, but if we did, we wouldn’t be able to turn in to any of the corners.” With a 4th place class finish for Bleekemolen and team, clearly they knew what they were doing. Trimming all of the downforce out of the car is optimal for Daytona, as it removes drag, but the teams can’t remove it all  as there are still many high speed corners that need to be dealt with and thus the car has to be finely balanced, which makes The Roar rather important for success in the 24.

Before the 24 could begin, a few support races had to be run including the BMW Endruance Challenge for the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge series. Some drivers use this race as a practice event for the 24, as it’s a four hour long team endurance race. Austin Cindric, a part time NASCAR Xfinity series driver for Roush Fenway Racing, took part in both the BMW Challenge and the Rolex 24. Cindric said, “This race makes a great refresher to really shake off the rust and get used to endurance racing again.” While Cindric’s team was rear-ended in the race, their sister car driven by another NASCAR Xfinity series driver managed to get a podium finish. Cole Custer, a full time driver for Stewart-Haas Racing said, “Endurance racing is all about patience. You have to know when the car isn’t fast enough to keep the guy you’re fighting behind you. Our car just didn’t have enough straight-line speed to be in contention for the win.” While Custer didn’t compete in the Rolex 24, he said in the future he would love to, and possibly join Cindric in the future as well.

More than anything, the BMW Challenge race served as an appetizer for the Rolex 24. Guy Cosmo, a Mercedes-AMG driver for Team TGM, has been racing in this series since 2003 said, “This race was just wild. It was the best damn racing I’ve had in a long time. Everyone was racing hard and clean, which made it just fun to be in.” It wasn’t smooth sailing for everyone, as even in a short endurance race there is trouble to overcome as McLaren driver Matt Plumb had to pit from 5th with one lap left to run due to feeling a vibration in his car. Plumb was quoted saying, “We really need to figure out our motor situation. The guys worked all day and night from Wednesday to now, and I wish we had something more to show for it.” On the other end of the spectrum, BMW Endurance Challenge race winner Spencer Pumpelley said, “Team racing like this is the only way to do it. It helps when you have a teammate as good as Dillon Machavern, and this is just a great way to start the season. I was worried because last year we finished 3rd, the year before that 2nd, and before that 1st, so I thought we might be going the wrong way, but this is just something else.” Something else was a great way to put what lay ahead for the Rolex 24.

The green flag waved at 2:40 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 27 for the start of the 56th Rolex 24 as the cars thundered to life heading towards turn one. Arguably the hardest part of any endurance race is the very start. Some drivers don’t understand the concept of endurance racing and will race turn one on lap one like it’s their only chance to win; even while there is still 24 hours left to run. There are different ways to stay in contention for an endurance race, with the best way being to keep the car clean and under control. This all begins with the first stint, where teams will generally put their top driver in the car to start in order to make sure the car survives the opening hours. Fernando Alonso was among one of the opening drivers in the Rolex 24 and after his stint he said he, “was quite happy with the first three stints, and while it’s a long time until the checkered flag, we didn’t have any problems.” Describing the nerves a little, he said, “I won’t be enjoying it more until the next few hours because it’s very crowded and difficult to breathe, and then going in the car, there’s no room for error, so I think the next couple of hours where I can rest and watch the team, that’s
where I will begin to have fun.”

With any endurance racing event comes reliability issues for all, and absolutely no one is safe. The No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi suffered so many tire blowouts that they eventually retired the car which prevented Jordan Taylor from getting back-to-back Rolex wins. Juan Pablo Montoya had to wait for an alternator replacement on his Acura DPi, which took his car out of contention. Fernando Alonso had a master cylinder fail while trying to brake for turn one, which took him out of contention due to the extended repair time. Ricky Taylor, who was with his brother last year in the No. 10 Cadillac, suffered damage and had to wait for massive repairs to his car. The No. 55 Mazda DPi had their engine catch fire which took them out of it entirely. As the sun began to rise, it was clear how much damage had been done. With only one prototype left on the lead lap for the majority of the final hours, it demonstrated just how important it was to have a reliable and safe drive.

When it comes down to it, these drivers didn’t spend the past month practicing, preparing, and planning for this race just to retire the car after one small issue; they all kept pushing to get the best result possible. Even when a team loses five laps early on, the race is anything but over. Everyone else has to suffer the same issues, pass the same traffic, and in the end, Alonso said it best when he said, “It’s the same for everyone.”

Vipul Telang/The Avion Newspaper

At 2:40 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 28, the checkered flag waved for Felipe Albuquerque in his No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac DPi. They managed to avoid adversity and keep their car from suffering issues by taking it easy. Towards the end of the race their engine began to expire, however with a three lap lead over the next car in class and only two hours left to run, they were able to afford to run a very relaxed pace. Giving up four seconds per lap, they nursed their car to a comfortable win with more than 70 seconds ahead of the 2nd place Cadillac of Felipe Nasr. With the 56th running of the Rolex 24 in the history books, there are drivers who definitely want another chance. Fernando Alonso for sure will be keen to try again, and in his quest for the Triple Crown of Motorsports, we should see him running the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the very near future. Perhaps we’ll even see him again for the 57th Rolex 24. The racing all weekend was intense and some of the most exciting there has ever been. The longest month of motorsports has concluded, and with it new Rolex champions are born in Felipe Albuquerque, João Barbosa, and Christian Fittipaldi.