Rolex 24 at Daytona 2018

When Fernando Alonso was announced alongside Lando Norris in a Ligier for the 2018 Rolex 24, there seemed a convergence of interesting strands of narrative: not only were a couple of contemporary grand prix drivers entering the race, but so too were the powerhouse teams Joest and Penske. The brand new BMW M8 GTE was to make its debut and the Cadillac hegemony of 2017 had been broken down over the second half of the year as ESM ascended to a couple of late season wins. After an incredibly tight 2017 Rolex, 2018 promised more of the same – and then some.

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With a typically harsh British winter conspiring to make my homeland even less appealing in January than it is during the other 11 months of the year, a quick decision and a flex of the credit card has succeeded in booking a long weekend in Florida. A couple of other diversions are booked to make the long journey more palatable and we reserve a pick-up truck to potter about in. Well, when in Rome…

Excitement builds significantly when we spy the circuit out of the ‘plane window as we approach Orlando. To augment that excitement, we are able to select the pick-up of our choice and we cannot resist the lure of a 5.7l V8 Dodge Ram. OK, so it may not be the V10 of our dreams but the Hemi is suitably outrageous and actually a surprisingly capable on-roader.

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The journey out from Orlando to Daytona is pretty dull. The freeway is flat, and lined with small bodies of water and palm trees. The occasional turkey vulture swoops overhead, but otherwise, it’s a steady run. The Ram is really pretty cool though. Not only is it monumentally enormous – providing awesome visibility – but the lazy engine and relaxed gearbox make cruising a synch. It’s quiet and the stereo pumps out some really decent classic rock channels. A bit of Led Zeppelin, periodic bursts of V8 noise (though not necessarily commensurate V8 performance) and an attractive dusk sky make for a pretty sweet start to our long weekend in Florida.

Our residence for the weekend is a charming old motel called Tropical Manor which backs directly onto Daytona Beach. What a view to frame one’s morning coffee. The beach itself is as incomprehensibly long as its reputation would suggest. The sea mists obscure the horizon long before the straight stretch of sand runs out. I squint and try to imagine my hero Sir Malcolm Campbell thundering down here in pursuit of the outright land speed record in 1935, Rolls Royce R engine bellowing mournfully out across the waves. As a local truck ambles along the sands, it seems impossible to believe that Campbell hit a two-way average of 276mph along here 85 years ago.

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We have three days scheduled at the speedway and, given the distance we’ve travelled, elect not to wake with the sparrows, preferring quality time trackside over bleary-eyed quantity. Tropical Manor is about six miles from the speedway through varied areas. From the relative glamour of the Daytona Beach boardwalk, we pass strip clubs and gun shops but the area feels out-of-season quiet, not sinister or insalubrious. One gentlemen’s club specifically welcoming race attendees raises a smile: how hospitable.

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Daytona International Speedway itself looms large over the area. The towering stadium grandstand is visible from several blocks away. It’s far taller than anything Indianapolis can offer though retains the same ampitheatrical vibes as Charlotte. Parking and retrieving our tickets is simple and of course customer service everywhere is excellent. We dive through the tunnel at NASCAR Turn Four and into the infield, just as Cooper MacNeil is finishing off his customary demolition of the Ferrari Challenge field.

The scale of the facility takes some adjustment. The stadium is simply vast; the grandstands rising like skyscrapers but spreading seemingly for miles in each direction. The tri-oval is 2.5 miles long – the same as Indy – but the road course section adds another 1.1 miles, making it longer even than the Silverstone Grand Prix layout. That statistic alone offers some context to the sheer size of the place.

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Today is dedicated to orientation, exploration and a four hour endurance race for the Continental Tyres Sportscar Challenge.

Typically for an American event, access is superb. All the garages are open-fronted and closed at the rear, with glazed viewing panels to provide varied additional viewing. That combination means no screens blocking the punters’ eyeline and all drivers and team personnel must walk through the public areas in order to access the garages. There’s a great feeling of inclusion and we see a few members of racing royalty during our ambles, including Michael Andretti, whose team has provided Leeds-based United Autosports with a transporter for the weekend.

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To say this is the day before the big race, many cars are in a state of significant undress, with major componentary spread around the garages and gory innards laid bare. It’s fascinating to see the detail of the prototypes, especially as a current WEC round doesn’t typically provide such fantastic access. In fact, the screens which most professional teams now employ in their garages are a real blight for the enthusiast wishing to catch a glimpse of a naked car or a (clothed) driver up-close.

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Behind the garages is a wonderful array of vehicles showcasing the history of sports car racing at Daytona. From unlikely Triumph TR2 right through to recent BMW M3 GTR, there’s something for everyone. Highlights include a glorious trio of Martini Lancias – Beta Montecarlo Turbo, LC1 and LC2 – and a pair of Swap Shop Porsches.

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These cars from the stable of the late Preston Henn are the most evocative of all to my mind. The Swap Shop 935-L was perhaps the ultimate iteration of the crazy 935; produced during the early-1980s by ANDIAL under the leadership of Alwin Springer. Boasting a full spaceframe chassis and a body which aped the works Porsche 935-78 ‘Moby Dick’, this very car won the 1983 Daytona 24 Hours in the hands of owner Henn, Bob Wollek, AJ Foyt and Claude Ballot-Lena. As something of an addict for all stories Preston Henn-related, seeing the 935-L and the later 962 resplendent in Swap Shop livery is a highlight of the event.

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The Continental Tyres Sportscar Challenge race kicks off at 1pm so we adopt a spot at the entry of the International Horseshoe which promises some lively early-race duels. I can claim neither experience nor expertise in the Conti series, having never seen a race before though I am aware of the concept. The grid is split into three classes: Grand Sport (GS), effectively for GT4 machinery; Touring Car (TCR) for TCR cars; and Street Tuner (ST) for road-derived sports and saloon cars.

The field is sizeable, with 30 GT4s kicking it at the front, including multiple examples of the brand new Audi R8 and Mercedes-AMG GT4. These latest weapons are ranged against a host of home-grown Ford Mustangs, BMW M4 GTSs, McLaren 570Ss, Porsche Cayman GT4s and a lone but typically brutish Aston Martin V8 Vantage. Behind, a small group of TCRs makes rapid progress, though without the aural fireworks of the top class.

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Following a couple of years of work, the Cayman GT4 finally appears a force with which to be reckoned. The RS1 car of Spencer Pumpelly and reigning champ Dillon Machaven hits the front from pole in Pumpelly’s hands and never looks truly threatened, in spite of a late push from the #82 BMW M4 of James Clay and Tyler Cooke which is able to overcome Scott Maxwell’s singing Mustang for second.

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While the TCR cars may not raise the pulse as they hurtle around the high banks, as a cost-effective saloon category, it’s hard to argue with their inclusion in the series. With WTCC submitting to the formula and GT3 becoming ever more serious and expensive, a championship model built upon GT4 and TCR looks very smart, especially as the more prosaic offerings in ST give homebrew teams the chance to get a foot into the series door.

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Impressive stuff and a great prelude for the Rolex as the GT4 runners are seriously dramatic – I can’t wait to see the prototypes in full flight tomorrow.

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Dusk is slowly falling, and with it the ambient temperature. We wrap up and complete a potter around the manufacturer stands and enjoy another wander through the paddock area where teams are making last-minute preparations including driver change simulations. Fernando is attracting quite a crowd as he converses with team mate Paul di Resta but the area is fairly quiet by now and the sighting feels relatively intimate. It’s somewhat bizarre to find a flyer for a chapel service hanging in the gents – replete with an offer of free coffee and donuts. Well, if that’s what it takes to enjoy religious conversion I’m in full support.

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While the parties on the infield are still nascent, we continue our good behaviour with a couple of beers and some spicy chicken wings followed by another depressingly early night. It’s hard work crossing the Atlantic just for a weekend. But we do treat ourselves to a quick trip to the local Walmart. Apparently customers at this time of the day (night) are known as Walmartians and it’s not hard to see why.

The shop is as bewildering as it is huge and the clientele is lively. We stock up on provisions, including a couple of bits to take home and a little set of steps which permit the amateur photographer a clear view over the 6’ Daytona catch fencing. Most unsettling is the weapons section which includes a variety of guns and ammunition. An evening trip to Walmart is certainly an experience but I’m not sure it’s one I’d care to repeat often, especially after the noises I hear emerging from the lavatory.

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Saturday dawns warm but cloudy – perfect conditions for a long day at the trackside. Queues for the car park are minimal but the speedway is significantly busier today than it had been yesterday. The merch stands are bustling and there’s so much IMSA stuff I’m tempted by – particularly items from the GTP era. I satisfy myself with a recent t-shirt and another amazing beer cooler for my collection – this one featuring Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s face.

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The day opens – at least for us after a hearty pancake breakfast – with the heritage demo laps featuring most of the cars exhibited in the infield. There’s an awesome array of different sounds from trumpeting V8 Shelby Mustangs through to the whistling turbocharged Lancia LC2. The sight of the mighty 962 produces a lump in the throat – I’m transported back to my childhood daydreams of GTP warriors on the banking during the 1980s.

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One of Saturday’s big events is the fan autograph session. There are organised queues – much like at Indy – and every driver is in attendance. Most drivers are pretty accessible but the scrum around Alonso is enormous and it’s clear that the hype which surrounded him last May is alive and well in Florida, even if the sports car fans try to play it down. The session does, though, permit the opportunity to photograph a couple of the drivers up close as they ready themselves for the onslaught of well-wishers. Plaudits to IMSA for setting up the session – it’s evidently very popular and the fans seem knowledgeable and engaged.

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Once the autograph session is over, the cars are manoeuvred out onto pit road and the whole tri-oval area is opened up to fans, with the traditional startline signing ceremony in full swing. We make a small dedication to our Yorkshire brethren at United Autosports and wonder at the severity of the banking: at ‘only’ 16deg, this is half as steep as the high banks for NASCAR Turns One and Four. Bloody hell.

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With just the national anthem separating us from the commencement of racing, it’s time to run up the giant stadium to adopt our seats for the beginning of the race. Quite remarkably, you can see the entire course from the second tier of the ‘stands. That’s a full 3.6 miles unfurling beneath you – and completed in around 1:40secs for the top drivers.

In a special tribute, Dan Gurney’s Lola T70 heads the field for its pace laps. Extremely moving after all the success Gurney enjoyed at Daytona as both a driver and team owner.

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The field is unleashed after a couple of pace laps and immediately there are battles everywhere, most especially at the front. All through practice and qualifying, the four Cadillacs have stamped their authority on the field but Penske’s Acuras looked a threat and even snared a front-row start. This form continues and Helio Castroneves in the #7 Acura immediately finds himself stuck into a proper dogfight with the massed ranks of Caddies. Such is the ferocity of the competition, at one stage, three Cadillacs appear side-by-side into turn one, Renger van der Zande on full opposite lock controlling a slide under braking. No quarter given, right from the green flag.

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The#10 Cadillac of reigning champs Wayne Taylor Racing takes an immediate lead but by the time of the second pitstops, it’s the #5 Action Express car which has settled at the head of the field. Further back, the ESM Nissans are starting to stretch their legs, making progress from the second half of the prototype field.

As a backdrop to the racing action on track, a local bald eagle soars above the bleachers, while less majestically, a local light aircraft chugs overhead tugging a star spangled banner.

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The progress of Alonso in the United Autosports Ligier has been interesting. He rose quickly from a 13th place starting position to 11th, but subsequently dropped as low as 14th. The Ligier seems to like low fuel and his pace picks up towards the end of each stint. Compounding that is the car’s fuel efficiency and the #23 is able to make at least a lap on the competition during each round of pitstops. Remarkably, on lap 66 we are treated to Fernando Alonso leading the Daytona 24 Hours – eight months after seeing him achieve the same feat at the Indy 500.

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It was said during Alonso’s Indianapolis foray that he relied far less on his spotters than many rookies. He possesses a remarkable ability to read a race and to understand exactly how to manage the peripheries of the car. That ability has been honed during recent seasons in the McLaren-Honda F1 cars where holding off ostensibly faster machinery has been turned into an art form. Much of that skill is in evidence at Daytona where he immediately looks like an old hand when it comes to using slower traffic to defend position. Is there anything the lad can’t do?

In spite of the #23’s fine driver roster, it certainly isn’t looking like a serious threat for outright victory at this stage of the race. The pace at the front is hot and the Ligiers can’t quite get on terms.

In GTLM, the Fords look to hold a small but decisive speed advantage over the Corvettes. Everyone else is fighting for scraps, particularly the new BMW M8 GTEs. In fact, barely has the chequered flag been shown before BMW is on public record discussing Balance of Performance. Such is modern sports car racing…

While predicting a result remains a minefield, the race has settled into a rhythm and after a couple of hours it’s time to head back to the infield to study the cars at close quarters and try to snap a few photographs as the sun drops behind the horizon.

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The enduring Daytona photograph involves the wonderful, multi-coloured fairground ferris wheel set as the backdrop to a grubby race car. With darkness enveloping the facility, brake discs are glowing, exhausts are popping and we’re into a warm Floridian evening. The noise is particularly intense due to the circuit’s relatively small footprint when compared to the grand European 24 hour tracks at Le Mans, Spa and the Nürburgring and it becomes quite dizzying. With the smell of camp fires filling the nostrils, this is an event for all senses.

As the Action Express Cadillacs assume their position at the head of the field, I try to snare that classic Daytona photograph. The #31 car manages to bludgeon the #6 Penske out of the way heading into the International Horseshoe at one stage, front wheels locked and smoke pouring out of the diffuser. I grab a couple of fairly pitiful shots (among many even more appalling efforts) and move quickly to blame my entry-level equipment for my failings. The entry to the Horseshoe is a wonderful place to observe the cars though. You’re really close to the braking zone and can hear every lock-up, no matter how small. It’s rare to enjoy such proximity to top-level racing.

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With the race about six hours old, the heavens briefly open. We shelter under the bleachers but the decision to see out the day in shorts and t-shirt suddenly doesn’t look so bright. The track is slick and so are the tyres. The star during this period is Lando Norris whose car control in difficult conditions is remarkable: the hype is real. The young Brit was able to lap a couple of seconds quicker than any of his illustrious rivals.

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The parties are now in full swing and the set-ups people have brought are impressive. While the Aussies at Bathurst do camping in tents on a magnificent scale, so Daytona is the home of the RV. Mammoth gin palaces houses great groups of lads. Whole pick-up trucks are laden with fire wood, star spangled banners float proudly and every truck seems to have a TV playing the action. This is race-going at a professional level.

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We also discover the Tequila Patron enclosure on the infield as a top haunt. Big screens display the TV feed and live timing, with mojitos produced to a very high standard. Perfect for resting weary limbs and brains.

We pause to savour the spectacle of the cars on the banking. The track is pretty much dry once again and the roofs of the competitors are presented by the 31deg incline. Brilliant headlights blast through the gloom. It’s pretty dark on NASCAR Turn Two and you get a real sense of speed and endeavour as the runners pound out the laps.

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It’s at this stage that we throw in the towel. Any attempts to stay up all night would be entirely futile and we have a busy Sunday planned with activities to enjoy in Orlando. We catch up with the Radio Le Mans commentary back at Tropical Manor and set the alarm for 4am. Ouch.

The alarm call is suitably unwelcome but I log onto Twitter and the live timing to catch up. It seems that attrition has been high: the #10 Cadillac is running but way down the order after punctures; the #90 Cadillac has retired with a misfire; the #23 Ligier is way down after master cylinder trouble; both Nissans have gone – disappointing after showing tremendous speed late on Saturday; both Penske Acuras have experienced woes which see them requiring time behind the pit wall. A lot can happen in 4 hours.

It’s still pitch black when I stumble into our local pancake house to imbibe heavily on its finest, fluffiest batter creations. One black coffee in the restaurant and another ‘to go’ ensure I have at least the bare minimum caffeine for sustained race watching.

As a punishment for the calorific pancakes, I run straight to the top of the main bleachers. Naturally, this results in me panting in the most undignified fashion but secures an amazing view of the entire facility. There’s a rare full-course yellow in effect, with various runners diving into the pits. By the three quarter mark, there have only been four full course cautions; none for longer than five laps. That paucity of yellow running has served to stretch the field, making it difficult for displaced runners to make up time. This is just a pure, flat-out 24 hour blast; unrelenting in its pace. The 2018 race looks set to shatter the previous distance record for the event.

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The sky is completely black and the colourful bleachers are deserted, lending the speedway a slightly eerie atmosphere. The undercroft to each level of the massive grandstands is empty but multiple TV screens display the race and broadcast the circuit commentary. Unfortunately, by now I am so deaf that even the impassioned cries of John Hindhaugh can’t be heard over the din of racing engines.

In spite of all this, it’s very special to have the entire facility to myself. It feels like the whole race is playing out solely for my benefit. I treasure the opportunity to take more mediocre photographs.

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When I descend the stadium once more (running again due to pancake guilt), there is a hint of dawn forcing its way into the skies over NASCAR Turn Four. It’s certainly not proper daylight but there’s a slight lightening in the distance which signals that finally night is giving way to day.

The garages are relatively quiet but a few spectators are following any activity with fevered interest. The #69 Acura NSX is in for attention and podcast cult hero Ryan Eversley kisses his partner before donning his helmet, ready to head back out into the fray. The car fires first time and ambles menacingly back out to resume its fight.

Things are significantly less positive in the Mazda pit. Both Joest-run machines have endured a torrid weekend and things don’t look to be improving for the #77 car. Drivers Oliver Jarvis and Tristan Nunez can only look on despondently as mechanics and engineers toil over the battered motor. The bodywork shows signs of excess heat and there is a particular focus on the left rear corner. Team boss Ralf Juttner himself is calling the shots. Things look equally bleak for the #20 Riley, which is wheeled past, wearing a squadron of mechanics.

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I pause in the Fanzone for a quick drink and observe the action on the big screen. The Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac is suddenly off the track with another puncture. Unusually it turns off the track and makes its way through the campsites. Tracing its intended trajectory, I manage to catch the beaten car as it limps back and into retirement. A sad end for the reigning champs.

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Morning is very much breaking at this stage and the sun is rising above the back stretch. 12 hours earlier, the ferris wheel was a shock of psychedelic colours, now it is washed out and the sun is resuming its authority over the horizon. It gives rise to a magical half hour as brake discs still glow brightly but the grimy, bruised endurance racers pull themselves reluctantly into a new day. Only another eight hours to go…

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Over the balance of the race, we spectate from a variety of vantage points, including a stint in the Grassroots Motorsport tent where we are plied with free coffee and have the use of a screen broadcasting the event.

In spite of problems for the #23 car, United Autosports still has a dog in the fight: the #32 is third at daybreak but its position is under threat from the #54 ORECA of Colin Braun, Jonathan Bennett, and hotshots Loïc Duval and Romain Dumas. The car’s pace is strong and the team smells blood. While the ORECA seems to grow inexorably stronger, the Action Express Cadillacs, anchoring the top two positions, are wilting. Both cars are suffering from overheating woes and the #5 in particular is stymied. It runs five seconds off the pace, with the #31 stuck in the middle, desperately controlling temperatures but also acting as rear gunner to the incoming ORECA.

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By the end of the race, all three are on the lead lap – the ORECA having been three laps down with a couple of hours remaining. Had this been a more conventional Rolex 24, with greater full course yellow disruption, the LMP2 charger would’ve scored an unlikely victory against the DPI hoards.

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Equally tantalising is the awesome speed of Team Penske. Both cars are way down the order but Juan Pablo Montoya and Ricky Taylor are simply flying towards the end of the race, regularly lapping into the 1:37s; way faster than anything else on track. Both drivers are ruthlessly attacking Turn One, leaving less margin for error than anyone else at the tyre barrier on the apex. The team would surely have walked the race had it enjoyed a clean run. It’ll be interesting to see how it fares around the high speed bumps of Sebring.

The close of the race does provide some jeopardy with that conservation run from Action Express, but the two cars just hold it together to take a famous win, which obliterates previous distance and speed records. This is the longest, fastest Daytona 24 Hours in history. The lack of safety car intervention may have prevented a last-lap, grandstand finish but it has provided an extremely authentic endurance race – to win here required speed, guile and reliability. The #5 Cadillac of Joao Barbosa, Filipe Albuquerque and Christian Fittipaldi had all three. But only just.

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In GTLM, nobody could get close to the Chip Ganassi Fords, which retained a small but decisive pace advantage over the Corvettes. The two flatulent Fords were on the limit all day and all night, with the lead changing hands occasionally though it’s a testament to the sheer professionalism of the driving crews that neither car was able to demonstrate a significant advantage – the duo circulated together for the entire 24 hours: quite remarkable. Only during an early safety car did the big GTs look challenged from without – and then they used that small speed advantage to gap the rumbling ‘Vettes.

The Rolex 24 is a unique spectacle, populated by top-line drivers in amazing cars. The facility is awesome and the common punter is treated extremely well. As a means to escape the oppressive cold and tedium of a British winter, it is perhaps without equal. But just to be sure, the combined IMSA / WEC weekend at Sebring next March looks mighty tempting.

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