Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Daytona Review

David Hobbs summed up the weekend well. “We have some of the world’s best drivers racing here this weekend… mixed in with some of the world’s, er, not best drivers.” Thankfully, the differences in driving talent didn’t manifest in the way it has at other events, resulting in horrific accidents.  Driver’s, for the most part, respected when a faster car was coming by and acted accordingly. Although some drivers might beg to differ including Sebastien Bourdais who called a few on the track “terrorists.” In any case, the first race of the Tudor United SportsCar Challenge (TUSC) is in the record books and the 2014 season has begun! Here are some thoughts from the Rolex 24.

The Crowd: While this wasn’t by any means the largest crowd I’ve seen at this track, and the stands looked virtually empty, the infield was nearly full. Once when I left the warmth of the media center in the middle of the night to do some recon, I noticed upwards of a hundred people loitering by the garages. Die hard fans, I suppose, to still be awake and at the track near 2:00 am.  While the crowd did ebb and flow, there were a lot of RVs in the infield and a LOT of bonfires going Saturday night. It felt as if there was a good presence of fans at the track, although maybe not as many as last year. I do know that last year fighting the crowds, I often felt like a salmon swimming upstream. This year, I could maneuver with a bit more ease. All in all, it was a very good turn out for Daytona and I’m expecting a better one at Sebring.
Famous faces: For decades, this race has brought out the famous. I’m not talking about movie stars, but rather racing legends. Dario Franchitti, Allan McNish, Martin Brundle, Emerson Fittipaldi, Ron Fellows. All drivers with cases filled with trophies of their own, were here now to support teams or relatives. Having legends like these walking around the paddock only adds value and credibility to the series. If they deem the race important enough to attend, so should we.

Weather: It was cold. Simply stated, this Florida girl needed a snow jacket to stop shivering. In the middle of the night, when the media center is abandoned, the jacket was even needed inside. While the cars enjoy the cold, thick air, most of the people did not. Hopefully, Sebring in March will be warmer. If not, I’ll lodge a protest with nature.
Credentials: I have to say a BIG thank you to two people in particular. You know who you are. These two people helped me get credentials that allowed access to critical places to do my job. Without creds, I wouldn’t have been able to work in the hot pits and, therefore, wouldn’t have been able to add to social media for one company or gather information for a news outlet. I hope to be able to use the pass I received to continue to spread information to the fans as best I can! But again, thank you.

Now for race related topics: First and foremost are the somewhat controversial decisions made by race control. I am referring to what many are calling the late red flag and the quick yellow. When the explosion (because that’s what the contact looked like) of the #99 and #62 occurred, everyone in the media center gasped. The rest of the cars drove through the debris field once and we all fully expected them to come to a stop for a red flag. But the hat, at the top of our t.v. screens, stayed yellow. It took a full five minutes before the race was red flagged. Some of the drivers went by the scene of the wreck twice before stopping either on the front straight or meters behind where the accident occurred. My first thought was for the drivers’ emotional well-being. Last year, we lost far too many drivers in crashes. Imagine, being stuck in the infield, watching the crews work to extract someone you’ve seen in the paddock for years, someone you might’ve shared a beer with, someone you might consider a friend. Where does your mind go? How do you stay focused? What do you start thinking when the ambulance goes racing off and you get a view of mangled metal pieces that, only hours before, made up the fastest racecar of the bunch? Many, including me, had issues with how this event was handled: the length of time it took to wave the red flag, and where some of the cars were stopped on track.

            The second incident in question came with only 20 minutes to go in the race. Leh Keen experienced brake issues at turn two and nosed the Porsche 911 GT America into the tire barrier. He fired up the car again and was underway immediately. Yet, a full course yellow was waved right away, bunching up the cars and eliminating leads that had been built. The question left all of us thinking: was it a legitimate flag thrown for safety, was it a response to the criticism 20 hours earlier of the so called “late” red flag, or was it a flag thrown to bunch up the cars and build drama for an exciting end to the race? I personally look forward to hearing from Mr. Paul Walter as to exactly what happened behind the scenes for each incident. If there’s something to remember it’s that race director Walter has a reason for doing everything and most of the time he’s on the money.  He deserves respect for doing a job (much like Scot Elkins) that few would want to do.

And now, onto another questionable call: the time penalty for the 555 for avoiding contact. In talking to many people including marshals, drivers, and crew chiefs, all say that no one goes for a pass around turn 4 at speeds in excess of 120mph, and expects to stay on track, especially if you miss the apex by eight feet! The Audi R8LMS in question, driven by Markus Winkelhock, was already damaged. A few laps earlier, Winkelhock reported the car wasn’t handling well and it looked like he was having an issue with the rear suspension. Even so, he manhandled the car to the last lap. That’s when the #555 Ferrari of Level 5 and the #45 Audi of Flying Lizard Motorsports arrived at turn four, side by side. Pier Guidi driving the Ferrari actually did an amazing job of not hitting Winkelhock, and left the Audi room on the track. Winkelhock’s momentum and lack of grip, combined with too much speed, carried him into the grass, where he managed to recover. But by that time, the Ferrari had a clear advantage and drove to the finish. When the checkered flag fell, the car that avoided contact and crossed the line first was handed a penalty, pushing him back to fourth. The Audi was credited with the win. 

But, this wasn’t the final result. After hours of deliberation, Level 5 was awarded the win. The penalty for avoidable contact was rescinded and the stop + 75 seconds subtracted from the car’s record. But what won’t be corrected is the fact that Level5 did miss out on their podium celebration. Hours after, when the sun had set, the Ferrari was rolled into Victory Lane and the crew had some pictures taken. However, when the initial podium ceremony began, 4 GTD teams waited to receive their awards. Scott Tucker, Townsend Bell, and Bill Sweedler, 3 of the 5 drivers of the #555, arrived to take their trophies and pictures but were turned away, after being informed that they were not the winners. When the pictures were taken hours later, Tucker had already left the track and, therefore, wasn’t included. Level 5 were robbed of the initial enjoyment of winning but ultimately will go down in the history books as the car that crossed the line first in GTD. Watch out for them at Sebring where, you can be sure, they’ll come back with a vengeance.

GTLM Race: Well, if there was another class where drama ruled, it certainly was the GTLM category. At the green flag, 2 BMWS, 2 Ferraris, 2 Vipers, 2 Corvettes, 2 Porsches, and 1 Aston Martin fought tooth and nail for the win.  At the end of lap 1, it was Viper in the lead.  But only 25 minutes into the race, a Ferrari had taken top spot. Not long after, a Corvette put down the fastest lap time, only to be bested seconds later by a Porsche. And for the first few hours, it looked like any one of the manufacturers could drive to the front. That was, until attrition started to set in. 
Six hours into the race, the Aston Martin went behind the wall for the first of many stops. Only 30 minutes later, it was clear a Ferrari wasn’t going to win this class, when the #57 Krohn Racing entry started having electrical gremlins. Ferrari’s other GTLM car, the #62 Risi Competizione, had already retired. The #3 championship-winning Corvette had to retire early in the morning on Sunday due to water issues, leaving only the #4 to represent the bowtie brigade. But, with only hours to go, that car suffered gearbox issues that took them out of contention for the win. In a heartbreaking effort, both crews from the #3 and #4 worked tirelessly to get their remaining car back on track. The feeling of disappointment was palpable in that garage. The #4 had been fighting for the lead at the time it broke. It finished fifth.  The Vipers started the race in 1st and 3rd. After an overnight power steering failure, the pole car, #91,the little car that could,
dropped almost 10 laps down. The #93 had some issues in the night as well, that caused it too to fall out of contention for the win. But the #91 fought back, ending up on the podium. An impressive display for a program that began just over a year and a half ago. They will be contenders at the next round. BMW faced issues on Thursday, with the #55 damaged twice in two practices. That car proved to be
racing competitively and ultimately finishing second. BWM Team RLL should be very proud of their performance, especially seeing as they were fighting a dynasty. Which brings us to…

Porsche: At Le Mans last year, Porsche raced their brand new 911 RSR. The two cars they entered finished 1-2 in an extremely competitive class. So when Porsche announced that CORE Autosport would host their American program with the same cars, it was safe to assume they’d win some races this year. No surprise then when they won Daytona! In fact, Porsche is the most successful manufacturer in the history of the Rolex 24. They have 76 class wins, 22 overall, going back to 1968. They’ve won the GT class 27 times.  Think about that for a minute. 27 times in the 52-year history of the Daytona endurance, a Porsche has been victorious in the GT class alone. That would be like the Oakland Raiders winning the Super Bowl half of the times there’s been a Super Bowl! Now that’s dominance.  But Porsche’s win didn’t come in the 1-2 fashion they achieved last June. Rather, the #912, sister car of the winning #911, retired just shy of the 18 hour mark. The #912 had led a good deal of the race, and when it wasn’t leading, it was often second to the sister car. So with six hours to go, Porsche had only one bullet left in the gun. But one was enough to take the win. Porsche has proven time and time again how dominant they can be in endurance racing. I personally am looking forward to seeing how the other teams can challenge them in the remaining races.

Balance of Performance: While the cars were supposed to have been “equalized”, a few glaring mistakes stood out. The PC cars were slow, very slow, around the banking. At one point, a DP and a GTD car passed a PC car simultaneously coming into the tri-oval. In theory, that shouldn’t happen.  If this discrepancy is not addressed before Sebring, the PC cars will be passed by GTD cars along the 3 straights. What stood out even more was the lack of balance between the DP cars and P2 cars. Major props should be awarded to the Muscle Milk Pickett Racing crew who stuck with the DPs at Daytona for most of the race. The P2 cars need either similar DP attrition or a bit of help to get a podium at Sebring. The other discrepancy in terms of equal performance came with the Porsche 911 GT America. The GTD Porsches looked very slow. The highest finishing car was 3rd, and twelve of the twenty-nine entries were Porsches.

Media Coverage: Understandably, I can’t really comment on this without being biased. To keep things simple: Tommy Kendall and Brian Till provided excellent insight into the minds of the drivers and were fun to hear. In the media center, where I was exposed to the rest of the world’s coverage of the race, I heard either Fox Sports broadcast or MRN, depending on the time. Toeing the line, it’s fair to say that mispronouncing one driver name is forgivable. But saying multiple drivers’ names incorrectly time and time again is simply disrespectful. A lot of people expressed their views of the coverage on Facebook and Twitter. Ultimately, the cars looked great and the camera shots provided by the t.v. coverage allowed fans all over the world to enjoy the sights and sounds… when not in the seemingly endless commercial breaks.

At the end of 24 hours, Sebastien Bourdais, Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi, Colin Braun, Jon Bennett, James Gue, Mark Wilkins, Nick Tandy, Patrick Pilet, Richard Lietz, Scott Tucker, Alessandro Pier Guidi, Townsend Bell, Bill Sweedler, and Jeff Segal won new watches and some big trophies, as well as the honor of having been victorious in the first race of TUSCC. They will now have their pictures taken during the Champions photo for as many years as they contest the Rolex 24. The next race is Sebring in about 6 weeks.  Until then, the Rolex 24 hours of Daytona has given more than enough to talk about!

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