Round up from the Roar Before the 24

It was an incredibly busy weekend at the Roar Before the 24 2 weeks ago with some big stories across the whole of the weekend. It was Ben Hanley who took the fastest overall lap time of the weekend after early dominance from Swiss driver Neel Jani in the brand new Rebellion Racing Oreca 07. Hanley topped the time sheets on Sunday in the Dragon speed Oreca in the cars first competition outing.

With such big regulations changes over the 2016/2017 winter break in the prototype class, there were bound to be some big headlines with the new Daytona Prototype International cars arguably the biggest talking point. 2017 see’s three manufacturer backed DPI cars run by Mazda, Nissan and Cadillac in the highly competitive Prototype Class, they will also be joined by the next generation of  Le Mans/WEC spec LMP2 cars, the Oreca 07, the Ligier JSP2-17 and the Gibson powered Riley Mk30.

Oreca led the way over the course of the weekend, the 07 out performing the competition in 5 out of 7 practice sessions. All the teams have clearly been doing a lot of development work over the winter break. Rebellion in particular have had to rebuild the car from a brand new chassis after Stephane Sarrazin wrote the car off in a private test at Sebring. The star performance of the weekend came from Ben Hanley, the British driver posting an overall quickest time of 1:38.343 on Sunday Morning. Hanley was a silver rated driver throughout 2016 but his early performance at The Roar clearly justifying his promotion to an FIA Gold rating.

Ben Hanley is effectively an unknown driver in the United States. He has been racing with Dragon Speed in the 2016 ELMS season and was paramount to their great performances  which included four podiums and a lights to flag victory at the four hours of Spa Francorchamps back in September 2016. Luis Felipe Derani was relatively unknown on the American Motorsport Scene at the beginning of 2016. He was still relatively new to sports cars and prototypes at this point having spent just 1 and half seasons in LMP2 after making the switch from Formula Renault and Formula 3 in Europe. On his first WEC race, Pipo put his LMP2 car on pole at Silverstone, he went on to take six podium finishes in just eight races with G-Drive. Derani made his debut at the Rolex 24 in 2016, setting fastest lap and helping Tequilla Patron Extreme Speed Motorsport to victory. If Hanley can emulate the South American driver in any way, and his early performance indicates that he will, Hanley has a great future ahead of him in which ever route he decides to pursue. One thing is for certain, Ben Hanley is one to look out for at the upcoming Rolex 24 At Daytona, it will be  great to see how the young Brit performs on his first US outing.

Neel Jani also made his Daytona debut at the Roar Before but it wasn't his first time racing in the US, Jani raced with Rebellion in America back in 2013 under the American Le Mans Series banner. Jani performed great in the opening first few days of the test, the sole driver in the #13 Rebellion as his team mates were on Formula E duty in Las Vegas. It is an incredibly tough call to make between Rebellion and Dragon Speed. Both teams are running the Oreca 07; Rebellion arguably have the better line up with Jani, Sarrazin, Heidfeld and Buemi but Dragon Speed have experience running at the Rolex 24. However, last time out they were driving a Ferrari F430 GT car. They do however have experience running in the American Le Mans Series Prototype Challenge category so that will give them a good grounding. It is clear that team manager Elton Julien has a lot of ambition and confidence in his team. He has relocated the team to France to allow them to focus on their ELMS campaign and to set the overall fastest time at The Roar after only just two laps of shakedown around Paul Ricard is an incredible feat. DragonSpeed are certainly going to be one of the teams to watch this coming weekend.

The speed of the cars and the lap times achieved never quite reached the same level as the December Daytona test which was a big talking point around the paddock. A number of Balance of Performance changes have limited the top speed and acceleration of the cars, however there is, as always, an element of sand bagging with no one wanting to reveal their true potential this early in the season. Most notably, the Cadillacs have been slowed since the December Test through Aerodynamic changes, other cars came out a little quicker. IMSA released a number of BOP changes recently, altering aerodynamics, and set ups for a number of cars, however it is hard to establish exactly what affects this will have just yet. Whatever the reason for the differing performances, the debut of the Daytona Prototype International cars generated mixed results. Cadillac were fastest at the December Test however, with the exception of Jeff Gordon signing for the team, their weekend went mostly under the radar. Gordon’s return to sports cars after his last appearance in 2007 and the media and fans have been all over it. Gordon isn't treating his appearance at the Rolex 24 lightly however, he wants the win and has been working hard with the team to get the car developed and set up as best as possible. The second biggest news to come out of the Cadillac portion of the paddock is the announcement after the Rolex 24, Max Angelleli will retire from professional competition. He will be hunting down one final win, a win that has proved elusive to Cadillac over the years. If Cadillac pull it off, this could be one of the stories of the weekend.

Cadillac were notably slower than some of the other prototypes however, drivers commenting on how quickly there were closing in on the three Cadillacs. A big change from the early pace shown in December. The Roar was the first appearance of the new Nissan DPI, as such the ESM team were using the weekend as a bit of a shake down and development weekend with one of the cars having a full engine change over night. Mazda also had a number of issues early on in the weekend with a number of electrical and set up issues. Mazda ended up working together with VISIT FLORIDA Racing to get the three cars up and running again. Troy Flis even went out late one night to find a local machine shop to manufacture some key components to help get the cars back on track. As a result, Mazda found some pace on the final day of the test, setting a time of 1:38.363 and hitting a speed of 197mph through the speed traps. Initial impressions show that Mazda could possibly be the best of the new DPI cars, but it is still early days. Everyone will have a better idea of true pace and performance by the end of this coming week before the race begins on Saturday.

Whilst VISIT FLORIDA Racing did not quite have the pace of the Oreca 07’s and struggled early on with technical issues and electrical gremlins, the Gibson Riley LMP2 was only half a second or so off the leaders by the end of the weekend. Troy Flis admits that the team need a bit of work before the main event to bring the team completely up to speed, the team need some long mileage runs to understand the cars performance better over long stints. With the experienced line up of Renger van der Zande, Rene Rast and Marc Goossens, the team could be in with a great chance of winning the Rolex 24. Each of the three drivers has a lot of experience behind them in both GT cars and Prototypes so will be a forced to be reckoned with if the team can get all the mechanical and electrical issues ironed out. That being said, VISIT FLORIDA Racing are by no means on their own when it comes to issues, as already stated; Mazda had suspension and electrical issues, Nissan had to do a full engine rebuild and Cadillac have some pace to find. Even the front running Oreca’s had electronic issues and steering issues relating to the Cosworth steering system.

PR1/Mathiasen and JDC Miller also suffered from electrical gremlins as they tried to shake out the kinks across the course of the weekend. The Prototype class is a new level of competition for them, both teams having made the step up from the outgoing Prototype Challenge category. It will certainly be interesting to see how the teams handle the step up, racing the next generation Ligier JSP2-17 and Oreca 07 respectively. The teams may not challenge for the overall win at this early stage based on speed however, if reliability comes in to the equation and they can race cleanly and keep the car on track, they may be in with a chance, particularly this year with everyone running brand new machinery. 2017 was a good year for the two teams to make the step up in to Prototype with the new set of regulations coming in to effect but with only five cars left in the final year of the Prototype Challenge it was a good call to make. Whilst there are five Prototype Challenge cars entered for the Rolex 24, there are only two full season confirmed entries so far.

James French topped the five car field over the three days of running. Despite only being five cars, there could still be some great competition between the 5 identical Oreca FLM09 cars, notably between Starworks and BAR1, both teams are fielding two cars for the Rolex 24 with one car from Performance Tech. However previous years have often shown that the PC class goes down to a race of attrition, who is the last team standing after 24 hours? The teams will be focusing on getting the car through to the final stint rather than going for outright pace. Notable drivers in the category include Buddy Rice (Indy500 2004 Rolex 24 2009) who is making his return to the Rolex 24. Patricio O'Ward joins the grid after finishing second in the Pro Mazda Championship in 2016.

The GT categories also feature a star studded line up of some of the best GT drivers on the planet.  Ford were pulling out all the stops, once again running both their IMSA and WEC cars in a four car line up with three of the cars running in the top four. Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon topped the time sheets with the #67 car, the #69 car was third. BMW were also running strongly with Alexander Sims, Bruno Spengler, Nicky Catsburg and Martin Tomczyk split between the two cars. Ferrari also have a strong line up, the Rizi Competition entry running Giancarlo Fisichela, Toni Vilander and James Calado. Porsche are also running a world class line up with Dirk Werner, Patrick Pilet, Frederic Makowiecki, Kevin Estre Richard Lietz and ex Audi factory drive Laurens Vanthoor. Corvette were of course the race winners in 2016 after a dramatic race to the flag. The big story of the Roar Before in GTLM however, was the fire in the #4 Corvette caused by a fuel leak. Marcel Fassler escaped the car unharmed and set about looking for a fire extinguisher before the safety truck arrived to put the fire out. Corvette GT cars are renowned for being practically bullet proof. In 10 years of racing, there has only been one full write off. Its going to be an incredibly close race in GTLM. Ford clearly have the strength in numbers and with 6 victories under their belts in 2016 across the four cars they have the performance as well. Arguably however, BMW, with the line up they have, could be in contention for victory. After all, BMW already have one 24 hour victory to their name in 2016 at the Total 24 Hours of Spa Francorchamps. Alexander Sims was one of their standout drivers of that event so expect strong performances all round from the German two car line up. Corvette have dominated the American GT scene in recent years, winning last years race in some style with a last minute sprint to the flag. They are arguably most peoples favourites to take the win.

GT Daytona is going to be a fantastic battle this year. 27 cars, withe some of the best GT drivers in the world spread across a variety of cars, some European stalwarts mixed with some brand new cars from both Acura and Lexus with the NSX and RC-F. Manthey Racing posted the best time of the weekend but we had four manufacturers making up the top four, all of them separated by just tenths. Its going to be one of the most competitive GTD line ups in years with nine manufacturers represented; Acura, Aston Martin, Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Lexus, Mercedes, Porsche; all with factory support. The Rolex 24 will by the competitive debut of the Acura NSX, the 24 hour debut of the Lexus RCF and the American debut of the Mercedes AMG GT3 which has performed incredibly well across Europe so far. The strength of the driver line ups across the field is almost second to none, it is effectively a professional line up with a couple of Silver drivers thrown in for good measure. This in itself is both a good and bad thing. It is great for the competition of course, however it also draws similar controversy to the WEC LMP2 debate that has been going on for a couple of years with regards to driver grading's. The GTD category is supposed to be a Pro-Am race, however in most cases, it is almost impossible to class any of the drivers as an Am. That being said, its a 24 hour race that really is impossible to call in GTD.

Image Epoch Times