It’s January, and that can only mean one thing: the Rolex 24 at Daytona. The twice-around-the-clock enduro on the banks of the Daytona International Speedway is one of the hallmarks of the international racing calendar, and the 2021 edition is looking as good as it’s ever been.
The 49-car field – eleven more than last year – is led by a slightly smaller field in DPi. Thanks to the departure of Acura Team Penske and the downsizing from JDC-Miller Motorsports and Mazda, the field of top prototypes in this year’s Rolex 24 is down from nine to eight cars.
A quick look at the names involved, however, will show that the DPi field for this year’s running of the Florida endurance classic is perhaps as strong as it has been in years, and that it is almost impossible to pick a winner.
Let’s start with the defending champions: Wayne Taylor Racing. The team comes into the race as the winner of the last two runners. Crucially, however, Wayne Taylor’s team has gone through sweeping changes over the offseason.
For starters: there’s a new car. After years of success running the Cadillac DPi-VR, Taylor has traded it in for the car that has won the last two DPi titles: the Acura ARX-05, campaiged for the last few years by Team Penske. On paper, a Taylor-Acura package is a top squad and a championship waiting to happen, but the team might have some kinks to work out.
Due to the unusual nature of the 2020 season, Taylor admits he didn’t receive the cars until late in the year, limiting the team’s preparation time.
“We received the cars in late November,” Taylor says, “which were not complete and pretty well mileaged out. Acura Motorsports and HPD made the decision along with my group that we’d be better off ordering brand new cars, rather than building up these cars from last year, and go from there.”
“IMSA have done a good job in moving the Roar to the week before the Rolex 24 because, from a cost standpoint, you don’t have to come all the way down here and then go back to Indianapolis and then come back again. If the Roar had not been rescheduled, we would not have made it, simply because in between the time we got our new cars and now you’ve got Christmas and New Year when nobody wants to do any work.”
In addition to the new car, the team also comes into the race with a completely new driver line-up. Gone are Renger van der Zande and Ryan Briscoe, who drove for the team in 2020.
In fact, none of the eight drivers that captured the previous two Rolex 24 crowns have been carried over into the Acura squad. Instead, the team has signed Ricky Taylor and Filipe Albuquerque for the full campaign, with Alexander Rossi for the enduros and Helio Castroneves for Daytona.
“We are flying a little blind at the moment,” Taylor concedes, “but the one thing I thought that would provide some continuity was to hire Ricky, who’s driven for us before and, obviously, is my son. Helio and Alexander have driven this car (for Team Penske) the last three years. And Filipe just won the World Endurance Championship. I rate him very highly as a driver, and also personally. He doesn’t have an ego.
“It’s not like we feel like we have to rush to the track so the drivers can do laps. They’re all professional; they all know what the car’s about. We just want to make sure when we get to the Roar, the cars will be presented in the way we’ve done in the past. We are short on time, but I am positive we’ll be together and ready for the Rolex.”
While last year’s winners have gone through a host of changes, the 2020 runner-ups are something of a beacon of continuity. The most significant change that Mazda Motorsports have gone through compared to the 2020 season is a downscaling of two cars to one.
All that is left now is the #55 Mazda RT24-P, but the driver line-up is almost unchanged compared to last year.
Oliver Jarvis, who has been a star in Daytona qualifying in recent years, returns to partner Harry Tincknell, 2020 Le Mans class winner, and Jonathan Bomarito. The best elements of the team’s two cars have been condensed into a single top line-up.
Mazda has come a long way and developed itself from outsiders to bona fide victory contenders and race winners throughout 2019 and 2020. The team closed out the 2020 season by winning the Twelve Hours of Sebring, by far its biggest win to date.
So with a car that is better than ever, a team that now knows to win enduros and a proven line-up, could this finally be Mazda’s year?
JDC-Miller Motorsports has always been something of a dark horse in the IMSA field, especially since it took on the Mustang Sampling car in 2020.
The #5 Cadillac DPi-VR has not always been the faster car in terms of outright speed, but the team was there when it counted and thus picked up a fair few podiums in 2020, including at third at Daytona.
Like Mazda, the team has shrunk its operation to single car, running just the Mustang Sampling car in 2021. Joao Barbosa, the veteran that finished third last year, has been replaced and has moved to LMP3.
In his place is an-all French line-up that is not to be underestimated as Tristan Vautier and Loic Duval are joined by Sebastien Bourdais.
Bourdais and Duval both know how to win 24-hour races. The Le Mans native already holds two Daytona wins in addition to a Le Mans win and three podiums. Duval, meanwhile, won Le Mans in 2013 but is relatively new to Daytona, making only his fourth start.
Vautier, meanwhile, has been in IMSA since 2014, but is still hunting for that illusive first win. If the team’s rock solid consistency pays off, perhaps this could finally be his time. The Frenchman also showed great fighting prowess in Sunday’s qualifying race, so do not count this car out.
Another squad that can simply never be counted out is Action Express Racing. Its last Daytona win came in 2017, still under the Mustang Sampling banner, but since 2020 it has solely been running the #31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi-VR.
The bright red Cadillac, driven by the Brazilian pair of Felipe Nasr and Pipo Derani, has developed into a ferocious and at times controversial frontrunner. At Daytona, Nasr and Derani are joined by Mike Conway and Chase Elliott.
In his time with Toyota, Conway has developed himself into one of the top prototype racers in the world. Elliott, meanwhile, makes his IMSA debut, but the 2020 Cup Series champion knows his way around the bankings of the Daytona International Speedway better than most.
Overall, with the combination of sportscar, endurance and oval racing experience, the #31 Cadillac could have one of the strongest packages in the class. It showed it with victory in the Motul Pole Award 100, taking victory and ensuring a start from pole position.
Plus, the team has proven it can fight at the very sharp end of IMSA’s longer races, although sometimes a bit too hard.
For the first time since the 2019 edition of the Florida endurance classic, Action Express Racing has entered a second car for the Rolex 24. In cooperation with Hendrick Motorsports and Jimmie Johnson, the team has put together what can only be described as an all-star squad in a second Cadillac.
The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion will be driving the #48 Cadillac DPi-VR, entered under the Ally Cadillac Racing banner.
Joining Johnson aboard the brightly-coloured machine are double Rolex 24 winner Kamui Kobayashi, Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud and 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller.
In an already very strong field, the inclusion of this star-studded line-up serves to only heighten the anticipation for the event. With a mix of endurance experience and Daytona wins in the line-up, there is little doubt that Kobayashi, Pagenaud and Rockenfeller can fight at the front.
If this entry does have one achilles’ heel, it is ironically the man that put the whole thing together. Johnson seems to struggle a little bit in his transition from NASCAR to the Cadillac prototype.
In Saturday’s qualifying session for the Motul Pole Award 100, Johnson found himself over a second behind pole time, and nearly eight-tenths behind the nearest car.
However, if the NASCAR veteran can come to grips with the Cadillac DPi-VR, this team is surely a contender for victory.
After Team Penske and Acura went their separate ways, two teams swooped in and picked up the proverbial leftovers. One, Wayne Taylor Racing, has been a mainstay of IMSA prototype racing, while the other makes a return to the class after years of GT racing.
Meyer Shank Racing, then named Michael Shank Racing, made its last IMSA prototype start at Petit Le Mans in 2016, which it also won. Since then, it spearheaded the Acura NSX GT3 programme in GT Daytona, picking up championships in 2019 and 2020.
After several years of GT3 competition, it has returned to the top class and has done so as the second team running the Acura ARX-05 following Penske’s exit.
Similarly to Wayne Taylor Racing, it has gone for a line-up of consistency and experience. Olivier Pla, who was part of the winning squad in 2016, has been signed from Mazda. Dane Cameron, a Honda Performance Development driver, has been brought over from Penske as has his partner Juan Pablo Montoya. AJ Allmendinger, who won the Rolex 24 with MSR in 2012, completes the line-up.
Like with Wayne Taylor Racing, there is little doubting the team’s line-up, but its success at Daytona could very well depend on how quickly it gets to rips with the new car after limited off-season.
Finally, last but most certainly not least, we come to Chip Ganassi Racing. The decorated outfit make its IMSA return after a year on the sideline following the closure of the Ford GT programme.
Based on track record alone, Ganassi is a victory contender at Daytona. The team has won it eight times and is the only team in history to win it three wins in a row betwen 2006 and 2008, a record that Wayne Taylor Racing could equal this weekend.
That is before we even mention the driver line-up. Renger van der Zande, winner of the last two editions in 2019 and 2020, has joined from Wayne Taylor Racing and partners ex-McLaren, Renault and Haas F1 racer Kevin Magnussen. The Dane has barely arrived in IMSA and has already made a name for himself with his strong opening stint in Sunday’s qualifying race, shooting from third to first in a single lap.
Joining them are two of Ganassi’s IndyCar stars: six-time IndyCar winner Scott Dixon, with Marcus Ericsson, another former F1 driver, as reserve driver.
A proven platform, a team that has won the race more than anyone else, two former Rolex 24 winners and two F1 refugees with a point to prove: victory number nine for Ganassi could be well on its way.