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After a multi-month silly season full of interesting and unexpected driver announcements and pairings, it is time once again to look ahead to the return of on track action in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test just days away. Over the next week here at OnPitRoad.com, I will reveal my preseason rankings ahead of the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona test, starting today with a look at the prototypes, a class that is a year away from a major revamp and the debut of the Daytona Prototype International division. Entering its final full year of operations, the original DPs figure to be the favorites ahead of the ever improving LMP2-eligible machines, which claimed pole positions at both Daytona and Sebring, but were unable to backup the initial returns, as mechanical woes ended their challenges in both major endurance tests. At this point, here’s how I lay out the contenders who have announced their intentions to be in the paddock for the Rolex 24 at Daytona for 2016.
- Action Express Racing (Chevrolet Corvette DPs): Gary Nelson’s pair of roaring V-8 powered monsters, were the main threat for victory at most every stop on the 2015 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship tour, that is except for the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Despite claiming the overall victory twice in their history at the Daytona International Speedway, the team hit a speed bump last year as durability trouble and a lack of pace compared to Chip Ganassi Racing and Wayne Taylor Racing’s efforts cost them dearly. However, one look at each of the driving teams for 2016, could make one quick to toss last year’s results at the World Center of Racing on the back burner. In the No. 5 Mustang Sampling-backed machine, both regular pilots Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi return, however the absence of Sebastien Bourdais has been filled nicely through the addition of five-time Daytona champion Scott Pruett. If Pruett going for an unprecedented sixth Rolex 24 triumph wasn’t enough, the team rounds out the Daytona roster with Audi factory star Filipe Albuquerque, who last year became the fastest driver in 24 Hours of Le Mans history. The No. 31 Whelen entry is also a threat for the Rolex chronometers, led by the aggressive style of Dane Cameron and the ever improving Eric Curran. Former prototype regular Simon Pagenaud is solid, however the output to be expected from prototype newcomer Jonny Adam is a question mark. I remember calling the primary car of this double trouble squad, a “Dream Team” during my silly season update a few months ago and that thought has not dissipated. The number one favorite tag is applied to this team entering the Roar tests.
- Chip Ganassi Racing (Ford EcoBoost-Riley DPs): Even though CGR’s focus has shifted to Ford’s all-new project in the GT Le Mans division, do not ignore what the team could still offer in the Prototype division at both Daytona and Sebring, with their still potent pair of Riley-designed DPs. The entire winning quartet from last year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona is expected to be featured in the primary machine, led by reigning IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon. IndyCar teammate Tony Kanaan, along with CGR NASCAR stars Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson have also proven to be adaptable to wheeling the DP-style of car around Daytona, with Larson showing impressive pace in the overnight hours last year. The second car is in unknown territory in terms of drivers, but it could draw attention in the form of projected driver Lance Stroll being in the lineup. The 17-year old Canadian prospect turned heads in the Mazda Road to Indy ladder in 2015 and could use a solid effort as a springboard toward gaining further interest in upper realm of North American motorsports in the years to come. Stroll certainly will not be alone in his quest as he will be joined by Alex Wurz, Brendon Hartley, and Andy Priaulx. CGR is not a regular this year in the WeatherTech Championship in Prototypes, but they are worth some talk in terms of potential overall winners in one month’s time.
- Wayne Taylor Racing (Chevrolet Corvette DP): Sadly, the 2015 Rolex 24 at Daytona for the Konica Minolta-backed squad will be more remembered for a driver timing gaffe that led to their exclusion from the final results. However prior to that revelation, the trio of Ricky Taylor, Jordan Taylor, and Max Angelelli looked just as much a pacesetter as either of the CGR Fords and a potential winner to boot. Expect the focus for the 2016 twice around the clock classic to be even greater for the Dallara-built Corvette runners for two reasons. The first one was clearly mentioned above and the second being that the squad elected not to enter the FIA World Endurance Championship with Larbre Competition to field a Corvette C7.R, so the distraction of handling a semi-two front war is not in play. Although their place in the contenders list at number three, could be challenged by the other Corvette DP entry from Visitflorida.com Racing and the ever more powerful Michael Shank Racing Ligier-Honda, the resume for WTR is strong enough to convince me to keep them in this position prior to the Roar test days.
- Visitflorida.com Racing (Chevrolet Corvette DP): Things are much different in the driving department entering the 2016 edition of Rolex 24 at Daytona, but one would be a fool to erase the Troy Flis-led squad from the biggest threats for the overall win at the 3.56 mile combination oval and road course. Although the team has lost both Richard Westbrook (off to CGR’s Ford GT project) and Michael Valiante from 2015’s near championship-winning squad, the team has reloaded nicely by bringing in both Ryan Dalziel and Marc Goossens. Both are proven front runners at Daytona, although a lack of recent prototype action could hamper the output from the latter in the early days of January. The squad will also feature a solid contribution from IndyCar star Ryan Hunter-Reay, who like Scott Dixon has shown solid pace in the DPs at Daytona in years past. Although the recent results have been lacking for this team in their home race, the former Spirit of Daytona outfit is just a turn of the wheel behind the top three entering the Roar Before the Rolex 24 running.
- Michael Shank Racing (Ligier JS P2-Honda): Make no mistake, the Ligier coupe was a rocket over the course of a single lap on the 3.56 mile Daytona layout in practice and qualifying last year, particularly in the hands of veteran sports car chauffeur Oswaldo Negri, Jr. Although MSR snagged the pole for last year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, things unfortunately went downhill from there. A lack of durability from the car was partly to blame for their misfortune, however multiple unforced errors also plagued the Ohio-based runners in the major enduros, most notably Negri’s big shunt in the early hours at Sebring. The entry has the pace to win at Daytona, but the whole package must be solid to get them there. Outside of Negri, the team also needs a strong presence from both John Pew and AJ Allmendinger to stay in the running when the daylight returns on Sunday morning. If that happens, a challenge for the top three, if not the outright win is certainly within their grasp.
- Tequila Patron ESM (Ligier JS P2-Honda): Daytona has been more like kryptonite for this FIA WEC regular in their last two tries at the 24 hours. Both cars bit the dust early on in 2014 and although showing promise in last year’s race, the troublesome Honda ARX-04b coupe suffered from the new car blues to the point that the Scott Sharp-led squad literally parked the cars after Daytona, eventually settling on the Ligier for their FIA WEC debut. After last year’s nightmare, this team is due for some better luck at the World Center of Racing and based on the early outlook prior to the Roar tests, the early returns appear positive. ESM is for one getting much more backing from Ligier coupe constructor Onroak for 2016, which should speed up their development after having to play catch up for most of 2015. The team has also, along with MSR, switched to the more powerful 3.5 liter Honda turbo V-6 for Daytona, meaning the time lost on the high banks compared to the Chevrolet and Ford DPs should be reduced greatly this time around. Expect the quickest pace to come from veteran wheel men Johannes van Overbeek and Pipo Derani, although a stronger effort from both team boss Sharp and his business partner Ed Brown may be necessary to keep them in contention come Sunday afternoon should the durability issues with the Ligier not become an issue. Not one of the favorites, but a live dark horse pick entering the run up to the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
- SMP Racing (BR01-Nissan): The Russian-based runners have been quick out of the box with most of their sports car racing endeavors since their debut three years ago, however their foray with the new for 2015 BR Engineering coupe was not among them. With the car becoming ineligible for LMP2 action with the new regulations in 2017, the squad is looking for every opportunity to show the potential of this machine in its final year of action, starting with their prototype debut at Daytona. Like Ganassi, the squad is set to contest for victory in two divisions at Daytona, both in prototypes and the GT Le Mans class with a Ferrari 488. Focusing for now on the prototype, if the team has found the necessary reliability with the Nissan-powered package, a contending effort is possible as the projected driving lineup of Nic Minassian, Anton Ladygin, Maurizio Mediani, and Mikhail Aleshin all have ample experience in this division, but not necessarily at Daytona. If the squad can figure out the nature of the 3.56 mile beast during the Roar tests, good things could come up for them in one month’s time.
- DeltaWing Racing (DWC13-Elan): The oddly-designed coupe showed impressive pace in the early going of last year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, even dueling for third overall with one of the Ganassi Ford-Riley DPs in the first hour. However, the joyride ended quickly for the Don Panoz-led team, when the gearbox failed ending their efforts prematurely. If the durability woes, which have plagued this squad the past three years have been solved, a solid finish on Sunday afternoon is within the realm of reality in 2016. The driving team for one, does not lack for pace. The talent of Andy Meyrick and Sean Rayhall has been proven often in multiple forms of racing, while Katherine Legge is also right on the pace of the top regulars on the prototype circuit. Andreas Wirth has also been added as a fourth driver. It would be a great sendoff if DeltaWing can end their prototype project with a solid result at Daytona, as the team begins to shift its focus toward an effort in the GT ranks in the near future.
- SpeedSource Mazda (Lola-Mazda coupes): After being unable to find the necessary pace to contend with the SkyActiv-diesel powerplant, Mazda has switched to an MZR gasoline-powered engine for 2016. SpeedSource had hoped to get in a few races in with the new power source late in 2015, but were unable to do so, however that fact should not hamper their potential performances for the upcoming year. The main driving teams remain unchanged for 2016, with Jonathan Bomarito, Tristan Nunez, and Spencer Pigot in one entry and Tom Long along with Joel Miller and Ben Devlin in the second. Another learning curve could be in play entering Daytona, but the new engine choice should provide Mazda with a better shot to get in among the battle between the top teams in the prototype division for 2016.
- Highway To Help (Riley-Dinan DP): Carlos de Quesada has acquired the DP used by Starworks Motorsport last year in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. After running as high as second in the 2014 edition of the twice around the clock classic, the entry failed to make a dent in the 2015 event. Highway to Help, who has contested the last two Rolex 24s with Kevin Doran, have joined Quesada for the 2016 event. Former overall winners Dorsey Schroeder and Jim Pace are back, but again the talent as opposed to the competition is more than a few steps behind.
Stay tuned to OnPitRoad.com for my continued power rankings from the other three divisions of the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship as the Road to Daytona continues.