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With 22 participants expected to take to the track at next weekend’s Roar Before the Rolex 24 test at the 3.56 mile Daytona International Speedway mix of oval and road course (and more probable entries who could be track side for the race itself), it is clear that the adoption by the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship of the FIA GT3 regulations for the new year have re-kindled some interest back in the pro-am grand touring category. The result has seen two new manufacturers join the party (Lamborghini at Daytona, Lexus after the Le Mans break), and doors have opened for new teams and drivers to join the conversation. In addition, the updated FIA Driver Ratings for good or bad, have created opportunities for some unusually strong lineups for the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Normally, despite the high car counts in this division, there has been one or two clear favorites entering the big events in GT Daytona. However, with so many car options out there, it is possible that as many as eight to ten teams may actually have a legitimate chance to claim the Rolex chronometer after the twice around the clock enduro concludes on the last weekend of January. With that in mind, here are my preseason rankings for GTD.
- Alex Job Racing/Team Seattle (Porsche GT3-R): Of the top teams from the 2015 IMSA season, the long time Seattle-based club features the least turnover, leaving fewer unknowns in the resume looking ahead to Daytona. The only noticeable change is a brand new Porsche 991, which should be quicker on the 31 degree high banks, allowing the challenger to keep pace with rivals such as the V-10 propelled Dodge Viper. The driving teams remain largely unchanged from 2015 likewise. Veteran Leh Keen leads a strong quintet of pilots in the WeatherTech-sponsored machine, alongside the father-son pairing of David and Cooper MacNeil. Shane van Gisbergen and Gunnar Jeannette also provide solid veteran experience. The Team Seattle entry, which claimed victory last year at Sebring, is led by Porsche factory-backed driver Wolf Henzler, who drops from GT Le Mans to GT Daytona following the shutdown of Derrick Walker’s Team Falken Tire squad. 2015 returnees Mario Farnbacher, Ian James, and Alex Riberas are all very quick and create as strong a GT Daytona lineup as one could possibly create. Despite several other noteworthy candidates, this team over the years have shown enough in the results column to give me the confidence to place them on top entering the open test.
- Riley Motorsports (Dodge Viper GT3-R): It was amazing to see how Bill Riley and Ben Keating’s squad improved greatly in 2015, after Chrysler withdrew their factory support following the previous IMSA season. The team overpowered the competition at Daytona and despite not having a new car in 2016 to call upon as is the case with several other contenders, the team has retained many key cogs to aid their cause for a repeat Daytona triumph. If this car was not capable of backing up its efforts from last year, chances are Keating would not have personally paid the automotive partner fee literally out of his own pocket to make the car eligible for competition this year, a new requirement set in stone by IMSA for the GT Daytona division. The driving lineup in the primary Viper Exchange-backed entry features all three drivers who even managed to hold their own through three-quarters of the distance at last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans in a GT2-eligible Viper. Jeroen Bleekemolen and Dominik Farnbacher are the work horses of this quartet, with team co-boss Keating and Marc Miller providing strong support. The second entry is a little off in terms of name recognition, but could still be in the mix at the finish. Damien Faulkner comes over from GB Autosport, while newcomer Gar Robinson is fresh off winning the TA-2 division of the Trans-Am championship last year. Amateurs Jeff Mosing and Eric Foss round out the roster. Power was the key to victory last year for Riley, this year however more finesse and luck may be required to defend its Rolex 24 at Daytona title.
- Aston Martin Racing (Aston Martin Vantage): After being humiliated in back to back years in the upper GT Le Mans class at Daytona, the Prodrive-backed factory squad has dropped down to GT Daytona for the 2016 edition, a change which should suit their largely semi-pro driver roster very well. The quartet that will pilot the Gulf Oil-backed V12 screamer, were solid last year in the GTE-Amateur class of the FIA World Endurance Championship, with their only blemish coming at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, when a crash two hours from the finish kept them out of the winner’s circle. The car is a proven commodity in IMSA competition, as Christina Nielsen and TRG just missed out on the 2015 GTD title. As for factory AMR, former Formula One pilot Pedro Lamy is the team leader, with young prospects Richie Stanaway and Mathias Lauda equally able to fire off quick laps on a consistent basis. Gentlemen driver Paul Dalla Lana, is not quite up to the big three’s pace, but is a safe set of hands who will more often than not avoid making the critical mistake. With the drop in division and their amazing resume, it is very hard to fathom this team struggling at Daytona for the third year in a row. Whether though that means a class win is on the cards or not is unknown.
- Paul Miller Racing (Lamborghini Huracan): The sole full-time Audi representative in 2015 IMSA competition is breaking new ground with a manufacturer new to the unified sports car championship in North America. Long time super car manufacturer Lamborghini has thrown their hat into the GT Daytona ring for 2016, with PMR the most notable of the four camps to enter the new car option in the Rolex 24. After just missing out on the GTD championship last season, the team has adjusted some of the keys to success during silly season. Christopher Haase and Dion von Moltke have parted ways with the team, with former Team Falken Tire Porsche driver Bryan Sellers and young prospect Madison Snow taking their places on the driver roster. Bryce Miller retains his third driver role for 2016, while Mirko Bortolotti is also a new ingredient in the team mixture. The new challenger has been quick in private testing runs at Daytona recently, but the car is largely untested in terms of covering 24 hours, so durability will be a concern in the early days of the new project. However, if those worries are unfounded a podium contending run is possible for one of the most consistent GT Daytona runners since the start of the new series in 2014.
- Scuderia Corsa (Ferrari 458): For the second straight season, the best Ferrari team in GTD is featuring a major change in the driving quartet ahead of the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona. From the 2015 class championship winning team, only third driver Jeff Segal is back in the fold. However, the replacements for Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler, are far from incapable. 2015’s most improved driver in GTD, Denmark’s Christina Nielsen has joined the Prancing Horse club for the new year, while the team has reunited with Alessandro Balzan, with whom Scuderia Corsa won the GT championship in the 2013 Rolex Sports Car Series and claimed two more victories in the 2014 IMSA season. Experienced amateur Robert Renauer rounds out another decent lineup, but late developments in getting the new 488 GT3 ready, means Corsa heads to Daytona with last year’s 458 model, which while possibly more reliable may not have the horsepower to stay with the faster cars from Dodge and BMW. Still have the tools to challenge for a result at the finish of the Rolex 24.
- Turner Motorsport (BMW M6): After having to play catch up for most of 2015 after committing late in the previous off season to a full time effort, Will Turner’s squad has a full period of development time, an impressive new car and engine to call upon, and one extra chance to claim victory at Daytona in 2016. Although the chief BMW runner in GT Daytona had a super imposing driver roster for last year’s race, the burden of putting everything together at the last call proved to be too much for even this power house to overcome. Minus their victory at Lime Rock Park, win threatening efforts were hard to come by in 2015. Initially, one would think the driving teams in 2016, are a couple steps back from last season, yet a closer look would seem to point otherwise. German veterans Jens Klingmann and Marco Wittman are the key cogs in the primary machine while Ashley Freiberg and Bret Curtis are strong if not spectacular. In the second entry, gentlemen driver Michael Marsal and professional pilot Markus Palttala both return, supported by European Le Mans Series veteran Maxime Martin and Finnish newcomer Jesse Krohn. With the ability of the Turner team to produce a fast and reliable car on a consistent basis, BMW certainly is capable of challenging in GT Daytona, just as much as Bobby Rahal’s team will be able to in the upper GT Le Mans class.
- Park Place Motorsports (Porsche GT3-R): Owner-driver Patrick Lindsey’s squad has run hot and cold over the past three seasons, but they had a solid rebound in 2015 after a frustrating 2014 effort, winning at Laguna Seca and placing fifth on the final points table. Despite losing the services of Spencer Pumpelly in the driving department for 2016, many of the remaining pieces to the puzzle of success are present. A new Porsche is being prepared at the team’s headquarters and Porsche factory pilot Jorg Bergmeister along with impressive American teenager Matt McMurry have been brought in to share the driving duties with Lindsey. Late signing Norbert Siedler provides yet another safe set of hands to round out a solid quartet of drivers. With the expansion of the GT Daytona grid for 2016, backing up its efforts from last year will be a tougher task, but a solid showing at the Rolex 24 will certainly be a step in the right direction.
- Black Swan Racing (Porsche GT3-R): Another owner-driver Tim Pappas will return to IMSA competition in 2016 after an extended absence, with a new Porsche and a highly talented and experienced trio to support him. Factory hot shoe Patrick Long is the most notable addition, as is the inclusion of sports car legend Andy Pilgrim, as he returns to IMSA service after an extended stay in the Pirelli World Challenge championship. Impressive Netherlands-based prospect Nick Catsburg rounds out a roster that may be more impressive on track, than on paper. As with Park Place, if they can stay out of trouble they can be a contender for a high finish at Daytona.
- Magnus Racing (Audi R8 LMS): Veteran Porsche disciple John Potter has changed German manufacturers for 2016, as he and co-driver Andy Lally will pilot a brand new Audi R8 LMS starting at Daytona. The Florida-based runners have had success the past two seasons in the other major enduro in the Sunshine State, the 12 Hours of Sebring, but have had tough luck in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. The changeover to a new marque could slow the progress toward breaking the current trend at the World Center of Racing, but a trouble-free run could allow for a competitive result. The final outcome for Magnus Racing in the season opener, will be helped from the services of both Marco Seefried and Rene Rast, both of whom have had moments at Daytona. The stock may be rising on this squad, so keep an eye on them during the open test.
- O’Gara Motorsport (Lamborghini Huracan): Despite starting the 2016 IMSA season with their fourth different team in the unified series’ third season, the veteran driving duo of Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler can never be counted out of any IMSA sports car race. After two strong years with Ferrari, the pairing hopes to continue their recent run of success in a new Lamborghini entered by former Super Trofeo series stalwart Tom O’Gara. Normally new teams would not be held in high regard, however the presence of two consistently solid mainstays in the mix should ensure a seamless transition into IMSA competition at Daytona, maybe even challenging for a high finish if the new car blues fail to fall upon them.
- Stevenson Motorsports (Audi R8 LMS): The dominant force the past two seasons in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge circuit, has parked their Chevrolet Camaro in favor of a brand new Audi R8 for their debut in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. All four regular pilots from the team’s CTSCC efforts (Andrew Davis, Robin Liddell, Matt Bell, and Lawson Aschenbach) have stayed in the fold for the level up and should allow for a solid showing at the Rolex 24. Of the quartet involved in the two-car operation, Davis has had the most recent IMSA experience, having driven Porsches part-time for both Patrick Dempsey and Alex Job in the past two seasons.
- Change Racing (Lamborghini Huracan): As the team name implies, change in scenery will be present for team boss Robbie Benton as he enters a new Lamborghini in IMSA GTD for 2016. The team has acquired a strong lead driver in veteran Spencer Pumpelly, while CTSCC veteran Corey Lewis is equally competent. The squad will face a major increase in competition after spending the last several seasons in the Super Trofeo championship.
- Flying Lizard-Krohn Racing (Audi R8): Long time competitors Darren Law and Tracy Krohn have joined forces to field a single Audi R8 in at least the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Although not running the brand new version that the German manufacturer has to offer, the team has signed former Risi Competizione driver Pierre Kaffer and Audi factory pilot Christopher Haase to join Krohn and his regular co-driver Nic Jonsson, creating one of the more impressive GTD driving teams that will be track side in the twice around the clock classic. A definite dark horse, but one capable of claiming a solid result.
- TRG-Aston Martin Racing (Aston Martin Vantage): After narrowly missing out on claiming the 2015 GTD championship, Kevin Buckler’s squad has changed greatly during silly season. Christina Nielsen has left to join Scuderia Corsa and while Buckler has increased factory ties with AMR, he has only confirmed participation in the opening two 2016 IMSA races at the time OnPitRoad.com went to press. Formula One veteran Sergio Perez leads a largely Mexican amateur lineup for the Rolex 24 and while the car is capable, it is questionable as to whether or not the drivers will be able to get everything out of it.
- Spirit of Race (Ferrari 458): Despite claiming many victories in FIA World Endurance Championship and European Le Mans Series action over the years, the AF Corse squad has yet to find real success in North American competition. The team will not be entering one of the new 488s at Daytona and while the quartet of drivers are decent, they will likely be outclassed by the more seasoned rosters featured among the full time IMSA GT Daytona runners.
- Konrad Motorsport (Lamborghini Huracan): Veteran driver and entrant Franz Konrad has also switched to Lamborghini for a two-car attack at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Konrad along with Rolf Ineichen and Marc Basseng in the team’s primary entry represent their best shot at claiming a high finish.
- Frikadelli Racing: (Porsche GT3-R): Relative unknown European squad has gained a new Porsche to make their North American debut in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Connor De Philippi and Patrick Huisman are the most accomplished in the squad’s quintet of drivers.
The following teams are not on the initial Roar Before the Rolex 24 participant list, but could yet make an appearance in the race itself on the final January weekend, or elsewhere during the 2016 WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
- As mentioned above, Paul Gentilozzi’s new F Performance Racing team will join the GT Daytona fleet with their new Lexus RC sometime following the 24 Hours of Le Mans break. Although the car has yet to take to the test track, the team has under its wing two very solid drivers in the form of five-time Rolex 24 at Daytona overall winner Scott Pruett and two-time Indianapolis 500 starter Sage Karam. Although developing the car could prevent outstanding results in the early days, once this program finds it feet it could become a serious challenger by the start of the 2017 campaign.
- Although they will not have access to a new Porsche 991 challenger, Autometrics Motorsports is looking at possibly entering a 997-based Porsche in the four major endurance events on the 2016 IMSA slate.
- There also could be a third Dodge Viper GT3-R on the grid at multiple stops on the 2016 IMSA schedule as Dan Knox’s Lone Star Racing team hopes to join the field. The team made its series debut last year at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Trans-Am Series star Cameron Lawrence has been rumored as a possible teammate to Knox if the effort comes to fruition.
Stay tuned to OnPitRoad.com for further updates on the road to the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona and the rest of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.