Friday, January 29, 2016

2016 Daytona 24 Hours - Prototype Preview

OK, so we have made it to the last of the Daytona 24 Hours class previews. Per usual, and not a surprise, my "most interesting" class is the Prototype class. Basically, the car count for the class that's up for the overall win would have to dwindle below five for me to not name the top class the "most interesting", but I guess that has happened before (like when the ALMS only had 2-3 P2 cars at every race a few years ago). You may (though you probably were not) have thought that I'd be using the results from qualifying to "cheat" my way through the Prototype class preview, with heavy weighting toward whoever was on the pole, etc. However, torrential rain at Daytona during the qualifying sessions has relegated the top Prototype car to 9th overall, behind seven GTLM cars and one LMPC car (the rain got worse as the session went on, so as the last cars out, the Prototypes had to deal with the worst track conditions; plus, as we saw at Road Atlanta last fall, the spec Continental tires that the Prototypes use are not as good in the rain as the Michelins that most of the GTLM cars use). As a result of all of this, qualifying basically told us nothing, so I'm going off of my usual picking technique: gut feeling and sheer guessing. Anyway, here we go.

The No-Hopers

#50 Highway to Help Riley DP-BMW - This feels a little like shooting fish in a barrel or something, but these guys show up and race every year, and every year, I say that they have no hope of winning. Well, I'm doing that again this year. But, I do have to say that this car finished in the top-30 last year  (in 30th), so at least it seems like they manage to run more laps every year. Bryan DeFoor, David Hinton, and Thomas Gruber join multi-time class winner Dorsey Schroeder and 1996 overall winner Jim Pace. Good luck to you fellas. Odds - 1,000 to 1.

The Pack

#0 Panoz Delta Wing Racing DWC13 - Really, outside of the #50 Riley-BMW, everybody else of the 12 entries has a pretty good shot of contending, if not winning. The least chance of the remaining 12 would be the Delta Wing, though. I'm not saying this off of speed (the Delta Wing finished with a top-5 lap time in five of the seven sessions of the Roar Before test, leading one session and never winding up further down than seventh), but because even up through the end of 2015, the Delta Wing has struggled to finish races. That isn't to say that they haven't worked out a bunch of their bugs over the off season, just that it's unlikely that they caught everything to the point where the car can be fast AND bulletproof. Full season drivers Katherine Legge and Sean Rayhall are joined by Andy Meyrick and Andreas Wirth. Odds - 100 to 1.

#70 Mazda Motorsports Mazda-Lola - I said in last year's Prototype class preview that the Mazdas had made "a quantum leap" over 2014. If that was true for 2015, it's even truer in 2016. Mazda has ditched the Skyactiv diesel engine for a more conventional 2.0L 4-cylinder turbo unit, and they have instantly found all of the pace that they've lacked the last two years. By the middle of the Roar Before test, the Mazdas were regularly in the top-5 fastest cars in class. So, now, the speed is there, but the reliability of a new package? There's the rub. And why I have a hard time picturing one of the red cars in victory lane on Sunday afternoon. Joel Miller, Ben Devlin and Tom Long are on driving duties for the #70, and they'll probably enjoy being MUCH closer to the front than they were last year. Odds - 50 to 1.

#55 Mazda Motorsports Mazda-Lola - See above for #70, substitute in Jonathan Bomarito, Tristan Nunez and defending Indy Lights champion Spencer Pigot on the driving roster. Odds - 50 to 1.

#37 SMP Racing BR01-Nissan - Yeah, this car might be on the "pole" (though it was actually outqualified by eight other cars, it'll get to start up front due to IMSA putting all the Prototype cars up front), but the BR01 has never raced in America before, and only has one season of World Endurance Championship racing behind it. Yeah, that WEC season consists of 72 hours worth of racing, but everything else in the class that I haven't named yet has years of development. Maruizio Mediani, IndyCar driver Mikhail Aleshin, Kirill Ladygin and Nicolas "I've driven basically everything, and driven it fast" Minassian will put up a good fight, as long as the car hangs in there. Odds - 15 to 1.

#60 Michael Shank Racing w/ Curb-Agajanian Ligier JS P2-Honda - The Michael shank team is a crowd favorite every year, and they seem to contend for a good chunk of the race every year. Heck, they even won this thing outright just four years ago. But even though the Ligiers have been SUPER fast (the #60 Shank car was fastest in four of the seven sessions of the Roar Before test, and second fastest in another session; the #2 ESM car was fastest in one of the three sessions that the Shank car wasn't fastest), something tells me that the Ligiers are still going to be a bit too fragile on the Daytona high banks to get the job done. The team's regular drivers of John Pew and Oswaldo Negri are joined by Shank Daytona regular (and NASCAR driver) A.J. Allmendinger, and they've added the extremely experienced (and talented) Olivier Pla as their fourth driver. This is a team and car that I'm more than ready to be wrong about come Sunday afternoon. Odds - 12 to 1.

#2 Tequila Patron ESM Ligier JS P2-Honda - You can basically take everything that I just said about the Shank Ligier and apply it to the ESM Ligier. Team owner/sponsor Ed Brown is the only "weakness" of any sort in the driver lineup for the #2, but he's plenty experienced and quite quick for a guy who wears the hat of "owner/sponsor". He can hold his own just fine. And the rest of the drivers (Scott Sharp, Johannes van Overbeek and Luis Felipe "Pipo" Derani, the last of whom was the fastest in the last session of the Roar Before test) will more than hold up their end of the bargain. They might just be a rabbit for the first half of the race, but if the car holds out, they could be there at the end. Odds - 12 to 1.

#31 Action Express Racing Corvette DP - The sister car to the defending series champion #5 Action Express Racing car, the #31 came into its own last year, and regular drivers Dane Cameron and Eric Curran were a force to be reckoned with at more races than not. That should also hold true for 2016 as well, and with IndyCar driver extraordinaire Simon Pagenaud and Sunoco Whelen Challenge prize winner and British GT champion Jonny Adam joining them, the #31 should be right on the front running pace. Can they topple the sister car and the Ganassi juggernauts? We will see. Odds - 10 to 1.

#02 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Riley-Ford DP - This is where things get controversial. The multi-time Daytona 24 Hour winning Ganassi cars were hardly noticeable during the Roar Before test, only scratching into the top-5 in one session. So, it seems like the defending champion cars have been overtaken by the Corvette DPs, the Ligiers and possibly even the SMP car and Delta Wing in the speed department. But the drivers have all done this sort of thing before, and speed almost never is the deciding factor in this race. But if the Ganassi cars spend the first 22 hours just trying to stay on the lead lap, will they be able to position themselves properly to take on the leaders in the final stint or two? And in that final stint, will they be fast enough to actually make a pass for the lead or hold the lead? Drivers Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray are the defending champs of this race, so you know they can get it done, but can the car? Odds - 9 to 1.

#01 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Riley-Ford DP - The above entry for the #02 applies for this car as well, but substitute in the international superstar driving lineup of reigning World Endurance Championship LMP1 champion Brendon Hartley, newly "retired" WEC/F1 driver Alexander Wurz, longtime BMW factory driver and new Ganassi Ford GT WEC convert Andy Priaulx and young Canadian FIA Formula 3 driver Lance Stroll. That's a freaking lineup, folks. Odds - 9 to 1.

#10 Konica Minolta Corvette DP for Wayne Taylor Racing Corvette DP - The title for "longest team/car title" goes to one of the more likely cars to win the race overall. These guys came ever so close to winning this race last year, winding up on the lead lap at the end of 24 hours, only to be disqualified for a drive time violation (Jordan Taylor drove more than four of the last six hours of the race, which is a no-no). They'll probably have worked out that little glitch, and the car should be just as fast as always. Regular drivers Ricky and Jordan Taylor are joined by usual endurance teammate Max Angelelli, along with ex-Formula 1 driver Rubens Barrichello. The #10 will be in this one right down to the end, too. Odds - 8 to 1.

#90 VisitFlorida Racing Corvette DP - The #90 squad contended for the championship right down to the end of 2015, only to lose out at the final race at Road Atlanta. And they contended for wins at more races than they didn't. And arguably, they may have reloaded with an even stronger driving team this year, with new full time drivers in Marc Goossens and Ryan Dalziel, who is probably no longer thought of as "the most underrated sports car driver in America" due to having about 14 of those types of articles written about him in the last 24 months. They're joined for this race by IndyCar star Ryan Hunter-Reay, who is...ahem...hunter-reay-ing for his first win at Daytona. Too much? Sorry. It's be a long week of writing, and I'm getting punchy. Anyway, I can see this race coming right down to a last lap duel between several cars, and one of the two that keeps popping up in this imaginary scenario is the #90. We'll get to the other in a second... Odds - 8 to 1.

The (Slight) Favorite

#5 Action Express Racing Corvette DP - This team feels like it's won just about everything over the course of the last couple of years, with the sole exception being last year's Daytona 24 Hours (they finished second, just 1.3 seconds behind the winning Ganassi car). Their winning everything means that it's all too easy to imagine them winning again. They've tinkered precious little with their formula, bringing back Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa as their regular drivers, but they're bringing in two "new" drivers for Daytona. First up is Felipe Albuquerque, a factory Audi LMP1 WEC driver. The other guy is a guy named Pruett, who I understand has a family that he's fond of. There are no weaknesses here to be found. Anywhere. Odds - 7 to 1.

Whew! We made it! Really, I'm about as excited for this year's 24 Hours as I have been in a few years, or certainly since the sports car "merger" of 2014 (adding in a bunch of new cars will do that to a guy). I just think that this is going to be a fascinating race, rife with uncertainty and surprises. I hope you'll all join us as we put our special brand of nonsense and occasionally accidental lucid thoughts up here. It's going to be a great race/Blogathon.

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