Friday, January 26, 2018

2018 Daytona 24 Hours - Prototype Class Preview

So, we've come this far (you: "It wasn't really that far, just about 10 minutes of reading some totally made up odds on your part, and- oh, you're going to go ahead and write some more anyway, aren't you? Carry on.). With two classes in the bag, it's time for the big one. The Prototype class. By my recollection, we've been doing this Blogathon thing since 2009, and the 20 cars entered in the Prototype class is the most cars entered in the top class since...2009 (except that only 19 actually started the race, since the #7 Penske Porsche DP didn't start the race...and, actually, hold that thought of a #7 Penske car in the race for just a bit). It's a blockbuster field this year, with teams returning from last year, teams stepping up from the now-defunct LMPC class, and teams joining from Europe. And I feel like I say this every year, but it's a wide open field. Let's get to it.

The Long-ish Shots

#52 AFS/PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier LMP2-Gibson - Well, somebody has to bring up the caboose of this super stout field, and for me, that car is the #52 Ligier. The LMP2s have not typically been as quick as the DPi cars (note to Mike: the DPi cars are prototypes that have GT3-level engines in them, which are the same types of engines that are eligible to run in GTD -- the DPi cars also have bodywork on them that are designed by each of their manufacturers to make them stand out and be identifiable as being from that manufacturer; the LMP2 cars are generally cars imported from Europe that all run identical V8 engines), and this team is brand new to the class. Throw in TWO silver rated drivers (not a typically winning strategy in Prototype) in Roberto Gonzalez and Nicholas Boulle, and this looks like it could be a rough 24 hours. Oh, the other two drivers are sometime-IndyCar driver Sebastian Saavedra, and paddock (and Dinner With Racer podcast guest) favorite Gustavo Yacaman. FUN COMBO! Odds - 75 to 1.

#20 - BAR1 Motorsports Multimatic/Riley LMP2-Gibson - Another team that's new to the Prototype class after years in the LMPC class. The Multimatic-Riley struggled for pace...pretty much everywhere in 2017, and this car is loaded with sub-gold drivers. Three silvers (Eric Lux, Alex Popow and NASCAR refugee Brendan Gaughan) plus two bronzes (Marc Drumwright and the ageless Tomy Drissi) equals "not a win...not even close". Odds - 75 to 1.

#85 JDC-Miller Motorsports ORECA LMP2-Gibson - The JDC guys (they of the infamous "Banana Boat" Prototype in 2017) have upsized to two cars this year, and even though this car is the same number as last year's car, this is basically the "add on" car (last year's regulars are in the other car). Simon Trummer has shown what he's capable of in an LMP2 in the World Endurance Championship, but Austin Cindric is new to the Prototypes, as are Robert Alon (spent last year in the GTD Lexuses) and Devlin DeFrancesco (who has the coolest name in the field, but not the most experience) are as well. Not a chance. Odds - 60 to 1.

#54 - CORE Autosport Oreca LMP2-Gibson - Another team that's not new to IMSA or the Daytona 24 Hours, CORE Autosport won around about 14 class wins at Daytona in the LMPC category, along with more or less 430 LMPC race wins (note: numbers approximate). Oh, and they've been running the factory Porsches in the GTLM class, and ran a Porsche in the GTD class last year, but this is their first step up to the premier class. Full timers Colin Braun and Jon Bennett are joined by sports car megastars Loic Duval and Romain Dumas (both of whom have overall wins at Le Mans), but I fear that a team that's brand new to running for the overall win might not have what it takes to take the whole thing home. Remember, this rundown is all about who's gonna win. Odds - 50 to 1.

Um...If the Planets Align?

#55 Mazda Team Joest Mazda DPi - Hey, I love how these cars look, and as a guy who's owned several Mazdas in the past, I've always rooted for them. But, in the Prototype class over the last few years, they've been fast but fragile (the last couple of years) or slow but fragile (before that, when they tried to run the ill fated Skyactiv Diesel engine). So, this year, the car's been totally reworked, the driving team strengthened (the #55 has longtime Mazda driver Jonathan Bomarito and IndyCar driver Spencer Pigot, plus newcomer British hotshoe Harry Tincknell) and they're now being run by the venerable Team Joest, who has won Le Mans a zillion times with Porsches and, more recently, factory Audis. Can Joest turn the Mazdas around in exactly one off season? Ehhhhh... Odds - 40 to 1.

#77 Mazda Team Joest Mazda DPi - See above entry, but substitute longtime Mazda driver Tristan Nunez, plus incoming sports car start Oliver Jarvis and Rene Rast, and holy cow, is that a great lineup. But, it's still the mostly unproven Mazda. Odds - 40 to 1.

#90 Spirit of Daytona Racing Cadillac DPi - Spirit of Daytona is a pretty solid team, although they were ridiculously snakebitten in 2017. And now, they've got the dominant-in-2017 Cadillac DPi, but this is their first race with the car, and their first race with drivers Tristan Vautier (who I'm thrilled has a full time ride in a premier class), Matt McMurry (who feels like he's been doing this forever, but still isn't old enough to buy his own booze) and Edward Cheever (who I was only aware of before recently as "Eddie Cheever III"...trying to be his own man here, I guess). "New car" plus "new drivers" usually equals "uh, we'll get things together in a few more races...get back to us about Mosport". Odds - 40 to 1.

Now We're Getting Really Serious

#32 United Autosports Ligier LMP2-Gibson - Joining the Daytona circus from Europe is the United Autosports squad. They're running the well proven (and quick, though definitely more suited to high downforce tracks) Ligier. And while this car does have two really, really good drivers in ex-Formula 1 driver Paul di Resta and also-ex-F1-and-current-sports-car-star Bruno Senna, they've also got the less experienced Will Owen and Hugo de Sadeleer. If the team can stay in contention until the late hours and be able to lean on the first two guys to carry them down the stretch, they might have a chance. MIGHT. Odds - 25 to 1.

#23 United Autosports Ligier LMP2 Gibson - Hey, I've heard of one of these drivers! You see, Lando Norris is famous for ruling over Cloud City, and also selling out his friend to Dar- What? A different guy named "Lando"? That seems unlikely. But whatever. Norris is a rising star in the McLaren Young Driver scheme, who will probably wind up in F1 very soon, Phil Hanson is an 18 year old sports car wunderkind, and there's this other guy in the car. Whose name rhymes with "Fredando Falondo". My feeling: one of the kids wrecks the car (oops, that already happened in Wednesday practice). Odds - 25 to 1.

#78 Jackie Chan DCR Jota ORECA LMP2-Gibson - Or, as Mike said in our Blogathon Pick-'Em draft the other night: "JACKIE CHAN IS IN THE RACE?!?" Sorry, Mike, he's just a partial team owner. But, his team is really, really good. On the other hand, this is their first try at Daytona. The #78 car has sports car stars Alex Brundle, Ho-Pin Tung and Antonio Felix da Costa, along with rising open wheel star Ferdinand Habsburg-Lothringen (who, yes, is one of those Habsburgs). Interesting team, with a solid chance...but other teams have more experience here. Odds - 20 to 1.

#37 Jackie Chan DCR Jota ORECA LMP2-Gibson - See above entry for #78, but insert the arguably stronger driving squad of Daniel Juncadella, Robin Frijns, F1 driver Lance Stroll and "I can drive anything, and I'll probably beat you" guy Felix Rosenqvist. Odds - 20 to 1.

#38 Performance Tech Motorsports ORECA LMP2-Gibson - Pound for pound, possibly the most intriguing team on the grid. These guys won every single race in the LMPC class in 2017, except for Petit Le Mans, and they usually did it by absolutely crushing their opponents. For their debut in the Prototypes, they've brought back their two main drivers from 2017 (James French and rising open wheel star Pato O'Ward), and added capable hands in Kyle Masson and ex-Mazda factory driver Joel Miller. If there's a "dark horse" in the Prototype field, you're looking at it here. Odds - 20 to 1.

#99 JDC-Miller Motorsports ORECA LMP2-Gibson - Or, maybe you're looking at the "dark horse" right here. That is, if you can call a team who threatened on more than one occasion in 2017 to knock off the factory backed DPi cars with their LMP2 customer car a true "dark horse". Me, I don't know horses all that well, so I say maybe they still qualify. In any case, JDC-Miller has brought back full time drivers Stephen Simpson and Misha Goihkberg and added Chris Miller (their usual enduro 3rd driver) and Gustavo Menezes to the roster. Oh, and they've added the good "ju-ju" of turning the car "Gainsco Red Dragon" (though they've given up the good 2017 "ju-ju" of  the "Banana Boat"), which is ALWAYS fun to root for. These guys should factor into the equation in the closing hours. Odds - 20 to 1.

#2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan DPi - The ESM guys started the year well with a 3rd at Daytona in a brand new car, and finished the year well with a 1-4 finish at Petit Le Mans. The car should be even more refined for 2018, and they're bringing back the well proven crew of Ryan Dalziel, Olivier Pla and team co-owner Scott Sharp. These guys WILL factor into the equation in the closing hours, and I'm sure they'd be extremely disappointed in anything less than a podium. Odds - 17 to 1.

#22 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan DPi - See above entry for the #2, but add the arguably even stronger driver lineup of Johannes van Overbeek, Nicolas Lapierre and Pipo Derani. Holy smokes, these guys could win this thing. Odds - 17 to 1.

The Front Runners

#7 Acura Team Penske Acura DPi - Welcome back, Roger Penske. As I mentioned WAYYYYY up top in the intro about 8,000 words ago, Penske ran a team in the 2009 Daytona 24 Hours, but that's the last time they competed in this race. UNTIL NOW. New for 2018 (well, unless you count their run at Petit Le Mans in 2017 in a customer ORECA LMP2-Gibson), Penske is the Acura factory team in the Prototype class. The #7 car is being run for the whole season by recent IndyCar "retiree" Helio Castroneves and GM-defector Ricky Taylor, and they've brought along IndyCar driver Graham Rahal for the 24 Hours. Unless an anvil falls out of the sky, they'll be right at the top of the order on Sunday morning. Odds - 10 to 1.

#7 Acura Team Pensk Acura DPi - See above entry for the #6, but insert the unholy driving combo of Juan Pablo Montoya, Dane Cameron and Simon Pagenaud. There's your best driving lineup in the field right there, folks. Odds - 10 to 1.

#31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi - The #31 returns under the Action Express Racing banner, and although they've lost Dane Cameron to Team Penske, they've replaced him with the criminally underrated ex-F1 driver Felipe Nasr (who scored a podium in his one other Daytona 24 Hours start in 2012). Toss in sports car ringer Mike Conway and reigning British GT champion Stuart Middleton, and you've got a near lock on a top-5 this year. Could this be the year that Whelen red and white breaks through and takes it all? Odds - 9 to 1.

#5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac DPi - We're gettin' the band back together! The trio that came but one Ricky Taylor bump away from winning the 2017 Daytona 24 Hours returns in the same Cadillac DPi, the marque that dominated most of 2017. Felipe Albuquerque joins Joao Barbosa in the full time driver role, while Christian Fittipaldi steps back to the enduro-only role, but they'll be just as strong this year. It would be...not shocking for them to win. Odds - 9 to 1.

#10 Konica-Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R Cadillac DPi - Not a huge shock to see this car arriving at the far bottom of this post, right? They're the defending race and series champs, and they've replaced Ricky Taylor and Jeff Gordon with Renger van der Zande (a ridiculously underrated driver) and IndyCar star Ryan-Hunter Reay. Oh, and Rodney Sandstorm returns as the team's stalwart. They're the favorites. But only barely. Odds - 17 to 2.

So, per usual, it's gonna be a melee for the win this year. But if I've gotta pick, it's the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Caddy (duh), or the dark horse of the #38 Performance Tech ORECA.

Thanks to everybody for stopping by, and we'll see you all again on Saturday when Blogathon kicks off in earnest!

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