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Five things to watch in GTP class: Rolex 24 at Daytona revisits ‘Ford vs. Ferrari’ golden era

Calvin Fish and Nate Ryan preview the 61st IMSA Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway.

The lid lifter to the major-league motorsports season every January, the Rolex 24 at Daytona annually delivers racing storylines that can carry throughout the year.

And this season, the intrigue starts at the top with the 61st running of the 24-hour endurance race at Daytona International Speedway heralding both a throwback to a golden age and a bridge to an electrified global future.

Cars will be on track Friday for the Roar Before the Rolex 24 that will set the tone and the starting lineup for the Jan. 28-29 sports car classic (which will be broadcast across NBC and USA and streamed on Peacock flag to flag).

The premier prototype division for the Rolex 24 at Daytona has been overhauled this season with the introduction of the Le Mans Daytona hybrid (LMDh) cars that will bring elements of electric propulsion to IMSA’s top engines. The top class has been rebranded as Grand Touring Prototype (GTP is another retro touch), replacing the DPi moniker in place since 2017.

Its new sheen goes well beyond the name.

THE 61ST ROLEX 24 AT DAYTONA: Schedules, entry lists, TV info, start times

With Cadillac and Acura returning, manufacturer participation will double in IMSA’s top category with the arrival of Porsche and BMW (and with Lamborghini ticketed for a 2024 debut).

That also will herald powerhouse racing stalwarts Team Penske (with Porsche Motorsport) and Rahal Letterman Lanigan (BMW) joining the GTP fray with perennial contending teams Wayne Taylor Racing, Meyer Shank Racing, Action Express Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing.

All will be trying to bring drivers and teams up to speed (figuratively and literally) on using hybrid engines that demand new driving styles, more personnel and bigger equipment than before.

“It’s been a huge undertaking,” said Mike O’Gara, the director of operations for Ganassi’s Cadillac Racing program. “In the 30-year history of Chip Ganassi Racing, we’ve been fortunate to be part of a lot of different vehicle launches. This one is by far the most intense, the most complex, and, honestly, the most exciting for the company.

“I think the timelines we’ve been holding to have been difficult with supply chain issues, trying to put adequate miles on the cars to be ready and the level of complexity of the cars with the hybrid system and the other control systems. It’s just more than we’ve ever undertaken before. An added complexity is going to race this car in two different series on two different continents.”

After the Rolex 24, one of Ganassi’s LMDh cars will move to the European-based World Endurance Championship, which counts the 24 Hours of Le Mans as its signature event. (Roger Penske, whose team has yet to win Le Mans or the Rolex 24 overall, also will have two WEC teams.)

For the first time in a few decades (and harkening back to the 1960s heyday chronicled in the “Ford vs. Ferrari” movie), the GTP category’s LMDh cars will allow the same team and car to win the overall crowns at Daytona and Le Mans.

That level of sports car prestige is a major reason why the revamped top prototypes have created such a buzz.

But for Gary Nelson, the longtime team manager of Action Express Racing who also spent a few decades in NASCAR as a championship crew chief and competition executive, it’s also about the pure degree of difficulty.

“This new car is such a great challenge,” Nelson said. “My whole career in racing, I’ve always wanted the trophy that’s hardest to get. They are always harder when you don’t have a logbook or setup book or all the other things ready to go when you get to the track.

“We’re going to create pretty much from a blank sheet of paper a program that we’re expecting to win the Daytona 24 Hours. I think it’s the most pumped up I’ve been for many years to try to get all these little things all to line up. The hybrid, the different rules, the new car, the way of doing the pit stops. Everything is much easier when you go to a 24-hour race and you’ve got some muscle memory from other races in the past. Here, it’s all new and I’m looking forward to getting a shot at that trophy.”

Here are five major storylines to watch in the GTP category entering the 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener at Daytona International Speedway:

--Electrifying driving styles: It’s still a race car, but the transition from the traditional internal combustion to a hybrid engine in the premier prototype division still will be a game-changer.

During offseason testing, IMSA veterans have discovered there are nuances for piloting a car that features a bevy of new by-wire systems that allow cockpit adjustments through computer and electronic technology. For example, the hybrid’s brake-by-wire system will afford brake bias changes in an advanced and more accessible manner that a mechanical-based brake bias setup.

Filipe Albuquerque and Ricky Taylor, who won the 2021 Rolex 24 and finished second last year, have leaned on Brendon Hartley, their Wayne Taylor Racing teammate at Daytona for 2023, because the Formula E veteran knows how to fine-tune a hybrid for optimum corner speed. Through energy storage and deployment, the new engine will present new methods for delivering power.

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship LMDh GTP testing

#10: Konica Minolta Acura ARX-06, Acura LMDh, GTP

LAT Images

“Obviously, we have more tools because the hybrid engine can do numerous things,” Albuquerque said. “You can use the hybrid to help you through the corner, how it’s going to be deployed, how it’s going to help. The V6/V8 turbo engines only has a turbo with fuel. With a hybrid, maybe you can help with that, especially depending on the driving style. There are those things you need to be processing how you drive and how you use those tools to make you fast. Instead of just jumping in the car and turning left and right and upshift. Those days are gone with this technology.”

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship LMDh GTP testing

#10: Konica Minolta Acura ARX-06, Acura LMDh, GTP, Brendon Hartley, Ricky Taylor

LAT Images

Taylor said Hartley’s advice on cockpit basics (such as making the steering wheel more ergonomic) has been a major help in a “huge, huge evolution” of learning the new systems.

“From our side, the really complicated stuff goes on in the background and how the different OEMs will interpret how to manage everything,” Taylor said. “For them, it’s really exciting. For us, it’s about understanding what can make us faster and how to best use it. Just like in the DPi, if you understood the traction control, brake bias, roll bars, you’re more comfortable to use them, the more powerful you’re going to be. For us it’s just about understanding them the best we can and ultimately making it simple and intuitive is the hard part.

“The steering wheel, how we can make it more comfortable to drive because at 4 a.m. at Daytona, you’re going to be using your muscle memory and a little more subconscious driving. You want to have everything in the car in an easy way to drive. It’s constantly changing. We’ve changed the grips, a couple of the buttons and how you push the buttons. Brendon had some good input on some tactile things for the steering wheel.”

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship

#963: Porsche Penske Motorsport, Porsche 963, GTP: Dane Cameron, Felipe Nasr, Matt Campbell

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Jonathan Diuguid, managing director for Porsche Penske Motorsport, said the relationships between drivers and engineers will become more critical.

“It’s the engineering staff -- the hybrid engineer, the powertrain engineer, the electronic braking engineer,” he said. “All have massive impacts on car balance and developing those relationships and explaining the concepts in a level of detail so the driver understands what is happening and how to give feedback on how to make it better. It’s building those relationships and understanding those systems to utilize and optimize the hybrid powertrains.

“There’s an extremely large range of adjustments to feed to the drivers. It might not always be clear what is happening. You’ll hear a lot of radio chatter from the timing stand suggesting to switch positions based on driver feedback through tire stints. The messages are going to be complicated and multistep changes. The engineering challenge for the cars is extremely high as well as the driving challenge.”

--New team mechanics and processes: The trickiest part might be starting and refiring the car for drivers who are new to electrification – one of many new wrinkles that teams will be tackling.

“Once you get rolling, it’s pretty much like any other race car,” O’Gara said. “It’s starting it and launching it and diagnosing issues are where some of the challenges have been. We’re lucky enough to have drivers who have raced in Formula E, that have raced a Porsche P1 car, so those guys have helped the others who have never driven a hybrid or anything electrified before.

“It’s a manual that’s pretty thick on not necessarily on driving the car but procedures for starting it or restarting it or if you see a red light what to do. The race car is the race car, but it’s all these other control systems that make it unique from what we’ve done before.”

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship LMDh GTP testing

#01: Cadillac Racing, Cadillac V-LMDh, GTP

LAT Images

As drivers explore newfound freedoms with cockpit options, it could bear both positive and negative results.

“Changing stuff to see what it does can find a problem you didn’t know you had,” said Justin Harnisfager, crew chief for defending Rolex 24 winner Meyer Shank Racing. “We try to guide the drivers on inputs. There are starting points, but every driver has a preference, and we’ll adjust in a way to let them be happy.

“There are more adjustments they can make, and that’s maybe not good for some drivers who could get lost. Leaving the pit box is definitely different, too.”

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship LMDh GTP testing

#60: Meyer Shank Racing W/Curb-Agajanian, Acura ARX-06, LMDh, GTP

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Though Diuguid said it’s a manufacturer choice (and not an IMSA regulation), the GTP teams have been making pit stops while running only their electrical systems during testing at Daytona and elsewhere.

The high-voltage systems are partly why the GTP teams have increased staffing by double digits over their DPi programs from 2017-22. Travis Hogue, the general manager for Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Autosport, said “everything has changed with all new equipment. The training side has been different. We’re not just training people working on the car but around the car so the marketing staff and anyone with guests understand the systems.

“There are specialty toolboxes color coordinated just for the high-voltage system. In the past, two guys could work out of a toolbox, put the car on track and roll that same box to the track.”

Last year, Nelson said Action Express Racing needed only one hauler to transport its No. 31 Cadillac to the track. Now it takes two haulers and an extra trailer to travel to Daytona International Speedway.

“The set-up equipment is different,” Nelson said. “They don’t even fit in the trailer the same, so everything takes a bit of adjustment whenever you bring in a new platform. Over the years, that has gotten so much better with the companies that provide the equipment that we need. Somehow we have a lot more equipment than we had in the past. Not sure I can put my finger on what we bought was bigger, but it’s a lot more equipment.”

--Computer games: With quantum computing on the horizon, the auto racing industry has witnessed a shift from the importance of mechanical engineers to those well-versed in computer software.

The GTP/LMDh revolution will reflect that trend with precious lines of software needing to be applied with precision. Switching to more by-wire systems has multiplied the number of components that are being fed through a computer.

“The sheer amount of code and software that has been written to run this car, it’s daunting,” said Laura Wontrop Klauser, the GM sports car racing program manager. “We cannot have enough software engineers working right now because everything in the car is connected. Things that we never had to worry about influencing each other in the past with the DPi or other race programs.

Action Express test Daytona

#31: Whelen Engineering Racing, Cadillac V-LMDh, GTP: Pipo Derani, Alexander Sims

Richard Dole

“Now if one thing is slightly off, it’s not going to run or turn or brake or whatever it needs to do. The importance of making sure that all the calibrations are correct and then the safety critical component of that to make sure that everything is correct is huge. That’s been the biggest mountain is working through all of that once we had the parts to test. This whole program has been fun. It’s been a big challenge!”

David Salters, the president of Honda Performance Development, said it’s been a selling point for recruiting “some great new up and coming young engineers. They came because of this challenge. You can do what you want with software. We’re understanding energy management. Vehicle dynamics. The next breed of engineers have come because of this challenge. So hats off to everyone involved. It’s brilliant, to be honest.”

--First you must finish: With the LMDh cars making their debuts in a 24-hour endurance race known for punishing even the most durable equipment, reliability naturally has been a hot topic and prioritized over performance. During a news conference last month, the program manager for each manufacturer said the primary objective at Daytona was to finish, and pace was secondary.

Porsche was the first team to put its LMDh prototype on track in February 2022, and its cars have covered nearly 32,000 kilometers (including a final 2,200km in a two-day test at Sebring International Raceway last week).

“We struggled to get all the hybrid components to the car at the time,” Urs Kuratle, the director of factory racing LMDh for Porsche, said of the initial tests. “Then we were kind of like snowplowing. We were the first of the manufacturers to be testing all the components at a very early stage. For us, it was very important to have the possibility and opportunity to do that. Soon all the other OEMs joined us and then we were all climbing up the ladder together.

“The road definitely was windier than we initially thought. We all knew it was a challenge.”

While it might have had the advantage from being on track first, Porsche Penske Motorsport’s goal also was to troubleshoot the rudimentary gremlins for its OEM rivals.

“People say Porsche has an advantage because they started sooner. I say I’m glad they started sooner, because they took care of all those problems that were on the steep part of the learning curve that we could just learn from and start at a higher point,” said Maurizio Leschiutta, the LMDh project leader for BMW M.

“I think it was a very sensible approach taken by governance to have a pilot program along with the hybrid suppliers. Porsche was in the best position to do it, so it was a logical decision, and I don’t think any of us thought otherwise. And they learned a lot from which we all learned, so in the end, it helped us gain a little bit of time in our programs. BMW was quite happy with the way it went and quite valuable input that Porsche gave to everyone.”

In describing the challenge of taking a hybrid prototype from a blank sheet of paper to reality in 18 months, Leschiutta said “on a scale of 1-10, the steepness is about 12-13. Sometimes I feel like Sisyphus rolling a rock eternally up a hill. We’ve faced some major challenges principally because of the timeframe.”

Though Porsche and Cadillac have conducted tests of at least 24 hours, the site reported that the Acura teams of Meyer Shank Racing and WTR with Andretti were unable to complete an endurance-length test before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

BMW was unable to complete a full session because of mechanical woes. A test last month at Circuit of the Americas wrapped up a schedule of testing 33 of 100 days during the IMSA homologation period, according to BMW M Team RLL technical/race operations director Brandon Fry. A final shakedown was planned at Sebring ahead of this week’s Roar Before the Rolex 24 test at Daytona.

“COTA focused a lot on the new car and how we de deal with failures and pit stop work,” Fry said. “This was less of a performance-related test than just the last chance to work through things to be as prepared as we can be.”

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship LMDh GTP testing

#25: BMW M Team RLL, BMW M Hybrid V8, LMDh GTP

LAT Images

But there is only so much preparation that can be done.

Though all of the team managers are expecting that the overall podium for the Rolex 24 will include three of the nine GTP cars in the field, it seems likely that at least a few could finish behind the slower LMP2 category.

“A couple of us have completed endurance tests and are happy with the milestones but aren’t 100 percent confident cars will run flawlessly through the races,” Porsche Penske Motorsport’s Diuguid said. “We’ll go in being ready to react. But testing is not racing. Once we get in the race, we’ll see what it brings.”

--Same rivalries, new series: For the past two decades, Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi have been slugging it out at the Indy 500 and for championship supremacy in the NTT IndyCar Series, and both of their racing organizations also have been successful in sports cars and NASCAR.

But this year’s Rolex 24 will mark the first time the American motorsports titans have gone head to head in the premier prototype division.

With Penske and Ganassi also fielding WEC entries, it’ll be a battle that extends through every sports car crown jewel this year. Sebring and Le Mans are on tap in the next five months for Ganassi vs. Penske, along with their annual Indy 500 showdown at the Brickyard.

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship

#963: Porsche Penske Motorsport, Porsche 963, GTP: Felipe Nasr, Roger Penske, Francis Schammo

LAT Images

Adding another dynamic is that six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon (among 11 active IndyCar drivers racing at Daytona this month) will return as part of Ganassi’s No. 01 Cadillac while the Team Penske trio of IndyCar drivers are slated for their IMSA debuts in the 2023 Rolex 24 (though they won’t be racing for Porsche Penske Motorsport).

It’s a comeback of sorts, too, for Porsche and BMW as both manufacturers will return to the top-level prototype after a long absence. In recent years, the German automakers had focused on the GT classes of U.S. sports car racing.

“There are little differences we’ve tried to make note of and be on top of,” Fry said of moving into GTP. “The pit stops are slightly different. In many ways, it’s easier now to locate the tires on the wheels. But there still is manufacturer racing in GT, and it’s a very tough battle. There are not overall wins, so the strategy changes. But I think the strategy has changed for us and (the former DPi teams) with shorter stints and the requirement to double-stint tires (in GTP). that has changed for everybody.

“We’re bringing more trucks and stuff than ever. I keep waiting for IMSA to tell us we can’t bring that. We’ve got so much we’re trying to cram in the truck.”

BMW will bring many of its GT drivers from past Rolex 24s in moving back into the top category of endurance racing for the first time in 20 years with the high-downforce prototype.

“It’s a different kind of animal,” Leschiutta said. “In IMSA, whereas before in GT our drivers had to be careful about the fast prototypes coming, now we’re going to be careful about slow GTs and also the driving lines may not be exactly the same.

“A GT is more of a bulldog. The LMDh car is a ballerina. So they require different approaches. So the drivers have been learning, the engineers have been learning, and the team has been learning, and we have been learning, of course.”