The 50th anniversary running of the Daytona 24 Hours, or the ‘Rolex 24’ as it’s known in deference to its sponsor, was a thriller. Only in the final hour did a clear winner emerge.
The race that marked the half-century of this great endurance contest was the one they all wanted to win. A full grid of 14 Daytona Prototypes and 45 Grand Touring cars took the rolling start under a perfect Florida blue sky. Scot Ryan Dalziel had put his Riley-Ford on pole, confirming the anticipated advantage of the Ford-engined cars over the 3.56 miles of the famous Daytona International Speedway. But it was to be a hard-fought baffle with the Corvettes and the BMW-engined Rileys.
A hot, dry race led to a flat-out sprint through day and night. It was clear that, despite Grand-Am’s equivalency formula, the Fords had the edge on top speed, a useful advantage on the speedway’s long straights.
“We can catch them in the corners, but they get away on the straights,” said a frustrated Dario Franchitti who shared Chip Ganassi’s BMW-engined Riley with Juan Pablo Montoya, Scott Dixon and Jamie McMurray. A broken gear lever only added to the woes of this all-star line-up and the battle to win that much-prized gold Rolex came down to a thrilling contest between the Ford-engined Rileys of the Starworks and Michael Shank teams led, respectively, by Allan McNish and AJ Allmendinger. The turning point came close to the end when the two cars collided, flank to flank, as they sped side by side around the banking.
“I got loose and we touched,” said a deadpan Allmendinger, taking a line from the NASCAR drivers’ book of excuses. Mr McNish emphatically disagreed and made his feelings known after crossing the line in second place just 5.91 seconds behind Allmendinger who shared with an overjoyed Justin Wilson, Oswaldo Negri and John Pew.
“It was hard racing, cut and thrust, and that’s the way racing should be. It wasn’t to be our day but we were right in there, every lap, scrapping all the time,” said a controlled McNish after the race, choosing not to get into a war of words with Allmendinger, who’d paid him close attention on more than one high-speed occasion.
The Shank team had taken the ‘big one’ on their ninth attempt after putting Roger Penske’s new NASCAR signing Allmendinger in the car for the final three hours. “I knew I’d have to run flat out, and if we could get the lead then we could stay ahead,” said Allmendinger. “That was the best three hours of driving I have ever done in my life, the best I could do, every lap.”
A highlight of Daytona 2012 came in the midnight hour. At the top of the leader board, in red lights against the night sky, was car number 6, the Riley-Ford of British Formula 3 Champion Felipe Nasr. The teenager from Brasilia, racing as a result of winning a Sunoco-sponsored competition to drive at Daytona, had impressed in testing last December and underlined his talent by sparring wheel to wheel through the darkness with none other than Juan Pablo Montoya, not a man known to be a pushover in any kind of racing car. Nasr’s raw speed and consistent lap times in the Michael Shank-entered Riley, shared with Michael McDowell, Jorge Goncalvez and Gustavo Yacaman, helped push the car to third overall.
“That was a great experience,” said a very cool Felipe, “I’d never raced in the dark before, never raced a car with a roof. This was a challenge for me, a great opportunity, and the race was so special. In the traffic, I overtook more cars than ever before in my life and flat out on the banking, wow, that was so cool.”
We are going to hear a great deal more about this young man. The traffic to which Nasr referred is a feature of the 24 Hours, with 45 GT cars squabbling for supremacy while watching in their mirrors for the ever-present threat of the much faster Prototypes. As so often on these occasions, it was the Porsche GT3 Cup cars that had the speed and reliability to beat the Ferraris and Audis into submission. The gold Rolex and winners’ champagne went to the Magnus Racing GT3, driven hard by Andy Lally, Rene Past, John Potter and Richard Lietz, leading home a Porsche 1-2-3 in the Grand Touring class.
No better way to celebrate 50 years of the Daytona 24 than with a thrilling race from lights to the chequer.