On the road with Simon Arron

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Tales of the unexpected

Daytona Speedway, January 26-29: a new era dawns… and one of sports car racing’s most enduring careers concludes on a high note

‘It almost doesn’t bloody matter what happens for 23 and a half hours. Everything counts from the last yellow flag…” Fresh from victory in the GTLM class with Ford, Sébastien Bourdais had a point. Whatever one might think about caution periods and the potential for associated artifice, though, the 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona ended with spectators unsure quite where to look. Should they watch the all-Cadillac duel at the front? A Ford vs Porsche vs Ferrari battle in GTLM? Or the constantly fluctuating GT Daytona tussle, settled by 0.3sec after a contest led at various stages by most of the nine competing marques?

Pity those in the Prototype Challenge class, making its final appearance at this event: five cars, a range of driving abilities that descended rapidly from preternaturally gifted to terminally clueless and a 23-lap margin of separation by the finish.

Backdrop to the above was the commencement of a new era for American sports car racing, with the adoption of Daytona Prototype international (DPi) regulations for the premier class. This allows manufacturers to choose a cutting-edge LMP2 chassis from one of four European manufacturers licensed to produce them, then top and tail it with their own bodywork and engine – much more creative than a simple spec formula, but a long way distant (and vastly more cost-effective) than the fascinating hybrid complexity of LMP1.

Cadillac was swift to embrace the new concept and its developmental head start told, its cars setting the pace from the start with Nissan, Multimatic/Riley, Oreca, Mazda et al squabbling for crumbs. A late caution flag might have guaranteed a tight run to the finish, but in truth the battle had been close from the off. This was not a typical Rolex 24, in that the ‘Sunshine State’ was anything but (the safety car was out for more than two hours during overnight rain, and the temperature could often be measured in single figures) and the final denouement was steeped in controversy.

In the hands of Filipe Albuquerque and the chasing Ricky Taylor, the leading Cadillacs touched at Turn One during the closing stages, the Portuguese driver spinning before rejoining to finish little more than half a second in arrears. “I would have felt a bit ashamed to win like that,” Albuquerque said. “In the Tour de France, when one guy falls the other riders wait. If a true racer makes a mistake like that, they should back off – not just drive away.”

Taylor’s response? “I think he saw me committing and closed the door. But if he knew I was doing that, why would you close the door and make us crash?”

The stewards concluded (very swiftly, as they had to with only a few minutes remaining) that Taylor had no case to answer, so he took the flag to share victory with brother Jordan, Max Angelelli and – a useful headline for promoter IMSA – Jeff Gordon, the quartet driving for the Taylor brothers’ father Wayne. It was a fitting farewell for Angelelli, a long-time Taylor associate who had decided, aged 50, that this was to be his final race. “Max and I won the 24 Hours together in 2005,” said Taylor W, “and now he’s done it with my kids, which is really, really special.”

Part of the vanquished crew alongside Albuquerque and João Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi was sanguine. “Was it a clean pass? I don’t know, but it’s definitely going to help sell tickets for next year.”

Perhaps so, but the race deserves that much for the overall quality of the show, not just Gordon’s celebrity status or the nature of the conclusion.

* * *

It wasn’t just the headline act that generated close finishes at Daytona. On Friday afternoon the meeting began with the opening round of the Continental SportsCar Challenge – a four-hour enduro embracing everything from Ford Mustangs to thoroughly modern MINIs.

With the pace-setting Mustangs striking trouble, the GT4-spec Porsche Caymans took the top four places overall (and in the Grand Sport division), Trent Hindman and Daytona neophyte Cameron Cassels surviving a time-consuming spin at the chicane before recovering to win by half a second.

Sometimes when you’re standing trackside, you need to do a double-take to make sure you’re not imagining things – and thus it was in the slower Street Tuner class. A MINI Cooper’s shoebox silhouette does not look terribly well suited to Daytona, but one of them compensated by looking eons quicker than everything else through the infield section and chicane (despite the opposition comprising assorted Porsche Caymans and BMW 328is, one of the latter shared by London Olympic swimming gold medallist Tyler Clary).

There is no PA at the far side of the circuit, so it’s tricky to keep track of progress, but returning to civilisation confirmed that one’s eyes weren’t being deceptive as the MINI of Derek Jones and Mat Pombo finished 1.5sec clear of three Caymans. “Ours isn’t the most ‘aero’ car for Daytona,” Jones said, “so this is a little unexpected.”

Perhaps so, but it was absolutely wonderful to behold.

Cold snap oversteer

Brands Hatch, January 21: ice-pick at the ready, there are Ford Escorts on the horizon…

The temperature gauge hinted at minus five and my Punto was more ice sculpture than Fiat, but that was no deterrent ahead of my first visit of the campaign to a traditional racetrack – albeit for a single-venue rally.

Chelmsford MC’s MGJ Winter Stages has become a regular fixture at Brands Hatch and moved this year from Sunday to Saturday, a decision that added an hour to the permitted running time and thus allowed a few more entries. Most of the 88 cars seemed to be have the word ‘Escort’ glued to their flanks, despite the Mk1 having been out of production for more than 40 years and the Mk2 for more than 35.

Which millennium is this again?

It was to be a troubled event for some of the fancied runners. Winner in 2016, the Peugeot 306 of Chris West/Harry Brown was swiftest on the opening stage, but then hit an unnecessarily solid course marker on the second. Parts of the route were lined with harmless plastic cones, but in between were slabs of what looked like nuclear-grade concrete – sufficient to swipe a corner from a slightly offline 306. The Escort of Ian Woodhouse/Paul Rowland didn’t get that far, pulling off to retire before it had reached the opening stage’s first right-hander. It wasn’t the best of days to be relegated to a spectating role, either. Early in the afternoon somebody mentioned that the temperature had picked up: perfectly true, it was by then two degrees.

Escorts took three of the top four places, with Paul Swift/Patrick Walsh defeating Martin Hodgson/Tony Jones by eight seconds, and the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus of Mike Taylor/Martin Haggett added a further retro flourish in fifth. Other desirable bygones included the Vauxhall Chevette of Steve Bowie/Steve Dear, the Autobianchi A112 Abarth of Alistair Oxley/Brian Commons (which sadly never made it to the start) and the original Mini of Alec & Mark Holding, while various low-budget hatchbacks delivered a sub-Escort spectacle but provided a valuable stepping stone that’s ever essential at this level.

Some cars were beautifully driven – throttle artistry being used to particularly good effect to negotiate the tight pitlane hairpin – while many others were absolutely all over the place.

It mattered not: it’s possible to have a good time without setting a good time.