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What a start to the year. The Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona kicked off the 2011 season in incredible style at the weekend. Chip Ganassi Racing’s ‘super team’ took the spoils with a one-two in their BMW-powered Rileys, but this was no steamroller performance. The race was only decided in the final lap in which we dared to hope that a small miracle could come true for a certain British pair making a racing comeback in Florida.
It’s been a long time since Martin Brundle last donned a crash helmet for a serious motor race – 10 years, to be precise. The 51-year-old needed little convincing by his old mate Mark Blundell to have a crack at the Rolex 24, a race he won 23 years ago with Jaguar.
For Mark too, it was a giant challenge. At 44, he’s younger than Brundle, but race driving has taken a back seat since his last Le Mans start in 2003. However after racing at the Spa 24 Hours last year in an Audi R8 GT3, Blundell accepted the challenge set by United Autosports boss Zak Brown to make his first start at Daytona.
The pair, joined by Brown and Mark Patterson, lined up in a Riley-Ford run on behalf of United Autosports by Michael Shank Racing. Their high profile meant a flurry of media interest, but the biggest pressure came from within. Both wanted to know: could they still do it?
The answer is emphatically yes. Brundle qualified a respectable ninth in what was a truly competitive field featuring Formula 1 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, Indycar ace champions Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, and NASCAR heroes – including the Sprint Cup’s greatest star Jimmie Johnson. In the race the British pair gradually moved up the field through the night. On Sunday morning, the white Riley had risen to third place and a podium – something they wouldn’t have dared to expect – was within reach.
Sadly, in the final two hours Brundle was powerless to avoid slipping down to fourth. But for these old friends, ex-F1 team-mates and Le Mans winners, it had still been an incredible performance. Brundle and Blundell leave Florida to return to their day jobs at the BBC and in driver management respectively with their heads held high.
The Daytona 24 Hours is a spectacle that is simply unforgettable for anyone lucky enough to witness it. The giant superspeedway looks spectacular as night falls, and the Grand-Am sports cars put on a terrific show. The stats give some insight: 52 lead changes among 12 cars, although the large number of NASCAR-style safety car periods play a large part in keeping the pack together. There were 23 in total, with 125 of the 720 laps run under yellow – including a caution period of nearly three hours early on Sunday morning because of heavy fog.
The final safety car was called right at the end as Sascha Maassen limped back to the pits with a broken right rear wheel, shedding bodywork on the way. It led to a one-lap shoot-out after 24 hours of hard racing. Scott Pruett in Ganassi’s 01 car kept the lead he’d only taken at the final pitstops, but behind him team-mate Scott Dixon withheld a last-ditch challenge from 2010 winner João Barbosa in the Action Express Riley-Porsche.
After a stellar 2010, this was a perfect start for Ganassi and Grand-Am’s pacesetters Pruett and Memo Rojas (above with Montoya). They were joined by team debutants, the impressive BMW ALMS racer Joey Hands and new Indycar signing Graham Rahal, who claimed a Rolex Daytona watch 30 years after his father Bobby’s win at the speedway
Back in the United Autosports motor home after the race, Brundle and Blundell were a little subdued. They’d been so close to an amazing podium, but as Martin said they had to be satisfied with the pace they’d shown. They’re getting on, but old pros don’t forget how to do it.
* You can read more on Brundle and Blundell’s Daytona campaign in the April issue of Motor Sport, on sale on Friday February 25.
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