Rolex 24 qualifying race could be a tug of war between drivers and teams over discretion

Sport

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The racing begins Sunday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and the battles on track could be as epic as the fights over the team radio.

For the first time in the history of the sports car endurance classic, a qualifying race will set the starting grid and also put points on the line toward the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship

NBC Sports analyst Townsend Bell, who won’t be racing Sunday but will be in the GTD class for the Rolex 24, said even though the risks still might not be worth the reward, it’ll be difficult for drivers to dial back the aggression despite “heavy governance from the timing stand.

“The Motul 100 only is awarding about 10% of points of the Rolex 24, but that doesn’t mean anyone is trying 90% less,” Bell said. “When drivers are being told to tune it back, we think in orders of 1, 2, or 3% less hard, not 90% less hard.

“It’s a fascinating contrast between the racer’s natural urge and tendency to fight tooth and nail for every position thinking every position and corner counts, and the big-picture intelligence from the timing stand, should hear a lot of interesting radio chatter.”

The Motul 100 (which will begin at 2 p.m. ET and be shown on tape delay at 4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) is somewhat a function of a scheduling quirk driven by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, moving the Roar before the Rolex 24 test session to directly lead into the main event and help teams with travel logistics and budget. The race also will allow IMSA officials to evaluate where teams’ performance and determine if any tweaks are needed.

But having a qualifying race to determine the starting order of a 24-hour race where starting position mostly is negligible also has raised some eyebrows.

Wayne Taylor, owner of the two-time defending Rolex 24 overall winning team, openly questioned the reason for the Motul 100’s existence during a Zoom news conference with reporters Wednesday.

Laurens Vanthoor, a former GTLM champion with Porsche Motorsport who is moving to GTD to race for Pfaff Motorsports said he initially wondered why the race was necessary. But then he thought of the opportunity for his relatively new team to practice pit stops, work on strategy and work its way into race shape.

“It’s not bad as a warmup,” Vanthoor said. “I know why IMSA wants to do this, but also for the teams, it’s a good warmup to see how we operate together. Maybe see some mistakes that we can prevent for the race. The goal is not to go crazy and crash into each other. I see it as a test race where the result is not that important. It’s more to learn and get better.”

Because it’s based in Canada, Pfaff Motorsports (which won last year’s GTD pole with a famous plaid paint scheme) missed much of the 2020 season because of travel restrictions.

Co-driver Zacharie Robichon said the Motul 100 is “an opportunity for us. We benefit more because of our lack of running. We have to be careful because it is so close (to the main event), but it’s a dress rehearsal, and we’ll use it as that.”

Action Express team manager Gary Nelson likes the concept of being able to try new parts in race conitions.

“We could start with some of our experimental parts and systems on the car and not be risking those in the 24-hour race,” Nelson said. “If the car outperforms the other cars with these new items, we could kind of check them off as that’s a good part. In road racing, or my whole life in racing, I’ve always got this list of things I want to try.”

For seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, the race will be a chance for reps behind the wheel with co-driver Kamui Kobayashi, who missed a December test.

It’ll also be an opportunity for teams to measure how cars react over the course of a full stint while drivers can evaluate setups in traffic and tire degradation.

“The key is to be smart and think about the big prize at the end of the day … and not get into any argy bargy,” NBC Sports analyst Calvin Fish said. “But when the door closes a lot of times for race car drivers, those thoughts go straight out the window.

“So it’s going to take a lot of discipline from team managers to hone in with the drivers and make sure they don’t get too excited even though it’s the opening race of the season.”