There was no lack of heartbreak at this year's Daytona 24. Sure, that's true of every endurance race, but this year was especially challenging.
Alex Zanardi, undoubtedly the hero of the race, and his #24 BMW team suffered a freak accident where the electronic connector pins in the steering column broke as he was fitting his special steering wheel and strapping in for his first stint. The steering column had to be replaced in the garage and as a result of that and other, smaller, issues, the #24 M8 never recovered.
Disaster hit Corvette Racing when its two cars bumped into each other in the pits, sending the #3 car behind the wall for repairs. It recovered and eventually came to lead GTLM, before a fueling issue reared its ugly head overnight.
After breaking a 26-year course record, Mazda started on pole with high hopes after years of running in the top class at Daytona without a single finish to show for it. Both of the team's cars ran into mechanical trouble within 10 minutes of one another, retiring the #77, and putting the #55 many laps down before it was forced to retire a few hours later.
Shortly after, I popped into the media center just as a full-course caution was called. An IMSA spokesperson noted that this was the fifth of the race while last year there were only four total. It was only around eight hours in.
Then it rained.
Apparently the conditions were the worst many had ever seen at the track. . A little after 6:00 AM, the #4 Corvette hydroplaned into a tire wall, forcing the 11th full-course caution. The race stayed under yellow for a little over an hour before it was red-flagged. All the cars parked on pit lane for an hour and forty-five minutes.
When the race finally went green again, it was for less than a single lap. The #9 Porsche and the #46 and #48 Lamborghinis collided, and while the #48 got away, the other two were stuck on a flooded infield. A heroic rescue effort got both off the track, but the tone for the rest of the race was set.
It was an hour and forty minutes before the green flag waved again, but it was only for around 10 minutes. Standing water all over the track made hydroplaning an inevitability, with even some of the best drivers on the grid spinning. The race only went back to green for a few minutes at a time in treacherous conditions. At one point the #63 Ferrari slammed into the back of #540 Porsche before the Bus Stop because visibility was almost zero. The onboard footage is harrowing.
A number of GTD cars saw their chances evaporate seemingly through chance, and a extremely poorly timed pitstop for the #67 Ford ceded its lead in GTLM. Driver as a "kick in the teeth."
Fernando Alonso, part of the winning #10 Cadillac team, even saw the safety car have a big moment at one point. , he wasn't happy to be out there, even though his brilliant driving put his Cadillac on the top step:
I called a lot of times when I was second, over the radio, that [the] safety car was necessary. I think the last five, seven laps of the race, were not, I think, right. For anyone …because the visibility was nearly zero, we could not be flat out on the straights. The car was moving, the [traction control] was coming in 6th gear, [at] 200 miles per hour. There were parts of different cars in different points of the track because people were losing the bodywork here and there. And I was calling the team for a safety car immediately because I could not see anything.
For the first time in Daytona 24 history, the race was red flagged again. The cars parked on pit lane at 12:45, then that was it. The race directors decided to call it at 2:25, 10 minutes shy of 24 hours.
But when the race was going, man, was it brilliant. In every category there was unbelievably close racing. Mazda was stunningly fast in a way the team hasn't yet been in the IMSA DPi era. But at various points Acura and Cadillac led the way in DPi, and even the sole Nissan entry, the #54 car ran by Core Autosport, had a decent chance of overall victory.
In GTLM, the battles between Corvette and Porsche were extraordinary to witness, as the two best-sounding cars on the grid ran neck and neck for lap after lap. Ford was fast as ever, while the sole Ferrari in GTLM, the #62, put on a damn impressive performance too. And while the #24 BMW suffered early heartbreak, the #25 redeemed the M8 GTE after a far-less-than-stellar debut last year, where its fate was sealed by Balance of Performance. The big M8 pulled off a win that served as tribute to longtime BMW Team Schnitzer boss Charly Lamm, .
It was hard to keep up with GTD, which features a huge grid filled with beautiful cars from Audi, Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Acura, Lexus and a sole BMW. Even after midnight, there were 14 (!) cars on the lead lap from a 23-car grid. At various points, cars from all the automakers except BMW led the field, and the #33 Mercedes-AMG GT3 put up an especially strong fight as did the #29 Audi, but both spun in the rain. At the end of the day, it was the #11 Lamborghini—the defending GTD Rolex 24 champ—that emerged the winner.
While IMSA's decision to go racing multiple times in the deluge is , the close racing in DPi, GTLM, and GTD shows that the series managed Balance of Performance well.
And there was Alonso. You could argue that he received an unfair share of attention in a field of drivers overflowing with greatness, but man, he was fast. His stunning drive from ninth to first during his first stint proves that, when he's got good equipment, he's still one of the best racers in the world. For his fans who became all too accustomed to seeing him struggle in F1, this had to be a welcome change of pace. With excellent drives from teammates Renger Van Der Zande, Kamui Kobayashi and Jordan Taylor—who was excellent in the rain—the #10's victory was well-earned even in a shortened race.
As , there were only 13 hours and 41 minutes of green-flag racing this year, and that says a lot. But, what racing did happen was damn exciting, and it points to a great IMSA WeatherTech season to come, and a great Rolex 24 next year. We'll just pray for a little less rain.