Friday, January 23, 2015

2015 24 Hours of Daytona Favorites, Challengers and Sleepers

The grid is set and final practice in the books for the 53rd 24 Hours of Daytona. Each team has had plenty of time on track to prepare for the twice-around-the-clock classic and in less than 24 hours, 53 teams will take the green flag for the start of the 2015 IMSA United SportsCar Championship.

After four practice session and qualifying, we will look at the favorite in each class and a sleeper for victory. We will start in Prototypes, work our way to GTLM before finishing with Prototype Challenge and GTD.

Favorite: #60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2-Honda
The Shank Ligier-Honda has been on top of every session and I am completely stunned. Considering the beat down LMP2 cars experienced in 2014 with Daytona Prototypes winning nine of eleven races, I was expecting more of the same in 2015 as Shank on the Speedsource Mazdas are the only full-time LMP2 entries. However, Oswaldo Negri took pole position on Thursday with a 1:39.194 seconds, over a tenth faster than Scott Dixon in the #02 Ganassi Racing Ford-Riley. They were fastest in all four practice session by margins of 1.115 seconds, 0.642 seconds, 0.787 seconds and 0.327 seconds. All signs point to the #60 Shank Ligier-Honda standing on top of the podium at 2:10 p.m. Sunday, the teams second victory at Daytona. Negri, John Pew and A.J. Allmendinger were each part of Shank's victory in 2012 while the 17-year old Matt McMurry would surely break the record for youngest winner in the history of the 24 Hours of Daytona.

Challengers: #01 and #02 Ganassi Ford Rileys, #5 Action Express Racing Corvette DP
Ganassi is always a challenger at Daytona having won six of the last nine runnings of the 24 Hours of Daytona. The #02 "All-Star" Ford-Riley of Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray topped the #01 of Scott Pruett, Joey Hand, Charlie Kimball and Sage Karam as they will start second and third. A victory for Pruett would give him a record-setting sixth 24 Hours of Daytona victory while his teammates Hand and Kimball would each get their second while Sage Karam would become the youngest winner in the history of the 24 Hours of Daytona at 19 years old. Dixon is looking for his second Daytona victory while he three co-drivers would all get their first.

The #5 Action Express Corvette DP of Christian Fittipaldi, João Barbosa and Sébastien Bourdais are looking for their second consecutive 24 Hours of Daytona triumph. They were second in the first three practice sessions to the #60 Shank Ligier but will start fourth in the race. The defending IMSA champions Fittipaldi and Barbosa are each going for their third Daytona victory, Bourdais his second.

Sleepers: #90 Spirit of Daytona Corvette DP, #57 Krohn Racing Ligier-Judd, #7 Starworks BMW-Riley
The Spirit of Daytona trio of Richard Westbrook, Michael Valiante and Mike Rockenfeller will start tenth but look out for them. They finished fourth last year and has been in the top ten in every session. Rockenfeller won the 2010 24 Hours of Daytona for Action Express with João Barbosa, Ryan Dalziel and Terry Borcheller as his teammates. Valiante has made a great career in sports cars but is lacking that big victory on his résumé.

Krohn Racing will be running the European Le Mans Series full-time in 2015 but start at Daytona and will start sixth. Just like Shank, Krohn has showed the strength of the Ligier but with a Judd engine as sixth has been their worst finish in a practice session. Regulars Tracy Krohn and Nic Jönsson are joined by Alex Brundle and Olivier Pla, the two drivers who had a great year with OAK Racing in 2014.

Starworks has put together an all-star line-up with Indianapolis 500 winner and IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, Porsche factory driver Brendon Hartley, Formula One ironman and Stock Car Brasil champion Rubens Barrichello, Tor Graves and Scott Mayer. They start eighth but were in the top five in each of the final two practice sessions.

Keep an eye on the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Corvette DP. They did not get on track for final practice and will start seventh. The #0 DeltaWing starts a surprising fifth but this will be a real test of reliability for the team in their second Daytona appearance.

Favorite: #4 Corvette
Corvette has been impressive on speed as everyone the Porsches appeared set to dominate Daytona for the second consecutive year at the Roar. However, the three Porsches start in the final three positions in class and Oliver Gavin won pole by over three-tenths of a second over the #51 AF Corse Ferrari. Le Mans class winner Tommy Milner and IndyCar's Simon Pagenaud round out a pretty stout driver line-up as Corvette looks to start 2015 much better than last year when both cars failed to be contending at the finish.

Challengers: #51 AF Corse Ferrari, #98 Aston Martin, #3 Corvette
The #51 AF Corse was fastest in two of four practice sessions and features the defending GT world champions Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander, 2005 24 Hours of Daytona winner Emmanuel Collard  and François Perrodo. They have been the quicker than their full-time North American Risi Competizione counterparts in every session but final practice. The talent and speed is there for the Italian team to steal a victory from the full-time IMSA teams.

Speaking of having the talent and speed to steal victory away in a cameo, the #98 Aston Martin Vantage V8 has a stacked line-up with FIA World Endurance Championship race winners Pedro Lamy, Paul Dalla Lana, Darren Turner and Stefan Mücke being joined by newest addition to Aston Martin Racing Matthias Lauda rounding out the five-headed British monster. They start third.

If the #4 Corvette is the favorite, you have to bet the #3 Corvette could also end up on top of GTLM. Jan Magnussen and Antonio García won four races last year but failed to finish on the class podium outside of those four victories. The Dane and Spaniard will be joined by Ryan Briscoe, who was their third driver for all the North American Endurance Cup events except Watkins Glen.

Sleeper: #17 Team Falken Tires Porsche
Despite starting ninth out of ten in GTLM, the #17 Team Falken Tires Porsche shows up for the endurance races. They have won back-to-back Petit Le Mans and Wolf Henzler and Bryan Sellers will be joined by Patrick Long. If there is one team to put your money on to beat all odds, it's Team Falken Tires.

Prototype Challenge
Favorite: #54 CORE Autosport
CORE Autosport dominated the 2014 season as Colin Braun and Jon Bennett cruised to the championship, winning three of four NAEC races including Daytona. They were fastest until qualifying when they were beat by the #16 BAR1 Motorsports Oreca for pole position but starting second is not that bad. Mark Wilkins and James Gue are back alongside Braun and Bennett after last year's victory.

Challengers: #16 BAR1 Motorsports, #11 RSR Racing
The #16 BAR1 Motorsports Oreca is on pole position after Johnny Mowlem put down an exceptional lap. Tom Papadopoulos will join Mowlem as full-time drivers in the #16. They are joined by FIA WEC LMP2 world champion Martin Plowman, Trans-Am champion Tomy Drissi and Brian Alder.

RSR Racing quartet of Chris Cumming, Bruno Junqueira, Jack Hawksworth and Gustavo Menezes will start seventh but were fastest in the final two practice sessions. Cumming and Hawksworth won at Indianapolis last year.

Sleeper: #52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports
They start third and have been in the top three in three of the four practice sessions. The 2013 ALMS PC champion Mike Guasch and Andrew Novich are joined by Pirelli World Challenge race winner Andrew Palmer and three-time Le Mans class winner Tom Kimber-Smith.

Favorite: #33 Riley Technology Dodge Viper SRT
Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating won twice in 2014 driving the Riley Viper and have been constantly at the top of GTD in practice and were on top at the Roar earlier in the month. They are joined by Belgian sports car veteran Marc Goosens, Al Carter and Sebastiaan Bleekemolen.

Challengers: #93 Riley Technology Dodge Viper SRT, #007 TRG-AMR Aston Martin, #44 Magnus Racing Porsche
The #33's sister car was second in the test and that driver line-up is just as impressive as the #33. Keating and Carter are also entered in the #93 alongside former Viper GTLM teammates Dominik Farnbacher and Kuno Wittmer as well as Cameron Lawrence.

The #007 TRG-AMR Aston Martin starts on pole after James Davison laid down a surprising lap to take pole position form the #33 Viper. He will be joined by Christian Nielsen, FIA WEC race winner Christoffer Nygaard and Brandon Davis.

Magnus Racing won the 2012 24 Hours of Daytona GT class with Andy Lally and John Potter and will be joined by Marco Seefried and Martin Ragginger. The #44 Porsche was in the top five in three of four practices but will start eighth in class.

Sleeper: #58 Wright Motorsports Porsche, #22 Alex Job Racing Porsche
The Brumos Racing-livery Porsche of Wright Motorsports will start fourth and was second fastest in two of four session. Madison Snow and Jan Heylen finished third last year at Daytona and finished second at Petit Le Mans last year. They will be joined by Patrick Dempsey and Phillip Eng.

Alex Job Racing features talented IMSA drivers Cooper MacNeil, Leh Keen, Andrew Davis and V8 Supercars' Shane Van Gisbergen. MacNeil and Keen finished third last year in the championship. Keen and Davis finished third in GT in the 2012 24 Hours of Daytona driving for Brumos Racing Porsche.