In the seemingly unending boom of SRO and FIA’s GT3 formula over the last decade, perhaps the most unheralded addition is that of the Rolex 24 at Daytona to the list of major endurance races in which the popular category is eligible.

Without question, the day-long enduro demands some of the trickiest strategy coupled with traffic management and, in the final hours, outright speed. In 2018, a modest grid of 21 entries representing eight manufacturers will battle for GT Daytona honors. This represents a slight reduction in entries from last year, but certainly makes the battle for the win no less challenging.

During last season, IMSA announced the enforcement of customer-only teams in GT Daytona in 2018, as had always been the intent of the category. Recall that 3GT Racing with Lexus and Michael Shank Racing with Acura had operated as de facto works teams with nearly all-professional lineups.

This, at least in theory, should level the playing field and allow gentlemen drivers to match against each other with some driver support from their manufacturers. How “customer” will GTD’s teams truly be this year, however? That remains to be seen. In the meantime, enjoy a car-by-car rundown of the 2018 GT Daytona class for the 56th annual Rolex 24 at Daytona.

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📷 MSR

Acura

Perhaps the most significant manufacturer-backed team in 2017, Acura will actually see an increase in grid presence at Daytona this year. In addition to two returning NSX GT3’s from Michael Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian, an additional customer entry comes from Ohio-based Honda of America Racing Team, or HART. The NSX program improved steadily throughout 2017 and followers can expect more of the same form that brought success last year.

Michael Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian – #86 & #93

For a team that no longer operates as a works organization, you would probably not recognize it based on the driver lineups. Beginning with the #86, friend of MSR AJ Allmendinger joins Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge standout Trent Hindman plus Katherine Legge and Alvaro Parente. Spot the customer driver!

Opinions on the validity of the lineup aside, this is a seriously rapid crew – Alvaro Parente especially is one of the world’s fastest GT3 drivers. The Acura has proven itself over race distances regularly over the last year – expect big things from the #86. (Roar Qualifying – 1:47.605 / P4)

The #93 NSX sees “customer driver” Justin Marks join McLaren factory driver Côme Ledogar, Lawson Aschenbach, and Mario Farnbacher. While perhaps not the star-studded lineup the sister car boasts, the #93 does bring familiarity and consistency particularly with Marks and Aschenbach.

Farnbacher, too, brings a history of Rolex 24 starts to pair with Ledogar’s rapid pace. A sleeper entry, perhaps, but with MSR backing it would be tough to see the car out of contention. (Roar Qualifying – 1:47.905 – P12)

Honda of America Racing Team (HART) – #69

If IMSA wanted a customer entry to represent Acura, this would be the one. Gentleman driver John Falb has once again appeared with his seriously quick driving partner Sean Rayhall for an Endurance Cup campaign to be joined by Chad Gilsinger and fan-favorite Ryan Eversley.

Despite the privateer status, Ryan Eversley put the car fifth in Roar Before the 24 qualifying, less than a tenth of a second behind the #86 MSR car. If we’re comparing the bronze and silver ranked drivers, Falb brings experience and consistency backed by his 2017 European Le Mans Series LMP3 championship. It will take that sort of consistency for success for the HART team, but this is undoubtedly a top-10 car. (Roar Qualifying – 1:47.665 – P5)

📷 Audi

Audi

If there are strength in numbers, it might be easy to overlook the pair of Audi R8 LMS GT3’s entered in this year’s Rolex 24. Arguably the strongest endurance racing brand of the last two decades, the four rings are represented by a single domestic entry from Magnus Racing and a returning international entry from Land Motorsport.

Montaplast by Land Motorsport – #29

Last year’s second place finisher has returned for a full season effort in 2018, highlighted by an all-out attempt to win the GTD class at the Rolex 24. Jeffrey Schmidt and Christopher Mies return to the driving seat alongside Nurburgring 24 winner Kelvin van der Linde and younger brother Sheldon van der Linde.

The brothers from South Africa have proven to be seriously valuable over the last year, bringing home wins at a the dramatic Nurburgring 24 Hours and the Petit Le Mans to close out the IMSA season. This is a squad tough to bet against, and in the writer’s estimation, is the likely favorite for victory. (Roar Qualifying – 1:47.765 – P8)

Magnus Racing – #44

To the fan’s benefit, the ever-entertaining Magnus Racing squad backed by John Potter returns to the WeatherTech Sportscar Championship after a year’s hiatus competing in Pirelli World Challenge. Andy Lally will once again partner with Potter after a stint with Acura and the pair will be joined by the rapid Andrew Davis and Audi factory-backed driver Markus Winkelhock.

In a class defined by gentleman drivers, Potter brings experience in the form of Rolex 24 victories in 2012 and 2016. This is an all-around stout lineup which poses a real threat for a podium finish despite the time away from endurance racing. (Roar Qualifying – 1:47.436 – P2)

📷 Liqui Moly

BMW

Turner Motorsport – #96

Mark Kvamme and Don Yount have managed to breathe life back into Turner Motorsport’s GTD campaign once again. Always popular with the crowds, Will Turner’s team are BMW’s only representatives in GTD and as such have been loaned Jens Klingmann and Martin Tomczyk.

While the BMW M6 GT3 has starred in major international endurance races, without major factory support the Turner squad has underperformed somewhat. They will certainly be buoyed by the pace of Klingmann and Tomczyk, but the team will need reliability on their side as well as decent pace from Yount and Kvamme to retain a chance at a top-10 finish. (Roar Qualifying – 1:48.354 – P18)

📷 Risi

Ferrari

The Prancing Horse returns to the Rolex 24 absent one of its most prolific WeatherTech Sportscar Championship entries, that being Christina Nielsen’s two time championship-winning Scuderia Corsa team. While Nielsen has moved on, the car itself returns backed by Cooper MacNeil’s WeatherTech sponsorship alongside a trio of other 488 GT3’s including some seriously high-profile entries.

The most recent iteration of the GT3-spec Ferrari is a seriously quick car, coming within hours of a dominant Spa 24 Hour victory in 2017 and posing a serious threat for victory at this year’s IMSA season opener.

Spirit of Race – #51

If the lineup of the Northwest-sponsored seems like a squad of Aston Martin refugees, it’s because it is. Pedro Lamy, Mathias Lauda, and Daniel Serra find themselves sharing a car once again with former Aston Martin customer Paul Dalla Lana. While Dalla Lana is hardly the category’s most impressive amateur driver, he is joined by a squad that boasts both serious experience and serious talent.

Success for the Spirit of Race 488 will depend almost entirely on Dalla Lana’s ability to keep the car clean. If he does, all the keys are there for a top-10 finish come Sunday morning. (Roar Qualifying – 1:47.988 – P14)

Scuderia Corsa – #63 & #64

Two-time defending GTD champions Scuderia Corsa return without the backing of driving champion Christina Nielsen this year who was displaced by the #63 current gentleman driver, Cooper MacNeil. Bringing WeatherTech backing to the third manufacturer since mid-2017, this is likely MacNeil’s best chance at a result.

The Ferrari is one of the quickest cars, Scuderia Corsa one of the most professional teams, and Jeff Segal and Gunnar Jeannette join the beyond-rapid Alessandro Balzan in the white-and-black 488. That said, Cooper will still need to do his share of the driving up against real strength in GTD – a result is possible but by no means guaranteed. (Roar Qualifying – 1:47.726 – P7)

The sister #64 car sees Bill Sweedler and Frank Montecalvo paired with Townsend Bell and Sam Bird, on loan from the Ferrari factory. While perhaps not as impressive on paper as the WeatherTech backed car, this is a squad with no weak links. If there is one race where consistency has the most value, Daytona is it. This is certainly a top-10 car, all things being equal. (Roar Qualifying – 1:48.042 – P15

Risi Competizione – #82

GTLM Ferrari regulars Risi Competizione have fielded a singular GTD entry for the 2018 Rolex 24 made up almost entirely of Mexican gentlemen drivers. Ricardo Perez de Lara, Martin Fuentes, and Santiago Creel make up the backbone of the behind-the-wheel crew, all three with bronze driver rankings.

On the professional side, Miguel Molina joins Ferrari stalwart Matt Griffin for one of the few five-driver lineups this year. While consistent pace is not expected, a clean run could be on the cards which would almost certainly guarantee a meaningful result. (Roar Qualifying – 1:47.814 – P10)

📷 GRT Grasser

Lamborghini

There is no manufacturer in modern sports car racing that has boasted outright pace on a weekly basis while so consistently failing to deliver reliability like Lamborghini has – except, perhaps, late-2000’s Peugeot.

The Huracan GT3 put the Italian brand on the map a few short years ago in the GT3 market, delivering a race win the first time out in the Blancpain Endurance Series, and then falling apart almost any time it was asked to go longer than three hours. Spontaneous combustion is not an unusual event, unfortunately.

That having been said, the car made it 75% of the way to a race win in last year’s Spa 24 Hours and finished third in the Dubai 24 Hours in January. Have they shaken their reliability woes? One would suspect not, but perhaps their time has come.

GRT Grasser Racing Team – #11 & #19

Again a de facto works represented team, GRT brings Lamborghini expertise to the flat-out sprint that is the Rolex 24. The Huracan GT3, too, is a flat-out sprint kind of car. The #11 in particular hosts Mirko Bortolotti, Rolf Ineichen, Franck Perera, and Rik Breukers.

The car topped the time sheets in Roar Before the 24 Qualifying and it would be tough to see where a team like that might let their chances for a win down. Close racing is exciting, but this car leading in the final few hours would deliver real tension. This is arguably Lamborghini’s best chance at a major endurance victory. (Roar Qualifying – 1:47.374 – P1)

The sister #19 car, meanwhile, is a clear customer entry with driving talents including Ezequiel Perez Companc, Max van Splunteren, Christopher Lenz, and Louis Michaels. Lamborghini has providing support in the form of Christian Engelhart.

While again not the model of outright speed, perhaps a more conservative run could provide the type of run the Huracan requires in order to finish with a clean race. (Roar Qualifying – 1:47.778 – P9)

Paul Miller Racing – #48

Now the only Lamborghini left in IMSA WeatherTech competition full time, Madison Snow and Bryce Miller join Bryan Sellers and Andrea Caldarelli for an attempt at Rolex 24 glory. While GRT may be the factory-blessed team, this #48 boasts familiarity and comfort with IMSA rules and strategy.

That (and a seriously talented driving team) may well be the edge that gives this squad and Lamborghini as a whole the best possible chance for victory. (Roar Qualifying – No Time)

📷 3GT

Lexus

Like Acura, the Lexus teams leave some question marks as to their actual “customer” status. 3GT racing, which campaigned two factory cars last year on Lexus’ behalf, returns with the same two cars and the same stacked driver lineups.

After a full year of development, the Lexus RC F GT3 showed regular pace last year and both driver lineups represent some of the most consistency anywhere in the GTD field.

3GT Racing – #14 & #15

The #14’s “customer” status comes with Philipp Frommenwiler, a silver-ranked driver who campaigned an RC F in last year’s International GT Open. Kyle Marcelli joins the team as a so-called “super silver,” a professional by any other metric – certainly by pace.

Dominik Baumann and Bruno Junqueira add to the driving strength and if the reliability is as advertised, this car is in with a chance for a top-5 on Sunday morning. (Roar Qualifying – 1:48.094 – P16)

The most remarkable thing about that lineup, however, is that the sister #15 is the arguably stronger car. David Heinemeier Hansson makes his IMSA return with Paul Gentilozzi’s team and will be supported by Jack Hawksworth, Dominik Farnbacher, and silver driver (by result of his age) Scott Pruett.

Pruett has announced his retirement from racing following the 2018 Rolex 24 and there is no reason he can’t go out with a victory, given the team surrounding him. Anything less than a victory would be a disappointment, both for the team and for those who know the strength of this total package. (Roar Qualifying – 1:47.691 – P6)

📷 Mercedes

Mercedes-AMG

While the Mercedes AMG GT3 has gone from strength to strength in European GT3 endurance racing, it has yet to show the same regular form in the United States. While some would argue that the balance of performance does not suit American circuits, the leading (and this year, only) Riley-fielded car did manage a third in GTD during last year’s Daytona. Is improvement on that result a possibility?

Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports #33

Realistically, this is the only chance for a Mercedes victory at Daytona. The ever-stable Ben Keating joins longtime partner Jeroen Bleekemolen, Adam Christodoulou, and rapid German Luca Stolz.

Any significant time loss for this car off-track would come as a shock to most, especially given the car’s reliability since its debut as the second-generation Mercedes GT3 car. Anything less than a podium would likely come as a disappointment. (Roar Qualifying – 1:47.886 – P11)

P1 Motorsports – #71

A group of four silver-rated drivers make the second Mercedes effort a customer one, no doubt led by rapid young driver Kenton Koch. He will be joined by Robby Foley, Loris Spinelli, and JC Perez.

While perhaps not the stacked lineup brought by the #33 Riley team, Koch will certainly have a role to play if there is a result to be found. Like any endurance race, it demands a clean run – race day will tell what the P1 squad has to offer. (Roar Qualifying – 1:49.287 – P19)

SunEnergy1 Racing – #75

Another true customer team, Kenny Habul and Mikael Grenier bring the demand for the car, while Mercedes has supplied factory drivers Thomas Jaeger and Maro Engel to boost the team’s chances.

While Habul has been less than impressive since debuting in IMSA competition, a level-headed approach combined with Jaeger’s and Engel’s efforts would leave a chance for a top-10. Don’t expect much, but the opportunity is certainly there. (Roar Qualifying – 1:47.912 – P13)

📷 Porsche

Porsche

Last but not least is the ever-present rear-engined Porsche 911 GT3R. The brand are returning champions of the Rolex 24 and despite the absence of the winning team, they are represented by three extremely strong customer lineups. If you had to pick a manufacturer that has the strongest driving crews and supporting teams, Porsche would certainly be that choice.

Wright Motorsports – #58

A surprise entrant from the Pirelli World Challenge ranks, Wright Motorsports plays host to the two-time defending GTD champion Christina Nielsen. Paired with none other than Patrick Long, they are joined by 24H Series stalwart Robert Renauer and the massively underrated Mathieu Jaminet. Porsche appear to have thrown their full support in GTD behind this car, and it’s easy to see why. Wright Motorsports are a capable team and victory must certainly be the goal, perhaps the expectation. (Roar Qualifying – 1:47.481 – P3)

Manthey Racing – #59

Returning European entrant Manthey Racing brings a true customer effort including bronze-ranked Steve Smith and Randy Walls, silver-ranked Harald Proczyk, and professionals Sven Muller and Matteo Cairoli. While this is certainly an effort to allow the team to come enjoy the challenge of Daytona, Manthey are perhaps the world’s best 24 hour racing team – especially when strategy is involved. They may not necessarily be a factor for a win, but they won’t be hanging around the back of the field. (Roar Qualifying – No Time)

Park Place Motorsports – #73

Former Black Swan Racing owner Tim Pappas joins Patrick Lindsey as gentlemen drivers in the third Porsche 911. While both bring experience, Norbert Siedler and Jorg Bergmeister bring the pace and aggression that will almost certainly keep this car in the fight for a class podium. (Roar Qualifying – 1:48.142 – P17)

theRACINGLINE.net Comment

Like so many modern endurance races, the Rolex 24 at Daytona has become an all-out sprint that demands near perfection throughout. There are few opportunities – especially in a class as well-balanced as GTD – to break away from the pack or to capitalize on pure luck. When you break it down, the race is about 21 hours of reliable, smart driving followed by 3 hours of raw speed, which creates three key elements for victory.

First, a level-headed, experienced silver or bronze driver. With reliability being nearly a non-factor in current GT racing, the amateur drivers will make virtually all the difference in keeping the car in contention through late morning on Sunday. Those with experience in endurance racing almost always rise to the fore as time goes on, and there are a handful whose talents give them a significant edge. We’d suggest David Heinemeier Hansson, Christina Nielsen, Trent Hindman, Madison Snow, and John Potter as just a few of those who have proven their value over the years in endurance races – watch their cars in particular.

Second, when the race starts to pick up in intensity with around 3 hours to go, the successful GTD team needs a driver with speed in traffic and a car up to the task of being pushed for a few hours consecutively. There is no shortage of professional drivers in the category and ultimately the race will be left in their hands come Sunday morning. It will be one of the joys of our sport to be able to watch them compete for victory head-to-head after an already long day of racing.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it takes strategy and the ability to capitalize on opportunities. For two years in a row, the Rolex 24’s GT Daytona class has been won on strategy – Alegra Motorsports outlasted Land Motorsport last year and fuel strategy brought Magnus Racing the win in 2016. The ability to make up lost laps during yellows and timing your amateur driver’s stints properly are two huge elements, certainly ones that determine who is in contention when the clock ticks down to the last few hours.

The above in mind, who heads into the event in the best position? From our perspective, it’s hard to count out any of the professional lineups. Wright Motorsports’ #58 Porsche, Michael Shank’s #86 Acura, 3GT’s #15 Lexus, and Land Motorsports’ #29 Audi are all incredibly strong cars. Additionally, the #11 GRT Lamborghini boasts incredible lap speed, and the #44 Magnus Racing Audi R8 brings huge experience and an awful lot of pace.

Ultimately, the 2018 GT Daytona class brings plenty of driving talent to the table backed by experience and seriously clever teams. Every team in the class, though, has some weakness and success will come to the team that bounces back from those consequences and plays to their strengths. GTD holds some of the most intrigue and unpredictability in this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona. Tune in Saturday, January 27 to watch it all unfold!

Voice of Endurance Radio and WRL Live. Sportscar and endurance racing nut.