theRACINGLINE.net’s 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona previews conclude, fittingly, with the class at the very top of the field. The Prototype category took its modern form just last year with the introduction of DPi – Daytona Prototype International – to pair along with the ACO-spec LMP2 cars eligible overseas. The formula was a huge success in 2017, and all of the manufacturers have re-entered this year with the significant addition of Acura Team Penske.

This ultimately leaves three true factory efforts – Acura, Cadillac, and Mazda – paired with a “customer” DPi effort from Nissan and Extreme Speed Motorsports, never mind the additional ten LMP2 entries. The Prototype field in 2018 totals twenty cars including some big – no, massive – names, all of whom will do battle for outright victory at the Rolex 24.

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Acura

The formal announcement that Acura would be joining the list of IMSA Prototype OEM’s was quite possibly the worst kept secret in modern sports car racing. With that said, if you’re going to do it, do it right, and they certainly have. Team Penske fields a two-car effort on Acura’s behalf with some of the best talent across sportscars and Indycar. Underneath the bespoke manufacturer-styled bodywork is the popular ORECA 07 chassis, paired with a 3.5L twin-turbo V6 engine. The team impressed with an LMP2-spec ORECA at last year’s Petit Le Mans and will undoubtedly carry that momentum into the Rolex 24.

Acura Team Penske – #6

While it would be hard to call either car favored over the other, the #6 hosts three experienced sportscar drivers including one of the current revelations. Penske hired IMSA standout Dane Cameron for 2018 to pair with 2016 Indycar champion Simon Pagenaud and the ever-rapid, ever-aggressive Juan Pablo Montoya. It’s hard to see a weak link here. Driving talent? Check. Penske strategy? Check. An ORECA chassis with a proven engine? Check. There were quicker cars at the Roar Before the 24 test, but all of the elements are there to make this combination a winning one over 24 hours. (Roar Qualifying – 1:36.988 – P5)

Acura Team Penske #7

The second car boasts Ricky Taylor as the returning sportscar ace, moving away from a General Motors-backed entry for the first time since his early career. For the full season, he will pair with Indycar ace Helio Castroneves while Graham Rahal joins them for the Rolex 24. Much like Ganassi in GTLM, Roger Penske has no barriers when it comes to choosing the best available talent and there are no reasons this team can’t perform. All things being equal, the #6 is likely the stronger car. But then, things are rarely equal. (Roar Qualifying – 1:37.231 – P6)

Photo: AXR

Cadillac

The Cadillac story since the kickoff of DPi at the start of last season has been a somewhat exhausting one. With three full-time entries last year, the Dallara chassis ran away with both the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the season championship, the 6.2L V8 engine delivering a significant torque advantage despite the best efforts of IMSA’s Balance of Performance. It seemed like the Cadillacs were being reigned in on a regular basis to ensure parity, yet a victory from one of the three factory-backed cars seemed inevitable.

On fairly short notice before the start of the season, it was announced that the Cadillacs would move to a 5.5L V8, allegedly in an effort to help IMSA maintain that parity by removing some of the massive torque. While it will certainly help, it brings all four factory teams to the biggest race of the year with an engine that has not yet been properly balanced and showed last year’s advantage at the Roar test all over again – over a second per lap in qualifying. While some credit is certainly due to the teams, one hopes that the slight adjustments made to the Cadillac’s restrictors are enough to ensure a battle on even terms at the WeatherTech Sportscar Championship’s crown jewel event.

Action Express – Mustang Sampling Racing – #5

Less than ten minutes from victory last year, this team made contact with the eventual winning Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac and was forced to settle for second. In 2018, the team returns with Action Express regulars Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa, joined by the impressive Filipe Albuquerque. Much like the other Cadillacs, this car heads into the race with a potential pace advantage and this team has all the resources to capitalize and avenge the last-minute loss in 2017. (Roar Qualifying – 1:36.135 – P3)

Action Express – Whelen Engineering Racing – #31

The sister car to the above, the #31 has impressed on a weekly basis for what seems like half a decade. Unfortunately, a lot of that has been thanks to the services of Dane Cameron who has since moved on to a drive with Acura Team Penske. With that said, if you’re going to fill the shoes of your quickest driver, ex-Formula 1 driver Felipe Nasr isn’t a bad option. Nasr joins Mike Conway, Eric Curran, and Sunoco Challenge winner Stuart Middleton – also last year’s British GT4 champion. While there are perhaps a few more question marks over this car, Nasr and Conway keep the potential of this car very high indeed. (Roar Qualifying – 1:35.806 – P1)

Wayne Taylor Racing – #10

With Ricky Taylor having left his father’s program for a Penske drive in 2018, last year’s champions needed to find a suitable replacement to pair with brother Jordan Taylor. They seem to have done exactly that, having hired rapid Dutchman Renger van der Zande from Spirit of Daytona Racing. While Renger is a newcomer to the WTR squad, he has impressed consistently in IMSA competition and was arguably the best possible partner for Taylor. For the Rolex 24, the duo is joined by Ryan Hunter-Reay who competed for the team at last year’s Petit Le Mans. In a season that brings pretty significant change to WTR, they must still be considered favorites for a repeat Rolex victory. (Roar Qualifying – 1:36.481 – P4)

Spirit of Daytona Racing – #90

The artist formerly known as Visit Florida Racing returns to its original name in the wake of a sponsorship change. Fortunately, they’ve also been handed a manufacturer change, moving from the global LMP2-spec last year to a factory Cadillac DPi. With the loss of Renger van der Zande to the above WTR entry, the team has had to fill in the gaps. Tristan Vautier moves from a GTD Mercedes effort last year to join the team – a worthy addition – and will be grouped with young Matt McMurray and Eddie Cheever III. While Cheever makes his prototype debut, McMurray is no stranger to the IMSA ranks. With that said, he has struggled with consistency in his early days as a driver and Cheever’s inexperience in IMSA leaves some questions over this car. A repeat podium may seem unlikely, but it is a Cadillac. Perhaps that’s enough. (Roar Qualifying – 1:36.037 – P2)

Photo: Mazda

Mazda

After a mid-season hiatus during last year’s WeatherTech Sportscar Championship, Mazda has returned with a significant new partner in Joest Racing. Formerly the operation behind Audi’s massive prototype success, Joest displaces SpeedSource as the factory Mazda operation. The car underwent significant revisions during their break in 2017 and returns as a (hopefully) beefier, more reliable, faster package. Unfortunately, however, Mazda has not replaced their biggest enemy – their 2.0L 4-cylinder engine. The engine, at its base, has been a part of prototype racing since 2007 and every single year seems to struggle for reliability. One of the biggest battles of 2018 may well be the brilliance of Joest Racing versus the letdown that is the Mazda-badged AER engine.

Mazda Team Joest – #55

One thing that can never be said about Team Joest is that they leave cards on the table. While the updated RT24-P is expected to be a meaningful step forward, the driving talents have seen an upgrade as well. Jonathan Bomarito will join Harry Tincknell – himself a Ford GT refugee – for the full season, while Spencer Pigot joins for the endurance races. There are very few people in the paddock that would be upset with some success, finally, for Mazda. However, the engine leaves a few too many questions to call this car the total package despite both the driving and engineering talent behind it. (Roar Qualifying – 1:37.263 – P8)

Mazda Team Joest – #77

The second Mazda entry, changing numbers from the classic #70, sees ex-Audi driver Oliver Jarvis join Tristan Nunez for the 2018 championship. Joest have managed to hire the services of Rene Rast, likely through the Audi connection, to partner the group for the endurance races. Rast is one of the quickest drivers worldwide in just about anything and to his credit has a 2016 DTM championship. There are few shortages in talent in both of the Mazda teams, but inevitably there will be more than a few crossed fingers hoping for some reliability. (Roar Qualifying – 1:42.104 – P20)

Nissan

While certainly a popular entry, the status of Nissan in DPi is a slightly peculiar one. While the formula was designed for OEMs – and Nissan is certainly that – Extreme Speed Motorsports was able to create a customer agreement with the brand to use their GTR GT3 engine in the back of a Ligier chassis. IMSA regulations require brand-designed bodywork to pair with engines and as such, it has essentially created a new car only for ESM. With that said, Nissan offers only customer-level support to the team. Perhaps some big successes in 2018 could change that.

Tequila Patron ESM – #2

Given the pace advantage enjoyed last year by Cadillac, one of the big surprises of the 2017 was finding the ESM pair in the lead during Saturday evening. Ultimately, a few driving errors were the teams’ undoing, but the pace was there all season and there is no reason to see that strength diminish. The first car joins Scott Sharp, Olivier Pla, and Ryan Dalziel. While this writer sees Scott Sharp as something of a liability, the car contended throughout the race last year and should be considered a reasonable chance for a good result, even up against the potentially dominant Cadillacs. (Roar Qualifying – 1:37.857 – P16)

Tequila Patron ESM – #22

With Patron CEO Ed Brown having taken a back seat from driving, the #22 is now finally an all-pro lineup. Recent prototype standout Pipo Derani leads the charge with the ever-quick Nicolas Lapierre and ESM regular Johannes van Overbeek. This is one of the few prototype lineups that leaves no question marks over either speed or consistency. As such, despite all the strength in the Cadillac and Acura lineups especially, this car may well be the one with the best chance come Sunday morning if the balance of performance is truly balanced. (Roar Qualifying – 1:37.245 – P7)

United Autosports

Global LMP2

While not an OEM as such, the ACO-spec LMP2 chassis serve as the benchmark for performance in the prototype class and are the same chassis that make up the mechanical elements of the DPis. Whether through full-time IMSA entries or through North American Endurance Cup competitors, they make up half of the twenty starters in the 2018 Rolex 24 and include some of the strongest international driving talent anywhere in the world. Additionally, with the demise of the Prototype Challenge category at the end of the 2017 season, these LMP2 entries serve as the opportunity for customer and gentlemen drivers to compete in top-level IMSA prototype competition.

BAR1 Motorsports – Multimatic/Riley – #20

Appropriately, the first of our LMP2 entrants is one of those gentlemen driver entries. BAR1 Motorsports has stepped up from Prototype Challenge to field a single Ligier for drivers Marc Drumwright, Eric Lux, Alex Popow, Tomy Drissi, and Brendan Gaughan. There is no reason to believe that this is a likely candidate for an overall podium, but over the course of the season could content for the Trueman/Akin Award for pro-am entries. Additionally, this car is the sole example of the updated Multimatic chassis which finished third at last year’s Rolex 24. The added competition in this category would make such a repeat result unlikely. (Roar Qualifying – 1:39.920 – P18)

United Autosports – Ligier – #23 & #32

This is the entry everyone’s been talking about. After Fernando Alonso’s debut in Indycar at May’s Indianapolis 500, the Spaniard returns to the United States headlining the first United Autosports entry. Fernando is joined in the #23 by Formula 3 standout Lando Norris and reigning Asian Le Mans Series LMP3 champion 17-year-old Phil Hanson. For all three drivers, there is much to learn about endurance racing. With that said, there is no reason to believe that this trio can’t contend for victory. United Autosports are beyond capable and the Ligier boasts significant potential – especially if the race turns damp Sunday morning. (Roar Qualifying – 1:37.515 – P12)

A second entry for the United Autosports squad is highlighted by Paul Di Resta and Bruno Senna. Inevitably their Formula 1 experience puts the spotlight on these two, but the underrated Will Owen also joins Swiss driver Hugo de Sadeleer as part of the formidable four-driver lineup. While the #32 is decidedly the “second” car, it does match up extremely well with some of the pro-am lineups to be detailed later. Certainly, the race for the win is of course the main interest, but the “best of the rest” battle could be just as interesting – and the #32 will almost certainly feature. (Roar Qualifying – 1:37.779 – P15)

JCDC

Jackie Chan DCR JOTA – ORECA – #37 & #78

While the full-season IMSA entries feature some of the fastest sportscar drivers around the world, the two Jackie Chan DCR JOTA Orecas feature some of the fastest drivers worldwide period. While pretty much the entire motorsports community has been a Lance Stroll sceptic at some point, the Canadian Formula One driver returns to Daytona in the #37 joined by heaps of open-wheel and sportscar talent: Felix Rosenqvist, Daniel Juncadella, and Robin Frijns. (Roar Qualifying – 1:37.697 – P13)

The #78, meanwhile, is led by experienced Chinese driver Ho-Pin Tung with Alex Brundle, Antonio Felix da Costa, and the recently-viral Ferdinand Habsburg. Fans of open wheel racing will recall a Formula 3 driver going for the Macau Grand Prix win at the last corner before sliding wide into the wall short of the checkered flag. Ferdinand Habsburg is that man. Regardless, he is undoubtedly talented and the other trio bring and speed without concerns of making major mistakes. (Roar Qualifying – 1:37.274 – P9)

While the ten DPi entries have strength in numbers, these two cars represent the best chance for victory from the LMP2 half of the grid. Recall that this team led Le Mans overall in the waning hours last year – no small feat despite LMP1’s self-destruction. The driving talent is there, and last year’s Le Mans class winners have all the other elements needed to take it to the constructors. This is a team to be excited about.

Performance Tech Motorsports – ORECA – #38

Another PC refugee, the Performance Tech trio of James French, Kyle Masson, and Pato O’Ward moves to LMP2 as the unquestioned kings of their former class. While the LMP2 machinery is a significant step up in performance, there is no reason to question the team’s preparation given their successes a year ago – leaving just the finale at Petit Le Mans without a victory. The team’s best chance for success is a clean race throughout the 24 hours, leaving them with a legitimate chance at a top 10 finish. (Roar Qualifying – 1:37.707 – P14)

AFS/PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports – Ligier – #52

The PR1 Mathiasen team may best be remembered for closing out 2017 with a pair of almighty accidents – first rolling the car at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park and then mounting the tire wall at Petit Le Mans. For 2018, however, the team has paired with AFS bringing both engineering and driving talent. The controversial, aggressive, but quick Gustavo Yacaman returns to the driving seat with Sebastian Saavedra, best known for his Indycar exploits. Roberto Gonzalez joins the team as well with last year’s Rolex 24 PC winner Nicholas Boulle. While it remains to be seen how competitive the team can be, the pair of Venezuelans leading the squad should keep things exciting and, hopefully, in contention. (Roar Qualifying – 1:37.905 – P17)

CORE Autosport – ORECA – #54

The Jonathan Bennett-backed CORE squad moves from last year’s GTD Porsche to a most welcome full-season ORECA prototype effort. While racing is a hobby for Bennett and his pace lacks slightly, he has surrounded himself with the some of the best possible driving talent. Longtime driving partner Colin Braun, Romain Dumas, and Loic Duval will take up the majority of the driving duties to give the CORE team a chance at victory come Sunday afternoon. While Bennett brushed up his prototype skills at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill in December, the team’s overall performance will hinge on his ability to stay consistent early in the race. Braun, Dumas, and Duval certainly have the pace and experience to handle the rest. (Roar Qualifying – 1:40.018 – P19)

JDC-Miller

JDC-Miller Motorsports – ORECA – #85 & #99

Fan favorites last year for their bright yellow color scheme, the #85 Banana Boat returns in 2018 as the “second” JDC-Miller entry. ByKolles LMP1 driver Simon Trummer highlights the entry with ex-Lexus pilots Robert Alon and Austin Cindric, who has finally found his way into an IMSA prototype. Canadian open wheel driver Devlin DeFrancesco rounds out the team of four in what is solidly a mid-field entry given the strong showings by the team last year. (Roar Qualifying – 1:37.323 – P10)

The primary driving talent from 2017, meanwhile, moves over to the new #99 entry. The car contains one of the most welcome surprises in this year’s Rolex 24, the return of Gainsco branding and the “Red Dragon.” Stephen Simpson and Misha Goikhberg return to the team with all the promise of their oh-so-close podium finishes from last year, joined by Chris Miller and LMP2 standout Gustavo Menezes. Along with the DC Racing/JOTA Orecas, this particular car poses a real threat to the DPis and would be a solid bet for a top 5 finish – perhaps even better. (Roar Qualifying – 1:37.331 – P11)

theRACINGLINE.net Comment

Heading into 2018, the loss of Prototype Challenge from WeatherTech Sportscar Championship competition was one of the big concerns of the pro-am entries that have supported endurance racing for so many years. To IMSA’s credit, however, they appear to have created a place that is both attractive to professional teams and manufacturers as well as the gentlemen driver who want a chance to compete at the highest level. The result is a stage that is set for a dogfight for overall victory with a most intriguing secondary battle for the best pro-am team.

Arguably the biggest story with the DPi side of the entry is the return of Acura and Team Penske. Based on Penske’s one-off Oreca entry at the 2017 Petit Le Mans, there should be no struggle in getting up to speed one race week action kicks off on Thursday. The remaining question is whether Acura’s engineering is up to the task of completing a 24 hour race on debut. Time will tell, but one would expect both cars to be in contention on Sunday.

Unfortunately, the Roar Before the 24 Test concluded with a significant discussion on Balance of Performance. I’ll make no comment on its necessity, other than to say it has become an inescapable part of sports car racing. With that said, the obligation is placed on IMSA (and sanctioning bodies worldwide) to make sure it’s done properly.

With credit to GM, replacing the engine after a single season with a new specification gives them essentially a clean sheet and the upper hand against BoP. However, the full 1.1 second gap that existed between the top Cadillac and the top Acura in Roar Qualifying is so wide of the mark that it leaves significant concerns about their ability to level the playing field. The smaller restrictors dealt to the Cadillacs last week are a start, but it may take until Saturday afternoon to find out whether it was enough.

The other major question mark leading up to the race hangs over the Mazda Team Joest camp. Short of a new engine, last year’s decision to sever ties with SpeedSource marked the biggest move Mazda could have made to try and become real competitors against the rest of the DPi field. While a late start to practice during the Roar didn’t inspire much confidence, the sweeping changes to the car

The battle for overall win over the 24 hours will be won with consistency. Reviewing the first few hours of last year’s race, the Nissan ESM entries came to the front unexpectedly because of Jeff Gordon’s inability to keep pace with the factory drivers in the #10 Cadillac, among other issues. Compounding this is the closeness of the majority of the field. Cadillacs notwithstanding, the first thirteen cars were covered by one second. This leaves little to no opportunity for mistakes, even with IMSA’s propensity for full course yellows.

We’ll know more after the first competitive sessions, but the Roar test has led us to believe that Cadillac are once again the favorites. They have strength in both pace and numbers with four perfectly capable cars. If, by chance, the balance of performance is truly balanced, then the Penske Acuras, both Nissan ESM cars, and the DC Racing-JOTA LMP2s stand a real chance to take the fight to the returning champions.

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