In many ways, the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona International Speedway elicits the same emotions as the first days of school. After a long, cold winter absent of racing and cars, we all converged on the Florida beach town to kick off the racing season. I saw familiar faces as I made my way through the paddocks and into the photographers' room. The smell of race fuel flooded my mind with memories backed by the throaty exhaust notes echoing through the row of garages. Within moments, I was thrown back into the motorsport environment, but amidst all of the familiarities, the changing seasons had left their mark. The 2016 season started under its new title sponsor as the WeatherTech Sportscar Championship. The WeatherTech name has been a regular name in the GTD class, and with their brand at the head of the series, they hope to continue the growth that the IMSA championship has enjoyed the past two years.
With this new growth, I found new cars in every paddock garage as teams readied for battle. Though it's just the first race of the season, success at the Rolex 24 can give teams the momentum they need to charge through on their way to the championship. I made my way past the prototypes and continued down the row of garages that line the straightaway. It had been a few months since I had last seen the RLL team, and I was eager to see their new entrants for the year. The Z4 GTLMs that we had travelled with for the past few years had reached their retirement and were put aside to make room for BMW's new contender, the M6 GTLM. Daunting in size and menacing in appearance, the M6s sat side by side as I approached BMW's paddock. The rooflines looked almost chopped juxtaposed against the widened bodywork and their fenders jutted off the quarter panels as embellished muscles on the already aggressive M6 lines. For the team, this was the first race with the new chassis, and after a rainy qualifying session, they were busy tweaking the cars and preparing them for the long race that lay ahead. The duo would start in 3rd and 6th place, but with 24 hours of racing ahead and two brand new chassis at hand, consistency and reliability were the main focus for the team. Racing a car for the first time is challenging enough, but to do so at one of the world's leading endurance races is sure to test even the strongest competitors.
Knowing that it would take a strong team to campaign the M6s through the night, BMW opted to stay with a tried and true driver lineup. The number 25 car would be piloted by Bill Auberlen and Dirk Werner with BMW DTM drivers, Bruno Spengler and Augusto Farfus offering support for the endurance race. The sister car entered the new season wearing a new number. Marked as number 100 to celebrate BMW's centenary, the M6 will be drive by Lucas Luhr and John Edwards, aided in their 24 hour quest by Kuno Wittmer and Graham Rahal. The team cars were wrapped in iconic Alpine White and the BMW Motorsport colors, adorned in a new livery to celebrate the brand's birthday. The number 100 car looked forward to the future of BMW wearing a new #Next100 livery and wrapped in a reflective grid work that sparkled under the night lights. Sharing its number with the winning BMW CSL racer, the number 25 car celebrated BMW's heritage with photos of past race cars emblazoned on its panels.
2016 also marks the 50th year since Ford's win at the 1966 24 Hours of LeMans, and they've come back with their sights set on the same podium spot. The manufacturer-backed team brought a pair of the new GTs out to Daytona to work their way through the GTLM season to prepare the cars for battle in France. The world took notice of the GT's return to LeMans racing, so the crowds watched eagerly as the GT roared onto the racetrack to start the 24 hour race. In a class comprised of street cars, the Ford GTs styling is an interesting mesh of street car styling and prototype ingenuity that stood out against the rest as I watched the cars tear around the Daytona infield. The driver's cabin sat forward on the car and directed air through the channels created by the rear fenders and out over the rear air elements as the car sped away on another lap. The retro styling was not lost in its drive towards the future. I could see familiar lines along the GT's nose that harked back to the original LeMans winner, but aerodynamic engineering had re-sculpted the machine into a sleek and futuristic rendition of itself.
While the GTLM class battled it out around the hairpin, my lens turned towards the GTD pack that shot down the straight. With the rules opening up to allow GT3 spec entrants, the GTD class had received a healthy injection of competition for the 2016 season. The team at Turner Motorsport took delivery of the new BMW M6 GT3, the sister cars to the GTLM-homologated M6s run by Team RLL. The bold yellow of Turner's iconic livery brought strength to the M6's line and the team fought hard through the race, returning to the garages to repair the damage endured through the grueling endurance race. The BMWs were joined by the new Lamborghini Huracan Gt3s which caught my eye. The smaller stature of the Huracan model was the perfect proportion for race development and its sharp lines looked menacing as they blurred by. While the Lamborghini engines screamed away, Audi utilized the race to introduce the new Audi R8 and its bigger brother, the Audi R8 LMS that joined the Porsches and Dodges in GTD contention. Welcoming the new cars to the GTD class brought a new found excitement and speculation remains that the new GT3 allowance may encourage some of the other manufacturers to join into the rumble later in the season.
With all of the new changes for the season, the Rolex 24 was a test bed for the teams and the series alike. The duo at Corvette racing exercised their comfort, racing cars only slightly updated from their previous year's success and the result was undeniable. The corvettes looked strong throughout 2015 and the Rolex 24 proved that they'd be the team to beat going into the 2016 season. The two yellow Corvettes sat at the top of the podium followed by one of the factory Porsche GTLM cars and the Scuderia Ferrari. The BMW M6s showed incredible potential, but the race was an uphill battle for the two. After 721 laps, the number 25 M6 GTLM finished in 5th place while the number 100 car was only able to complete 360 laps before suffering from brake problems that led to a crash in the night hours that would remove it from the race. After the long race, it was clear that the team at RLL Racing had a strong pair of cars in their garage, so we're excited to see if they can fulfill their potential and push the cars to the front of the grid at Sebring.