It’s an argument as old as motor racing itself: Who’s the best driver?
And it’s an argument that gets more difficult each season to answer, given the ever-increasing specialization in professional auto racing. Pitting top NASCAR drivers against top IndyCar drivers, or finding a way to have sports car drivers run against Formula 1 competitors—it’s simply too complicated.
It has been tried before, of course. The International Race of Champions attempted to do just that when the series debuted in 1974, with Mark Donohue taking the first IROC championship, followed by Bobby Unser and A.J. Foyt. But assembling the proper roster of drivers for four races a year proved more and more difficult, and IROC was done by 2006.
So is there any way to get some of the top drivers in multiple series to face off at a real speedway, battling it out in comparable cars?
In fact there is, and it will happen this week on January 27. We are, of course, talking about the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona. Because the twice-around-the-clock endurance race does not conflict with any other major auto race in the world, it allows drivers from many series to make a guest appearance.
Which, it is worth noting, they have done every year since the Daytona endurance race debuted in 1962 as a three-hour event. That race was won by Dan Gurney, the incredibly versatile driver who scored wins in sports car racing, IndyCar racing, NASCAR, and F1. Gurney died January 14. He always counted that Daytona race as one of his favorite wins—his Lotus 19 built up a big lead when, just before the end of the race, his engine failed. Gurney managed to coast to just shy of the finish line and then, at the three-hour mark, he let off the brakes and rolled down the banking to take the checkered flag, at approximately 5 mph.
For 2018, Gurney’s legacy of versatility will be saluted by multiple drivers with solid experience outside the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, which sanctions the Rolex 24.
“Star-studded” is on overused term, but it’s pretty much the only one that applies here.
At the top of the list: Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso, the Spanish McLaren driver who will make his first appearance at Daytona as part of the United Autosports Ligier LMP2 team. The fact that it is Alonso’s first real sports car race should not discount his potential. He made his Indianapolis 500 debut in 2017 and was immediately on pace, leading for 27 laps and contending for the win when he was sidelined with mechanical issues.
While he hasn’t yet complied statistics comparable to Alonso, another active F1 driver is on sports car duty at the Rolex 24: Canadian Lance Stroll, who has been confirmed for a second season with the Williams F1 team this year. Stroll will be contesting his second Rolex 24, this time with Jackie Chan DC Racing, an LMP2 team that almost won the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans outright.
Other drivers with an F1 connection: Lando Norris, a McLaren junior driver and FIA European Formula 3 champion, is teaming with Alonso in the United Autosports entry. And 2017 Williams test and reserve driver Paul Di Resta, who raced in F1 with Force India for two years, will be part of a sister team to Alonso’s in another United Autosports Ligier.
Of course, another racer with very strong F1 and U.S. ties returns to IMSA competition this season as—for the first time in his career—a full-time sports car driver. Juan Pablo Montoya not only has F1, NASCAR, IndyCar, and IMSA wins on his resume, but this year he will be going for the championship as part of the new Team Penske Acura ARX-05 two-car Prototype team. He is partnering with Dane Cameron, the 2016 IMSA Prototype champion, for the entire season, with Team Penske IndyCar star Simon Pagenaud joining them for the longer sports car races.
The other Team Penske Acura is just as star-studded, as ex-IndyCar racer Helio Castroneves moves to IMSA for the full season, joined by Ricky Taylor, the 2017 IMSA champ. They will partner with still another IndyCar full-timer and race winner, Graham Rahal, for the four longest races of the year.
In fact, the Verizon IndyCar Series is rather well-represented this year. Past series champ and Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay will be part of the Wayne Taylor Racing Konica-Minolta Cadillac Prototype team, which won the 2017 series championship. Hunter-Reay is the team’s third driver for the long races, joining Jordan Taylor and the new full-time driver, Renger van der Zande, who replaces the Penske-bound Ricky Taylor.
The two-car Action Express Cadillac Prototype team gets some new members: With Dane Cameron departing the No. 31 car for a Penske Acura, holdover Eric Curran’s new teammate is Felipe Nasr, and they will be joined by Mike Conway and Stuart Middleton for the longer races.
The other Action Express car has regular driver Christian Fittipaldi stepping back to the role of the third driver for endurance races, as well as some team administrative duties. His longtime teammate Joao Barbosa gets Filipe Albuquerque as a sidekick; Albuquerque, you will recall, was leading last year when, in the closing stages, he was spun by eventual winner Ricky Taylor. Albuquerque recovered to take second place.
Besides Roger Penske’s new Acuras, there’s another two-car team that is familiar to IMSA fans but returns for 2018 with major changes. Last year, the winless Mazda Prototype team quit early in the season to regroup, and it has made some significant changes. The new name, Mazda Team Joest, is a tipoff—Mazda has partnered with European race team Joest, which fielded Audis to multiple victories, to re-work both the car and the driver lineup. Nos. 55 and 77 will be driven at Daytona by Jon Bomarito, Harry Ticknell, and Spencer Pigot in the 55, and Oliver Jarvis, Rene Rast, and Tristan Nunez in the 77. This will be a very important year for Mazda.
There’s another active IndyCar driver on the Rolex 24 entry list, and he must not be overlooked: Scott Dixon is the winningest driver in IndyCar, with 40 wins to go along with two overall victories in the Rolex 24. He also won the 2008 Indianapolis 500, one of four Indy 500 winners in this Rolex 24 field. This year he is back with the Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT, with Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook. They’ll be competing in the GT Le Mans class.
And still another open-wheel ace is in the field as Dixon’s teammate in the second Ganassi Ford GT: Sebastien Bourdais, IndyCar winner and former F1 driver, again partners with Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller.
Those Fords will square off against the two-car Corvette Racing team, which has won the last two WeatherTech Championship GTLM titles. Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen, teamed with Mike Rockenfeller, will be in the No. 3 Corvette, while No. 4 has Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner with co-driver Marcel Fassler.
The GTLM field also includes a pair of Porsche 911 RSRs, the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE, and a pair of brand new BMW M8 GTLM race cars fielded by BMW Team RLL. Aside from the two BMWs, the GTLM cars have only minor changes from 2017.
That said, Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy, two of the most popular Porsche factory drivers IMSA has ever hosted, are back in the factory 911 RSRs. Bamber and Tandy, of course, won overall in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans, and Bamber picked up another Le Mans win in 2017.
If you are looking for changes, there are plenty in the GT Daytona field, stating right at the top: The WeatherTech Ferrari 488 GT3 that won the series championship the last two years gets a new driver: Cooper MacNeil moves in, and Christina Nielsen moves out, to the Wright Motorsports Porsche GT3 R with veteran Patrick Long. MacNeil teams with Alessandro Balzan for the whole season, and Gunnar Jeannette and Jeff Segal for the longer races.
For this year’s Rolex 24, Scuderia Corsa will field a second entry for 2014 Rolex 24 GTD winners Bill Sweedler and Townsend Bell, who will be joined Frank Montecalvo and Sam Bird, the Formula E specialist who has already scored seven wins in that young series.
You might also keep an eye on the No. 99 JDC-Miller Oreca LMP2, where California driver Gustavo Menzes is helping out for the long races. He was the only American-born racer running full time in the FIA World Endurance Championship in 2017, and he has an LMP2 win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2016. That year, his team, Signatech Alpine, won the overall championship.
Ex-IndyCar driver Bruno Junqueira, who will help out the No. 14 3T Racing Lexus RCF GT3 on longer races, has eight IndyCar wins (actually in Champ Car), and finished second in the points three times.
We certainly can’t forget Scott Pruett, who is making his last racing start in the Rolex 24 after 50 years of competition, starting, of course, as an eight-year-old kid with a go-kart. For the Rolex 24, Pruett will drive with Junqueira’s sister team in the No. 15 Lexus, with regular drivers Jack Hawksworth, Dominik Farnbacher, and David Heinemeier Hansson.
Pruett is a five-time champion in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with 60 sports car series wins, and he also won in the aforementioned International Race of Champions series. He competed in both NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series and in the IndyCar Series, where he won twice. He has five overall wins in the Rolex 24, equaled only by Hurley Haywood.
If you count the handful of starts Romain Dumas has in the World Rally Championship—not to mention his three wins at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb—that’s another series represented here by a remarkably versatile driver, who has three overall wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This year, he and fellow Frenchman Loic Duval will join regular drivers Colin Braun and Jon Bennett in the CORE Oreca LMP2.
NASCAR isn’t quite as well-represented as it has been in past Rolex 24s—last year, Jeff Gordon stepped out of retirement to join the Wayne Taylor Racing team for its overall victory—but don’t forget that NASCAR’s A.J. Allmendinger also has an overall win in the Rolex 24. This year he is helping out the two-car Acura NSX GT3 Daytona lineup from Michael Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian. He will share the No. 86 car with former IndyCar racer Katherine Legge, Alvaro Parente, and Trent Hindman.
If you’re looking for some additional NASCAR talent on Daytona’s 3.56-mile road course, come a day earlier than the Rolex 24 for the season opener of the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, the four-hour BMW Endurance Challenge. Young guns Cole Custer, 19, Austin Cindric, 19, Chase Briscoe, 23, and Ty Majeski, 23, will race Ford Mustang GT4s for the Multimatic team. All four will compete this season for Ford in the NASCAR Xfinity series.
By IMSA’s count, drivers from 25 countries and six continents—it seems that, once again, Antarctica’s racers are laying down on the job—will compete in the 2018 Rolex 24. It’s a singular lineup, and we have to think Dan Gurney would be proud.
ROLEX 24 AT DAYTONA BROADCAST SCHEDULE
Thursday, Jan. 25:
Qualifying, 3:45 p.m EST, imsa.tv
Friday, Jan. 26:
BMW Endurance Challenge, 12:50 p.m. EST, imsa.tv
Saturday, Jan. 27:
Rolex 24, 2 p.m.-5 p.m. EST, Fox
2:30 p.m.-11:55 p.m. EST, imsa.tv
5 p.m.-10 p.m. EST, Fox Sports 2
10 p.m.-11 p.m EST, Fox Sports Go
11 p.m.-1 a.m. EST, Fox Sports 1
Sunday, Jan. 28:
12:05 a.m.-2:40 p.m. EST, imsa.tv
1 a.m.-8 a.m. EST, Fox Sports Go
8 a.m.-10:30 a.m. EST, Fox Sports 2
10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. EST, Fox Sports Go
10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. EST, Fox Sports 1