Wednesday, 4 February 2015

How to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona

I assume that Chip Ganassi won’t be reading this, since with six wins out of his 12 attempts at “North America’s most prestigious sports car race”, he more than most does not need to. It hardly needs me to present the case, either, as I have only witnessed two of the Daytona Prototype-era versions of this 24-hour race, even though 2015 was my eighth attendance at the Daytona International Speedway.

However, the opening round of the 2015 Tudor United SportsCar Championship, the only 24-hour race run under IMSA rules and regulations, presents unique challenges to its competitors. One of the reasons that I enjoy tearing apart the innards of a long race is that there is no single formula that will correctly identify the difference between the winner’s strategy and those of the runners-up.

You can look at average lap times, time spent in pits, strategy under caution or what you will, but there’s never a single solution. Which makes writing software for defining the perfect strategy very difficult. Let’s look at Average Lap Times at Daytona then. As usual, I’m taking the average of the best 20% of laps run without the interference of the Safety Car. For the sake of simplicity, I will stick to the leading cars in the Prototype class.

No. Car Average Lap Time
01 Ganassi Riley-Ford 1m 40.583s
02 Ganassi Riley-Ford 1m 40.369s
5 Auto Express Coyote-Corvette 1m 40.549s
10 Wayne Taylor Dallara-Corvette 1m 40.323s
60 Michael Shank Ligier-HPD 1m 40.735s
90 VisitFlorida Coyote-Corvette 1m 41.031s

What about Time Spent in Pits? Surely (as co-commentator Greg Creamer reminded me during the race) that’s a good indicator of who will come out on top? Stay out of the pits and lap consistently quickly - surely a great formula for winning a long-distance race?

No. Car No of Stops Time in Pit Lane
02 Ganassi Riley-Ford 34 51m 00.561s
5 Auto Express Coyote-Corvette 30 *49m 12.666s
10 Wayne Taylor Dallara-Corvette 33 40m 46.375s
60** Michael Shank Ligier-HPD 33 1h 19m 40.438s
90 VisitFlorida Coyote-Corvette 35 1h 02m 03.104s
KEY: *Includes time for tow-back to paddock
**Not Running at Finish

Maybe number of laps led will provide us with a little more information?

No. Car No of Laps in lead
02 Ganassi Riley-Ford 264
7 Starworks Riley-BMW 3
90 VisitFlorida Coyote-Corvette 3
07 Speedsource Mazda Prototype 1
60 Michael Shank Ligier-HPD 4
10 Wayne Taylor Dallara-Corvette 264
01 Ganassi Riley-Ford 141
5 Auto Express Coyote-Corvette 59
1 ESM HPD-Honda ARX 1

None of the tables above lead you any closer, I suggest, to identifying which was the best car at Daytona - if anything the no. 10 Wayne Taylor car, spending least time in the pits and being quickest on the track looks the most deserving winner. Nothing in the tables above indicates precisely why it was the no. 02 Ganassi car that was the one to beat. Indeed the fact that the car went a lap down when it went back to its garage (“behind the wall”) to have work done to the front end of the car, seemed to the inexperienced observer to put the car out of contention, unless other cars had problems.

Daytona is not like that though. Being a lap down is not a problem, provided that the Safety Car comes out. The astute team manager (and even the not so astute one) can manage the pit stops to enable the car to avoid the initial rush to the pits when the lane opens, get back on the lead lap, and then pit at the next opportunity, leaving the car fully fuelled and on the lead lap, albeit at the back of the Safety Car queue.

Even looking at the fuel consumption does not show any difference between the Ford EcoBoost of the Ganassi Riley and the Chevy-engined Corvette of Wayne Taylor Racing. When the track was fully green, both cars covered 26 laps with metronomic reliability. The only divergence from this rule was at 7:15 on Sunday morning, when Tony Kanaan brought the Riley in after 25 laps, but this was in anticipation of a Full Course Yellow precipitated by the no. 33 Viper stopping at T6.

As far as I can work out, there was one factor, and one factor only, that enabled the Ganassi #02 car to win the 2015 Rolex 24 at Daytona. Although speed clearly played its part, as did the sublime driving of Scott Dixon in the final three-and-a-half hour stint, the key moments came as first Tony Kanaan stayed out for a 29-lap stint through the Full Course Caution period at 9am and then Dixon achieving the same feat through the shorter yellow at 10:50am.

These two stints gave Ganassi a three-lap cushion on its fuel window, and allowed Dixon to leapfrog Jordan Taylor at the penultimate round of stops, into a lead he was able to maintain at the final re-fuelling stop, which meant that 2.5 seconds could be saved.

Even without the shambles of Jordan Taylor’s drive-time violation, Ganassi had the bases covered. One thing I wonder though: did Chip know that the no. 10 crew was about to shoot itself in the foot? Was he really only concerned with staying ahead of the no. 5 Action Express Corvette? And if last year’s combo of Bourdais, Fittipaldi and Barbosa would have won, how much of a sour taste would that have left in the mouth, following the car’s tow back to the paddock late on Saturday night?

But Daytona often is a strange 24-hour race. Never short on entertainment; but you have to know how to win.

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