There is a great deal of anticipation and excitement over the start of the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, which begins this weekend, as it does every year, with the biggest endurance race in North America, the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona International Speedway.
With the launch of the new-generation Daytona Prototype International (DPi) and LMP2 class machines, two deep and competitive GT classes, and a star-studded entry list filled with a number of international racing champions, 2017 has the potential to be the greatest running of the Daytona 24H in history.
On the entry list, seven Super GT drivers past and present, including last year’s GT500 vice-champion Andrea Caldarelli, former GT500 champion Loïc Duval, and former Suzuka 1000km winner Frederic Makowiecki make up this truly spectacular grid of drivers.
Duval is one of three former Super GT/JGTC drivers entered in the new-look Prototype category, featuring the new generation of LMP2 cars and the new DPis.
The 34-year-old Frenchman (above, photo from 2011), who won the 2010 GT500 championship with Dome/Honda Racing, and later went on to win the 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans and World Endurance Drivers’ Championships with Audi, will drive the #81 Dragonspeed Oreca 07 that was the fastest of all in the “Roar Before the 24” preliminary tests.
His co-drivers are Ben Hanley (Great Britain), Henrik Hedman (Sweden), and reigning WEC LMP2 champion Nicolas Lapierre (France).
Belgian Marc Goossens will drive the new #90 Riley Mk. 30 of Visit Florida Racing, with Renger van der Zande (Netherlands) and René Rast (Germany). Goossens, 47, raced in the JGTC from 1997 to 1998 with 5Zigen Racing, and took a surprising GT500 class victory in the ’97 season finale at Sportsland Sugo.
Wayne Taylor Racing fields one of three new Cadillac DPi-V.Rs, their #10 Konica Minolta entry piloted by the popular brothers Ricky and Taylor Jordan, four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, and making his final appearance in this race, former Daytona 24H champion, Max “the Axe” Angelelli.
Angelelli (pictured, right of co-driver Manabu Orido) drove only 3 races in the JGTC back in 1998, but scored 2 podiums and a pole position at Miné Circuit, driving for Racing Project Bandoh in their new WedsSport Toyota Celica GT300.
Japanese manufacturers Mazda and Nissan are also part of the new DPi sub-class, Mazda Motorsports fielding two new RT24-P prototypes, and Nissan fielding two new DPis built in conjunction with Onroak Automotive, in the hands of defending race winners Extreme Speed Motorsports.
2017 will be the 25th anniversary of Nissan’s overall victory in the 1992 Daytona 24H, with drivers Masahiro Hasemi, Kazuyoshi Hoshino, and Toshio Suzuki. This year, ESM and Nissan’s entry is bolstered by breakout star (and friend of Super GT World!) Pipo Derani, former World Endurance Drivers’ Champion Brendon Hartley, and second-generation star Bruno Senna.
Frederic Makowiecki is the only former Super GT driver in the ultra-competitive GT Le Mans category, where the rivalry between defending Daytona champions Corvette Racing and the Le Mans-winning Ford GTs is expected to ignite in a fury once again.
Makowiecki, former Dome/Honda Racing driver from 2013 to 2014 and winner of the 2013 Suzuka 1000km, will drive the new-for-2017 #911 Porsche 911 RSR with fellow Frenchman Patrick Pilet, and Dirk Werner of Germany.
Andrea Caldarelli is the leading active driver from Super GT, who is expected to be confirmed for a second season at Lexus Team WAKO’s LeMans in February.
But before then, the 26-year-old Italian, who has finished runner-up in GT500 in two of the last three seasons, will go race in the 27-strong GT Daytona category, aboard the #48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3 with an all-American lineup of co-drivers: Bryan Sellers, Madison Snow, Bryce Miller, and newly-signed Dion von Moltke.
“I am very excited and really looking forward to making my debut in the Rolex 24,” Caldarelli said of his upcoming IMSA debut. “As it is my debut in this race, it is very important to have the support of a team like Paul Miller Racing with so much experience and successes. I am sure we will do very well.”
Jörg Bergmeister, who drove five out of eight races for Excellence Porsche Team KTR in GT300 last season, will begin his second season in the #73 Park Place Racing Porsche 911 GT3-R, driving at Daytona with Patrick Lindsey (USA), Matt McMurry (USA), and Norbert Siedler (Austria).
The Rolex 24 at Daytona will also mark the competitive debut of the 2017 Lexus RC F GT3, that will later race in Super GT for LM Corsa in GT300. One of 3GT Racing’s new RC Fs will be piloted by Dominik Farnbacher, a three-time GT300 race winner with Team Taisan from 2007 to 2008, and third driver for LM Corsa in 2015 and 2016.
The Lexus driver lineup at Daytona is further bolstered by the presence of Daytona 24H grand champion Scott Pruett, former IndyCar Series stars Sage Karam and Jack Hawksworth, and promising American talents Gustavo Menezes and Austin Cindric.
The 2017 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona runs from January 28 to 29.