The Prototype Challenge class has been a mainstay of first the previous American Le Mans Series and now the WeatherTech Sportscar Championship since 2010. The series will introduce some subtle tweaks for this year, although the full impact of these will not come in to play until the Sebring 12 Hours in a few months time.
This years Rolex 24 will see eight identical Oreca FLM09-Chevrolet cars take to the grid, with their class battle always providing intrigue with such evenly matched teams and cars. This class is a good introduction to American prototype racing, and it’s down to the drivers and teams to find the advantage they need to secure victory.
For the past few years it has been the CORE Autosport team which have effectively dominated this class, although as they showed in last years Rolex 24, anything can happen in this race and these cars seem to struggle with the demanding nature of the Daytona International Speedway.
#8 Starworks Motorsport ORECA FLM09-Chevrolet: Jack Hawksworth/Renger Van Der Zande/Alex Popow/Chris Cumming
The Florida based Starworks motorsport have decided to fully focus on their Prototype Challenge campaign this year after some successful years running Daytona Prototypes. They are running two entries in this class and have assembled driver line up’s that can both easily win this class.
In this #8 entry the team have partnered full season line up Renger Van Der Zande and Alex Popow with Jack Hawksworth and Chris Cumming for the Rolex 24. Van Der Zande is one of the quickest drivers in this class and has been for the past few seasons, whilst Popow is also a very quick driver who has been loyal to the Starworks team for a long time now.
Hawksworth is a very talented British racer who is taking time out of his preparation for the upcoming Indycar season with this drive for Starworks. Finally Cumming joins the team as an experienced and very good amateur racer who is preparing to make the jump from the WeatherTech series to join the Tequila Patron ESM team for the full World Endurance Championship season.
With the talent behind the wheel and this team’s long history with both the series and this race, this entry will likely go into the race as one of the main contenders and favourites for victory.
#20 BAR1 Motorsport ORECA FLM09-Chevrolet: Johnny Mowlem/Marc Drumwright/Tomy Drissi
The BAR1 Motorsport team are the other two car entry in this class this year, and will be hoping to show their pace from last year was not a fluke. The team secured the class pole last year, and ran strongly to a second place overall before being disqualified for one of their amateur drivers not meeting the minimum driving time.
This error cost the team in a huge manner and will not be something they will likely repeat this year. From last years driver line up the experienced Brit Johnny Mowlem returns to the team along with Tomy Drissi, who rejoins the driver line up for this car after a good race last year.
Marc Drumwright is an experienced amateur racer who competed in the series last year so will provide some experience for this team. Whilst the Mercedes DTM driver Lucas Auer produced the car’s best time at the pre-race test, during race week it will likely be either Mowlem or Drissi that are setting this car’s fastest times.
This BAR1 team showed last year they can compete in this closely fought class, and this year will be hoping they can turn their good work into a strong result to start off their season. A repeat of last year’s no-score will put them on the back foot for the championship from the get go, along with continuing their bad luck at one of the premier races in the season. A class podium will be a good result and a class win an outstanding one for this ambitious young team.
#26 BAR1 Motorsport ORECA FLM09-Chevrolet: Adam Merzon/Ryan Eversley/Don Yount/John Falb/Ryan Lewis
The second of the BAR1 entries is this #26 car, which much like the sister #20 entry has a great chance for a good result for this team. Adam Merzon is a good solid driver the only drawback for him is his lack of track time in recent year. He has plenty of both prototype and GT racing experience although his last full season in a top line series such as this was over ten years ago.
Ryan Eversley is a well known name in American sportscar racing, and joins the BAR1 team after spending 2015 in the supporting Pirelli World Challenge series as an Acura factory driver. Eversley has plenty of experience in this race and will be hoping he can lead this team to at least a class podium come the final hour of the race.
Don Yount is a racer who is making the step up to the Prototype Challenge class on a more permanent basis after he dipped into the class at the tail end of last year. Yount is a solid racer who has progressed from Radical’s through the supporting Cooper Tires Prototype Lights category, placing second in the Masters class in 2014. Although his relative lack of experience in this class will hamper him, he is a good enough driver to still run competitive times in this car throughout his stints behind the wheel.
Ryan Lewis is a good driver who has plenty of experience at this level, combined with an impressive junior racing record from series such as British Formula Three in the past. He will likely provide some good solid stints behind the wheel, which will be what this car needs if it is to achieve a good result come the end.
Completing the line up is John Falb, who much like Yount has progressed through junior categories to reach the Rolex 24 in this #26 entry. Falb was the Radical Cup USA champion in 2014 and in his rookie year of the Cooper Tires Prototype Lights class he finished a very respectable 4th overall. Although this will be a step up for Falb, his record shows he is a very good amateur driver who has the potential to become one of the best in this class.
This entry may struggle to match the ultimate pace that it’s sister entry may have for the entire 24 hours, although by no means count this entry out for a class podium as a clean run for them will put them in the hunt. Whilst the #20 car may get a lot of pre-race attention, the #26 team can spring a surprise in this race and with the attrition that usually engulfs this class anything is possible for this team.
#38 Performance Tech Motorsport ORECA FLM09-Chevrolet: James French/Jim Norman/Josh Norman/Brandon Gdovic
The Performance Tech team return for yet another season in the Prototype Challenge class this year. The Florida based team have been running in the class almost since it’s inception, and this experience will prove to be a great help for the team during the race.
James French returns to the team after doing the full season for the team last year, and will provide some experience and pace to this entry. Joining French is the father-son duo Jim and Josh Norman. Jim is an experienced racer and doctor, and can count a class win in the GX class of the 2013 Rolex 24. He has extensive experience in GT racing and is now stepping up to the prototype ranks.
His son Josh joins him in the car after they shared a car in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo USA category last year. Norman is combing his racing with his biology studies at the University of Florida, but his inexperience at this level may hinder the team slightly in the race, although likely not by much.
Completing the line up is Brandon Gdovic, who is a young racer with good potential. Gdovic exceeded expectations in 2015 and became the Lamborghini Gallardo world champion at the Italian marque’s end of year finals race meeting. Gdovic has also shown promise in the Nascar Xfinity series, and this adaptability will help him get up to speed with the ORECA prototype. Although this is his first foray into the prototype ranks, he could end up impressing the class paddock with his performance.
Although this team will likely not be considered amongst the absolute elite of this class, should anything unforeseen happen to these contenders this #38 entry will be right there to pick up the pieces and claim a good result to start their season. Watch out for this team as an outside contender to spring a surprise.
#52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsport ORECA FLM09-Chevrolet: Robert Alon/Tom Kimber-Smith/Jose Gutierrez/Nicholas Boulle
The reigning class winners at this race return eager for more success in 2016. Whilst this team benefited from the misfortune of the CORE Autosport last year, the team will want to show they can win this race again in a straight fight.
Leading the line up once again is the expat Brit Tom Kimber-Smith, whose vast experience and pace will likely be the driving force for this team in the race. Partnering Kimber-Smith will be Robert Alon, Jose Gutierrez and Nicholas Boulle. Alon is another driver stepping up from the feeder IMSA Prototype Lights series, with a string of podiums showing his talent despite only having raced cars for two years. If he can get up to speed with both the car and the circuit quickly he could prove a revelation for the team.
Jose Gutierrez is a young up and coming Mexican racer who has shown promise in the Pro Mazda junior category for the past two years. This year see’s him switch from single seaters to sportscars with a Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup campaign with this #52 entry. His pace will be known but will he be able to keep his nose clean and produce consistently quick stints in the race? If he can do this watch out for him.
Completing the line up is Nicholas Boulle, an accomplished racer who is a good amateur driver. His racing commitments fit around his business and his cycling, of which he is a Texas criterium champion. Although Boulle hasn’t got a lot of experience at this level, he may be able to post competitive times if he is able to fully get comfortable with the powerful ORECA racer.
This team as defending class winners is one of several contenders for victory, although the driver line up is lacking something from last year and this may hurt the team over the course of the race. If their young line up can prove itself they have a great chance at back to back victories in this class.
#54 CORE Autosport ORECA FLM09-Chevrolet: Jon Bennett/Colin Braun/Mark Wilkins/Martin Plowman
The CORE Autosport team have dominated this class for the past several years, and will be hoping they can put last year’s accident in the final hours behind them to claim another class victory in this race.
The class benchmarks have returned even stronger in 2016, with the addition of very quick Indycar racer Martin Plowman to their regular line up. Team principal Jon Bennett is a very quick and experienced amateur, and is supported by the charger Colin Braun, who has shown himself as one of the best drivers in this class for the past few years.
Mark Wilkins completes the line up and knows exactly what to do to keep the car competitive and trouble free. This team has the perfect blend of young pace in Braun and Plowman, and experience with Bennett and Wilkins.
For this professional team anything less than a victory will be considered a relative failure, although a class podium and a decent haul of points for their championship campaign would be a welcome consolation.This team has become the benchmark in this class that has set them apart from the rest. Expect to see this team running at the front of the class for the majority of the 24 hours.
#85 JDC/Miller Motorsports ORECA FLM09-Chevrolet: Mikhail Goikhberg/Chris Miller/Stephen Simpson/Kenton Koch
The JDC/Miller motorsport team are another mainstay of this class, although they have struggled to find success in the past few years. With the high quality of this class that is no huge bad reflection on the team, it simply reflects the quality of the class.
Stephen Simpson will be the ace professional driver in this entry, and his pace will likely lead the team throughout the race. Mikhail Goikhberg will be another hotshoe in this car, as he has experience in this class now after stepping up to the category last year on the back of his championship year in the IMSA Prototype Lights class in 2014.
Completing the line up are the young driver Kenton Koch and American Chris Miller. Koch replaced Goikhberg as the IMSA Prototype Lights champion and now follows him into this class as his team mate. Miller is an experienced racer who will help this team secure a good result.
For this team their race result will likely be factored on how Goikhberg and Koch perform in their stints. If they can run consistently quick times whilst managing to keep something in reserve this team has a chance of a class podium come the end of the 24 hours, although a lot depends on the reliability of the car and the team’s ability to stay out of trouble.
#88 Starworks Motorsport ORECA FLM09-Chevrolet: Sean Johnston/Mark Kvamme/Maro Engel/Felix Rosenqvist
The second Starworks entry is another that is one of the pre-race contenders for victory, thanks to the team and the high quality driver line up they have assembled for this #88 car.
After being drafted into the line up late on, it was Swede Felix Rosenqvist who produced the fastest time for this car in the pre-race test. This will be an ominous sign for the rest of the field, as his pace may set this car apart from the rest except from possibly the #54 entry. Could a good performance here create some sportscar opportunities for the reigning FIA European F3 champion?
Equally talented is the German Mercedes GT ace Maro Engel, who adds to the quality of this line up. Engel has years of sportscar experience and will likely use his single seater experience to help adjust to the Oreca chassis.
Completing the line up are young American Sean Johnston and the experienced Mark Kvamme. Johnston is one of many racers who started through the Nissan GT academy, and has developed into an accomplished GT racer. He should be a dark horse in this car and may well end up surprising a lot of people with his performance. Completing the line up is Kvamme, who has raced for fun in several GT series over the past few years. He has raced at this level before and will likely only need to adjust to the car rather than learn the circuit.
For this team they have a great chance to claim class victory, although they will likely need to be at their best to beat the CORE Autosport team. Both Starworks entries are contenders and could spring a surprise in the race.
In this class there are several pre-race favourites, although theoretically three quarters of this class could claim the victory if they have a clean race. Of the top contenders the class victory is most likely to be fought out between the #54 CORE Autosport entry and the two Starworks entries. The #52 PR1 entry is another who will be right up there throughout the race, although if I was a betting person it would be hard to bet against the #54 entry. But the great thing about sportscar and 24 hour racing is that anything can happen.
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