2017 Rolex 24 Prototype Challenge Preview

This weekend see’s the opening of the international sportscar racing season with the Rolex 24 hours at the hallowed Daytona International Speedway. This year unfortunately sees much uncertainty with the Prototype Challenge class, which is in it’s final season before likely being replaced by LMP3 for 2018.

With this being the final year of the class it’s leading lights have decided to switch classes, such as CORE Autosport to GTD, PR1/Mathiasen and JDC/Miller to the prototype class, of which I earlier previewed here. For the center piece Rolex 24 the class has only five entries, with even less expected for the full WeatherTech IMSA season. Despite a small entry the class still has plenty of quality and will hopefully avoid the high attrition of last year, to ensure a competitive battle throughout the 24 hours for the class victory. Let’s take a look at the the entries.

#8 Starworks Motorsport Oreca FLM09-Chevrolet:  Chris Cumming/John Falb/Ben Keating/Remo Ruscitti/Robert Wickens

Starworks motorsport return to the Rolex 24 and the PC after a failed winter attempt at returning to the prototype class, although at this present moment it’s unclear if this is a full or partial season entry. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the team they are a highly professional outfit and have a long history with this. They will be one of the front running teams for this weekend.

On the driving front they have very high quality lineup. Mercedes DTM factory driver Robert Wickens will lead the driving stable in terms of pace, despite his lack of major Sportscar experience. He makes his debut at the Rolex and should prove very fast when he’s at the wheel.

Chris Cumming, John Falb and Ben Keating are all very good amateur drivers who will provide good experience and a very consistent pace throughout the race. Keating in particular is taking on the unenviable task of driving for two teams during the race. He is adding this Starworks drive with his own GTD Riley Motorsports Mercedes AMG effort, something that will no doubt keep him busy throughout the race. Young Canadian Remo Ruscitti is the fifth driver in this entry, as he builds his Sportscar experience after partial seasons for the past few years. He may surprise people with his pace and although he’s relatively unknown on the IMSA scene he has previous experience in this car.

Many pro-am endurance races are won thanks to the strength of their am drivers, and for this Starworks team this will be one of their many strengths. They will likely enter the weekend as the favourites to win the PC class, but as last year showed this class can prove a race of attrition rather than one of outright pace.

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#20 Gas Monkey Energy Drink BAR1 Motorsport Oreca FLM09-Chevrolet: Buddy Rice/Don Yount/Chapman Ducote/Mark Kvamme/Gustavo Yacaman

The BAR1 team have stuck with their traditional PC programme for this year, with this #20 entry backed by the the famous American garage Gas Monkey and their new energy drink. It’s because of this link that the team have named Don Yount and Buddy Rice as their full season drivers, both are investors in the energy drink company.

The news has caused a stir as it sees the return to full time racing for former Indy 500 winner Rice, who hasn’t competed regularly since the beginning of the decade. Whilst he may be a little rusty to begin with, his talent and experience should shine through as the race progresses. Yount is a experienced amateur driver who should run consistent times throughout the race and keep clean, although he will likely lack the last few tenths of speed compared to the professionals such as Rice and Yacaman.

Partnering these two for Daytona will be Chapman Ducote, Mark Kvamme and Gustavo Yacaman. Yacaman in particular should impress having established himself a a very quick prototype driver and will likely prove the fastest of this line up. In a pro-am class like this, expect Yacaman to be a front runner when he is at the wheel.

Kvamme is a successful amateur driver who has switched across from the Starworks team to BAR1 for this year. He is much like Yount in that he provides a steady hand and plenty of experience to this entry. Fellow businessman and am racer Ducote completes the lineup, making his comeback to full time to racing after several years out. He may also need some time to get up to speed but he has prior experience of this car shouldn’t struggle too much by race day.

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#26 BAR1 Motorsport Oreca FLM09-Chevrolet: David Cheng/Trent Hindman/Johnny Mowlem/Adam Merzon/Tom Papadopoulos

The other BAR1 entry is this #26 car, one that has taken ownership of the pole position of this class in the past few years. With Brit Johnny Mowlem at the wheel the team have claimed the last two pole positions and will be hoping to make it a hat trick in his major racing swansong before he slips into retirement.

The team achieved a third in class last year and will be hoping they can return to the podium this year, with dreams of the top step. Joining Mowlem as the pace setter in this car is likely to be Trent Hindman, a young American who is making great steps into endurance racing. He’s an established BMW junior driver and expect him to once again impress this weekend.

Asian Le Mans series stalwart David Cheng joins the team in a return to the Rolex 24 after several years out. He should find himself returning to the pace very quickly and will provide some further experience for this team. Adam Merzon and Tom Papadopoulos complete the line up, with Merzon returning to Daytona after a sporadic racing career over the past few years, whilst Papadopoulos also returns after last competing in the Rolex 24 in 2015. Whilst their recent lack of top level racing experience they may need some time during race week to get back up to speed, but both should provide a perfect compliment to the blistering pace of Mowlem and Yacaman.

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#38 Performance Tech Oreca FLM09-Chevrolet: James French/Patricio O’Ward/Nicholas Boulle/Kyle Masson

Performance Tech are one of several teams working towards a full season PC entry, although for now they are only confirmed for the first few rounds.  James French returns to the team after a strong 2016 season where he finished fourth overall in the class. He is an underrated driver who has been a constant in the series for the past several years.

Much like French, Nicholas Boulle has risen through the ranks of the American club racing scene to the top level WeatherTech IMSA series. Boulle has moved across from the PR1/Mathiasen team to Performance Tech and despite a limited campaign last season will be hoping to put in a good strong performance this year.

Both Kyle Masson and Patricio O’Ward complete the quartet for this race. They were rivals in last years Mazda Prototype lights series, but find themselves team mates for this weekend. Both showed plenty of potential for a promising career, with Masson finishing fifth in the prototype lights series whilst O’Ward came 2nd in the Pro Mazda series. Whilst they both lack experience of the Oreca FLM09 car, they will likely flash some potential as they adapt to both the car and the series.

Whilst it may prove slightly daunting for both of them they have the experience of French to guide them as they look to at the very least a class podium if not class victory. Former rivals JDC/Miller motorsport showed last year that a clean run can easily result in class victory, something this team will hope to emulate over the weekend.

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#88 Starworks Motorsport Oreca FLM09-Chevrolet: James Dayson/Scott Mayer/Alex Popow/Sean Rayhall/Conor Daly

The final PC entry is the other Starworks entry, with a similarly talented lineup to complement the Florida based team. The team have built a reputation as one of the front runners in both first the prototype and the subsequently the prototype challenge class over the past several years, they will go into the race as the pre-race favourites with their two high quality entries.

On the driving front recent Indycar driver Conor Daly and Indy Lights racer Sean Rayhall will likely prove the pace setters for this entry. Rayhall in particular also has recent experience with this Oreca entry, although both him and Daly have enough talent to ensure they will be quickly on the pace for the team. Signing Daly at the last minute to replace Sebastien Saavedra is a savvy move from the team, with the talented young American likely to provide the spearhead this cars challenge for class honours.

Long term Starworks drivers Scott Mayer and Alex Popow also join the team, and whilst they may not match the ultimate pace of the first two, they will provide plenty of experience with this form of racing and will add consistent and very good stints to complement both Saavedra and Rayhall.James Dayson completes the lineup, he is a recent convert to Sportscar racing but previously did two races with the team last season so should be another solid driver who can deliver a consistent stint which is exactly what is needed to class victory.

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That completes my preview of the truncated Prototype challenge class this year. Despite having only five entries it should hopefully still provide some exciting racing as the overall quality in the field is still high, especially amongst the Starworks entries. If everyone has a clean run expect the Starworks entries to be running at the front, although as last year proved a reliable run rather than outright pace could be the key to victory this weekend. I want to say a huge thank you for reading this latest preview, I hope you liked it. Any comments would be greatly appreciated! A final thank you must go to Motorsport.com for the amazing high quality photos which grace this page. Everyone should visit their site for the latest news and photos from around the motorsport world. Find me on Twitter @brfcjordan95.

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