The only place to be as a racing driver in late January is Daytona International Speedway, for the annual Rolex 24 season opening extravaganza for the IMSA WeatherTech series.
The winter has seen substantial change, with the DPI formula cars now being given center- stage, after sharing the top class with European spec LMP2 cars for the past five seasons.
The DPI class has been given a power boost, with the cars already looking much quicker in the Roar pre-race test. The DPI class boasts an impressive eleven car entry, with factory backed efforts from Cadillac, Acura, Nissan and Mazda. The level of manufacture support shows that the class has a long-term health, with more car makers strongly rumoured to be joining the class from next year.
Let’s take a look at the eleven entries that will be fighting for the overall victory and the Rolex watch.
#5 Mustang Sampling Action Express Cadillac DPI: Filipe Albuquerque/Joao Barbosa/Mike Conway/Christian Fittipaldi
For the #5 crew 2018 was an up-and-down year for the team. They won the Rolex 24 after narrowly missing out in 2017, yet aside from a further win in Long Beach the team struggled. Albuquerque finished the year sixth in the points, a down year for one of the benchmarks in the series for the last few years.
For this year regular driver Christian Fittipaldi is only doing the Rolex 24 before retirement, so former Audi factory man Albuquerque steps in alongside Barbosa for the full season. Regular endurance co-driver Mike Conway returns to a strong entry looking to give Fittipaldi the perfect send-off.
The team will be pleased with fourth and top Cadillac car in the Roar qualifying for pit-box and garage selection, however to be almost 0.9s back from the factory Mazda team is a slight concern. The team have a proven entry and reliable car but lady luck needs to smiling on you if you’re to win the Rolex 24 such is the competitiveness of this class.
#6 Acura Team Penske Acura ARX-05: Dane Cameron/Juan Pablo Montoya/Simon Pagenaud
The factory Acura programme instantly became a force in the IMSA series last season, with the might of Team Penske behind it this was not surprising to many. Going into 2019 the team looks increasingly formidable, with a year now behind the team to iron out any reliability issues.
Dane Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya are the full season pairing again, with former Indycar champion Simon Pagenaud joining them for the endurance rounds. Montoya is the star name in this entry because of his F1 experience, however it’s Dane Cameron who is the hidden gem of this entry.
Seventh fastest in qualifying for deciding the pit garage/box selection will slightly hinder the team, but less than two tenths away from their team-mates in third just shows the fine margins that make a big difference in this series.
#7 Acura Team Penske Acura ARX-05: Helio Castroneves/Ricky Taylor/Alex Rossi
The #7 took the only win for Acura last season, however they were less consistent over the year when compared to their teammates. After making their debut last year the team can now go into this years Rolex 24 knowing they have a good chance of winning this race.
Helio Castroneves and Ricky Taylor return to form a very strong duo, and for the Rolex 24 have former Indy 500 winner Alex Rossi on board. Rossi is a quality signing will be very quick in the Acura, with the only knock on him being a lack of significant sportscar experience.
The team were very quick in the pre-race testing, finishing best of the rest behind the Mazda’s in the pit selection qualifying session. To be at the front of a very tightly packed field is a good result, with the only downside being the 0.8s gap to the factory Mazda duo.
#10 Konica Minolta Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac DPI: Fernando Alonso/Kamui Kobayashi/Jordan Taylor/Renger van der Zande
The Wayne Taylor racing team created all the pre-race headlines this winter when they announced that double F1 world champion Fernando Alonso would be joining the team for the Rolex 24. He made his debut in the race last year, but this year he joins an already formidable team as he looks for his first Rolex 24 victory.
Coming off an incredible Petit Le Mans victory last October, are returning dynamic pair Jordan Taylor and Renger van der Zande. Both proved last year to be a good pairing and very quick. Completing the line-up is Toyota factory driver Kamui Kobayashi, another headline maker adding to an embarrassment of riches for this team.
The team was right in the mix at the pre-race Roar, although sixth in the qualifying session will be a slight disappointment. This team has all the ingredients to win this race, although every winner needs a clean run and a dose of luck to succeed over 24 hours against this quality field.
#31 Whelen Engineering Action Express Cadillac DPI: Eric Curran/ Pipo Derani/Felipe Nasr
The defending champions return for another crack at the Rolex 24, after being the bridesmaid behind their teammates last year. They claimed the overall championship however, along with the North American Endurance Cup.
The championship winning partnership between Eric Curran and Felipe Nasr has been broken up for 2019, with Brazilian Pipo Derani joining countryman Nasr for the full season. Curran has now been shifted to an endurance rounds only deal with the team.
The team ran well at the Roar, finishing a close fifth in the qualifying session, less than a tenth behind their teammates. The DPI class gets stronger every year in IMSA and this line-up has only improved despite winning the title last year. This entry is one of the several that can seriously challenge for victory should they not run into problems.
#50 Juncos Racing Cadillac DPI: Rene Binder/Agustin Canapino/Kyle Kaiser/Will Owen
The IMSA series is improving in quality every year, with the addition this year of Indycar outfit Juncos Racing. This is the team’s first foray into sportscar racing, however they have a very good CV from the American open wheel scene.
The team went for the proven Cadillac DPI package, and will hope to impress in their first sportscar outing. The team have brought in plenty of drivers they have experience with, starting with young driver Rene Binder. He’s hoping to impress and cement himself in America after spending years chasing the F1 dream in Europe. Will Owen will provide sportscar experience and was a former Juncos driver, as was Kyle Kaiser. Both raced for the team in the Mazda Road to Indy ladder.
The fourth and final driver is a wildcard, the Argentinian Agustin Canapino. He’s been a proven winner in various Argentinian touring car series, and will no doubt grab his chance to shine on the international stage. This is the first race for the team in sportscar so they will have a lot to learn, but they could spring a surprise if others hit misfortune.
#54 CORE Autosport Nissan DPI: Jon Bennett/Colin Braun/Romain Dumas/Loic Duval
The surprise package of the 2018 IMSA season was this CORE Autosport team, but it’s all change for the team this year. In an unfancied LMP2 entry they came within three points of winning the series title, with Colin Braun and amateur driver Jon Bennett.
After the rules change to separate the DPI and LMP2 entries and the closure of the ESM team CORE have made the step up to take on their Nissan DPI entry for the 2019 season. The returning duo of Colin Braun and Jon Bennett have a long history together and work very well. They are joined by Porsche and Audi factory drivers Romain Dumas and Loic Duval, further adding to the talent in this team.
At the pre-race Roar they were off the ultimate pace, being the slowest DPI outfit in the qualifying session, behind even the fastest LMP2 entry. Whilst the team have to learn the intricacies of the Nissan DPI package, the team shocked everyone last year so why can’t they do it again this year?
#55 Mazda Team Joest Mazda DPI: Jonathan Bomarito/Olivier Pla/Harry Tincknell
The Mazda factory DPI outfit started the year slowly but improved massively as the season wore on. The team have the might of Team Joest running their programme, and for 2019 they could prove to be a good outside bet for the championship.
On the driving front Jonathan Bomarito and Harry Tincknell return for the full season, and for the endurance rounds are partnered by Frenchman Olivier Pla. All three are proven at this level as quick sportscar racers.
In pre-race testing the Mazda team stole the headlines, securing a 1-2 in the qualifying session, significantly quicker than their rivals. Whilst this may not be reflected in the race, the team certainly have everyone guessing right now as to their ultimate pace.
#77 Mazda Team Joest Mazda DPI: Timo Bernhard/Oliver Jarvis/Tristan Nunez/Rene Rast
The 2-3 for Mazda at Petit Le Mans last year gave the team some positive direction going into the winter, and they appear to have worked hard to maintain this forward progress. Team Joest and Mazda have clearly been working hard to make themselves regular contenders in this uber competitive class.
Oliver Jarvis and Tristan Nunez return for another full season with the team, and for the Rolex 24 they have Timo Bernhard and Rene Rast joining them. Both are very quick prototype drivers who are high profile additions to the team.
The #77 car showed very well at the Roar test, setting an unofficial track record in the qualifying session. Their time was only closely matched by their team mates, showing the team have very good one lap pace. If they can stay reliable for 24 hours they will be tough to beat if they can consistently replicate their one lap pace shown at the Roar.
#84 JDC-Miller Motorsport Cadillac DPI: Chris Miller/Juan Piedrahita/Stephen Simpson/Simon Trummer
JDC-Miller are another team that have switched from LMP2 to DPI chassis this year as they continue hunting for overall race wins. The team have taken the safest choice and are running two Cadillac DPI chassis this season.
The team’s race winning line-up from last season has been split up, with Stephen Simpson moving to this #85 entry for this year. He is joined for the year by Simon Trummer, another single seater convert looking to find a long-term home. Joining them for the Rolex 24 is experienced racer Chris Miller, along with Indy Lights convert Juan Piedrahita.
The team were one of the surprises of last year along with CORE Autosport, and for this year with a proven Cadillac DPI package and a strong driver crew the team could be contending for the podium come Sunday afternoon.
#85 JDC-Miller Motorsport Cadillac DPI: Rubens Barrichello/Devlin DeFrancesco/Misha Goikhberg/Tristan Vautier
JDC-Miller’s win at the 6 Hours of Watkins Glen last year proved they can be successful at this level after recently stepping up from the LMPC class. The switch to Cadillac DPI machinery is a big step for the Minnesota based team, and one that should bring more success for the team in the coming years.
Misha Goikhberg was very impressive last year and is paired this year with Tristan Vautier. He is a very quick and experienced racer who moves across from the Spirit of Daytona team. GP3 racer Devlin DeFrancesco returns to the team after last year and completing the line-up is star name and former longtime F1 racer Rubens Barrichello.
The JDC-Miller motor sport team proved last year they are a very well run team who can perform well in IMSA. They should have time during the winter to get used to the new Cadillac DPI package, and they have every chance to spring a deserving surprise with Rolex 24 victory.
Who do you think will win the Rolex 24 this weekend? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below. A massive thank you to Motorsport.com and LAT Images for the photos featured in this post. Find me on Twitter @JWjournalism and thank you for reading!