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Porsches and Pontiacs paced the recently concluded three-day Rolex Sports Car Series test session at Daytona International Speedway. In the front-running Daytona Prototype class, Porsche factory driver Lucas Luhr led the way in the No. 23 Alex Job Racing/Emory Motorsports Porsche Crawford, lapping the 3.56-mile road course in 1:43.431. In the season- opening Rolex 24 at Daytona, which will begin on January 28, 2006, Luhr will share the car with fellow Porsche factory drivers Mike Rockenfeller and Patrick Long.
Last year's series co-champion, Max Angelelli, was second fastest in the SunTrust Racing Pontiac Riley, with a lap of 1:43.698. Sascha Maassen, another Porsche factory driver, recorded the third-fastest time in the Daytona Prototype class. Maassen's resurgent No. 58 Brumos Racing Porsche Fabcar, the beneficiary of a new chassis, turned a lap of 1:43.953.
Although Porsches set two of the three fastest times, Angelelli and his co-drivers, Wayne Taylor, Emmanuel Collard, and Ryan Briscoe, have high hopes for repeating last year's winning effort, despite the 75 pounds of ballast that Rolex Series officials added to the team's Riley chassis during the off season.
"The team is pretty much the same as last year," said Taylor. "We have all the personnel back for the third year, we have the same teammates, and we've added Ryan Briscoe. We built a new car for 2006 and we shook it down last Tuesday in Savannah. And we've just been doing laps and looking at all of the systems. We've been having some problems with steering issues and stuff that normally comes out in testing. So really we're just tuning and making sure things are working."
In the past, Taylor has always favored three-driver lineups for 24- hour races, but this year he had a change of heart. "I've always felt that it's always best to have three drivers, as had Bill Riley. But this year we felt that the competition is going to be much stiffer and the driver combinations and pairings are going to be a lot stronger. And with three drivers, the slightest hiccup or someone feels sick and you're in trouble."
"Ryan is a very good friend of Max's and mine and he did it for Chip Ganassi last year," Taylor continued. "He's coming on board and he's going to be a great asset to the team and also he's super fast. He just got in and went fast right away. It's obviously different from what he normally drives but he's enjoying it and he likes the car. So I think it's going to be good."
As for strategy, Taylor approaches all 24-hour races in the same manner. "I always tell me teammates that if you're running around and you get stuck behind someone it's better to lose ten second getting by him than trying to pass him because you think your lap-time average went off and end up in the pit lane. The crucial thing is to keep on the lead lap and to keep the car in good condition. And on Sunday morning, if you've been able to do that you should be in a position to start pushing a little. But you have to get through the beginning and through the night before you can start doing that."
The SunTrust squad is not the only the team with a new car for the race. The No. 58 Brumos team will also debut a new Fabcar chassis, which seems to have drastically improved the team's on-track performance.
"We have a completely new chassis," said David Donohue, who will share the car in the race with Maassen, Darren Law, and Ted Christopher. "It's a lot easier to say what's the same than what's new. The car is on weight, which is a first for us in the past two years. We've been running overweight. The structure is much better - it's stiffer and the mass is lower in the car. These are all things that had to happen and now we have the things that everyone else has."
"We've just been able to finally to put it all together," he admitted. "It has been more than a year in the making. It's a credit to Fabcar and Brumos. The car just goes faster. We're higher on the grid sheets. It's a little more rewarding. Darren and I have been working so hard the past two years. Everyone once in a while we would make a mistake and we would look like idiots. But it has been such hard work behind the wheel to keep the car reasonably competitive, all for not to some degree until now. The effort that's gone on behind the scenes that no one will ever see is really paying off now."
With all of the improvements, Donohue is cautiously optimistic for the race. "I think we need to focus on the car's preparation and the team's preparation. The guys are pretty pumped now. It's been a long time since they've been on top of the time sheets. That pays dividends like you wouldn't believe in the morale department. You just notice things. The fit and finish gets better. The cleanliness gets better. All of these little esoteric things just start to improve. You can't do that by telling the guys to do them. It just kind of happens in that scenario. All of that is really good."
"We need to keep focused," he said of the race. "In this race you have to survive to the second day and stay clean. It's going to be really busy. There are a lot of cars to cause big wrecks. There are have been a ton of black flags and stoppages here. I spent almost two hours in the car this morning and we were incapable of getting three changes done because there was just so little running time. I ran a total of 20 some odd laps. If that's indicative of how the race is going to be run, it's going to play a big role."
Six cars turned in times in the 1:44 range, including the No. 19 Finlay Motorsports Ford Crawford, No. 02 Ganassi Racing Lexus Riley, No. 6 Graydon Elliott Fusion Racing with MSR Lexus Riley, No. 01 Ganassi Racing entry, Michael Shank Racing Lexus Riley, and No. 7 Citgo Racing by Samax Pontiac Riley. For the Rolex 24, many of these entries will feature a number of high-profile open-wheel drivers, such as Dan Wheldon, Scott Dixon, Paul Tracy, A.J. Almendinger, Justin Wilson, and Dario Franchitti.
The No. 01 Ganassi Racing Lexus Riley, which will be driven by Scott Pruett, Max Papis, and Luis Diaz, should be a prime contender among this group. After spending last year with the TRG/Krohn Racing team, Papis, who shared the 2004 Daytona Prototype drivers' championship with Pruett, is back with the Ganassi team for this year's Rolex 24.
"We've been focusing a lot on trying to figure out how to spend as little time as possible in the pits," said Papis. "That means changing parts quickly and to do maintenance in the fastest way you can. The team has evolved a lot in a positive way - more experience in endurance racing. The competition is going to be tougher than ever. I think that the lap times you see are not representative of what is going to happen in the race. Fast lap times are not going to win you a race. It's going to be more of team consistency and teamwork. I think you're going to see a real difference between teams that are really organized and teams that are less so. But with Scott Pruett and Luis Diaz, we have a great team. I feel very comfortable with them."
Notably, the No. 4 Howard-Boss Motorsports Pontiac Crawford, which will be driven in the Rolex 24 by Andy Wallace, Butch Leitzinger, and Tony Stewart, was in the 1:45 range, while the Howard-Boss car shared by Rusty Wallace and Danica Patrick was in the 1:46 range. Leitzinger said the team spent most of the test trying different differentials and analyzing how those differentials affected the car's handling.
"We've tried about six different combinations and we've come up with a set that we think is going to work pretty well. So hopefully - as long as conditions don't change too much between now and the race - we should be able unload the car off the trailer and do a minimum number of practice laps before the race. We would really like to have everyone rested and not have the team doing an all- nighter right before the race. Our main goal here was to have everything completely organized for the race. I think things have gone pretty well."
As with many of the other drivers, Leitzinger does not think the lap times posted during the test are all that important. "If you look at them on the time charts, they're just not that relevant. I especially think that judging by all the black flags we've had here from crashes that the race is going to have lots of yellow flags. So even if you were only a second or two off the pace, it's going to be difficult to go a lap down or put other people a lap down just because caution flags are going to come so often that people aren't going to fall back enough to go a lap down before the next caution comes. I think that the real focus more than ever is to make sure that you don't have any problems and that you don't spend any time in the pits where you go a lap down because of something stupid happening."
In the GT class, Andrew Davis, driving the No. 74 Tafel Racing Porsche GT3, set the pace with a lap of 1:52.704, less than half a second faster than the Farnbacher Racing Porsche GT3, which turned a fastest lap of 1:53.166. Davis will co-drive his Porsche in the Rolex 24 with three other drivers, including Graham Rahal, the son of former Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal. The two Racer's Group Pontiac GTO.Rs were third and fourth in class, with times of 1:53.722 and 1:53.764, respectively.
Andy Lally, one of the GTO.R drivers, said the team was concentrating on several things during the test. "The first thing on our agenda is to get the car well-balanced. We've made a couple of small changes and we think we've made it stronger. After that, we want to get a lot of miles under the car so we can see what breaks, what doesn't break, and what we need to pay attention to. We want to be able to define what is a weak link for the car and fortunately we've had a very good session. I just want these guys to bring this car back to Detroit and go over it with a fine tooth comb. I'm happy right now. To come to Daytona, do a three-day long test, and have zero hiccups and go fast is wonderful."
But Lally admitted that the race is a bit of unknown for the GTO.R, which has never completed a 24-hour race. "We're going to be pushing," said Lally. "You have to push in this race to win it. But we have to leave a tiny little bit on the table. We're going to try to drive about 99.5 percent when we're out there. We're going to try to drive as fast as we can without dropping a wheel or beating the car up. But then just as normal in a 24-hour, you have to be smart in traffic. You can't take any big risks. We just have to drive fast and smart. There are 42 cars entered in GT and it's probably the most competitive year ever. To win, you're going to have to be lucky, smart, and fast."