The Penske-Acura Daytona Prototype team press release made it sound like the team was all puppy dogs and rainbows after the “Roar Before the 24” the first weekend in January at the Daytona International Speedway. But how big their challenge will be for the Rolex 24 at Daytona on Jan. 27 & 28 largely depends on how IMSA , the sanctioning body for the race, reacts to the results of the open test.
Acura’s press release after the event quoted Dane Cameron as saying, “The Acura ARX-05 ran flawlessly, so I think everyone’s in the groove now, working hard but having fun. There’s always a little bit more [speed] to find, but I think we’re in great shape for the race in a couple weeks’ time.”
The phrase “a little more [speed]” is something of an understatement. Cameron’s fastest lap was 1.2 seconds off the fastest Cadillac during the simulated qualifying session IMSA ran to determine garage and pit locations. And that 1-plus second deficit was fairly consistent during the test.
Worse for everyone not driving a Cadillac, that deficit is almost entirely top speed. Which would mean that the Cadillacs could easily drive around any other prototype on the high banks, any time they want. If that remains the case, you can forget about anyone else’s chance to get on the podium, let alone win the race. So, the fate of the Acuras, and all the other non-Cadillac prototypes, rests on how IMSA handles the situation.
If IMSA holds to the philosophy they established last season, then everyone will be alright. Last year IMSA’s mantra was that the fastest ACO LMP2 car would set the standard for DPi performance. And anyone who was faster than that would get pegged back though engine air inlet restriction, boost reduction, or both. And it’s important to remember that this philosophy of performance balancing is largely what got IMSA a stunning field of 20 P-Cars for the 2018 Rolex 24. Jackie Chan Racing would not go to the trouble of sending a car over here if they did not think they could win.
Second, the whole reason for the “qualifying” session at the Roar was to make sure that everyone would take the gloves off and show what they had. You have to assume that IMSA would act on that.
Assuming those two things are true, we should look at the P-car qualifying. The most important cars then become the LMP2-spec Orecas with the LMP2-spec Gibson engines. They remain the fastest LMP2 combination. And they finished 9-10-11 in that qualifying session, about 1-to-1.5 seconds behind the Cadillacs. Last year, IMSA did not touch any of the LMP2 cars from a BOP standpoint. If they follow the same practice this season, then we should expect the following:
- The Cadillacs will get smaller air restrictors and/or a lowered rev limit for the Rolex 24. It will be interesting to see which one. A lowered Rev limit will be tougher for the rest of the field to deal with than a smaller restrictor.
- The Acuras may get some changes to their boost table. But they are relatively close to the performance of the Orecas, which is not surprising considering the Acura is based on the Oreca.
- Same thing for the Nissan DPis and the Mazdas.
Assuming that happens, what kind of chance do the Penske-Acura’s have? In a perfectly performance-balanced world, pretty good. If the cars are all in the same performance envelope, then it comes down Drivers and Teams. And you can’t argue with the team, or the drivers. Particularly the team of Cameron, Montoya and Pagenaud. In that car, there is no weak link. That’s important because in an endurance race, you never know when you are running into an important stint. If something happens and the car needs to make up ground, it does not matter whose stint it is. All those guys are beasts and experienced endurance drivers.
The team of Ricky Taylor, Helio Castroneves and Graham Rahal looks pretty good, too. But it has been a while since Castroneves ran in an endurance race. And Graham Rahal is a talented road racer, but still learning how to drive prototypes.
From a technical standpoint, the key to making up time at Daytona is:
- Have enough downforce on the infield portion of the track to close up right behind your intended victim.
- Enough torque to jump in front of them on the banking.
- As little drag as possible to stay in front and hold them off into the next braking zone.
Judging from the sector times, the Acuras are damned quick on the infield. But at the Roar, the Cadillacs could outrun them on the banking.
If the top end of the Cadillac comes down a bit, then Team Penske should be one of the favorites. If not, it’s going to be a long race for everyone who is not driving a Cadillac.