Photo: Courtesy of IMSA

2019 Rolex 24 Preview: GT Le Mans and GT Daytona

By Christopher DeHarde, Staff Writer

The 2019 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship kicks off with the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the GT classes have very few changes compared to their prototype counterparts.

Michelin is the sole tire supplier in the WeatherTech Championship and while this doesn’t change anything in the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class, the GT Daytona (GTD) class is changing after being on Continental since the sports car racing merger of 2014.

GTLM cars are based on the GTE platform that runs in the FIA World Endurance Championship and the European Le Mans Series. All cars in the GTLM class are eligible to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with minimal modifications. The GTD class runs GT3 cars from various manufacturers and the class is a pro-am rated class while GTLM is professionally rated.

Let’s look at GTLM first since that class has only nine cars. Ferrari is represented by Houston-based Risi Competizione. Giuseppe Risi’s team has won its class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans but has been racing on a limited availability for a while now.

Moving to Corvette Racing, they have a pair of C7.R racers in what should be their last appearance at Daytona ahead of the much-anticipated launch of the mid-engined C8.R Corvettes.  The driver lineups in both cars remains the same since their historic 1-2 finish in 2016.

Porsche has two 911 RSR machines with one change in the driver lineup from last year as Mathieu Jaminet replaces Gianmaria Bruni in the No. 912 entry. Porsche led four of the test sessions at the Roar Before the 24 so expect them to do well if that form holds up.

BMW has a pair of M8 entries as well with perhaps the best feel-good story of the weekend. Alex Zanardi will be racing in the team’s No. 24 entry while the son of one of his most competitive adversaries in the late 1990s will be in the No. 25 as Colton Herta steps up from his role as a BMW junior driver. Zanardi has a rather notable co-driver in 2014 Bathurst 1000 co-winner Chaz Mostert.

Ford dominated last year’s Rolex 24 with their Ford GT lineups that remain unchanged from last season. Ford led two of the test sessions at the Roar and are looking to avenge their fall in the 2018 GTLM class championship battle by starting 2019 off with a win.

Moving down to GT Daytona, there are eight manufacturers in class. Let’s go through each manufacturer, starting with the fewest cars and moving to the larger ones.

BMW has an M6 entered with Turner Motorsport in their trusty No. 96 entry and are looking to start 2019 on the right foot after retiring from four of the final six races in last year’s WeatherTech Championship.

Meyer Shank Racing represents the Acura brand with perhaps one of the strongest driver lineups in the class. The team’s No. 57 entry has four women behind the wheel and thanks to Ana Beatriz the team set the fastest lap in class at the Roar test while the other car boasts a new broadcasting talent in AJ Allmendinger.

The pair of Lexus RC F GT3 machines switched hands during the offseason as AIM Vasser Sullivan now represents Toyota’s luxury brand. Broadcaster Townsend Bell joins the team for the Rolex 24 and will have 2016 Indy Pro 2000 champion Aaron Telitz as one of the co-drivers. Of note in the other RC F is the return of Jack Hawksworth to the cockpit after spending the last two seasons driving with 3GT Racing.

After a third in 2017 and a fourth in 2018, Mercedes is back with two cars in their GTD effort. Riley Motorsports is back with its pair of normal drivers in Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen while P1 Motorsports has Dominik Baumann as a new hire after racing for Lexus in 2018.

The only manufacturer with three cars, each Ferrari 488 GT3 model has its own theme. Via Italia Racing is comprised of mostly Brazilians with Andrea Bertolini the only non-Brazilian in the lineup. Scuderia Corsa has the token WeatherTech sponsored entry while Spirit of Race has three drivers that normally race with each other in the FIA World Endurance Championship with an additional co-driver.

Four cars matches the four rings in the Audi logo and they will be back for revenge after a five minute stop and hold penalty dealt a fatal blow to Montaplast by Land Motorsport entry. Starworks Motorsport returns to the WeatherTech Championship grid after running in the former Daytona Prototype class while Moorespeed and WRT Speedstar fill out the Audi lineup.

Porsche’s four car armada includes the only five driver lineup in the field for NGT Motorsport with four drivers for Black Swan Racing, Park Place Motorsports and PFAFF Motorsports. Porsche has the most overall victories of any manufacturer but last won the GTD class in 2017. Park Place hasn’t won any GTD races since Lime Rock in 2017 while PFAFF is a new team to the WeatherTech Championship so there are some variables to consider.

Last year’s GTD class winning manufacturer has the largest involvement with five cars. Lamborghini has the returning entry with GRT Grasser Racing Team, EBIMOTORS, Precision Performance Motorsports, last year’s GTD championship winners with Paul Miller Racing and manufacturer newcomers Magnus Racing. There’s definite strength in numbers for Lamborghini but too much data can be a detriment.

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A 2012 graduate of LSU, Christopher DeHarde primarily focuses on the NTT IndyCar Series and the WeatherTech Sports Car Championship. DeHarde has actively covered motorsports since 2014.