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While 2016 may not be a banner year for Canadians at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in terms of numbers, there are only 7 Canadian drivers competing in this year's race, 6 of the 7 should be running up near the front and fighting for a podium, if not the win in 3 of the 4 classes.
Stroll is driving for the powerhouse Chip Ganassi team in their Ford-powered Riley prototype, but comes to the team with something of a reputation. Stroll had his fair share of penalties for contact during his maiden F3 season, including a ban for the final race of the Spa weekend back in June.
Unfortunately Stroll didn't do his reputation any favours when he crashed first time out in the Riley, on the out lap no less, during testing at the Roar.
Based on the results from the Roar, and despite being the defending champions, it looks like the Ganassi Ford-Riley's will be in tough this year. Between the two cars, they could only manage a single top 5 during the 7 practice sessions, and were usually a few spots down from there.
Stroll has solid, experienced team mates in touring car veteran Andy Priaulx and former F1 driver Alex Wurz and is driving for one of the best teams on the grid, so they could still be a contender for the over all win. Never bet against Chip, especially since many of the cars regularly in front of them, the Ligiers, the Delta Wing (yes, the Delta Wing!) and the Mazda's (yes the Mazda's!) are unknown commodities when it comes to trying to run 24 hours. I still like Ganassi's chances for a repeat.
The goal for the Ganassi team will be to let the veterans set the pace and try to keep their rookie from driving over his head. If they can manage this, they could be a threat. And it would be almost impossible to rule out the sister car driven by Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson, despite the results from the Roar. I'll say it again, never bet against Chip.
Of the 7 Canadians in this year's field, 3 of them will be in the Prototype Challenge class, Chris Cumming with Starworks Motorsport (#8), Mark Wilkins driving for Core autosport (#54) and Mikael Goikhberg with JDC/Miller Motorsports (#85).
Both Cumming's Starworks team and Wilkins' Core autosport team finished practice sessions from the Roar at the top of the time sheets, with the #54 machine of Wilkins Core autosport team on top for 3 sessions, and only out of the top-3 once in the 6 sessions they took part in. In fact, Core and Starworks were 1-2 in the first 2 sessions at the Roar. Both teams will be favourites, fighting for the win.
The third driver in the PC class, Mikahail Goikhberg will be another contender for a podium, but based on pace from the Roar, they will need some luck to score a top result.
The team was never quickest in any session, a 2nd was their best practice result, and was usually running in the 5-6 neighbourhood. If they can hang around through the night without any serious problems, they could be in a position to fight for a podium, but would need a lot of luck to reach the top step.
In GTLM, all Canadian eyes will be on BMW Team RLL and their new M6 GTLM's. There are 2 Canadians in the GTLM field, and both are driving for Bobby Rahal's BMW squad, with 2012 DTM champ Bruno Spengler in the #25 car and sports car ace Kuno Wittmer driving in the #100 machine.
Spengler will likely only be with the team for Daytona, while Wittmer has signed on to do the NAEC season and will be back in the car at Sebring, Watkins Glen and at Petit to close out the season.
During the Roar BMW, Corvette and Ferrari all took turns at the top of the charts after various practice sessions, with the new BMW's fastest in the first 2 sessions, and in 3 sessions all together. Both the #25 and #100 took turns at the top, with Spengler being fastest of all GTLM driver in session 5.
The brand new BMW M6 GTLM's had good pace during the Roar, so they should be a threat to win. However, with any new cars in a 24 hour race, reliability will be a concern, although the cars showed little in the way of problems during the Roar. Both cars will be fast and either the Spengler car or Wittmer one could win the class, if they can last the full 24 hours.
Surprisingly, the perennially fast Porsche’s were not near the front at this year's Roar, a single 3rd place in the final session the only remotely promising result. With the firepower, and budget's, in front of them, it looks like Porsche won't play a role in deciding one of the most anticipated GTLM races in a long time.
The biggest class of the field, GTD, has a lone Canadian, Paul Dalla Lana driving an Aston Martin Vantage GT3 (#98). Unfortunately, the Aston Martin doesn't look like it has the pace to compete, even for a podium, without a lot of luck. The team cracked the top 5 in practice only once, and was more often finishing in the mid to late teens. It's a long race, but there is a lot of speed and experience between them and the podium.
While it doesn't look like Dalla Lana's Aston Martin will be in the mix for the win, just about anyone else in the class could be, with Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Viper all finishing at the top at some point during the Roar. Add in Audi's and BMW's regularly in the top 5 and anything can happen. As is usually the case the GTD class will likely be the closest finish with best racing throughout the 24 hours, and will probably get the least amount of coverage, especially with the return of the Ford GT to the GTLM class.
On the team side of things, the Mazda Prototypes are run by SpeedSource, the veteran Mazda team owned by Canadian ex-pat Sylvain Tremblay. After discarding the diesel engines of the last couple of years that have been underpowered, the team has switched to a new gasoline engine and the results have been almost immediate, with the team posting a few 2nd and 3rd finishes in the practice session at the Roar. While a win might be a long shot for the team, a podium could be a real possibility.
The much-heralded return of the Ford GT comes via Markham, Ontario and Multimatic, as the new Ford GT's are built by the Canadian company. It's been a long time since there has been so much buzz about the debut of a new race car, and although not setting a fastest time in any session during the Roar, they did fill the number 2 and 3 spots regularly. If they are reliable, they should be in the mix come Sunday afternoon.
While the Canadians who are racing are the main story of the weekend, we can't ignore the Canadians who aren't racing, but should be.
At the top of that list is Michael Valiante. Valiante, driving the VisitFlorida.com Corvette last year took the title challenge to the final race of the season, finishing runner up and missing out on the championship by a mere 3 points. For one reason or another the VisitFlorida.com team opted to revamp their driver lineup for 2016, and while team mate Richard Westbrook landed on his feet with the Chip Ganassi Ford GT program, Valiante is still on the outside looking in.
Valiante would be the fastest driver on at least half the teams in the race this year, but won't be there. I can't believe there isn't a single Canadian company that couldn't benefit from supporting Valiante, at least in this race, if not the full season. This is just a symptom of bigger problems plaguing road racing in this country, and it is something we will be looking at in more depth through out the season.
Also on the outside looking in is Prototype Challenge ace Kyle Marcelli. While Marcelli will be racing a Porsche in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge support race, and will be a threat to win, he should be in the main show, not the opening act. Again, there only a handful of teams (maybe) in this race that couldn't benefit from having Marcelli in it's driving lineup, but again no Canadian company is willing to step up.
James Vance is another quick Prototype Challange drive who will be in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge support race that could help most of the PC teams, but will again unable to find the corporate help he needs to get him there.
Taking a look at the 2014 Rolex 24, just 2 years ago, there were 15 Canadians in the race. Drivers that year included both Valiante and Marcelli, as well as Alex Tagliani, Max Riddle, LP Dumoulin, JF Dumoulin, David Empringham, Ken Wilden, John Farano, Sylvain Tremblay and James Hinchcliffe. The only new drivers in this year's race from 2014 are Lance Stroll and Mikhail Goikhberg, and Goikhberg drove in last year's race. Road racing in Canada has big problems at the grass roots level, and it is now starting to show at the top level.
The 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona marks the start of one of the most anticipated times in recent racing memory, the return of the Ford GT, and it brings it's Canadian roots with it wherever it goes. Canadians should be in the mix for wins in 3 of the 4 classes, and with the Rolex 24 less than a week away, that means a new racing season is about to start. Sit back, turn it up and enjoy! #GoCanada