Night and Day
I was speculating a couple of weeks ago on whether Jacques Villeneuve might equal Graham Hill's so far unique achievement of winning at Le Mans and Indy, as well as taking a Formula 1 World Championship. I was taking it as read that Le Mans is the world's premier 24 hour race, but the more I think about it, the less sure I really am.
It all rather depends on how one chooses to determine these things. If we're talking about the race with the longest, most illustrious history - the one that will be the most familiar to man on the street, then there's no doubt its Le Mans. If we're talking about the race with the fastest, most technically interesting, and in the case of the new Peugeot 908, damned beautiful cars, then, once again, Le Mans wins hands down. If, on the other hand, what you really care about is how open the race is - how many potential winners there are, and how many really first-rate drivers are in the field, then I'd say Daytona comes out comfortably ahead.
Let's face it, realistically, if you're not in a Peugeot or an Audi this year, you are not going to win Le Mans. Come to that, you're probably not going to win it if you're not in an Audi, and that has been the case for the last seven years or so. By contrast, it was rather more difficult to pick a winner from among the 28+ cars entered in the Grand-Am DP class at Daytona this year. One might well argue that the Chip Ganassi Riley-Lexuses would be where the smart money would go, but that would be to ignore an awful lot of other potential winners. Brumos or Michael Shank Racing could certainly have been winners with Riley-Porsches, Alex Job Racing , Howard Motorsports and Cheever Racing must be amongst those who were in with a shot with a Crawford, even if received wisdom has it that the Riley is the chassis to have at Daytona.
The DP cars themselves? Well they're not quite Spec-racers, but they aren't especially technically complex, and certainly calling them prototypes is something of an abuse of the word. Slightly odd looking little stubby things, with a rev-limited 500BHP, they are to my mind more than a little reminiscent of the old C2-class Tigas and Argos from sports car racing's second golden age in the 1980s. On the other hand, they're easy enough to drive that a competent amateur can go reasonably quickly in one, they have little enough downforce that they actually slide around a fair bit, and on a track like Daytona, they're actually quite a spectacle.
The overall quality of the driver line-up at this year's event was remarkably impressive too. From NASCAR came Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Juan-Pablo Montoya, Jimmie Johnson and others. From IRL came Sam Hornish Jr, Tomas Scheckter, Helio Castroneves and Dan Wheldon, to name but a few, while Champ Car provided Paul Tracey and the recently departed AJ Allmendinger. Also on hand were a host of ex-F1 drivers, such as Max Papis, JJ Lehto, Jan Magnussen, Tomas Enge and Roberto Moreno. And that's not to mention the established sportscar pros, who were of course out in number - Andy Wallace, Wayne Taylor, Scott Pruett, Sascha Maassen and Butch Leitzinger, for instance.
The result was an Endurance race which was much more interesting, and much more of a genuine contest than Le Mans has been for many a year. Dan Gurney's eldest son, Alex, got the pole and led the early laps, before falling victim to an incident involving a backmarker Porsche. SunTrust racing's Max Angelelli was next to take up the baton. The Brumos Porsche took the fight to Ganassi and SAMAX for a while and as the hours ticked by, though many of the fancied runners fell by the wayside or encountered problems of one kind or another, there was two way fight right to the end. The Ganassi Riley-Lexus of Montoya, Salvador Duran and Scott Pruett traded places throughout the second half of the race with the SAMAX Riley-Pontiac of Patrick Carpentier, Darren Manning, Ryan Dalziel and Milka Duno. In the end, the Ganassi car came out ahead after 24 hours - but by only just over a minute. A small enough margin, that might have been even closer had the SAMAX car had 4 real first rate drivers, as Duno was never on the pace of the other 3. For Montoya, and for fans of esoteric records, there was the added bonus of becoming the first driver ever to win the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500 and the Daytona 24 hours. Who knows, he might even add the Daytona 500 when he comes back in February, although its probably a little too early for that.
So, a good start to the road racing season in the US then. How many 24 hour races have been decided by such small margins? The favourite might have won, but it wasn't half a race. Let's hope its a portent of things to come this season.