A motorsport marathon at Daytona International Speedway that remained thrilling till the finish marked the start of this year’s IMSA season. After 24 hours and with 751 laps completed, the Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports only just missed out on a podium finish in the GTD class for GT3 cars. At the finish, the driver quartet of Ben Keating (USA), Jeroen Bleekemolen (NED), Luca Stolz (GER) and Adam Christodoulou (GBR) with starting number 33 lacked a mere 2.7 seconds to repeat its success from last year when the team finished third at Daytona in its maiden race with the Mercedes-AMG GT3.
From 13th place on the grid of the GTD competitors, the #33 consistently worked its way up in the early stages of the race that was marked by strategy and saw only few full-course yellows. As the night fell, the defending North American Endurance Cup (NAEC) team racked up its first laps in the lead. Around midnight, a penalty (pit lane speeding) cost valuable positions. Having dropped back behind the front-runners, the driver quartet made it back into the podium positions as the race went on.
The 18-hour mark, with additional Endurance Cup points at stake, just like at the six- and twelve-hour marks, brought an early decision in the battle for victory. In order to secure these valuable points, the team deviated from its initial refuelling strategy. As there were no further yellows until the end of the race to bunch up the field once more, the #33 had to head into the pits for a splash and dash from second place with ten minutes remaining and thus dropped out of the battle for victory. In spite of a thrilling finish, final driver Bleekemolen didn’t find a way past the third-placed Lamborghini and thus crossed the finish line in fourth place with a slight deficit.
The Mercedes-AMG GT3 with starting number 75 encountered bad luck in the early stages of the race. The SunEnergy1 Racing car with the two Mercedes-AMG Drivers Maro Engel and Thomas Jäger (both GER) plus Mikael Grenier (CAN) and Kenny Habul (AUS) had started from 18th place on the grid. An unscheduled pit stop just after the start of the race initially made the team drop back. The subsequent recovery saw the quartet move up again and the #75 was on its way to the top ten at the halfway point. Minor technical issues in the second half of the race prevented any further progress for the SunEnergy1 Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3. Eventually, final driver Maro Engel secured eighth place in class.
The P1 Motorsports team also showed a convincing performance in its maiden race with the Mercedes-AMG GT3. From 20th place on the grid in the GTD class, Juan “JC” Perez (COL), Kenton Koch, Robby Foley (both USA) and Loris Spinelli (ITA) worked their way up to twelfth place with good stints in the car with starting number 71.
Adam Christodoulou, Mercedes-AMG Driver Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports #33: “Making it to the finish of a 24-hour race is always great. Today, we had a real chance to win the race as well. Now, we are here in fourth place, which is a slight disappointment, especially as it was so close. We had planned to score as many championship points as possible at the interim results. In hindsight, that probably wasn’t the right decision concerning the race win. Nevertheless, I am happy with fourth place and I would like to thank the entire team and my fellow drivers. We will do everything to come back to Daytona even stronger next year.”
Ben Keating, Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports #33: “We were much more competitive than last year when we finished third. Back then, however, we had rain for ten hours and we made it through without any mistakes. That wasn’t the case this time: we had a few minor misfortunes and penalties. Notwithstanding, we drove a really good race. We were leading at the 18-hour mark and we wanted to collect the Endurance Cup points, which we did. However, it didn’t work out with the refuelling in the end and there was no more yellow that would have made up for it. I can’t remember any 24-hour race at Daytona in which there wasn’t a single yellow in the final hour. Nevertheless, it was a thrilling race throughout and I am very happy with fourth place.”
Thomas Jäger, Mercedes-AMG Driver SunEnergy1 Racing #75: “This year’s race was not only extremely thrilling until the end, but also extremely demanding. During the 24 hours, track conditions changed significantly and we made set-up changes over and over again. That was also very demanding for the drivers. Traffic was another factor: there was a lot going on and you had to be really careful to avoid any incidents. At the end of the day, the performance of all three Mercedes-AMG GT3 was very good, even though the number 33 unfortunately didn’t make it onto the podium. That is a pity, but for the championship, it was important to pick up these points.”
Maro Engel, Mercedes-AMG Driver SunEnergy1 Racing #75: “That was a very untypical Daytona 24 Hours: in total, there were only four safety car interventions. Last year, we had at least 15. Accordingly, we had no chance to make up for the laps that we had lost in the opening stages. At the beginning, we had to return to the pits at slow speed due to a loose wheel and we had to change the brakes. That cost us around five minutes that we were lacking later to be on the lead lap and battle for the lead with the others. The pace to do so was definitely there. But huge compliments to all drivers and the entire team for the super job they have done.”
Successful US debut of the Mercedes-AMG GT4
The IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge season opener that was held on Friday saw the new Mercedes-AMG GT4 make a successful debut with three top ten results. In total, eight GT4 cars from Affalterbach had been entered for the US debut at Daytona International Speedway. Turbulent situations, numerous yellows and continuous position changes marked the four-hour race from the very beginning. In the process, the Mercedes-AMG GT4 also racked up its first laps in the lead of the North-American sports car series. In the thrilling finale, the Winward Racing / HTP Motorsport entry with starting number 57 managed to make up one lap: at the finish, Bryce Ward (USA) and Indy Dontje (NED) claimed fifth place, securing the best result for the Customer Racing Team. Just behind them, Owen Trinkler and Hugh Plumb (both USA) finished sixth with the Mercedes-AMG GT4 #46 (Team TGM) followed by Jeff Mosing und Eric Foss (both USA) with the Murillo Racing #56 entry in seventh place.