Home » FEATURE STORY, Rolex 24

Van Der Zande Likes Being A Control Freak

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, January 27 2018

Rolex 24 prototype pole winner Renger van der Zande, center, showed some chops at Daytona on Saturday. (Michael L. Levitt
LAT Images)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. –What’s it like leading the Rolex 24 At Daytona?

“It’s beautiful when there’s nobody in front,” pole-sitter Renger van der Zande said after completing his opening stints in Saturday’s 56th edition of “North America’s Most Prestigious Sports Car Race.”

van der Zande and the No. 10 Cadillac DPi-V.R. were tested by an early charge from three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves and the No. 7 Acura Team Penske AXR-05 around Daytona International Speedway’s 3.56-mile/12-turn “roval” layout.  

“You got some hot tires and I love controlling races, (because) everything comes so much easier. “There’s no dirty air, you can see what’s dirty on the track and it’s beautiful,” said van der Zande, lone newcomer to team-owner Wayne Taylor’s reigning IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship  organization and the defending Rolex 24 winners.

“Got a nice lead and it’s all about nursing the car, being sensitive to the curbs and to the car,” van der Zande said. “It’s been a long wait getting into the car for the first green flag of the year. Around me the other P (Prototype) cars were quite aggressive.”

Castroneves, who was pipped off-pole and relegated to P2 on the grid by dan der Zande on Thursday, admittedly was caught up by the rush of competing in his new Team Penske entry as a full-time driver.

“I was pushing hard until I realized it’s a 24-hour race,” said Castroneves, whose fulltime Verizon IndyCar Series career ended at the close of the 2017 season. “It’s difficult, as a competitive nature but you got to think straight and let it go. Going to take time to adapt to that. But the fire and spirit is still there and I don’t want to let go with that.”

Castroneves noted that co-driver Ricky Taylor _ who shared the 2017 championship with brother Jordan in a Cadillac Prototype _  has been sick this week with the flu. “When Ricky jumped in he couldn’t close the (door) latch and had to do an extra pit stop and lost a lap,” Castroneves said. “It’s OK. I have the best guys in the pits with strategy. Got to adjust a little bit the car, the tire pressure, so when Graham (Rahal) comes in we can get our lap back. We want to save Ricky (for the final stint).”

During his presser, Taylor assured everyone he’s good to go. “I did two and-a-half stints and I feel fine,” Taylor said. “Hopped in, first thing the door won’t close. I kept pulling on it but it didn’t seem to want to latch. Something must have been bent or stuck. We got back out and ran around for about an hour-and-a-half and got our lap back. So we’re in the fight again.”

Taylor said he began feeling sick on Wednesday and texted Team Penske President Tim Cindric at 1 a.m. Thursday, basically leaving Castroneves to qualify the car. “I came out of hiding this morning,” Taylor said. “No matter how sick I was I wanted to do my three hours. I think I was lucky with it coming on Wednesday night. This is the first day I’ve felt like myself. So as far as I know we’ve got three healthy guys.”

Castroneves promised he would be ready for his next stint. “I’m going to have a massage _ Indy car don’t have massage _ I’ll definitely take advantage of that,” Castroneves joked. “I’ll get something to eat. But I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep so in about an hour I’ll probably be ready.”

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Formula One superstar Fernando Alonso is a bonafide open-wheel rainmeister, but that doesn’t  necessarily mean he was praying for the shower that started around 7:45 p.m. (EST).

“That could be a mistake,” said Alonso, competing in the Rolex 24 for the first time in the No. 23 Ligier LMP2 fielded by United Autosports alongside Phil Hanson and Lando Norris. “Sometimes when it rains and you have a good opportunity to push, if you are overconfident and overdrive the car that’s where the mistakes come. We need to stay fresh, relaxed and if tomorrow morning we get some rain…we need to take it easy and go stop-by-stop. I have no experience here with Continental (rain) tires, no experience in the wet here. But we need some other factors to be competitive and that factor could be the rain.”

Alonso, a two-time F1 World Driving Champion from Spain, said the team’s focus is to remain on the lead lap in the competitive Prototype field. “Running with the other Prototypes, I think the BOP (balance of power) will make it hard for us to overtake the other Prototypes. We will have to compensate with strategy. I had no big surprises. I had many good advices from experienced people we have on the team and more or less I was expecting what we had. The start was well and running with the Prototypes was close…that was good.

“Traffic was difficult and it’s the same for everyone. Some of the laps you get blocked by a GTD (Grand Touring Daytona car) and some car may surprise you with different lines. The following laps, maybe you recover everything. You have to take advantage of those opportunities and be as efficient as possible every lap.”

As was the case last May when Alonso competed in his first Indianapolis 500 and oval race, he was a crowd magnet during pre-race ceremonies. “I think I will enjoy the next couple of hours,” Alonso joked. “From 1:30 p.m. on the pit lane was very crowded and it was difficult to debrief. And then two press conferences…and now this.” Still, Fernando complained with a smile.

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Porsche factory driver Earl Bamber was among those impacted when the German manufacturer announced last July it would be leaving the World Endurance Championship at the end of the 2017 season for a gradual transition into Formula E competition beginning in 2019.

Bamber won the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans with Nico Hulkenberg and Nick Tandy and repeated in the French classic last June with Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley. While shelving its 919 Hybrid Prototype program, Porsche has maintained its focus on international GT racing, concentrating on using the 911 RSR in the GT class of the FIA World Endurance Championship as well as the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and other long-distance classics.

To that end, Bamber is competing in this weekend’s Rolex 24 At Daytona in the No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR fielded by the Porsche GT Team.

“It’s fantastic to come back into the U.S. and to be back in GTLM (class) because really I feel that I grew my career starting in the Porsche Carrera Cup and then Supercup and finally into the GT program,” said Bamber, a 27-year-old native of New Zealand. “And then someone had the crazy idea to loan us out, Nick and myself, to Prototype racing for a little while. But I’ve always considered myself a GT driver on-loan to do the Prototype. Even managed to do the Petit Le Mans last year as a buildup to this year.

“Unfortunately, when our (Prototype) program stopped last year, we had a quick discussion on what would you like to do in 2018 and immediately it was pretty clear to me that I want to come back and race in the U.S. because I feel it’s fantastic, pure racing. You know, GTLM is one of the toughest fields in the world and (there is) an added bonus for us in the U.S. to take the home team and take on the challenge of going to Le Mans is going to be very exciting.”

The 510-horsepower Porsche race cars from Weissach celebrated their race debut at Daytona International Speedway one year ago. The No. 911 RSR is being shared here by Patrick Pilet, Tandy and Frédéric Makowiecki. The No. 912 Porsche RSR is being wheeled by Bamber, Laurens Vanthoor and Gianmaria Bruni. 

With 22 overall and 77 class victories, Porsche is the most successful OEM in the history of this race.

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Nobody at Corvette Racing has done more to shape the marque’s endurance racing history than Program Manager Doug Fehan. Corvette began celebrating its 20th season of competition with this Rolex 24, and Fehan met the media on Friday with some fast facts linking the bright yellow No. 3 and No. 4 C7.Rs competing in GTLM to the various models parked in the Corvette Corral.

“We have to think about something here when we talk about Corvette Corral,” said Fehan, noting that General Motors does not advertise the Corvette on either TV or in traditional mass print media.

“In our last full year of production, we built and sold 40,689 Corvettes,” said Fehan, his deep voice rising for emphasis. “For all intents and purposes, our advertising and marketing is here at the racetrack and at the Corvette Corral. When a marketing department talks about ‘knowing their customer,’ they can tell you that he or she is 54-years-old, has an average income of $105,000, two kids in college and one pet. At Corvette and Corvette Racing, we know our customers as Jim and Charley and their dog, Herbie…all of which at some point in time we have autographed or autographed something for them.

“The Corvette Corral gives us a very unique glance into our customer. It gives us the ability to drive that passion in them to continue to buy our product. We are here for one reason _ to sell cars. That’s the bottom line. We just happen to use one of the most exciting environments in the world to do so. It’s been very effective for us at Corvette Racing.

“The Corvette Corral is far more than just glad-handing. It’s our marketing tool. We bring those customers in and we make them feel part of our family. We have achieved that, and those sales numbers are a testament to that. The Corvette Corral is an invaluable tool for us to sell vehicles.”

The GTLM pole-winning No. 3 Corvette is being shared here by Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Mike Rockenfeller. The No. 4 car is being wheeled by Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Marcel Fassler.

It’s been a fantastic journey for the last 20 years,” said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet U.S. vice president, performance vehicles and motorsports. “There are some Corvette customers in the Corral this weekend who were here with Doug and I in 1999. They parked their Corvettes on the backstretch. We rented two suites that used to be back there, and they stayed up with us all night in support of us. Many of them are still here, and there are a lot of new ones who joined us along the way.”

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Katie Brannan, GAINSCO Racing’s public relations rep, likes to brag that the Dallas-based auto insurance company activates its corporate sponsorship program “as well as anyone I’ve seen.”

As proof, a tent-full of executives and invited agents joined Bob Stallings, GAINSCO’s executive chairman, and the four drivers wheeling the No. 99 “Red Dragon” Prototype fielded in the company’s new partnership with JDC-Miller MotorSports for a private dinner program Friday night. Stallings introduced native South African Stephen Simpson, native Russian Misha Goikhberg, Chris Miller of Minnesota and Gustavo Menezes of Venice Beach, Calif., to the crowd and presided over a Q&A session.

The program at a restaurant at the Hammock Beach Palm Coast resort concluded with Stallings summoning the entire group into a circle where they linked up by joining hands (or the nearest shoulder). Stallings then coached them through a team-building cheer:

QUESTION: “Who’s better than us?”ANSWER: “Nobody!”

QUESTION: “Who’s better than us?” ANSWER: “Nobody!”

QUESTION: “Who’s going to win this race?” ANSWER: “GAINSCO!”

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Five-time overall Rolex 24 champion Scott Pruett was presented  a chunk of the Daytona International Speedway’s old start/finish line and a scrapbook of his career at the “World Center of Racing” during a brief ceremony in the infield media center on Thursday. Pruett, 58, will cap his 50-year career in motorsports in this race sharing the No. 15 Lexus RC F GT3.

“There are special places and there are special things that you do, and when I look back one of those places has been Daytona, without a doubt,” said Pruett, whose five overall Rolex 24 wins are tied with Porsche ace Hurley Haywood. “That’s why when we took a serious look at this season and my retirement and what I was going to do there was one obvious choice. It’s just an incredible racetrack amongst all these incredible drivers and these hard-core fans. I mean when you were here last year and saw all the rain, you saw the fans hanging in here and just rooting everybody on.

“That’s what Daytona’s been about for me and I’m trying to take in and savor every moment of this weekend. Hope to finish off this last race fighting for a win. Thanks guys!“

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, January 27 2018
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