24H Daytona, Quali - Ellis leads Mercedes domination in GT Qualifying
Tried and true trumped new and unproven Sunday at Daytona International Speedway in qualifying for the GT Daytona (GTD) and GTD PRO classes of the 61st Rolex 24 At Daytona, the opening round of the 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
Mercedes-AMG drivers produced the four fastest laps in the combined 15-minute session at the annual Roar Before the Rolex 24, led by Philip Ellis in the No. 57 Winward Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3. Ellis pushed the V-8-powered machine around the 3.56-mile, 12-turn Daytona road course in 1 minute, 46.093 seconds for an average speed of 120.799 mph to earn the Motul Pole Award for the GTD class and the overall top starting spot among the 33 GT entries.
That bested similar Mercedes driven by Fabian Schiller, Mikael Grenier and Maro Engel. Schiller came closest, clocking 1:46.312 in the No. 75 Sun Energy 1 GTD entry. Engel, who managed 1:46.784 in the No. 79 WeatherTech Racing entry, was the Motul Pole Award qualifier in the GTD PRO class.
There is no split grid between GTD PRO and GTD in WeatherTech Championship races, so all 33 cars (24 in GTD, nine in GTD PRO) will line up in order based on their qualifying times. Although the cars are identical, different driver rating requirements and the level of additional factory support involved makes it unusual for one GTD entry to beat the GTD PRO field, let alone three.
“The last half of the 2022 season, we were really, really strong, and the plan was basically to keep that momentum going into this year,” said Ellis, who earned his first career IMSA pole. “The team did great work in the offseason during the winter, and I think all the Mercedes did a great job.
“I had a great, great lap, and it shows. I’d say we had a perfect Roar.”
Ellis, who will be partnered in the Rolex 24 with Russell Ward, Indy Dontje and Lucas Auer, admitted he took some satisfaction from besting the top GTD PRO entries.
“Of course, it’s nice to be at the very top of the GT field, but it doesn’t really mean much,” Ellis said. “The cars are the same; we have the same BoP (Balance of Performance), so it’s not like it used to be with the old GTLM (GT Le Mans class).
“So this is the icing on the cake, but it doesn’t mean anything for the racing, unfortunately. It’s a completely different animal to go through the 24 hours.”
Engel – who along with Ellis, Ward and Dontje won the 2021 Rolex 24 in the Winward GTD entry – similarly downplayed the interspersing of GTD and GTD PRO cars in qualifying. Also a first-time IMSA pole winner, Engel’s co-drivers this year in the No. 79 WeatherTech Racing Mercedes are Cooper MacNeil, Daniel Juncadella and Jules Gounon.
“We definitely have an amazing car,” Engel said. “The Mercedes-AMG GT3 is a car that’s well adapted to all forms of GT racing, whether long-distance or the sprint rounds. It’s always a car that gives the driver confidence, and I think all four teams did a really good job today.
“There was some room for me to improve in that qualifying session, but it was still good enough for pole,” he added. “So that’s great. It’s a huge field of GT cars, and being at the sharp end is good for the start and trying to stay out of trouble.”
The fastest non-Mercedes qualifier was Ross Gunn in the No. 23 Heart of Racing Aston Martin Vantage GT3 in the GTD PRO class at 1:46.825. Kyle Marcelli, who set the early pace at 1:46.867 in the No. 93 Racers Edge Motorsports with WTR Acura NSX GT3 (GTD), rounded out the top six.
Cars with new models for 2023 to the WeatherTech Championship include Lamborghini, Ferrari and Porsche. The top Lamborghini Huracán GT3 EVO2 qualified 14th among the GT cars (Andrea Caldarelli in the No. 63 for Iron Lynx, 1:48.233, sixth in GTD PRO), one spot ahead of the highest-placed Ferrari 296 GT3 (Antonio Fuoco, 1:48.309, in Cetilar Racing’s No. 47 GTD entry).
The seven examples of the new 992-generation version of the Porsche 911 GT3 R all qualified toward the back, led by defending Rolex 24 GTD class winner Jan Heylen and the No. 16 Wright Motorsports Porsche with the 21st fastest lap (148.942). Last year’s GTD PRO winner at Daytona, the No. 9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche, qualified 22nd Sunday by Laurens Vanthoor (1:48.977).