Switching manufactures can be quite a learning experience – switching manufactures AND series is an entirely new world. After being crowned the 2015 Continental Tire SportsCar Series Champions, this is exactly what Stevenson Motorsports did during the off-season.
With ties to General Motors for nearly 10 years, the decision was not taken lightly, however, and was based on the fact that GM was between bodies on the Camaro. The idea of running the championship cars once again was not even a thought in the minds of Jon and Susan Stevenson; bigger and better was the direction they had intended.
In late fall, a deal was being done behind closed doors to move in a direction that would secure Stevenson Motorsports a spot in the premier endurance racing series in North America, The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
After securing a customer package with Audi North America, a pair of Audi R8LMS were ordered and arrived in late 2015. With such a change from their GM roots and existing knowledge base, the organization would be forced to hit the ground running and learn whatever they could about these two cars with only a few weeks between delivery and their first on track test session, The Roar before the 24.
Mike Johnson, Team Manager, explained the driver arrangements for the event. “All of our drivers return from the 2015 Camaro program, following Daytona the 6 will be rewrapped to match the 9, Matt Bell and Lawson Aschenbach will drive together for the remainder of the year, while Robin Liddell and Andrew Davis pilot the 6. We are very happy to have Dion Von Moltke, Boris Said, Tristan Vautier and Kenny Habul for the 24, they bring an extensive amount of experience and we are thrilled to have them as part of the team.”
Following a successful test in early January, here we stand, the 54th running of the historic, Rolex 24hr of Daytona. After the long hours of preparation, it was finally time to show the world that Stevenson Motorsports was here to compete and win.
A rain soaked track met drivers as they prepared for practice to kicked off Thursday morning. With minimal seat time in their new machines, this was drivers’ opportunity to become acclimated to their new machines. “We have only what we learned from the ROAR to go off of – the Audi are incredible – we will become more adjusted the more we drive” Stated driver Lawson Aschenbach.
Following the first two rounds of practice, the team was happy with the results. Johnson stated, “These practices are less about lap times and more about getting the drivers up to speed in the cars. Yes, drivers can work on simulators, but nothing compares to being on track, we are in a good spot and the lap times will only get quicker as we progress towards race day.”
As the third practice progressed, the weather resulted in slow times from the entire field as rain fell across nearly all of Florida. Although there was zero rain forecasted for race day, it was necessary to run these sessions to allow for drivers to learn the track and obtain a better understanding of the Audi’s capabilities.
As qualifying began, the skies opened and rain fell heavier than any other outing. It was a session filled with skids and offs from a number of competitors. Once again the GTLM and GTD cars posted the fastest times of the session, with the No. 6 claiming 15th, an unfortunate power steering failure required the team to pull the gearbox, thus causing the No. 9 to miss qualifying by a mere 5 seconds. Following qualifying Johnson stated,
“Today didn’t go quite as we had planned or hoped, we know we have fast cars in the dry and we know we have good drivers, so we are just going to keep working and moving forward.”
With a 24hr event, it is required that Silver and Bronze rated drivers participate in a mandatory night practice session. As moderate rain fell, the GTLM and GTD cars posted the fastest times of the session, with the No. 6and No. 9 Stevenson Motorsport Audi claiming the 7th and 10th quickest times respectively.
Friday morning, teams arrived to something entirely new – sunshine. This was a welcomed change and provided drivers the opportunity to experience the track in dry weather conditions, which would be the forecasted conditions for the race the following day.
When one arrives to the hallowed Daytona International Speedway the morning of the Rolex 24, there is a euphoric sensation in the air. It may be the history that has been written over the past 54 years or it may be the smell of barbeque pits in the air. Perhaps it’s a feeling that you are about to witness history being made.
As teams unload and prepare their chariots for battle while fans of all ages flock to the paddocks in hopes of obtaining a glimpse of their favorite team or driver. Fire breathing machines of speed sit dormant in their garages, waiting to be unleashed. Excitement fills the air as teams and fans enjoy the last few hours before history is written.
The fanfare and celebration prior to the green flag of the Rolex24 is something all race fans should experience in life. As the GTLM, GTD and Prototype Challenge cars are pushed out of their stables and onto the grid, fans pack the pits, patiently awaiting their opportunity to flock to the “ball field” that separates the front stretch of tri-oval and pit lane.
Once the gates are open, a flood of die-hard race fans make their way onto pit lane, lining the ropes while waiting for the celebration to begin. Suddenly, as the music blasts the focus turns from the cars to the main stage sitting on pit road directly in line with flag stand.
As each team is announced, the drivers of each respective car are called out and recognized as they emerge on stage. It is truly a celebration of these drivers and their hard work and determination to get them to this point.
In the distance, the thunderous sound of the SeaBreeze marching band grows as the Prototypes, lead by their drivers are pushed to the grid by their teams of mechanics. Flags of the various nations which represent where the drivers are from wave in the wind, the roar of the crowd as each are introduced gives you Goosebumps in excitement of what is to come.
As fans are herded off the track, the national anthem is sung, and the coast guard participates in the traditional flyover. It’s time for what we are all here to see – 24 hours of non-stop intense endurance racing. As “Mr. Endurance Racing” Alan Mcnish gives those famous words “Drivers Start Your Engines” the eruption of noise is incredible.
With cars beginning to roll off grid, a lone Ferrari of Risi Competione and the Audi R8LMS of Stevenson Motorsports are left stranded. New electronic systems, mandated in all cars, shut off all abilities to start if the on-board battery falls to 90% of full charge.
As the green flag waves, the 54th running of the Rolex 24 is underway and the No. 9 Stevenson Motorsports Audi is still sitting in the pits. After what seems to be an eternity, the team gets the car fired and off it goes, nearly 3 laps down. In terms on a 24-hour race, 3 laps down is no concern, as anything and everything can and usually does happen.
As cars began to spread out, the No. 6 powered its way through the field and up into P2. Through a number of pit stops the team worked to keep their quick pace and although pitting lost them time, they maintained a top 5 position in class for much of the first few hours.
As the sun began to set, teams pushed to keep their pace and remain on the lead lap. Through a number of restarts including one due to the No. 70 Mazda parking itself along the International Horseshoe, the team remained consistent.
With the darkness taking hold, teams began to settle in for the long night ahead.
The glow of headlights, the glimmering strips of colored LED’s lights the road course of Daytona, while the sound of the roaring Chevrolet V8’s, screaming turbo charged engines of BMW and Porsche, and the melodic growl of the Audi V10 filled the night air.
As the night progressed the racing intensified, bumping from other competitors attempting to pass or prevent from being passed, bruised and battered the machines of speed. A tap from behind dislodged the rear bumper of the No. 6 to the point of rubbing the rear tire enough that within only a number of laps a puncture occurred. Losing a lap while pitting under green was not horrible, however a second puncture shortly after, put the No. 6 down an additional 2 laps, as the team worked to reposition the body panel.
Additional cautions throughout the night helped the team regain a lap, allowing the No. 9 to get back on the lead lap and No. 6 to make it back to only 2 laps behind the GTD leaders. As the sun began to peak above the horizon, the team of tire changers, mechanics and engineers took what few minutes they could to get some sleep.
From a tire pillow to sleep while sitting up straight, every moment of time available for rest is a necessity.
Pink, orange, red and violet rays of sunshine lite the Florida sky as we approached the 15th hour of racing.
Working to continue regaining laps in the No. 6, while the No. 9 maintained their position on the lead lap, issues once again arose for the No 6.
Upon pitting in the 18th hour, the No. 6 encountered an issue with the drivers rear wheel becoming welded to the hub, no matter how hard mechanic beat on the wheel, it would not dislodge.
Following a triple stint on this individual tire, the No. 6’s luck continued to run out. With Matt Bell driving, an attempted pass by the No. 02 Chip Ganassi Daytona Prototype took out the right side suspension, as the DP miscalculated its turning around the international horseshoe and caused both cars to spin.
Limping the car back to the paddock, the Stevenson Motorsports mechanics, with help from Audi North America, replaced the broken suspension upright. While working to repair the damage it was time to remove the stuck wheel from the left side of the car. After hammers did nothing but shake the entire car, the final solution of cutting the wheel and then removing the entire brake disc was carried out.
11 minutes total was all it took to get the No. 6 back together and back on track, an incredible display of teamwork and never-give-up attitude. Unfortunately, as a result of their time off track, the No.6 was now 13 laps down from the leaders.
As the race continued, the emphasis switched from push towards the podium to finishing the race and collection of as much data as possible for the future. The No. 9 remained on the lead lap for a good period of time however was unable to compete with the front-runners, who were throwing down their fastest laps.
In the end, it was not mistakes by the team or drivers but attrition and unexpected circumstances that resulted in a less than ideal finishing position. “While the team and drivers did a great job, I’d have to say the race was a disappointment. We have the cars to run up front, but a few set backs eliminated our chances for a great result. From what we saw this weekend, it is going to be a very hard fought championship”, stated Johnson.
As the Stevenson Motorsports Audi crossed the line in 8th and 15th, Matt Bell stated, “The cars are incredible. They are fast and nimble for such a sizable car. This is just the beginning; we will take what we have learned from our first race in the new car and new series and work from there. It’s going to be a great year”