January 2015 and time for the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. Now in its 53rd running, the Rolex 24 opens the North American professional racing season. It's also the start of season two of the Tudor United Sports Car Championship and a year when people on both sides of the track are expecting the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) to deliver close, fair racing among all classes.
BMW and Team RLL (Bobby Rahal, David Letterman, and Mike Lanigan) are entering the seventh season of competition since their partnership began in the 2009 American Le Mans Series. Originally running the E92 M3 GT2, they took two titles in 2010 (team, manufacturer) and all titles (driver, team, manufacturer) in 2011. The team moved to the Z4 GTE in 2013, with stiff competition from Corvette, Porsche, Ferrari, and (later) Dodge's Viper. Despite a one-two finish in Long Beach in only their second race with the Z4, BMW Team RLL only managed one more win that season and has yet to win since—although they have scored multiple podiums. Last year in Daytona, they finished second and fourth in class, with the second-place car finishing only 2.5 seconds behind Porsche's North American works team. This year, they're aiming for the top step.
To be more competitive, the team has brought two brand-new Z4s, presumably in the final year the model will be raced. "It's an expensive option, but as mileage builds on a race car, it tends to loosen up—regardless of its full rollcage—creating an inconsistent setup," says Thomas Plucinsky of BMW North America. "When you're talking about one tenth, or even hundredths of a second, that can make all the difference."
Changes were also made to the body this year. Jens Marquardt, director of BMW Motorsport, says: "I promised the guys in the U.S. that we were really going to work hard over the winter and try to make the package quicker. Today, we are a little closer and certainly not being eaten alive on the top straights like we were last year."
To help the top speed, new nose contours were developed and, after meetings with IMSA over Balance of Performance regulations, a different air restrictor was allowed to bring more air to the engine while a smaller gurney wing means less downforce. As a result, BMW Team RLL has qualified fourth and seventh, both cars roughly half a second behind the pole-sitting Corvette C7R in an incredibly tight field. Bill Auberlen, who put the number 25 car in seventh, says: "Where you qualify here doesn't matter. Give it a couple of hours, let everyone start to weed themselves out, and we will claw our way to the front."
Saturday, the day of the start. Teams across classes are already in their garages at eight in the morning, making final preparations. Race fans are preparing themselves, too, engaging in their first Bud Lights at the infield's Budweiser Bistro. It's pouring with rain, and Ferrari Challenge competitors are having a hard time staying off the grass in their 458s, creating an exciting appetizer for the early-bird audience. There's a notable late arrival for many spectators, though, as the main attraction doesn't start until 2:10 in the afternoon. The rain is enjoyed while it lasts; there is no forecast of wet weather for any of the 24-hour race.
At 11:30, only a thin cloud blows across the blue sky and the track is drying rapidly. BMW Team RLL rolls out their cars. Crowds move in as close as possible, pulling out their iPhones, pointing to any exposed components. Technicians resort to yells of "Out of the way." This encourages one gray-bearded man wearing a Corvette-logoed jacket and hat to utter, "Oh, it's only a Bee-Em-Dubya" in a thick Southern accent, prompting chuckles from the team.
Once the cars line up on the pit-lane starting grid, fans jostle to get a better look. They are allowed to walk around the start/finish section of 18-degree banking and pick up any of the available Sharpie pens donated by Daytona to write a personal message on the all-important line. The grass bearing the Daytona logo has become mud from the earlier rains, leaving it pockmarked as thousands of feet made their way across. But the track is now bone dry.
At 2 p.m., everyone is in position. Bobby Rahal stands in his white team jacket looking out at the track. Resorting to reading glasses while looking at the screens, he evokes a brief image of Indycar Bobby, the champion racer who looked like an accountant.
The team makes a decent start and remains competitive throughout the first quarter of the race, shuffling anywhere from second to eighth as cars drop out, pit, or encounter mechanical issues. After eight hours, the only problem arises on the number 24 car driven by John Edwards, Lucas Luhr, Jens Klingmann, and Graham Rahal. The right rear damper bolt comes away, costing three laps in the pits to fix.
Trouble hits the car again only a couple of hours later. While under restart after a yellow, Edwards is hit hard from behind and sent into the car in front, damaging both ends. The crew rushes to the garages as Edwards pulls in. It's a chaotic scene as mechanics climb over and under the car to assess and fix it, watched closely by fans.
Some damage is easily fixed. The bent exhaust pipe is straightened with pliers. Changing out the front right brake rotor is only a 2-minute procedure. Rotors, calipers, and brake pads are all one unit pressed together, with only two bolts to screw in, and a pre-bled pressurized brake line is ready to connect. Broken steering racks are more difficult to remedy. Also, the rear bumper isn't attaching properly, despite all the whacking the mechanics are giving it.
At last, nearly 40 minutes later, the air jacks are let up and the car crashes back down to the concrete floor, cracking off the ill-fitting bumper in the process. "Screw it" seems to be the feeling and the car is released without the bumper. This has cost the team 29 laps.
Meanwhile, the number 25 sister car is doing well and challenging a Corvette C7R for the GTLM class lead. Driven by Bill Auberlen, Dirk Werner, Augusto Farfus, and Bruno Spengler, it finally captures top spot around four in the morning and keeps it for the next four hours. Shortly after eight, with Spengler behind the wheel, the brakes fail. There's some rear end damage, but nothing too serious. The car pits for a brake change and loses position before going back out minus its rear bumper, just like its sister.
Two hours to go and 25 is leading the class. But a subsequent mistake in the pits drops it back to second. With 17 minutes left, a yellow flag brings Werner closer to the Corvette for one last challenge.
"I can see him," says Werner, his strong German accent barely decipherable over the radio.
"Can you smell him?" Rahal says.
"Yes, I can."
"Smells good, doesn't it?"
The Z4 and the Vette are the only two left on the leading lap of the GTLM class, with another Corvette a few laps behind in third. Number 24 is in fourth, having made up six laps, but still more than 20 laps adrift. It's a mad dash at the end, with an expanding and contracting gap keeping the two apart. Ultimately, it's not enough. BMW Team Rahal finish 0.478 seconds behind the class-winning Vette. It's a consecutive second and fourth GTLM finish at Daytona. "We're getting closer every year," Rahal says. "Maybe next time we'll get to the top of the podium."
Last year, after the same finish, the team went on to reach the podium at the 12 Hours of Sebring and led the championship after two rounds. The team is optimistic about that upcoming endurance race and has another historic incentive: It'll be the 40th anniversary of BMW Motorsport's first victory in North America at the same venue.