Getting a yellow flag right when you need it and charging back from behind is the ultimate moment for a driver, and that's maybe what would have happened at Daytona this weekend if a simple miscalculation hadn't forced a leading team out of contention for the overall win in the last twenty minutes of the 24-hour race.
The Rolex 24 at Daytona is the most grueling endurance race in America. It's the only full twenty-four hour professional endurance race we have over here and it's run on the high-speed Daytona road course. Because it happens before most racing seasons begin, this race attracts some of the most talented racers in the world from all different kinds of motorsport. NASCAR, IndyCar, Porsche Supercup and V8 Supercars stars showed up to race this weekend, along with several former Formula One drivers.
The level of competition is so high that the smallest mistakes can take you out of contention for the lead, and there are plenty of opportunities for error. The Rolex 24 is part of the International Motor Sports Association's TUDOR United SportsCar series, which has a rule book that is 131 pages long, even before all the additional bulletins and memos. When you're competing against other professional teams for an overall win, you have to mind every single piece of that rule book or face penalties can affect your race result.
The race features several different classes, including both GT cars that are closer to actual production cars as well as purpose-built prototype racers. Prototype is the fastest class that usually contends for an overall win of the Rolex 24.
Two different kinds of cars were included in the Prototype class when the United SportsCar series was formed from the merger of Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series: the much more modern P2 cars from ALMS and the relatively old school Daytona Prototypes.
The Wayne Taylor Racing team of Max Angelelli and brothers Jordan and Ricky Taylor was leading for much of the weekend in their Corvette Daytona Prototype. The Corvette DP is a car that shares some styling cues and mechanical similarity (including a rowdy 5.5-liter V8) to a Corvette, but is essentially a purpose-built race car.
If the Wayne Taylor Racing guys sound familiar, it's because we like these dudes. We've featured their off-track shenanigans a lot on Jalopnik, as they're a great team who doesn't take motorsports too seriously. They have fun with what they're doing, and it makes the whole sport a lot more enjoyable to follow as a result. They'd rather deal in photobombs than canned PR statements, which is exactly what racing needs more of.
While they suffered from electrical gremlins in practice, a reflash of a problematic system allowed the car to start working better during the actual race. WTR was on it from then on, staying in the top five or so for most of the race. In hour 20 of the race, Jordan Taylor was able to bump past Joao Barbosa in the Action Express Corvette DP to reclaim the lead.
Their competition was just as together, though, which is why Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing was able to pass the car with only a little over an hour of race time left in their Riley DP Ford Ecoboost. It was a relatively easy pass, though, and it seemed as if Jordan Taylor was confident that he could make up the lead in time. Jordan had been put back in the car until the end of the race, as he has a reputation on the team for turning fast laps while still minding fuel consumption.
With less than twenty minutes left in the race, the CORE Autosport car in the slower Prototype Challenge class caught fire beside the track, causing a full-course yellow.
Luckily for PC driver Colin Braun, he was able to escape the flaming car unharmed, however, his bad luck was just the chaos WTR needed to reclaim the lead. Cars bunched up behind the safety car, and Jordan was able to get right on the Chip Ganassi DP's tail for the restart.
Mid-way through the safety car, however, a call came over the radio for Jordan to come in for a driver change. They had hit the limit for the amount of time Jordan was allowed to spend in the car. The pits were closed because of the yellow flag, but unless they made a driver change then, they would face even stiffer penalties for Jordan being in the car too long.
With eleven minutes to go, Ricky Taylor got into the car. Because the performed a driver swap during a yellow flag when the pits are closed, they had to do a drive-thru penalty with five minutes to go. Because that entails going through pit lane during race time at the slower mandated pit lane speeds, the drive-thru combined with the driver swap itself were just enough of a timesuck for WTR to fall back behind Action Express Racing's #5 Corvette DP again. They finished third, all because of a miscalculation in the math.
Jordan Taylor got in the car just a tiny bit too early to make it through to the end of the race. Ricky estimated that the team was only five to ten minutes off from Jordan staying under the four hour limit. Why does anyone care, though?
IMSA race director Beaux Barfield explained that the rules on minimum and maximum drive time exist to keep things fair for competitors as well as for safety reasons. Minimum drive times are in place so that no team member under-contributes to a win. Minimums create a more level playing field for gentleman drivers, who may otherwise be forced into shorter stints to give more drive time to faster professionals.
On the flip side, the maximum drive time limit exists so that no one over-contributes, thus forcing teammates into too-short stints. The maximum exists for a second reason: safety concerns. Nobody wants to deal with the aftermath of driver fatigue, particularly in full 24-hour races like Daytona.
It's a fairly cut-and-dry rule: drivers can't be in the car for more than four hours out of a six-hour period. Where did the Wayne Taylor Racing crew go wrong, then?
According to Max Angelelli, "We schedule driver changes before, but tweak during the race. It depends on things like fuel saving, weather and other factors on who would need to get in the car." Jordan's last stint wasn't a last-minute tweak, though. "The plan was always, we'd know it would come down to making [the most of] a little bit of fuel," explained Ricky.
Every driver on a team usually has things that they're a little better at than their teammates, such as driving in the rain or preserving tires. While the Wayne Taylor Racing guys said that they feel confident trusting each other to bring the car home in one piece no matter what the conditions are, they also knew Jordan was the right man to get the car back into first place without running out of fuel.
Problem is, Jordan's last stint didn't quite fit the schedule as intended. "Nobody made a mistake, they calculated it," explained Ricky Taylor. "We knew about it for hours and hours and what we were planning to do. It was the way the fuel stint worked. We were just so busy thinking about the last stop, thinking about tires or no tires."
There's so much else to concentrate on during a race that they simply weren't paying enough attention to how long Jordan had stayed in the car, and how long he was about to stay in the car. Had Angelelli's stint before Jordan got in the car been a few minutes longer, they would have been in the clear.
"You can't drive four hours in a six hour period and I think we were creeping up on that," explained Jordan of the snafu. "We were right where we wanted to be... we had a stronger car on cold tires with restarts."
Unfortunately, this is the risk a team takes when they cut it this close to a stated limit on drive time: Sometimes, it doesn't work out. While a third place finish at the Rolex 24 is still impressive, to think it could have easily been an overall win is extremely frustrating for the team and their fans.