Acura, Shank, Helio sweep Rolex 24 as hybrid era begins

·5 min read

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Acura dominated the debut of hybrid engines in North American sports car racing with a 1-2 finish Sunday at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, where Helio Castroneves and the automaker won the prestigious endurance race for a third consecutive year.

Castroneves won the Rolex in 2021 in an Acura with Wayne Taylor Racing and won with Meyer Shank Racing the last two seasons. Castroneves, who turns 48 in May, was overcome with emotion after Tom Blomqvist closed out the victory.

The Brazilian then led his teammates, which included Simon Pagenaud and MSR newcomer Colin Braun, in his signature “Spiderman” celebratory climbing of the fence.

“I love climbing the fence with Helio,” said Pagenaud, who won for the second consecutive year and is teammates with Castroneves in IndyCar. Team owner Michael Shank said during Pagenaud’s final drive in the car, “Simon is driving the stint of his life.”

Castroneves acknowledged he got emotional at becoming the first driver to win three consecutive Rolex 24s.

“It's a very tough sport. You lose more than you win,” Castroneves said. “It did touch me. That's why I love this sport so much. It is very hard and when you get it, you celebrate."

Castroneves has been a huge part of building Meyer Shank Racing, which since helping Castroneves win a record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 in 2021 has added consecutive Rolex titles and the IMSA championship. MSR is now a two-car IndyCar program with Castroneves and Pagenaud and has a bona fide budding star in Blomqvist, who was rewarded with an IndyCar test by the team following last year's championship season.

“What a car we built; we had a duty to take it to the finish,” Blomqvist. “Then had to take it to another level to secure the win.”

The 29-year-old British driver has earned a starring role with Honda Performance Development.

“He's a nugget,” Shank said. “He truly believes he's the fastest guy out there. We're in the Tom Blomqvist business for a long time.”

Despite being the reigning champions, MSR and Acura were a bit of an unknown ahead of Daytona. The twice-round-the-clock endurance race this year marked the launch of a new hybrid era of racing, and the change in technology for IMSA's top GTP class makes it the only motor sports series in North America to race with hybrid engines.

The move has been a massive draw to automakers eager to compete in motor sports with technology that relates to its road cars. As such, the top GTP class doubled its manufacturers from last year's Rolex from two to four this season, and Daytona International Speedway officials said its crowd for the Saturday-to-Sunday race was the largest in its 61 years.

The fans came for a showdown between some of the top carmakers in the world.

Acura put forth a pair of entries with Michael Shank and Wayne Taylor, who partnered only last month with Michael Andretti. Porsche lured Roger Penske back to sports car racing with two cars, while BMW persuaded Bobby Rahal to move his program up to IMSA's top class. Cadillac came strong with three entries, two from Chip Ganassi Racing and a third from Whelen Engineering.

But the entire buildup to the launch turned into a nervous hand-wringing over durability concerns, as all nine GTP teams worried that the new technology and supply chain issues would prevent the cars from completing a 24-hour race.

“Ye who have little faith,” said David Salters, head of Honda Performance Development. “Apparently, our car can do 24 hours.”

Alas, one of Rahal's BMWs had an early mechanical problem, and then both of Penske's Porsches broke. It was a bitter blow for Porsche, which with Penske had primarily done all the development work for the GTP move to hybrid engines.

But Acura and Cadillac were able to manage their first race kinks, and a restart with under 30 minutes remaining had both Acuras and two Cadillacs in contention for the overall win.

It was Blomqvist, the main driver last year for the MSR team that won both the IMSA championship and the Rolex, closing it out in the No. 60 Acura. He held off Filipe Albuquerque in the Acura for Taylor/Andretti on the restart and Blomqvist pretty much coasted his way to the win.

Renger van der Zande and Earl Bamber finished third and fourth in Chip Ganassi Racing, but both their Cadillacs were more than 7 seconds behind Blomqvist.

The Rolex victory is the third for Shank, who built a tiny team into a motor sports player.

It was an enormous relief for Shank, who fights a constant complex that his team that competes in both IMSA and IndyCar isn't respected, and has felt tremendous pressure to deliver for Acura in this hybrid era. Shank wants MSR to be a two-car factory team, but Acura splits its two cars between Shank and Taylor. And Taylor just recently partnered with Andretti.

Shank insisted that every on-track session showed that MSR is a top-level team and Blomqvist won the pole while the No. 60 was fastest in nearly every session. It was so obvious that rival team owners admitted that their only shot to beat Shank was the Acura not making it to the finish.

___

AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports