Saturday, Jan 28

Ford Ponies up in Quest to Win Michelin Pilot Challenge Opener

IMSA Wire Tuesday, Jan 24 242
Ford Ponies up in Quest to Win Michelin Pilot Challenge Opener IMSA Wire Photo

A Ford hasn’t won an IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race at Daytona International Speedway since 2016. If testing during the recent Roar Before the Rolex 24 is any indication, that could change this week.

 

The blue oval turned the fastest Grand Sport (GS) class lap in four of the five test sessions that wrapped up Sunday. The only time a Ford Mustang GT4 didn’t set the pace was when rain ended practice early.

 

Luca Mars, a 16-year-old rising IMSA phenom, clocked the best overall lap of the weekend in the opening test session on Friday, at 1 minute, 53.042 seconds (113.373 mph), driving the No. 59 KohR Motorsports Mustang at the 12-turn, 3.56-mile Daytona road course. Mars also set the top lap in another session, with NASCAR drop-in Zane Smith (No. 42 PF Racing) and Michelin Pilot Challenge veteran Chad McCumbee (No. 13 McCumbee McAleer Racing with AEROSPORT) also putting Ford atop the scoring pylon in other sessions.

 

Mars, who’ll team with Bob Michaelian for the season in the No. 59 KohR entry, is optimistic for his and Ford’s chances in Friday’s four-hour race.

 

“This track really plays into Ford’s favor because the car just has a crazy midrange coming onto all the banking,” Mars said. “The car just takes off. I think a Ford can win here; hopefully it’s us.”

 

There are five Mustangs in the 32-car GS class for the season opener, the first of 11 races on the 2023 Michelin Pilot Challenge calendar. Aston Martin leads with eight Vantage GT4s entered while there are six Mercedes-AMG GT GT4s.

 

With the Volt Racing team and GS champion drivers Alan Brynjolfsson and Trent Hindman moving to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship this year, and with IMSA great Bill Auberlen focusing on the WeatherTech Championship as well, the GS season chase appears wide open.

 

Eric Foss and the No. 56 Murillo Racing Mercedes-AMG GT GT4 return after finishing second in GS last year. Foss earned a series-leading three wins in 2022 and is paired at Daytona with Jeff Mosing, who drove with Foss in four races last season.

 

Hagler, Lewis Bidding for TCR Championship Repeat

 

Meanwhile, in the Touring Car (TCR) class, Taylor Hagler and Michael Lewis will kick off their quest for a third consecutive season title for Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian, the team that’s won the last four class driver and team championships while also pushing Hyundai to the past three manufacturer crowns.

 

BHA trimmed its lineup in half this season, from six to three cars, and shifted the lineups outside the No. 1 Hyundai Elantra N TCR that Hagler and Lewis will share. Robert Wickens and Mark Wilkins won twice last season in the No. 33 Hyundai, but Wickens is paired in the car this year with Harry Gottsacker. Wilkins, the 2019 TCR champion when he co-drove with Lewis, moves into the No. 98 BHA Elantra with Mason Filippi.

 

“Going for a third (straight) driver championship is cool,” Lewis said, “but our first goal is to get Hyundai a manufacturer championship. We want to get that trophy for them, and then if Taylor and I can get a third one back-to-back, that’d be pretty cool. Or if Robbie and Harry can win it or Mark and Mason, that’s great too.”

 

Hagler continues to improve as a driver, to the point that Lewis has been impressed with her suggesting setup changes to make the car better. “She’s like another pro,” Lewis said, which could lead to even strong results.

 

“I’m getting a lot more comfortable and confident in the car,” Hagler said, “which just leads to better qualifying, which leads to better results. I think we’re in a good position but we have some pretty strong competition.”

 

The toughest competition from 2022 returns to try and dethrone Hagler, Lewis and BHA. Tim Lewis (no relation) and Roy Block, who won three races including Daytona and finishes second in points, are back in the No. 5 KMW Motorsports with TMR Engineering Alfa Romeo Giulietta Veloce TCR.

 

Also back in the 14-car TCR Daytona field is Victor Gonzalez, whose namesake team in the No. 99 Honda Civic FK7 TCR won twice in 2022 and wound up fourth in the final standings.

 

Gonzalez was quick in two of the test sessions over the weekend.

 

“I just want to be there at the end for the championship,” he said. “I think we’ve got the potential. (Co-driver) Karl (Wittmer) is back with us and I feel love to show that the small team can still do it. I told the guys that it’s good to win races but consistency is what’s going to win the championship. We always need to be in that top five, top three, and the championship will take care of itself.”

 

Practice for the BMW M Endurance Challenge starts Wednesday, with qualifying set for Thursday afternoon. The four-hour race starts at 1:45 p.m. ET Friday and streams live on Peacock.

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