29 Jan Race Report: Daytona 2018
An encouraging start with a spectacular finish for Winward/HTP Motorsport
There were mixed fortunes for the Winward/HTP Motorsport team at the opening round of the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge at Daytona International Speedway. An encouraging run for the #33 car of Damien Faulkner and Russell Ward came to a premature end just after the half-way mark of the four hour event when Ward was the innocent victim of an incident on the exit of Turn 1. The #57 Car of team owner, Bryce Ward and Indy Dontje finished in P5 after a stunning run by Dontje who moved from 22nd to 5th in the course of the last hour of the race. The team also took the spoils as the highest finishing AMG GT4.
The opening race week of the season began with Wednesday afternoon’s opening practice session. For Russell and Bryce Ward, it was a chance to add to the seat time they both got at the recent Dubai 24 Hours. For Dutchman Indy Dontje, it was a first chance to sample the infamous 31 degree banking at Daytona International Speedway. “Those initial laps on the banking were unbelievable,” explained the man from Alkmaar. “Everyone was telling me about it and I was pretty sure that I knew what to expect but the banking was really amazing and impressive. At the start, when I shifted on the banking I was losing the rear end a little but, that got my attention pretty quickly and kept me focused.”
The second practice session saw both the #33 and the #57 make solid improvements but both squads felt there was more to come and more changes would have to be made prior to Thursday’s fifteen minute practice session which, in turn, led straight into a similarly brief qualifying session for the GS Class cars.
The quarter hour qualifying session saw Damien Faulkner qualify the #33 AMG GT4 on the inside of the seventh row in P13 with his Dutch team mate alongside in fourteenth.
The opening laps of the four-hour BMW Endurance Challenge were relatively trouble free for both Faulkner and Dontje who came in under the fist Full Course Yellow to hand over to their respective team mates, Russell and Bryce Ward.
The younger Ward settled into a rhythm which saw him consistently post times on par with all of the drivers running ahead of him in the Top 10. As he gained in confidence he looked to challenge some of the more experienced professionals ahead of him. With close racing throughout the top 15 cars in GS there was a number of close calls. Unfortunately, on lap 55, Ward’s #33 car was caught up in an unfolding wreck on the exit of Turn 1. The head-on collision eliminated the car on the spot and brought an excellent run to a premature and frustrating end. The Texan looked for positives after a deflating opening round. “The car is really quick on the infield, but on the banking, without the draft we struggled. I think there is a little bit of work for IMSA to make the car competitive. The way that we drove and the way that the #57 drove was definitely podium worthy.”
The #57 car of Bryce Ward lapped solidly and consistently providing the team owner with an extended stretch of extremely valuable race laps in the brand new AMG GT4. On lap 66, he brought the car in and handed it back to his Dutch co-driver. The #57 car was now in P22 just off the lead lap. Two laps later a Full Course Yellow provided Dontje with the chance to get the ‘wave-around’ under caution which put the Mercedes on the tail of the lead lap with one hour and eight minutes to go. “It was my first experience of US safety car regulations and that was a strange experience. I’ve never been asked to pass the safety car before!”
His spectacular stint would see him briefly lead the race before his final pit stop. “The car was so easy on tires that we decided to just go for a splash of fuel on the last stop, jump the competition in the pits and then hold them off until the end,” explained Dontje’s co-driver and team owner, Bryce Ward. The strategy worked perfectly as Dontje rejoined in sixth position as he began what he later described as the “hardest ten minutes of my entire career in racing!” He was rewarded with a stunning fifth place finish and the kudos of being the top Mercedes in the GS field.
Round 2 of the 2018 Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge takes place at Sebring International Raceway on Friday, March 16th.