DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In his final start as an IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship driver, Cooper MacNeil co-drove the No. 79 WeatherTech Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 to the GT Daytona Pro (GTD PRO) class victory today alongside Mercedes factory drivers Maro Engel, Daniel Juncadella and Jules Gounon in the 61st Rolex 24 At Daytona.
MacNeil claimed a prize he has coveted for more than a decade – the Rolex Cosmograph watch reserved for winners since the legendary Swiss firm took over as the title sponsor of the Daytona 24 Hours in 1992. McNeil earned his 12th IMSA race win, sharing honors with the WeatherTech Racing team’s season-long drivers Juncadella and Gounon and endurance ace Engel.
It was Engel who handled the anchor stint, engaging in a fierce battle with the No. 14 Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 driven by Jack Hawksworth and Antonio Garcia in the No. 3 Corvette Racing Corvette C8.R GTD. Garcia eventually prevailed for second place, finishing 3.916 seconds behind Engel with co-drivers Jordan Taylor and Tommy Milner. Hawksworth, Ben Barnicoat and Mike Conway completed the podium for Lexus.
“Man, those restarts are like war,” said Engel, who won in IMSA competition for the third time – his second at the Rolex 24. “It was a big dogfight with the Lexus and the Corvette. But we got there in the end, with big thanks to my teammates and the whole WeatherTech family.
“I knew the pressure was on, but I woke up yesterday morning and told the guys, ‘I’m feeling it,’” he continued. “The last stint was definitely exciting in the car, and I can only imagine what it was like watching from outside.”
Juncadella and Gounon both earned their first IMSA race wins.
In late 2022, MacNeil announced plans to step out of the car after the Rolex 24 to focus on the future of WeatherTech Racing and the WeatherTech brand’s relationship with IMSA. His victory came in his 13th attempt at Daytona.
“This is lucky number 13 for me and my last IMSA race, so I couldn’t be happier than to win here with WeatherTech, Mercedes and Proton Competition,” MacNeil said. “It was a difficult race here at Daytona, and everyone strives to put everything together to win the Rolex watch. We came close in 2015, finishing second, but this year the Mercedes was in contention the whole time. We put the best AMG drivers in the car we could find in the world, and they drove their butts off.”
MacNeil admitted that knowing this would be his last race start, he battled some emotions – even once he was in the car.
“Once the helmet goes on, that nonsense goes out the window and you just focus on the job at hand,” he said. “My job was to go out and execute, and to keep the car clean, on the lead lap and in contention for these guys to fight for the win, as you saw Maro do.
“Winning my last IMSA race is tremendous.”
Historic Win for Aston Martin in GTD
Aston Martin has competed in endurance races at Daytona International Speedway since 1964. Today, Marco Sorensen and Heart of Racing teammates Roman De Angelis, Darren Turner and co-driver/team manager Ian James earned the legendary English marque’s first Rolex 24 victory in 13 attempts by claiming the GT Daytona (GTD) class trophy.
The Heart of Racing pit crew lifted De Angelis and the No. 27 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 into the class lead with a superior pit stop with a little more than 2 1/2 hours remaining in the 24-hour endurance chase.
After taking over the wheel, Sorensen briefly lost the top overall GT spot to Jack Hawksworth in the No. 14 Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 from the GTD PRO class on a restart 40 minutes later. Hawksworth surrendered the point back to Sorensen five laps later and the No. 27 Aston held off the GTD PRO class-winning No. 79 Mercedes-AMG GT3 over the final 80 minutes to claim overall GT and GTD class honors.
Making Aston Martin’s day even sweeter, the No. 44 Magnus Racing Vantage GT3 with drivers John Potter, Andy Lally, Spencer Pumpelly and Nicki Thiim finished second in GTD, crossing the line 5.363 seconds behind the No. 27. The win follows up Aston’s first Daytona podium, a second-place finish achieved last year by the Magnus car.
“First win for Aston in nearly 60 years? I don’t know what to say,” Sorensen said. “We won the Daytona 24 outright, ahead of everyone (in GT). Every time I saw yellow flags toward the end, I was so upset. It was one big fight, and I’m just so happy we could bring it home.
“Amazing job by The Heart of Racing – I couldn’t have done it without them,” he added. “For the last four hours, Roman and I were flat out. We couldn’t have done any more. It’s very emotional – really, really special.”
The victory was the first in WeatherTech Championship competition for Sorensen; Turner and De Angelis own six career wins each, with James raising his total to 11. James’ triumph came in his 21st Rolex 24 start.
Defending IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup GTD champion Inception Racing took third place with a McLaren 720S GT3 shared by Brendan Iribe, Frederik Schandorff, Ollie Millroy and Marvin Kirchhofer, followed by Sheena Monk, Katherine Legge, Mario Farnbacher and Marc Miller in the No. 66 Gradient Racing Acura NSX GT3.
The top four cars in GTD all completed 729 laps of the 3.56-mile, 12-turn Daytona road course.
In one of the most emotional storylines of this year’s Rolex 24, Winward Racing’s amazing quest for victory fell just short. After driver Lucas Auer was hospitalized Thursday when he crashed the GTD pole-winning No. 57 Mercedes, a new chassis was trucked from Texas to Daytona and completed at 4 a.m. race morning.
Russell Ward, Philip Ellis, Indy Dontje and last-minute substitute Daniel Morad quickly moved into the top five and held second place when the car suffered a mechanical issue in the last half hour, dropping to 13th place in class.
“Gotta say hats off to the entire crew,” said Ward, a team co-owner. “That’s the most incredible race we’ve ever had, start to finish. We drove the wheels off it and the crew were just fantastic. A really sad way to end it, but definitely one we’ll remember.”
January 29, 2023
By John Oreovicz
IMSA Wire Service
Photos: Flagler News Weekly