and Seventh Place Race Finish in Wet and Wild Rolex 24 At Daytona
Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports finished a wet and wild 57th Rolex 24 At Daytona this weekend at Daytona International Speedway (DIS). The team endured beyond many of their competitors for a seventh-place GT Daytona (GTD) finish and runner-up honors in the opening round of the 2019 Michelin Endurance Cup on the first event weekend of IMSA’s 50th Anniversary Season.
Team drivers Ben Keating, Jeroen Bleekemolen, Felipe Fraga and Luca Stolz all led multiple laps in the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3 and successfully avoided any race-ending incidents in the final eight hours when all-day Sunday rain showers soaked the 3.56-mile DIS road course.
The No. 33 team and drivers also moved their Michelin Endurance Cup title defense off to a good start. After sweeping the Rolex 24’s opening two segments, the No. 33 ended the day tied at 14 points with the Rolex 24 Round winners who had the edge in the tiebreaker based on an overall higher race finish.
The No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3 was strong from the drop of the green flag, with starting driver Keating racing to the GTD lead from second on the grid on the first lap of the race. His quick pace was soon matched by teammates Fraga and Stolz, who followed in the driving order and joined Keating in leading multiple GTD-class race laps in their race-opening stints at the wheel of the No. 33.
Fraga, a Brazilian Stock Car champion making his Daytona debut, led for the first time early in hour five while Stolz first raced to the top spot just past the race’s seven-hour mark.
Keating’s full-season teammate Bleekemolen was deliberately left on the sidelines for the majority of race’s first half. The strategy move designed to keep the always-quick Bleekemolen fresh for the race finish proved to be a good one as the majority of his time in the No. 33 was in the challenging wet conditions.
For his first stint, Bleekemolen took over from Keating just before 1 a.m. EST Sunday and took his first lead of the race in the No. 33 just minutes past the 11-hour mark.
Bleekemolen was scheduled to be back in the No. 33 for the final fight to the finish only to see the second of two poorly-timed red flags for rain fly with two hours to go, and just minutes after Stolz continued after a spin. The race was eventually declared complete after a nearly two-hour wait and with the No. 33 in seventh place.
A second Mercedes-AMG GT3 was entered in the Rolex 24 by P1 Motorsports and the driving team of JC Perez, Maximilian “Maxi” Buhk, Fabian Schiller and Dominik Baumann.
The No. 71 frequently showed lead-lap pace, and Buhk moved the team’s No. 71 P1 Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3 into the GTD class lead six hours and 20 minutes into the race.
Buhk’s laps at the front of the field were the first time P1 Motorsports led an IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race, but the No. 71 team later encountered race-ending overnight issues. Schiller was at the wheel when he felt a strong vibration and quickly brought the No. 71 to the garage.
The team rejoined the race after losing some valuable time and several race laps, but soon made the strategic decision to retire from the race with the day-long rain showers imminent and no realistic chance to improve any finishing positions.
Next up for Mercedes-AMG Motorsport Customer Racing and the IMSA 50th Anniversary Season in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is the 12 Hours of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway, March 13 – 16.
Ben Keating, Driver – No. 33 Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3: “We had a car that was capable of winning today, and you don't get that very often in the Rolex 24. Mother nature did not cooperate with us. The rain was terrible. It was red flagged, and then green flagged and red flagged again, with cars flying off everywhere. It was pretty much just a lottery for when race control would throw the final red flag. We finished in seventh place. We weren't in the right spot when the lottery came out. We had a great car and great race, the Mercedes-AMG GT3 was unbelievably well performing in all conditions, but no control over when IMSA decides to call it a day. We just weren't in the right place at the right time. I'm disappointed, but we'll be back here next year.”
Jeroen Bleekemolen, Driver – No. 33 Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3: “I'm a bit frustrated because I think we had a perfect race. The drivers, the team, the Mercedes-AMG GT3, everything was great. We led so many laps. We were all here with the feeling that we could win. We know the chances are bigger not winning than winning, but you still go in with a lot of confidence and feeling like you are going to do it. But I knew before the race, even though I knew we were going to be strong in the rain, it was going to mix things up and be a little bit to deal with. At the moment, I'm still disappointed not to do it, but I can't blame anyone. Everyone did an outstanding job.”
Luca Stolz, Driver – No. 33 Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3: "Ben drove a great qualifying so we could start from second. In the race, it was actually very good. We were able to stay ahead and initially focused on the Endurance Cup points. At the six- and 12-hour marks we got full points, but the end was extremely difficult. There was a lot of aquaplaning and the view was miserable. My mistake cost us the lead then. Unfortunately, there was no chance to make up for it. I'm sorry for the team, which I would like to thank, and everyone did a great job!"
Maximilian Buhk – No. 71 P1 Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3: “We had to park the car during the night. We had a problem and we don’t know exactly what the reason is yet. There were vibrations, and we lost a lot of time when changing the brakes. With the rain that was forecast, we had no chance of making up for that. Nevertheless, racing for P1 Motorsports at Daytona was a great experience.”
Dominik Baumann – No. 71 P1 Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3: “Ending the race like this is disappointing. Basically, the pace was very good. We worked our way up from P22 to the front. A podium finish would have been within reach. In the weather conditions we had at the end, it was just a lottery anyway.”
Fabian Schiller – No. 71 P1 Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3: “My last stint started quite problematic because we had previously changed the brakes and that took longer than we thought. As a result, we lost two laps. We also had problems with a tire, which forced us to pit again. So, one after the other came and we suddenly were eight laps behind. Therefore, the team decided to retire from the race. It is a pity, but we will attack again in Sebring!”