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Driving Daytona for the very first time

TG speaks to Ford GT racer Harry Tincknell ahead of his first ever Rolex 24

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If it’s the last week of January, then it’s time for the first big race on the global calendar, the Rolex 24 at Daytona. A place where, if you listen carefully, you can hear the roar of the race cars before you even get off the plane.

Daytona, the US’s 24-hour-long answer to Europe’s Le Mans, is where all the race teams and manufacturers show up with their freshly fettled race cars, keen not to let anyone know what they can really do until the flag drops. Until Saturday afternoon rolls around, there are support races and rumours, but not a lot else.

So we thought we’d spend some of the lead up to this historic race talking to someone who has never done the race before. We wanted to speak with a Ford GT driver, as a GT40 won the first ever 24-hour race here in 1966.

But also someone who has won at Le Mans, is British and has a strong chance of being a winner here, too. And there was only one guy who fit that bill. Step forward Harry Tincknell, driver of the Ford GT for the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing UK team.

TG: So Harry, what’s it like driving here for the first time?

HT: Daytona’s tricky… First time on the banking is crazy. I think it’s 41 degrees at the highest point [it’s actually 31 degrees]. It’s like Rockingham in the UK on steroids [that has 10 degrees of banking].

First time you see it on the flat it just doesn’t look right. And when you’re on it, you’re literally looking out the top left hand corner of the screen, as that’s the only way you can see. The whole right-hand side of the screen is full of Tarmac.

How fast are you going on the banking?

We are doing 180mph on the banking at the highest point. So it’s reasonably quick already, and when you’ve got a car on the inside and a car on the outside and you’ve got a spotter [a team member in the stands giving you intel on where the other cars are and track conditions ahead] in your ear, it gets quite edgy.

On the TV it looks like you’re following in formation but when you’re in the car, one inch to the left or the right and you’re going to have a 180mph crash.

How does it compare with racing in Europe?

It’s certainly quite different. Having a spotter is quite different. They are in your ear the whole way around which is initially quite distracting. But after a couple of laps you realise you need them more than anyone else in the team almost, as there are so many huge blind spots that you are entering at such huge speed you could easily make contact with someone and put both them and you out of the race.

In Europe generally, you’ve got a little bit more of a margin and it’s really under braking where it all gets close. But here it’s in a straight line.

Does the car feel different from the car you drove in Le Mans?

There are different Balance of Power regulations here. In the US they have a little bit more power, so you feel that, especially off the corners. Which is nice.

How can the specs be different – it’s the same car, isn’t it?

Daytona is run under IMSA specs, not WEC. So whatever happens over here doesn’t affect how it’s regulated there. All the cars are generally a little bit quicker over here, I’d say six to seven per cent, not enough to make them a completely different car, just a little bit crisper on the initial throttle and around 5mph quicker on top speed. It’s not huge but it’s enough to make a difference.

What about the speeds here compared with Le Mans?

The top speed here is around 185mph. There’s the bus stop chicane which slows us down on the banking. It would be closer to 200mph without that. Top speeds are quite close between classes. Even the prototype cars are not that much quicker. Maybe only 15mph quicker than the GT. The GTDs are very similar.

So it demands a lot of overtaking and a lot of race craft rather than just blasting past the slower cars like at Le Mans, while having the quicker cars blasting past us.

What about differences in race craft?

There’s a lot more overtaking in the corners and slipstreaming to pass here. When you come out of the tow and are edging past coming into the corner it’s a test to see who is going to brake latest.

In Europe, outside of your class battle, in the traffic the variance in speed is so much bigger it’s actually less of a challenge passing or being passed. Whereas over here you really have to stick it down the inside and put moves on people, even if it’s not for position.

So is more concentration required here in Daytona?

Definitely. There’s a big range of driving talent here across the whole field. There are some really slow guys. In the GTD and LMPC mainly, as they have to have more amateurs in those cars, whereas GTLM is just pros and in prototypes it’s mainly pros. So you have to keep your wits about you. In WEC the range of talent is a lot closer.

Anything other than the talent gap?

You have as many cars as you have at Le Mans but the track is three times shorter here. So you’re seeing each car much more often, you see the bad guys more often, because the track’s so much shorter. And in the infield it’s not particularly wide either.

Turn three is an OK corner for passing. But then it’s very tight so there’s not much room for more than two cars side by side. So without the cooperation of the guy you’re overtaking it becomes quite hard, especially with the speeds on the straights being so similar, it’s much more demanding and you’re definitely in traffic much more often than you would be at Le Mans.

Who do you see as your main serious competition?

It’s very hard to say until the race, especially with this being the first race of the season. Everyone’s had the off season to fettle the car, but equally no one wants to lose that advantage to BoP [you can be handicapped if you car shows too much speed in practice and qualifying].

So we really won’t know until we get to the race. I would say it’s probably between us, Ferrari, Porsche. The Corvettes did some quick times this morning in qualifying.  So it’s probably between those four manufacturers.

What’s the secret to winning in Daytona vs Le Mans?

In Europe, if you can get a lead through quick laps and stops, more often than not, you will keep that lead to the finish of the race. If someone has to catch a minute up on you they physically have to be a minute quicker driving and in the pit stops.

Here, every time there’s a yellow flag, everyone backs up. So you can have a one minute 40 lead and be two seconds behind a guy you’re about to lap, then the yellow caution comes out and he’s right behind you on your gearbox. So the whole mindset is completely changes over here.

Instead of it being an absolute sprint for 24 hours like at Le Mans, here you’ve just got to stay in the game until the last stint. It’s more of a Tour de France race here. You have your Chris Froome who sits at the back the whole way, looking after the bike and himself, the team do their job to get their main man into the car for the last hour and then you sprint. Everything is turned up to the max and you go.

Daytona is all about the last hour. But when you watch the races, there’s massive contact from the first corner and side-by-side racing the whole time, so it’s not like everyone just relaxes. We are all going flat out. But you just have to have that mindset in the back of your head.

This is your first time. How do you know all this?

It’s just what I’ve been told – remember, I haven’t actually done this race before!

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