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Daytona 24 hours: can the new Ford GT win on its debut?

This weekend the Rolex 24 takes place in Daytona, and the Ford GT’s the big story

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This is the Ford GT that’s going to win Le Mans, right?

Well, that’s what they’re hoping. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Ford’s momentous victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours with the Ford GT40. It’s plundering as much time and effort as possible into ensuring its modern day successor - a racing version of the new Ford GT supercar - celebrates the landmark in finest possible style.

So what’s happening this weekend?

The Ford GT makes its competitive debut at the Rolex 24, a twice-round-the-clock race at Daytona in Florida. It’s the first round of the IMSA SportsCar Championship, which two GTs will be competing in all season. After IMSA’s fifth round in June, the intention is they’ll fly to France to meet two other GTs for an all-out attack on the Le Mans ‘GTE Pro’ class.

If you’re a sucker for romance, you’ll be hoping for a Ford GT victory this weekend. The GT40 won the very first Daytona 24 Hours in 1966, and five months later made history at Le Mans. Winning here would be a nice little practice run for the potential party in June.

Can it win overall?

The Ford GT can’t. The ‘GT Le Mans’ class it competes in at Daytona - like the ‘GTE Pro’ class at Le Mans - is a couple of rungs down the pecking order from the full-fat Prototype racers.

Ford immediately decided not to challenge for the big trophy: a ‘GTE’-class car is more relatable and relevant to road cars, says Ford VP Raj Nair, and the racing Ford GT has been developed in parallel with the new Ford GT supercar over the last 18 months.

It also means taking on Ferrari and its new 488 GTE racer, a tantalising recreation of the Ford v Ferrari rivalry that kickstarted the GT40 project all the way back in the sixties. This couldn’t happen in the classes above.

Ford can win overall, though, with its Riley-Ford Ecoboost prototype. Two of those will be running at Daytona, and one of them was the victor at the 2015 Rolex 24. They use the same 3.5-litre turbo engine as the Ford GT, so the powerplant is already proven.

How likely is a class win for the Ford GT?

We’re going to sit right on the fence, as it’s too hard to call. Ford is playing it cool, saying merely finishing the 24 hours is a result. But that’s what they would say. Early practice showings suggest that the GT will lag behind its competitors, while the cars have qualified 9th and 10th in their class (15th and 25th overall).

The BMW M6 GTLM (another debutant at Daytona) was fastest at the official pre-race test, with Porsche - whose Daytona record outstrips everyone’s - locking out the front row after some wet qualifying with its 911 RSRs.

But being led by early inklings isn’t necessarily wise: tight ‘Balance of Performance’ rules, which try to keep all the cars as close as possible to each other in pace, could punish anyone who looks to be notably faster than their opponents.

As such, we can’t know that any of the teams have properly shown their hand yet. Over 24 hours in Florida - starting on Saturday at 2:40pm EST (7:40pm in the UK) - we ought to know for sure exactly where this GT is likely to be punching.

Anything else I should be looking out for?

The IMSA series has more classes, and therefore a bit more variety, than Europe’s World Endurance Championship, and therefore the Le Mans 24 Hours.

A mixture of Prototype racers include those Fords - with Andy Priaulx, who’ll be driving a Ford GT at Le Mans, in one of them - as well as some elaborate Corvette racers and the DeltaWing, a firm TG favourite which continues to race in its own sub-class (and without a race number) thanks to Panoz.

A class called ‘GT Daytona’ features supercars being raced by more amateur drivers, and as well as Vipers, Astons and Ferraris, there will be the new Lamborghini Huracan GT3 and Audi R8 LMS. They won’t be fighting anywhere near the front, but they’ll be sounding mighty good. Something you can listen to yourself right here…

Keep checking TopGear.com for big news from the Daytona 24 Hours

Pictures: Jamey Price

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