James Hinchcliffe

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The one sure thing about the Rolex 24 At Daytona that starts this afternoon is that no one is sure who will win.

The twice-around-the-clock sports car race on Daytona International Speedway’s 3.56-mile road course features all-new cars in its premier Prototype class. The Daytona Prototype cars of the past are extinct, in favor of the new Daytona Prototype international (DPi) formula regulated by national sanctioning group IMSA competing alongside the P2 cars under scrutineering from the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) that oversees international competition such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Since none has yet to complete a 24-hour event in anger, it leaves a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety heading into the marquee event that signals the start of the global motorsports season each year. Even retired Verizon IndyCar Series driver Dario Franchitti, an overall Rolex 24 winner in 2008 who’s serving as the grand marshal today, can’t wait to see it play out.

“It’s going to be an interesting one obviously with the new DPi cars going against the P2 cars,” Franchitti said this morning. “That’s going to be a very interesting battle. The DPi cars look fabulous; they really look like proper racing cars. Being new cars, though, are they going to last 24 hours?

“All of endurance racing now has come down to sprints,” the four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner added. “You can’t afford to be in the pits for 10 laps fixing a gearbox or fixing an issue. You’re going to have to have a clear day to be in contention for the win, I would say.”

Two of the 12 Prototype entries feature current Verizon IndyCar Series drivers: James Hinchcliffe of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Spencer Pigot of Ed Carpenter Racing. They are teammates this weekend with the Mazda Motorsports program, Hinchcliffe in the No. 70 Machine Grey car and Pigot in the No. 55 Soul Red entry.

“It’s an exciting time for the championship and the Prototype class in particular,” Pigot said. “Everyone’s got new stuff and it’s very much an unknown, I think. Who’s going to be necessarily quick, who’s going to be a little slower, who’s going to have issues? A lot of that stuff we won’t really find out until (today) or Sunday. We’re just going to try and focus on our own race and try to make sure the two Mazdas come home at the end of the day.”

The Mazdas qualified ninth and 10th on Thursday, some speculation centering on the team opting for a conservative run at speed in exchange for anticipated durability over 24 hours. Hinchcliffe said the team has made strides since the Roar Before the 24 test sessions three weeks ago, but there’s only so much preparation that can be done. Hence the sense of anxiety until the green flag waves.

“It’s always more nerve-racking because the big worry is reliability, it’s not necessarily pace,” Hinchcliffe said. “Nobody’s run their cars for close to a 24-hour period to know that that $1.50 part might rattle loose and end your day. That’s the big fear is that all this effort goes in for something so menial (to go wrong) because we just haven’t had the chance to troubleshoot and see what could be an issue.

“You’re kind of on eggshells about that, but we do what we can and prepare as best we can. Everyone’s in the same boat so this is as wide open of a year certainly as I’ve ever been here.”

The Prototype class features six other drivers with past Indy car experience, including defending Rolex 24 winner and 1996 Verizon IndyCar Series co-champion Scott Sharp and Ryan Dalziel in the No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan DPi this weekend. Others with Indy car experience in the category are Christian Fittipaldi (No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi), Neel Jani (No. 13 Rebellion Racing ORECA P2), Mike Conway (No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi) and RC Enerson (No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier P2).

Pigot grew up an hour from Daytona in Orlando and would like nothing more than to take the checkered flag come Sunday afternoon.

“I’ve been coming here for a long time,” the 23-year-old said. “I’ve stayed up all night at the track, watched the entire thing a few times and always enjoyed coming here as a fan. Now to race in it is very special.

“It’s one of the biggest races in the world. There’s so many guys here that have accomplished so much in this sport all over the world. To compete against them and hopefully beat them would be extremely satisfying.”

Live television coverage is available for 23 of the race’s 24 hours, beginning on FOX from 2-5 p.m. ET today. Coverage moves to FS2 from 5-10 p.m. today and then from 11 p.m. today until 1 p.m. Sunday. The final two hours of coverage, from 1-3 p.m. Sunday, can be seen on FS1.

The current Verizon IndyCar Series drivers competing in the Rolex 24 gathered for a prerace photo this morning (below). From left to right, they are: Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Pigot, Conor Daly of AJ Foyt Racing, Hinchcliffe, Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing, Sebastien Bourdais of Dale Coyne Racing and Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport.

2017 INDYCAR Drivers at Rolex 24 at Daytona