today is Jun 08, 2023

Who turned the heating off in Florida this week? I headed to the Rolex 24 for a fourth time but with a different hat on than usual, fanboying on Saturday and Sunday with friends rather than working during the race itself.

All of my previous visits had involved some cold nights or wet weather, but nothing as cold as the temperatures that hit Daytona Beach – and most of the rest of Florida – over the weekend.

I managed to buy one of the last bobble hats in the circuit on Saturday morning, as well as a pair of weird gloves, but anyone deciding they were too cold after the start of the race were struggling to find anything of the sort still available. One friend had to resort to a trip to the fishing store across International Speedway Boulevard, but were laughed at when they asked if there were any scarves left.

It might have been easier to go in search of warmth earlier than we did, but the problem was, this race is just so mesmerizing. Sitting in the main grandstand, the view of basically the whole circuit means you can always follow battles, see where prototype drivers are going to come up against challenging pockets of traffic, and spot incidents wherever they happen.

I’ll admit I left the track after about five hours of racing to find dinner and warm up, then returned to just catch the end of the fireworks (having thought they were an hour later) at 10pm with a great view from high in the grandstand, even though it was freezing it was into the early hours before we headed for some sleep.

Then once the sun hit the track on Sunday morning, a major talent put on a bit of a show as the race – both actually and metaphorically – heated up.

The DPi battle was exciting, but you got the impression you weren’t seeing the full potential of any of the cars until the final hour or two, as the leading four all made sure they stayed on the lead lap for the inevitable cautions. But in LMP2, it felt that bit more intense.

And it was the DragonSpeed car that stood out, both in terms of its bright livery and the guy behind the wheel.

Colton Herta came so close to being a Formula 1 driver this season until the attempted Andretti takeover of Sauber fell through, but it’s a name that has been put on the radar of even more people in the world of racing as a result. While he was a household name in the U.S., Colton wasn’t quite getting the attention he deserved in Europe until that point.

But for anyone following the Rolex and looking out for drivers that could make the switch to F1 in future, Herta and Pato O’Ward being paired at DragonSpeed offered that opportunity, and they duly delivered.

In the closing stages, Herta appeared to have the race under control as he led the LMP2 class and was holding off Louis Deletraz as the Swiss driver kept the pressure on after a late caution. Then came the final round of pit stops under yellow with less than an hour to go and Tower Motorsport’s slick work in the pits but Deletraz in the lead.

It’s easy for drivers to talk a good game after the event, and O’Ward posted on Twitter that “If there is someone outside of myself that I will always bet on in any race car… it’s always Colton Herta”. But I’ll be the guy that drops a name and admit I messaged Pato just before the final restart and asked him how he was feeling. His reply: “Money’s on HERTA!!!!”

His money was safe.

Helio Castroneves and Ricky Taylor were close together for the overall win, but the experienced Brazilian just seemed to have matters under control even when traffic put him under pressure. The opposite was true in LMP2, where you felt Herta was the slightly quicker of the two leaders and Deletraz couldn’t afford to slip into his clutches.

That wasn’t just me thinking it, as multiple people sat around me at Turn 1 in the closing stages kept pointing to the two LMP2 leaders and talking about how Herta was closing in that little bit with each lap. It was the young American prospect looking to earn his second watch after a 2019 win in GTLM for Rahal, and the crowd were loving it.

All Herta needed was a sniff, and he got that chance on the run to the Le Mans chicane with 12 minutes to go, beating Deletraz to the apex and regaining a lead he would not relinquish. I remember Herta’s mistake chasing Marcus Ericsson in Nashville after having been quickest all weekend last year, but there was no such error this time round. At 21, his maturity was enormously impressive.

The same could be said for O’Ward, who had performed admirably alongside Devlin DeFrancesco and Eric Lux, as they all celebrated in the garage once Herta completed his move.

In a race when one of the legends of the sport took a stunning overall victory, and GTD Pro went down to the last lap with that epic moment between the Porsches at the Le Mans chicane, my takeaway was how exciting it is to have two young IndyCar prospects who are genuine contenders for a future in F1, and are backing the hype up with increasing regularity.

Whether Herta and O’Ward get their chances remains to be seen, and I hope they will continue to come back and try and win watches for many years to come wherever their careers take them, but they’re exciting to watch and can’t really do any more without being given F1 seat time.

Actually, I have another takeaway from the weekend. Aside from the fact that it was very, very cold and I should pack even more layers in future, I learned the Rolex is such a fun event whether you’re working or watching, and one that will keep me coming back in either capacity. If the finishes are all as dramatic as this one, then even better.

Champion Porsche