Led By Youth, Era Motorsport Stuns LMP2 Field At Daytona – Dailysportscar

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The expectation heading into the 2024 IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship was that, in the aftermath of the category’s dismissal from the FIA World Endurance Championship, the LMP2 class in IMSA would be the strongest in the world.
Thanks in large part to the contribution of two young stars, Christian Rasmussen and Connor Zilisch, Era Motorsport went from being overlooked for most of the build-up to the 62nd Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona – and even overlooked throughout most of the race itself – to winning the LMP2 class for the second time in four years at Daytona.
It was the second LMP2 victory for Era Motorsports mainstays Dwight Merriman and Ryan Dalziel, and team principal Kyle Tilley, who’ve been together since that first Rolex win in 2021 – and Dalziel, who’s been a mainstay of LMP2 competition at its highest levels for most of the last decade, was very up-front about what this win meant after a winless 2023 season littered with missed opportunities.
“We had a miserable 2023. It’s the first season together that we haven’t won races. And when we got done at Petit, I don’t think there was a more disappointed team in the paddock of how our season went. The next day, we started preparing from here.
“We instantly picked ourselves back up and we rolled off the truck here,” said Dalziel. “We had a few issues in practice that maybe another set of teams would have not handled as well, but nobody stressed out.”
Dalziel considered walking away from racing before he joined the Anglo-American squad in 2021 following a successful tenure at Extreme Speed Motorsports. While the Scot is still the team’s veteran lead driver, this weekend he graciously let young team-mates Rasmussen and Zilisch ease his burden of carrying the team. “I don’t think five years ago that I would have given up my stint to let somebody else,” he said.
“But at the end of the day, there’s no egos in a team sport, and I really felt that having those two guys finish the race was the strongest possible option, and it worked out for us.”
Dwight Merriman’s first-hour spin at the Le Mans Chicane – which settled him neatly in a pile of other spun LMP2 cars – was the gentleman driver’s only error of the race. Afterwards, Merriman gathered himself and completed the rest of his required four hours and 30 minutes of driving without any major incidents. By sunset, the blue and purple ORECA 07 was back in podium contention, and at half-distance, it had taken the lead for the first time.

The sun was rising over Daytona when Zilisch found himself battling none other than Peugeot’s five-star Hypercar prospect Malthe Jakobsen for the class lead, and the two even banged wheels along the speedway banking.
For the most part, Zilisch drove with the composure of a 17-year-veteran rather than a 17-year-old IMSA rookie – and showcased the adaptability which made him such a threat in everything from late-model stock cars to TA2 and MX-5 Cup road racing up to this point. “Eight hours in when we were running seventh, eighth, it wasn’t probably as good,” said Zilisch. “I’m so used to sprint racing that when you’re running seventh or eighth you think, ‘Man, I’m out of this.’ But when it’s a 24-hour race, it doesn’t really matter where you are until the end.
“The main thing for me that I enjoyed was the amount of fun that I actually got to have. And I got to enjoy the experience thanks to my teammates and everyone at the team who just made it an enjoyable experience. I didn’t really feel like I had that much pressure on me.
It wasn’t all perfect. “I had some rookie mistakes,” he added. “My very first lap I locked up and almost hit the wall in turn six. I had to reverse out of it. I got that out of the way, and we came back and never gave up.”
For his efforts, Zilisch – at 17 years, 190 days old – became the second-youngest driver to win in any class in the history of the Daytona 24 Hours, seated between Michael de Quesada (17y 92d) and Pato O’Ward (17y 268d) who took class wins in 2017. He can’t rent a car or enjoy the Victory Lane champagne, but he did leave the local jewellers stunned in disbelief when he took his new Rolex watch to be fitted.
When a Full Course Yellow came out with four hours and 48 minutes left, Era Motorsport took control of the race on pit strategy, and Rasmussen and Zilisch kept them there, ahead of Jakobsen and 2023 Daytona 24H champion Colin Braun who were part of the crew sharing the #04 CrowdStrike Racing by APR ORECA – one of the cars that was a prohibitive favourite to take the win.
“They were definitely the closest all race long, really,” said Rasmussen. “We knew we had I think a slight advantage over them.
“Whenever we still had four or five hours left, it was just about keeping our noses clean and being there at the end.”
Rasmussen, the reigning Indy NXT Champion, was leading by over 13 seconds when a Full Course Yellow with 52 minutes remaining erased his advantage to Jakobsen. It was going to be a Dane-versus-Dane shootout to the finish.
“Then the last stint, it came down to a caution, and I had a huge gap from I think like 15 seconds, and then obviously all of that disappeared,” he added. “But I felt fairly confident. I was just slowly pulling away right before, so I kind of knew that we had the pace to do it.”
And as much as Era Motorsport was hungry as a whole to make up for the disappointment of 2023, Rasmussen also wanted to make amends for a late error which cost him a shot at winning Petit Le Mans last autumn. “It was just about getting away from the start, which I did well, and then pulled out a two-second gap and just kind of managed it from there,” he continued.

Rasmussen took the surprisingly early chequered flag by 6.8 seconds over the CrowdStrike/APR ORECA of Jakobsen, Braun, Toby Sowery, and George Kurtz – who finished a close, yet disappointing second place for the second year in a row.
It was that earlier FCY, caused by debris from Sean Creech Motorsports’ oft-troubled Ligier JS P217, that put the grey and red #04 on the back foot strategically. Jakobsen had a chance to fight back on the final restart, but contact with the #24 BMW M Hybrid V8 caused enough damage to throw the #04 ORECA’s balance off and prevent Jakobsen from drawing closer.
“We tried really hard to pull it all together, but we didn’t quite have enough,” said Kurtz. “We can’t point to anything specific, it’s just that Era Motorsport did a great job. All we can do is reflect on how we could improve, come back and redeem ourselves next year.”
“We had a 15-second window with Colin in the car and tried some strategy to improve our situation, but they reacted immediately, so fair play to them,” explained Algarve Pro Racing’s Stewart Cox. “They’re a very good team and they beat us, it’s as simple as that.
“Ultimately, we thought we had the pace and I don’t believe they would have been able to pass us if we had had track position, which they snatched away and kept because they were on a slightly different fuel strategy that meant they could react to us. We need to understand if anything went wrong but, inevitably, we didn’t quite have the pace required to win.”
Rather than grumble about the defeat, CrowdStrike/APR will press on with all four drivers and team heading across the Atlantic to the United Arab Emirates and the last three legs of the Asian Le Mans Series.

Just three-tenths of a second separated the #74 Riley ORECA (Gar Robinson/Felipe Fraga/Josh Burdon/Felipe Massa) from the #52 Inter Europol by PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA (Nick Boulle/Jakub Śmiechowski/Tom Dillmann/Pietro Fittipaldi) with the final LMP3 Champions getting the better of the new alliance of last year’s Le Mans winning team and last year’s LMP2 title winners.
And the #8 Tower Motorsports ORECA (John Farano/Michael Dinan/Ferdinand Habsburg/Scott McLaughlin) wasn’t too far behind them in fifth, a great result in Farano’s first race back after eight months of rehabilitation after a crash at Laguna Seca ended his 2023 campaign.
Fraga was the man on the move on the final restart, passing McLaughlin for fourth place, and then Dillmann to grab third. If ever there was any scepticism about how the refugees of IMSA’s LMP3 class would fare in faster cars, the #74 Riley team proved the worst of the endurance racing peanut gallery’s cynicism to be unfounded – with a trouble-free and productive podium finish.
Inter Europol and PR1 Mathiasen also had a good showing in the wake of Novalak’s injury in final practice which forced Fittipaldi into super-sub action.
For United Autosports, a sixth-place finish for the pole-winning #2 ORECA (Ben Keating/Ben Hanley/Nico Pino/Pato O’Ward) was a disappointing result. After leading 208 laps in the first 12 hours – more than any other car except the winning Era Motorsport #18 – the purple Wynn’s-liveried car picked up bodywork damage overnight during the race.

The #2 fell off the lead lap shortly afterwards and couldn’t get back to full performance, nor could it get the Full Course Yellows that they needed to get back on the lead lap.
Add to that a retirement for the sister #22 car (Daniel Goldburg/Paul di Resta/Bijoy Garg/Felix Rosenqvist) – caused by accident damage from Goldburg’s off at the International Horseshoe just three hours into the race – and it wasn’t the dream start United Autosports had hoped for in its first full season competing in America, but the pace shown before both cars’ troubles shows they’ll be contenders throughout the year.
“Spike the LMP2 Dragon” – aka the #99 AO Racing ORECA (PJ Hyett/Paul-Loup Chatin/Matthew Brabham/Alex Quinn) might have also been a contender for the win, but dropped out of contention after Brabham went off with less than eight hours to go and fell from contention.

Afterwards, Spike’s air jacks failed in the pits, leading to longer pit times –  and with 20 minutes left, Chatin fell off the pace during his closing stint with a mechanical issue. Spike got to the chequered flag, albeit more than a dozen laps down, eighth in class.
Steven Thomas, a contender for the LMP2 Championship and Jim Trueman Award last year, walked away from a scary crash coming out of the Le Mans Chicane – but it was a costly wreck for TDS Racing, which now starts its 2024 season on the back foot after a 13th-place result.
And then, there was the toil at Sean Creech Motorsports. The #33 Ligier had its share of mechanical troubles and Dr. Lance Willsey had a baptism of fire during his first race as an LMP2 gentleman driver.

Yet, the quartet of Willsey, João Barbosa, Jonny Edgar and Nolan Siegel wouldn’t give up despite a litany of electrical system issues and multiple trips to the garage, and when the car was running, the pace was good. Ultimately a rear deck lid failure forced them to retire with four hours remaining.
Sean Creech Motorsports will now hope for better returns at Sebring, confident that despite a race that some would deem to have been a futile and farcical run, their persistence of treading off the beaten path with Ligier will pay off.
Feature image © Michael L. Levitt / IMSA
Additional images © Jack Webster / Dailysportscar.com

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