DAYTONA BEACH, Florida (January 29, 2023) – The No. 79 WeatherTech Racing/Proton Competition Mercedes-AMG GT3 team and co-drivers Cooper MacNeil, Jules Gounon, Daniel Juncadella and Maro Engel secured the first IMSA GTD Pro class victory for a Mercedes-AMG Motorsport Customer Racing team in the 61st Rolex 24 At Daytona this weekend at Daytona International Speedway (DIS).
Engel started the WeatherTech/Proton No. 79 from the GTD Pro pole Saturday afternoon and 24 hours later was back behind the wheel of the white, red and blue Mercedes-AMG GT3 to take the checkered flag just under four seconds ahead of the second-place finisher. The WeatherTech co-drivers combined to lead a class-high 229 race laps over the 24 hours.
The victory was the second in the last three years for Mercedes-AMG Motorsport Customer Racing and Engel in the Rolex 24, but the first in America’s premier twice-around-the-clock race for WeatherTech Racing/Proton, Gounon, Juncadella and – most significantly – MacNeil.
This weekend’s race was MacNeil’s 13th and final attempt at winning the Rolex 24 in what was his last race in IMSA competition. After multiple wins at Petit Le Mans and in the 12 Hours of Sebring, MacNeil steps away having finally completed the victory cycle in IMSA’s three major endurance races.
Engel earned his first Rolex 24 win in 2021 in the GTD class with Winward Racing that, for the majority of this weekend’s race, appeared in a strong position to score another victory. Team drivers Russell Ward, Philip Ellis, Indy Dontje and Daniel Morad led a total of 177 race laps and Ellis was at the wheel and locked in a close battle with the other GTD and GTD Pro leaders for the race’s final restart with less than 30 minutes to go.
As the field charged into turn one and the first few corners of the 3.56-mile road course’s fast infield section, Ellis came together with a GTD Pro competitor, and the contact ended what was looking like a storybook finish for the No. 57 team.
The team’s originally entered fourth driver, Lucas Auer, was injured in an incident in Thursday’s opening Rolex 24 practice session. Auer had successful surgery on back injuries sustained in the incident at nearby Halifax Health Medical Center on Friday at the same time the Winward team took delivery of a replacement Mercedes-AMG GT3 chassis, which was trailered overnight to Daytona from the team race shop in Texas.
Morad, who races with Winward in IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge competition, was named to the No. 57’s driver lineup to take over for Auer just the day before the Rolex 24. The car and driver change required the No. 57 to be moved to the back of the starting grid, but opening drivers Ward, Dontje and Morad all steadily moved the No. 57 to the front of the field.
That paved the way for Ellis to take the lead for the first time in the race’s ninth hour. From that point on, Winward battled in the lead pack straight to the end of the race only to be knocked from contention in the latest stages of the race.
The No. 32 Team Korthoff Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3 team, and co-drivers Mike Skeen, Mikael Grenier, Kenton Koch and Maximilian Götz, led a GTD class-high 227 race laps, but a potentially race-winning performance came to a crushing end halfway into the 18th hour of the race at sunrise on Sunday.
A front wheel bearing defect sent Grenier from the race lead to the paddock, and the No. 32 team went more than 10 laps down for repairs. The team rejoined the race and soldiered to an eventual 15th place finish.
The No. 75 SunEnergy1 Mercedes-AMG GT3 inherited the GTD pole after Winward was forced to the back of the starting grid. Team co-drivers Kenny Habul, Luca Stolz, Fabian Schiller and Axcil Jefferies were competitive from the start of the race only to be sidelined at 9 p.m. Saturday with radiator damage. The No. 75 was officially retired early Sunday morning.
Next up for Mercedes-AMG Motorsport Customer Racing teams in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is the 12 Hours of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway, March 16 – 19.
Stefan Wendl, Head of Mercedes-AMG Motorsport Customer Racing: “What a fantastic race! For our brand, to win the GTD Pro class here for our second Rolex 24 victory is an amazing success. On the other hand, we also have a teary eye because of our other customer teams. Winward Racing put in a fantastic performance to fight their way from the back of the field to the front, only to be taken out of the race by an unfortunate incident in the final hour. Many thanks to all of our customer teams and congratulations to Acura for the overall win. And, of course, I wish Lucas a speedy recovery.”
Cooper MacNeil, Driver – No. 79 WeatherTech Racing/Proton Competition Mercedes-AMG GT3: “Tears of joy. This has been a long time coming, a lot of hard work, and it’s just amazing to complete the cycle with winning here. It’s lucky number 13 for me and we got the win. I honestly couldn’t be happier. What a day, what a 24-hour race. We were in contention the whole time and we knew we had a fast car. Mercedes-AMG gave us three of the best drivers that they have, if not the best in the world. The best thing is they build a fast and reliable car, because if you don’t have those two you can’t win a race. A hell of a way to end my IMSA career.”
Maro Engel, Driver – No. 79 WeatherTech Racing/Proton Competition Mercedes-AMG GT3: “Just amazing! Big, big thank you to the whole WeatherTech Racing team and the Proton Competition crew, Mercedes-AMG for giving us an amazing car and my teammates. What an amazing job they did. They did an incredible job. Racing with these guys, they’re the best in the business and we just had an awesome race. I said to them yesterday, I woke up and said ‘I’ve got a feeling we’re going to do this. It’s going to come our way.’ And it did, but boy was it hard. The pace of our car was good, but some cars turned it up at the end and got real fast, and also had good fuel economy. So, it was tough out there and I’m just so happy we could deliver it for everybody. Now it’s time to celebrate!”
Daniel Juncadella, Driver – No. 79 WeatherTech Racing/Proton Competition Mercedes-AMG GT3: “This is amazing. I think it hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m just in shock. The last three or four hours looked very difficult against the Corvette, they played a very smart strategy. In the pits they were better than us, they were better on fuel, but Maro – the guy woke up yesterday morning and said ‘guys, I want to finish, I’m feeling it.’ And oh yeah, he was feeling it. He did an amazing job. As well as my teammate, Jules, he is such a great driver to have next to me for the full season. Cooper, last year, he was on the back foot and getting to know the car and I think he lost a lap last year. This year he held P4, so that says a lot about his performance. I think he only lost 15 seconds during his stint. It was really unbelievable from a guy who is not racing like us, week in and week out. Congratulations to him and thanks to the whole MacNeil family for putting this together because it’s such an amazing program to be part of.”
Kenton Koch, Driver – No. 32 Team Korthoff Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3: “It feels good to be a part of something like this. I knew it from the get-go. All the people were in the right place at the right time. The right decisions were made to make this year a good one. As you can see, it was pretty solid. We had a good showing, we led a lot of laps, we were really fast, and we had a good driver line-up, so the team was awesome. It was just some fluke thing that knocked us out, and that’s just how racing is sometimes.”
Maximilian Götz, Driver – No. 32 Team Korthoff Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3: “We had an exciting 24 hours with ups and downs. We showed that we’re fast and all the drivers did a great job. In the end, a lot of things came together. We still had an exciting weekend and will do even better next time. Congratulations to WeatherTech Racing on winning the GTD Pro class.”
Russell Ward, Driver – No. 57 Winward Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3: “Hats off to all the crew. It was either win it or this. Those were the two options. We left everything on the table, and it was probably the most incredible race we’ve ever done. We started from the back and made it all the way up to the front and we led for a long time. We came here to give it our all. It was a blast. Philip and Indy and Daniel and I, we drove the wheels off of the car. The crew was fantastic, I just have to give huge credit to everybody. It’s a sad way to end it, but we’ll be back.”
Philip Ellis, Driver – No. 57 Winward Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3: “Of course, I am disappointed that we couldn’t secure the result for the team and for Lucas that they would have deserved. It was a very difficult with many thrilling duels. Sadly, racing luck left us at the end. Nevertheless, I am more than proud of the entire team and my fellow drivers, everybody has done their utmost. Now, we are looking forward to the next IMSA round at Sebring.”