The inaugural race of a new series is where officials sweat the small stuff. Unfortunately, high ranking IMSA officials are humans too, and they proved it at the 24 Hours of Daytona on January 26th.
The 24-hour endurance race had a somewhat infamous ending for the GTD class. The No. 555 Ferrari 458 Italia, driven by Level 5 Motorsports’ Alessandro Pier Guidi, had been battling with the No. #45 Flying Lizard Audi R8 LMS piloted by Markus Winkelhock for the last several laps. Both drivers were in contention for the class victory, so the racing was understandably competitive. On the last lap, the Audi and Ferrari were trading back and forth, seeming evenly matched on the straights, and trying to shake each other off in the corners. Suddenly we saw the Flying Lizard Audi take a flying run through the grass, giving the Level 5 458 Italia all the room it needed. Guidi crossed the finish line first.
That might have been the end of it, but IMSA officials leveled a 75-second penalty at Level 5 for “avoidable contact” with the Flying Lizard Audi, and officially Winkelhock and co-drivers stood on the podium in first. Flying Lizard took fourth.
IMSA’s Twitter and Facebook feeds were bombarded by fans, and “avoidable contact” was trending on Twitter. “Avoidable contact penalty when there was no contact?” tweeted @racingwithrich, and seemed to voice a common theme of confusion among fans. YouTube videos went up almost immediately, showing in slow motion a lack of evidence for contact between Winkelhock and Guidi.
“I think there was a little contact, but there was for sure no hard contact,” Winkelhock told Motor Authority.
However, it seems the officials were judging the situation properly. In the IMSA Code, under On Track Protocol, the official rule reads: Any driver who… initiates avoidable contact with another competitor, whether or not such contact interrupts the other competitor’s lap times, track position or damages other competitor’s cars, and whether or not such actions result in actual contact, may be warned or penalized…” (emphasis added)
Yes, you read that right. Avoidable contact penalties can be levied without contact happening.
IMSA officials did rescind the penalty, well after the awards ceremony, awarding Guidi and Level 5 the win, Winkelhock and Flying Lizard earning second.
“The avoidable contact regulation is actually quite clear in the rule book,” IMSA vice president Scot Elkins told Autoweek. He said that after review with the race director and other senior officials, it became clear that the penalty had been harsh. “We came to the conclusion that, as we do many times in race control and many times during an event, that it was a racing incident, one that was not deemed a penalty.”
This archaic seeming rule goes back to the days of racing being for gentlemen, and the racers having a sense of manners and respect for each other. But that begs the question: what’s wrong with a little contact? While Winkelhock and Guidi probably do respect each other, IMSA needs to understand this is competition. This is two men that have battled for hours and are doing everything they can to win. This is exactly what the fans want to see. It does not need to be neutered and watered down until it becomes NASCAR-light, or even worse, IROC. Hopefully, in the upcoming USSC races, IMSA officials will stand back a little and let the drivers do what they do best.