By John Oreovicz IMSA Wire Service
Kamui Kobayashi has the opportunity to accomplish something unprecedented in nearly 60 years of endurance racing at the Daytona International Speedway road course. The versatile 34-year-old Japanese ace can become the first driver to claim overall victory in the Rolex 24 At Daytona in three consecutive years. Set to start on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC), the Rolex 24 is the opening round of the 2021 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
Only 11 drivers have claimed consecutive overall victories in the Rolex 24. It’s an illustrious list that includes sports car legends like Pedro Rodriguez, Peter Gregg, Derek Bell and Scott Pruett, as well as co-drivers more famous for other forms of motorsport, like Lloyd Ruby, Al Unser Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya. Renger van der Zande, who was also part of Wayne Taylor Racing’s 2019 and ‘20 triumphs in the Rolex 24, is also in position to achieve the historic three-peat in 2021.
But this year, he and Kobayashi aren’t working together. Van der Zande has moved to Chip Ganassi Racing, which enters IMSA’s Daytona Prototype international (DPi) category for the first time after claiming a total of seven IMSA titles in the Daytona Prototype (DP) and GT Le Mans (GTLM) categories. He’ll share Ganassi’s No. 01 Cadillac DPi. V.R with Kevin Magnussen, with six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon added to the roster at Daytona. Kobayashi has also remained in the Cadillac camp, but he has joined Action Express Racing to team with seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud and sports car veteran Mike Rockenfeller in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac DPi.
Kobayashi arrived in the U.S. on Jan. 18 after a scheduled test session in Spain of the Toyota Gazoo Racing Hypercar, that he will drive in this year’s FIA World Endurance Championship, was snowed out. He found the conditions in Florida much more hospitable and is ready to get to work with his new teammates. “I have confidence in the car and the team has a lot of experience, but this is a new entry with drivers who are not regularly in this Cadillac,” Kobayashi remarked. “We’ll see what it’s going to be. I’m pretty happy to have the Dallara chassis and the Cadillac engine – and the engineers are pretty confident. Winning for the third time in a row is not easy. To be honest, you need some luck to win a 24-hour race.
“Obviously, I had some luck to win two years in a row.”
Last year, Kobayashi, van der Zande, Dixon and Ryan Briscoe set a Rolex 24 record for distance of 2,965.48 miles. With additional traffic from an expanded 49-car field in 2021, that mark is likely to stand. “Last year was very smooth,” Kobayashi said. “We didn’t get a safety car (at the wrong time), and we maintained the gap until the end. I think that was an unusual story. To win a 24-hour race, the most important thing is to not have any penalties during the race. You can’t have any accidents if you want to fight into the last hour.”
As one of only three Japanese drivers to earn a podium finish in Formula 1, Kobayashi is a major star in his homeland. His success with the high-profile Toyota WEC program (he teamed with Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez to win the 2019-20 WEC Le Mans Prototype 1 championship) has increased his stature. Kobayashi is keen to work with Johnson, who is one of the most successful American drivers not just of his era, but in NASCAR history. The two met for the first time at WeatherTech Championship media day on Jan. 21.
“I’m very happy to be part of Jimmie’s program with the Ally Cadillac,” he said. “I’ve had a few chats with him, and I know he’s driving open-wheel cars to train for IndyCar. He’s practicing by himself. I guess from NASCAR to IndyCar, it’s very different. “As soon as he retired from NASCAR, he tried to get into IndyCar, and now the Daytona 24 Hours as well. It shows that he’s still very hungry to drive the car.”
The desire to compete in many different forms of motorsport resonates with Kobayashi, who in addition to his Toyota WEC and Cadillac IMSA commitments is a star attraction in the Japanese Super Formula championship for open-wheel cars similar to IndyCars. While he enjoys the thrill of wringing ultimate speed out of a single-seater, Kobayashi is motivated by the team element that is such a critical part of sports car racing.
“As a format, endurance racing is pretty cool for me,” he said. “You need luck sometimes, but over the course of a long, grueling race, you need good teamwork, you need speed from yourself and your teammates as well, and you always need to know what to do in the current situation. “When you come from Formula 1, you actually never speak to your teammate,” Kobayashi continued. “I mean, you speak, but you don’t go into any real details about what you do. We are racing, but it’s different than fighting between teammates.
“It’s why I enjoy endurance racing so much, and to have this opportunity to drive in the Rolex 24 is great.”
Practice for the Rolex 24 runs Thursday and Friday, with the green flag for the race expected at 3:40 p.m. ET Saturday. Live coverage of all 24 hours begins on NBC at 3:30 p.m. and will rotate among NBCSN, TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold and the NBC Sports App before returning to NBC network for the final hours at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Flag-to-flag coverage is also available from IMSA Radio on IMSA.com, RadioLeMans.com and SiriusXM Radio.