An emotional day for the IMSA Prototype Challenge 2022 season opener ended with an emotional winner.
Veteran driver Tonis Kasemets rallied the #60 Wulver Racing Ligier JS P320 from one lap to win the three-hour race in mixed conditions at Daytona International Speedway. Afterwards, a tearful Kasemets dedicated the victory to Priit Pallo, a close friend whose funeral was also held on Saturday. Pallo has long been the head of the automobile federation in his native Estonia and that of Kasemets.
The return of Kasemets and his co-driver Bruce Hamilton derailed a storybook finish for the No.23 AL Autosport with JDC MotorSports Duqueine D08. Memo Gidley, who suffered serious injuries in a crash eight years ago during the Rolex 24 At Daytona, and teammate Alexander Koreiba, making his first start of any kind at the track, dominated most of the of the race before settling for an always inspiring third. arrival point.
“This race is for Priit Pallo. A legend died in Estonia, the funeral took place today,” Kasemets said. “This (victory) is for him.”
Gidley started from the pole position he clinched in Friday qualifying but quickly gave up the lead to Kasemets in wet conditions. The track began to dry out for the first hour, enough for Gidley to radio his team to switch to dry Michelin slicks when Koreiba took the wheel with just under two hours remaining.
Despite his lack of LMP3 experience, Koreiba swept the competition and lost the whole field a lap within the next hour. He made his final pit stop with 58 minutes to go as the team opted for a double stint with the same set of Michelins. Moments later, the second and final full course warning was issued for a car stopped off track. This allowed cars that hadn’t made their final pit stops – including Kasemets’ team-mate Bruce Hamilton – to get back on the lead lap and stop under yellow.
Kasemets replaced Hamilton for the final stint as light rain began to fall. The 47-year-old’s extensive experience in prototypes and slippery conditions shone through. He quickly moved from sixth on the restart and quickly passed rookie Koreiba to take the lead before the bus stop chicane with 22 minutes to go.
Patrick Kujala, who shared the #77 US RaceTronics Ligier with Brian Thienes, passed Koreiba for second with 17 minutes to go. Kasemets won by 3.928 seconds at the checkered flag.
“Bruce did a hell of a job in his stint as we requested,” Kasemets said. “It was phenomenal. The car was plugged in, the team was amazing. We never gave up, we made a bold strategy, completely off the beaten track this week. We took care of our business; we didn’t care what other people did. It paid off. »
One element of the daring strategy was to start the race with Kasemets, which Hamilton usually does.
“In that middle stint,” Hamilton said, “my job was to make sure I got him home and gave him something to finish off. I did it and it worked. I’m still in shock. , I don’t know what to say, Daytona is a fantastic place!”
Koreiba was still thrilled with his third-place finish on his Prototype Challenge debut.
“I thought it was going to be smooth sailing and we were just going to go off at sunset,” the 24-year-old Missouri pilot said of his first stint. “But when we got that yellow and it brought the field together, I knew it was going to be a tough race for us. I didn’t know it was going to be so difficult. The overall grip was definitely lacking in the second stint, especially with the mixed conditions ahead. I was just hanging on to this thing in the end.
For Gidley, nothing could dampen the joy of once again driving a prototype on the 3.56-mile Daytona road course. Not even watching a potential win slip away in slippery conditions.
“I feel good!” he said. “It was obviously a last minute deal and I hadn’t been back to Daytona in a long time. And I haven’t driven a prototype for a long time as well. Coming back with a limited amount of practice, it was just great to get back in the car.
“I felt comfortable and sticking him on pole was awesome. It was just great, then, to have such a strong car in the race. Super happy for AL Autosport and it’s cool to be with JDC. I’ve known these guys for a long time but never raced with them as a team. It’s like a dream come true right now. »