Seb Morris fully justified his status as 2017’s Sunoco Whelen Challenge winner thanks to a stunning cameo performance in this weekend’s 55th Daytona 24 Hours before reliability issues ultimately saw the #31 Whelen-sponsored, Action Express Racing-run Cadillac DPi-V.R finish sixth in class and 14th overall.
The 21-year-old from Wrexham earned his place in the championship-winning line-up - comprising Eric Curran, Dane Cameron and Mike Conway - by seeing off competition from his British GT Championship rivals and other drivers contesting several different UK series supplied by Sunoco Race Fuels throughout 2016.
Morris previously revealed that becoming the eighth different Sunoco Whelen Challenge winner had been his top priority after switching from single-seaters to GTs at the start of last year. Earning a fully paid-for seat in the top class at one of the world’s biggest 24-hour races represents a wonderful opportunity for young professionals, and Morris seized his with both hands by taking the lead and building a comfortable 20-second advantage by the end of his first triple stint.
The #31 Whelen-sponsored Cadillac DPi-V.R was no longer a victory contender by the time he climbed back aboard on Sunday morning, but Morris had already proven his point.
> Reliability issues restrict Action Express Racing to sixth
Action Express Racing’s stellar qualifying session on Thursday helped its two all-new Cadillac DPi-V.Rs lock out the grid’s front row, and the pair - accompanied by Wayne Taylor Racing’s similar example - duly gapped the chasing pack once the race began at 14:30 on Saturday.
Morris’ first chance to impress came after 90 minutes when he replaced Cameron in the hot seat. But with no other teams opting to switch drivers, the subsequently longer pit-stop ensured the #31 car re-joined third.
There Morris would remain for the next 25 minutes until a Full Course Yellow prompted a flurry of pit activity and a chance to re-pass the sister Action Express Cadillac that had jumped ahead during the previous round of stops.
Now running second, Morris found himself right behind new leader and NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon in the Safety Car queue. And, when the race went green, it was the Sunoco Whelen Challenge winner who reacted quickest to sensationally take the lead.
Racing an unfamiliar car on debut at Daytona should have given Morris’ seasoned rivals an advantage, but the Welshman was soon the fastest driver on track as he began to edge away from the chasing pack. The lead had grown to eight seconds by the time he made his second pit-stop, and he stretched that further over the following 45 minutes to end up 20 seconds clear by the time he made way for Curran just as darkness began to fall on Saturday evening.
Sadly, Morris’ efforts were immediately negated by the Cadillac’s initial refusal to re-start following the pit-stop, which cost the crew around 40 seconds. Nevertheless, the vagaries of Full Course Yellow periods helped keep the #31 within sight of the lead as the evening wore on.
Then, just after 21:30 local time, a failure on the Cadillac’s right front as a result of earlier contact forced the car in for repairs. Six laps were lost while the Action Express mechanics went to work, and although the problem was fixed the car’s chances of victory were essentially over.
The Whelen-sponsored DPi-V.R enjoyed a largely trouble-free run over the next five or so hours despite heavy rain continuing to fall. That allowed Conway, Cameron and Curran to claw back ground and positions on their rivals before a shifter issue forced the car back behind the wall once again at approximately 04:30. 30 minutes were lost, dropping the crew from fifth to ninth and 16 laps behind the leaders.
Morris was back behind the wheel just before 07:00, and only 10 minutes later he was racing again after the near-two-hour Full Course Yellow for heavy rain finally came to an end. A series of blistering lap times - the fastest of anyone on track at the time - suggested he was enjoying his first ever sunrise stint before another problem forced him into the garage once more.
He continued circulating faster than the leaders when he returned to the fray but was out of the car for the final time with just over six hours remaining.
Frustratingly, the two Cadillacs Morris passed for the lead on Saturday afternoon went on to finish first and second after largely trouble-free runs throughout the race, the sister Action Express DPi-V.R ultimately missing out on victory by less than a second after 24 hours of competition.
Seb Morris: “The whole process, from winning the Sunoco Whelen Challenge to testing the car for the first time before Christmas, the official Roar test two weeks ago and finally racing this weekend, has been an incredible experience. I didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of what would be involved but now feel a lot more prepared for the rigours of an endurance race. The longest distance I’d done before this weekend was three hours, so to finish here - even if it wasn’t the result we’d hoped for - is a big step in my career.
“I felt really comfortable in the car - certainly taking the lead and extending our advantage on Saturday afternoon will go down as one of if not the biggest moment in my career to date. The problems seemed to build after my triple stint but getting back in the car early on Sunday morning and showing what I could do in the heavy rain against seasoned pros was very satisfying. Action Express seem happy with my performance and I’d love the opportunity to do it again one day.
“I must thank Action Express and Whelen for providing such a wonderful opportunity and placing their faith in me, and of course Anders [Hildebrand] for putting all of this together. To win the Sunoco Whelen Challenge and compete in the Daytona 24 Hours is something that will remain a highlight of my racing career.”
Anders Hildebrand, Anglo American Oil Company: “We’ve been very lucky to have so many fantastic drivers pass through the Sunoco Whelen Challenge over the years, and Seb is up there with the very best of them in terms of performance. The team was genuinely impressed with his speed in both the wet and dry conditions, and I’m sure he turned a few heads up and down the pit-lane, too. Once again we missed out on the headline result - Felipe Nasr’s third place from 2012 remains our personal best for another year - but in terms of pure pace this was probably our best chance to win the race. We were certainly as fast as the other two Cadillacs that finished one-two, but seemed to have all of the bad luck.
“Seb can still be incredibly proud of what he’s achieved this weekend. He identified the Sunoco Whelen Challenge as a shop window for his talent and I don’t think anyone who saw him compete here can have any doubts about that. This is just the start for him.”
The Sunoco Whelen Challenge and Sunoco 240 Challenge will once again be open to all drivers contesting Sunoco-supplied UK championships in 2017.