Races

Daytona Debutant

Daytona Debutant

Ferrari Competizioni GT driver Nicklas Nielsen talks about his first Daytona 24-hour race, and how his AF Corse 488 GT3 Evo 2020 could have won…
Words

Gavin Green

It looked like a dream Daytona debut for Danish driver Nicklas Nielsen. His Ferrari 488 GT3 Evo 2020 led the GTD class for long stretches at the recent 24 Hours of Daytona, one of the world’s most iconic sports car races. ‘It was a great battle for the majority of the race with the no. 57 Mercedes, the other quickest car in the class,’ says Nielsen, who turned 24 just days after the 2021 event.

He and his AF Corse teammates – Matteo Cressoni, Simon Mann, and fellow factory driver Daniel Serra  – looked set for the class win. After a brilliant first phase, the Italian team's car held the lead for long stretches. ‘Our car was running perfectly. We’d had no trouble at all. It’s a very reliable and fast car, very well balanced, just what you want in a 24-hour race,’ says Nielsen.

Just four hours from the finish, Cressoni was in a collision with the rival Mercedes. The 488 GT3 Evo 2020 brushed the barrier, puncturing a tyre and damaging the rear diffuser. The car made it back to the pits, but vital time was lost as repairs were made. Despite the drivers' efforts during the remaining four hours, they eventually finished eighth in class, two laps behind the class winner. ‘It’s disappointing,’ admits Nielsen. ‘We know we could have won. We all drove well, the car was fabulous, and we did a great job in the pits and with our strategy.’

A strong start saw the no. 21 Ferrari of AF Corse hold the GTD class lead for much of the race
A strong start saw the no. 21 Ferrari of AF Corse hold the GTD class lead for much of the race

Despite the frustration, Nielsen’s first Daytona race was a great experience: ‘They have a real passion for motorsport in Daytona Beach. It is a very historic motorsport venue, and that really shows.’ As well as hosting America’s most famous sports car race, Daytona International Speedway is also home to the most iconic NASCAR stock car race, the Daytona 500, and the area’s long sandy beach was used for world land speed records in the 1920s and 1930s.

Dusk at Daytona in late January signals the start of nearly 13 hours of racing in the dark before the sun rises again
Dusk at Daytona in late January signals the start of nearly 13 hours of racing in the dark before the sun rises again

This was Nielsen’s third 24-hour race, after competing in the Spa-Francorchamps and Le Mans 24-hour events. ‘I like these long distance races. You have time to make up for small errors, like maybe a slightly slow pit stop, and because you have three or four guys sharing the car, it feels like a real team sport.’ He also likes driving at night. The car is typically faster then, owing to the cooler temperatures helping engine performance.

Daytona is famous for its steep banking, a new experience for Nielsen. ‘It was strange at first, so different from anything I’d experienced in Europe. But after two laps or so you get used to it. It doesn’t feel 31-degrees steep but you can really feel the forces on the car.’

Nielsen enjoys racing at night, not least because the cooler air temperature enhances engine performance
Nielsen enjoys racing at night, not least because the cooler air temperature enhances engine performance

A typical shift behind the wheel before fuel is needed lasts for about 30 laps, or just under an hour, and drivers often do double shifts. After a stint, drivers usually retire to the team’s motorhome to rest. ‘I probably got a couple of hours sleep – but it’s hard because you’re thinking of the race and you can hear the cars out on the circuit all the time,’ reveals Nielsen. ‘It’s weird, because even though you feel tired, as soon as you’re about to get in the car, the adrenaline is flying around and you’re back to 100 percent straight away.’

After a 24-hour race is over, fatigue sets in. ‘I went to bed at 9pm on that Sunday night, tired, exhilarated and a bit disappointed. I didn’t wake until 7am next morning.’

Battle scars are the evidence of a collision that cost the Ferrari 488 GT3 Evo 2020 of AF Corse a potential GTD class win
Battle scars are the evidence of a collision that cost the Ferrari 488 GT3 Evo 2020 of AF Corse a potential GTD class win

Despite the result, his focus remains resolute, with preparation already underway for another full season in the FIA World Endurance Championship – which includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Once again he’ll compete in a Ferrari 488 GTE, with the opening round of the series at Portimão, in Portugal, on 4 April.

After a strong showing on his Daytona debut, Nielsen's sights are now set on the 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship
After a strong showing on his Daytona debut, Nielsen's sights are now set on the 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship
Ferrari