Story By: MUSTANG SAMPLING RACING – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Christian Fittipaldi will close out his illustrious driving career when he returns to Mustang Sampling Racing for the 57th Anniversary Rolex 24 At Daytona, ending a 31-year career for the 48-year-old native of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Fittipaldi returns as the defending champion of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener in the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi-V.R he will co-drive with Joao Barbosa, Filipe Albuquerque and Mike Conway. In the process, he’s looking to enhance his already-impressive position in the event’s record book.
With their names already in select company as three-time overall winners of the Rolex 24, Fittipaldi and Barbosa will be looking to join Bob Wollek, Rolf Stommelen, Peter Gregg and Pedro Rodriguez as only four-time Daytona winners. Hurley Haywood and Scott Pruett remain the event’s lone five-time champions.
Fittipaldi announced his decision to hang up his helmet at Road America last year, and when considering where his final outing would come, he couldn’t help but decide to target one more Rolex for the collection.
“I chose the Rolex 24 for my final race because Daytona is Daytona – I love the race, I love the place,” said the 48-year-old native of Sao Paulo, Brazil. “My results there speak for themselves. Not only the three wins, but I finished on the podium six times there. Daytona definitely meant a lot for my career, and now I’m very excited to go back there for my last race.”
That Fittipaldi has three overall victories is a remarkable achievement, but it is all the more impressive given that he has taken the wins in three very different kinds of machines and in different circumstances each time.
2004: First Overall Triumph for the Daytona Prototype in Rolex 24
Fittipaldi made his major sports car debut in the 2003 Rolex 24, starting a brand-new Bell Motorsports Doran Chevrolet in the first race for the Daytona Prototypes. The six-DP field suffered from a lack of testing and preparation time, as a GT entry took the overall win.
Fittipaldi returned in 2004 to a robust 17-car field of Daytona Prototypes, scoring his first Rolex 24 At Daytona victory in the No. 54 Kodak Pontiac Doran JE-4 with Terry Borcheller, Forest Barber and Andy Pilgrim as his co-drivers.
In what was also the first overall victory for the Daytona Prototype in the event, the race was run in the worst conditions of the 42-year history of the event, with rain falling for 18 of the 24 hours. The Kodak DP ran near the front for the entire event – battling the Crawford Citgo Chevrolet Crawford of Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Andy Wallace down the stretch.
“That first Rolex win-my biggest memory is of the rain-it was so challenging because it just never stopped,” said Fittipaldi. “Looking back at it now, that was the first race where you saw the DP’s getting more competitive. And it has come a long way since then—but that didn’t make things easy at the time! It was such a relief to make that finish because we had a car that was overheating and we had to just make sure to get to the finish.”
2014: Ushering in a New IMSA Era with “Picture Perfect” race
The 2004 Daytona triumph opened the door for a sports car career for Fittipaldi, who drove with a number of teams including Bell Motorsports, Krohn Racing/TRG, and Eddie Cheever Racing.
Fittipaldi got a call from Action Express Racing to join the team for the 2011 Rolex 24 At Daytona, and then joined the team fulltime in 2013, co-driving the No. 5 Corvette DP with Joao Barbosa. They won two races that season, finishing seventh in the standings in the final year of the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series season.
Change was in the air for 2014. Grand-Am merged with the American Le Mans Series to form what was then known as the IMSA Tudor United SportsCar Championship, which debuted at the Rolex 24. Fittipaldi and Barbosa were joined by four-time Champ Car titlist Sebastien Bourdais in the red, white and blue No. 5 Corvette DP, taking on not only the other Daytona Prototypes, but also the LMP2 and DeltaWing prototypes from the ALMS in the unified series.
The team took the lead for the first time late in the first hour, and went on to pace the race 18 times for an event-high 313 of the 695 circuits. A late caution flag set up a 10-minute sprint to the finish. Barbosa was not to be denied, taking charge on the restart and going on to win by 1.461 seconds.
“My second Daytona win was definitely awesome,” Fittipaldi said. “If you could describe a picture-perfect race, that was it. That led to the championship, and the [Michelin Cup] endurance championship – and we completed every single possible lap of competition. It was a combination of everything. The way the whole group worked, with awesome pit stops, and the understanding between Joao, myself and everyone made it all possible. Gary [Nelson], the engineers, we could look each other in the eye and knew exactly what we meant and what we needed to go after. That’s what you strive for – it was all a team effort.”
2018: Sweet Revenge for the Mustang Sampling Cadillac
The genesis of Fittipaldi’s victory in the 2018 Rolex 24 came in the closing minutes of the 2017 event. Filipe Albuquerque held the lead in the new No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi-V.R, and was fighting off the challenge of Ricky Taylor in the No. 10 Taylor Racing Cadillac. The two cars dove for the same piece of real estate in Turn 1 with five minutes remaining. Albuquerque was bumped off line and quickly recovered, but Taylor had the lead and went on to win.
“So close, but no cigar,” Fittipaldi said after the 2017 race. “Was it a clean pass? I don’t know. But it certainly will sell tickets for next year’s race.”
The addition of two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso, plus a pair of all-star lineups for a new factory effort by Acura Team Penske, left the Mustang Sampling lineup of Fittipaldi, Barbosa and Albuquerque on the outside of the pre-race hype leading up to the 2018 event.
However, once the green flag waved, the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi-V.R quickly went to the front – and stayed there. The car ran in podium contention for virtually the entire race. Barbosa took the lead with eight hours, 44 minutes remaining, and the team led the final 293 laps for the victory.
The Mustang Sampling teammates completed 808 laps and 2,876.48 miles, both records for the Daytona 24 Hours. The team struggled with overheating down the stretch – at one point visiting the garage for a quick supercharge of cool water – but never relinquished the lead. In all, the winners led an incredible 579 laps.
Action Express finished 1-2, with the team’s No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac of Eric Curran, Felipe Albuquerque, Mike Conway and Stuart Middleton finishing second, one minute, 10.744 seconds behind the winning Mustang Sampling car.
“The 2018 Rolex 24 victory was a huge relief for us, because we came so close the year before, and it didn’t happen,” Fittipaldi said. “The whole team carried that for the whole season – it was stuck in the middle of our throats. Then to get it done was an awesome feeling. It was definitely one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in racing. Each time you win this race-it is bigger than before and I hope I can add a fourth one to close it out on top!”
The 2019 Rolex 24 At Daytona will open with practice on Thursday, January 24, with the event taking the green flag at 2:35 PM on January 26. Live race coverage on NBC Sports.