Sebring 2013 – End of an Era?


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Sebring 2013 – End of an Era?
                  By James Edmonds
If you’ve been here before, you may have seen my lyrical waxing about Sebring in years past. It is my ‘back-yard’ track and whether it is a long drive away or just around the proverbial corner depends on your perspective.
If I was still residing under the rule of the Queen, I would consider it a long journey, but miles are compressed here in the States and it only seems to be a quick morning jaunt up the frog-and-toad. (You might need Google’s assistance on that one). What is not open for debate however, is that this old rundown World War Two airfield is the track for which I hold the fondest affection as it has been my local track for many years. I have been ‘vacationing’ there for so long now with my long time best friend Dave Lobou that the place is like the proverbial back-of-the-hand. I held a similar view of Brands Hatch when I lived in Kent, but I have been rooted here in Florida for so many moons now, that Brands is almost a distant memory. That I was last there watching the thumping Nimrod in the 1000Km Group C race or witnessing the legendary Barry Sheene doing battle with Kenny Roberts will give you an idea not only of how long ago it was, but also why I loved it so much.
               This year was no different in that all the members of ‘Camp Amigo’ arrived on the Thursday at the break of dawn to set up camp after haggling with the girls at the ticket office to get more tickets on the cuff! This time honored tradition has been part and parcel of the fun of the weekend for as long as I can remember. Paying for race tickets just doesn’t seem right and every year, although I have been fortunate enough myself with good connections, there is always the Team to consider as well!
               What was different this year was the mood. To be sure, a classic era in sports car competition was closing right in our midst. We are always excited to be here and to enjoy the social aspect as well as the racing and the truly majestic machines, but we were all lamenting the unknown possibilities of the future.  We had been lucky to all get Audi hospitality passes again which was fortuitous, as if you follow the ALMS you will no doubt not need me to tell you that this year was to be the last time that the stunning LMP1 cars would run here, and the first and last time for the Audi R18 e-tron quattros.
               2013 sees the New Beginning as Grand Am and the ALMS join forces, although the full merger will not take effect until 2014. This year sees most of the races run separately in their respective series with a few combined events before the full-fledged merger occurs next year with the lackluster moniker of United Sports Car Racing as it was christened on the day we arrived. The good news for AMOC members who follow racing is that TRG will be fielding a works supported team in Grand Am next year and hopefully for years to come as well. I spoke to David Richards who was positive about the new series, but then again, he is always positive! I am reserving judgment.
               After setting up camp it was time to follow more tradition and take the golf cart on a tour of the paddock and vendor row to collect more shirts and souvenirs.
               I had taken with me the new book ‘DBR9 – The Definitive History’ to see who I could find to sign it. I was lucky to seek out several ex-DBR9 drivers and also many of the current team members who took a few minutes off from the busy duties to pour over the book and delight in finding their names  and the names of their mates (“How did he get in there!”) on the inside front cover honor-roll. Along with all their autographs, I reveled in being welcomed into the garage by David Richards who chatted with me and added his to my collection! If nothing else, I was able to work out my back muscles as I lugged the incredibly heavy book in my back pack from team to team in my quest for future history.
               The P1 class was a token field this year with Audi going all-out to say a fond farewell to the fans with their R18s and bringing with them several past winning cars which were on display in the Turn One Club paddock. It was a nice touch that they also brought with them several of the past winning drivers: crowd favorite Emanuelle Pirro took delight in making fun not only of team mates Frank Biela, Marco Werner and Dindo Capello, but also the forum hostess Eve when he attempted to give out the rather easy-on-the-eyes lady’s phone number!
               P1 was also represented by Muscle Milk’s HPD Acura as the lease on last year’s Lola-Aston V12 was up and although team owner Greg Pickett is no longer behind the wheel, he was there managing the proceedings with his usual flair and perpetual engaging smile. Also making the switch to the HPD Acura was Extreme Speed Motorsports albeit in P2. Scott Sharp made the switch from the past season’s GTE class Ferraris to P2 with a view to more success in the new USCR series. P1 was rounded out by Lolas from Rebellion Racing and Dyson Racing.
               GTE was of course represented by ‘our’ team fielding a pair of Vantage V8s and driven by AMR veteran Darren Turner now in his ninth year with the squad. He was partnered by long time team mate Stefan Mucke and last year’s F1 pilot Bruno Senna making his debut in endurance racing. The sister car was driven by the returning fabulous team driver Pedro Lamy still looking like he had jetted in fresh from a GQ shoot and partnered  with Paul Dalla Lana and American Billy Johnson. Series stalwarts Corvette Racing took pole in GTE with Risi Ferrari taking second on a return to form after taking last year off having been affected by the economic vagaries of auto racing. Team Rahal Letterman BMW showed off a pair of new Z4s which looked spectacular and besides a few 911s, GTE was rounded out by the return of the Snakes with the brawny SRT Vipers. They were here in no small part I’m sure, due to the passion of ex-Aston Martin executive Beth Paretta looking very racy in her SRT fire suit!
               The Astons qualified very well in third and fourth places with Mucke just pipping a very fast Lamy who may have taken it had the session not ended just as he was finding his speed and a clear piece of track. The established team with Darren Turner was in the brand new development car #87 while the other team had the proven car from last year wearing the familiar #007.
               The race started on a typically glorious Florida spring morning with the Audis taking off not to be seen again. There were some on track scuffles between team mates McNish and fellow Brit Oliver Jarvis which raised a few eyebrows in the Audi garage, but it seemed as though they were just playing in order to stave off the boredom from a lack of useful competition. I’m sure the reality was a lot different!
               P2 was exciting as Guy Cosmo brought the new Patron Acura from mid pack after a few early stops, back to first in class only to have his excitement thwarted as the car suffered transmission failure mid race. I’m sure a class or even an overall victory is in his future once the car is sorted. I won’t print what I was told by one of the team members in relation to early-week Honda engine woes, but his turn of phrase will certainly make for a good pub story!
               The Astons made a solid start, but inevitably were unable to streak away due to the proximity of other cars. Turner was unable to avoid a slower car ahead and on the first corner had a small impact which he thought was of no consequence. As it transpired though, the radiator was damaged which necessitated a short stop for replacement. GTE is a close fought and highly competitive class where even a long race – 12 hours in this case – is lost or won by seconds, so even as the crew changed the damaged part in quick time, the laps lost immediately put the car out of contention. The 007 car suffered a sticky throttle cable which also cost the team a small stop but a subsequent large gap too big to overcome in order to contend for the podium.
               AMR was here to shake down the cars ahead of the WEC season opener at Silverstone in April, so although a podium would have been a feather in their cap, the race was more a test than anything as the cars are not entered in the ALMS season here in the States. Once the pressure was off, both cars were able to get down to some serious racing and both performed flawlessly after their stops, and although the cars only finished in eighth and ninth places in class, they were able to post some very competitive lap times which were at one point the fastest in GTE.
               So once again with our weekend over, we not only reflected on our annual gathering of the faithful, but also of our many years watching the mighty P1 cars in the ALMS era of this hallowed place. We even took the golf cart down the original back straight a few times while heading out to the nether regions of the circuit for photos. We marveled at how narrow the old track was and how Moss and Brooks must have wrestled those early Astons and Ferraris back in the day, the hairs on my neck standing up as I contemplated the thought. 
               Much as our dads must have bemoaned the passing of the sports cars of their day, we did the same for our beloved LMP1 cars. As the sun was setting on the ALMS, I contemplated the newly formed USCR as the harbinger of future change – hopefully for the collective good.  Have the organizers steered their fate or fulfilled their folly? Will it be the dawn of a new era? It depends on your perspective I suppose.

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