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12 Hours of Sebring 2015

Big Block of Wins for Chevy

The 63rd running of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring 2015 was an eagerly anticipated event for myself, my friends and about 100,000 others according to estimated figures.  This was a telling year being the second under the control of TUSC. Last year with a lot of unknowns, the place had a record attendance of over 164,000 but this year it was plainly obvious that many had decided to stay home. Lots of vacant spaces along the track and the ability to drive up and down the Midway on race morning almost unimpeded made it clear that no records would be broken this year…with the possible exception of the heat index. Boy it was hot!

As my favorite event on the North American circuit, I always enjoy Sebring as it is so much more than just a race. Although it was nice to have a bit of elbow room, I missed the less than intense carnival atmosphere of years past. Even in the waning years of the ALMS the place was still electric and I hope that the impending signs of NASCAR-ization do not materialize.

The event however was as always a great time and fortunately Sebring Nation is still alive and well as our annual pilgrimage to the nether regions of Green Park would attest. All of the crazy fans with their unique vehicles and structures made their regular appearance much to the joy of racer-turned-TV-presenter Justin Bell.  Not to mention the greatest racing in America!

There were plenty of special anniversaries being celebrated which always liven up the pre-race action. Notably BMW was celebrating forty years since the iconic 3.0 CSL of Redman and Stuck won the event with both legendary racers on hand. Stuck was to drive the newly restored car on track ahead of the race and the Team RLL BMW Z4 GTLM’s were resplendant in their commemorative liveries.

Arriving late on Friday due to unavoidable circumstances, I was rushing from the media center to Audi hospitality in a mad dash to catch up with friends and colleagues when I happened to see Brian Redman relaxing at the BMW display. Not wanting to pass up a chance to speak him, I mentally calculated how much time I could spend with him and still get to Audi before the fun started. It’s always a treat to be able to chat with him, and Brian regaled me with one of his favorite Sebring reminiscences. “I’d had a really bad accident in Canada the first day of the new Can-Am series. We had a single seater car as a marketing exercise by the SCCA because the promoters  wanted the name Can-Am  which had been big in sports cars. So here we were in St. Jovite in early May 1977 with a new car. I’d never seen it let alone driven it. Anyway I went out in it – it was prepared by Jim Hall of Chaparral – and it was excellent! I came in after 20 minutes at which point I was three seconds ahead of the field. Jim Hall said, ‘How is it?’ I said, ‘It’s good!’ He asked what I wanted and I really didn’t want anything,”  Brian  continues. “I said, ‘I don’t know…take a quarter of an inch off the front wing.’ On the next lap at 160mph it took off on the top of the hill. Went 40 feet in the air, turned over and came down. I broke my neck, smashed my left shoulder, broke two ribs. The roll bar broke so my helmet was worn away down the side. My heart stopped and the ambulance blew a tire on the way to the hospital!” So not a great day then? Brian finishes the thought.

“Six months later in November I was walking again and I phoned Joe Hoppen, head of  Porsche Audi competition and I said, ‘Can you find me a good car for Sebring? Not a potential winning car, but a decent car so I can see if I can drive or if I want to drive. He did. He put me in the Dick Barber second entry which was also driven by Bob Garretson and Charles Mendez – an SCCA racer who was promoting the race…and blow me down we went and won!” Coming from a different era where political and correctness were seldom found in the same sentence, and one who is a natural raconteur, I could listen to Brian all day and I wish I could have, but time to move on!

Brian will be sampling the latest Z4 GTLM later this year. Should be an interesting comparison with its “Batmobile” older sibling.

Chevrolet were also celebrating a milestone in their own racing history. Jim Hall II was there with the spectacular Chevy powered Chaparral 2 looking for all the world like a George Barris show car with its huge intake and exhaust stacks and wild bodywork. It was being driven on the parade lap ahead of the race in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Chevrolet’s last win here. As it turned out, the Florida sun was certainly smiling on them this year. Read on.

Although not on the calendar as an officially recognized event, it was also the 10th anniversary of Champion Racing’s win here with the ADT R8. Several ex- Champion alum were here – now with other teams – most notably a wee Scot by the name of McNish. He was in attendance as an Audi Brand Ambassador and seemingly relishing this new role. He was as relaxed as I’ve ever seen – much more so than myself as I swept into the Audi hospitality tent just as Allan arrived. It was a different experience to see him like this as he cajoled and joked with the fans, unlike the laser-focused race car driver that we have been so used to over the years. Always pressed for time and feet seemingly hovering just off the ground, we chatted about that 2005 race. “It was the first time that I had raced with Champion in that guise,” Allan told me. “I had raced with them in ’99 and they were a very very different team to what they were by the time you got to 2005 and there was a big push towards Le Mans…that being the goal that year without the shadow of a doubt.

“Sebring though was sort of the ‘starter for ten’. As ever it was a clear battle between the two (team) cars and ultimately it came down to tire strategy. It was critical for me to have overtaken Tom (Kristensen) by the end of the lap, but when it got to the end of the lap I remember throwing it into (turn) 17 just trying to get as much of a run down to (turn) one, because I knew that if I didn’t get him down to one, then that was basically our race done. That was two hours from the end. It was exactly that – a fight between Tom and I for the whole length of the race.”

Obviously fond of those days, Allan says, “It was two things: A superb victory for Champion – it was their first Sebring victory and very important for Dave (Maraj) being a local. The other thing was that it set them up in terms of people, mentality, principals, standing it, Audi Sport…to go on to win Le Mans in 2005. Considering they were the first team since Ford with the GT40 program coming from the US to win Le Mans, it was a pretty special moment.”

Like Redman, I would loved to have talked more to McNish too,  but as always he was gone in a flash just as quick as he’d arrived only minutes before.

After qualifying  it appeared that the possibility of a good battle in the classes was on the cards. Olivier Pla put the Prototype Krohn Ligier JS-P2 Judd (moving up from their previous seasons in GTD/GTE-Am) on the pole and will be racing in the WEC along with fellow American team ESM who were in a wee bit of hot weather so to speak.

ESM had to work feverishly to get their cars prepared as only two weeks prior they had made the decision to return the brand new HPD ARX 04b chassis to Japan after it was found that the new chassis was fully five seconds slower on a lap of Sebring. After massive amounts of tweaking – to no avail – team owner Scott Sharp made the tough choice to run last year’s HPD ARX 03b.  From Spa onward the team plans to run the same Ligier JS-P2 chassis as Krohn but with Honda power. Despite a very fast pace, it came as no surprise that both cars retired early. Given that the team had been pulling all-nighters for weeks to get the cars here, they at least proved that they could work under the most extreme pressure (pun not intended). This will stand them in good stead for the upcoming WEC season and in particular Le Mans.  It will be interesting to see how the year unfolds for them.

With a ‘P2’ machine on pole I had hoped that the race would go their way but a few mishaps they were eventually ruled them out of a top spot. The Action Express Corvette took 1st place overall bring driven by Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi and  Sebastian Bourdais.  With Chevy powering all the LMPC  Orecas they too took a default class win which made for a nice 50th anniversary present for Chevrolet.

In GTLM we were treated to a lone Gulf Aston Vantage as Prodrive decided late in the day to field an entry. Hopefully they will run the entire North American Endurance Series. Before the race I spoke to Pedro Lamy who had qualified the car ninth. “It’s a long race. I think tires are always a key to the race and the speed of the car. Hopefully if we are in a position at the end to fight, then we fight. At Daytona we had a very competitive car with the Le Mans aero kit, but here we were a bit off the pace in qualifying. But you finish in the race, not qualifying, so maybe the car will be competitive.”

Unfortunately after a blistering start, which saw Lamy picking off the cars ahead of him and proving his tire choice to be a good one, the car was handed off to poor old Paul Dalla Lana. He had spun at Daytona and was once again in the seat as the car spun this time due to a RR wheel off. This happened right in front of us and was not driver error. Although returned to the garage for a replacement hub, the car lost too much time and the Aston was again relegated to essentially testing duties. The car was able to score valuable points, but a podium was too much to hope for in the very tight class despite the late departure of the other front runners.

I spoke to one of the mechanics in the Aston garage after the incident and he told me that the wheel nut had been properly torqued and that the failure was an unusual one. They were still not sure what had caused the issue. The car ran like clockwork after the repair, with team veterans Darren Turner and Lamy steadily climbing the field, making it all the more gut wrenching. The team finished sixth in class and talking to the press after the race, Darren was upbeat as usual. “All you can do after early race problems is focus on having a clear run and that’s exactly what we did,” said Darren.  “Of course it’s disappointing as we had a car with good race pace but it’s all good experience. We’ve had two races now with incidents, from which we have learnt a lot.  We’re not going into the first round of the World Endurance Championship in a few weeks all relaxed after the winter break but fighting fit after two big events.  I wouldn’t dare call Daytona and Sebring ‘warm up’ events but we’ve definitely blown any winter cobwebs away and feel fully ready to fight for the WEC title now.” 

Corvette won the crowd favorite GT-LM class as Ryan Briscoe, Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen made it a class hat-trick for Chevy. This was Corvette Racing’s ninth win at the 12 Hour adding to their Daytona 24 Hour victory. It wasn’t a dominant win though. Far from it. It was Porsche who appeared to once again have the win in hand after sweeping the front row in qualifying. Although they avoided a reprise of the Daytona collision, late race mechanical woes struck. Endurance racing can be a cruel task master and not even Porsche is immune. When #912 came in for a late race stop, it had to be sent around again while they tried to figure out how to remove the LR wheel. Although this was finally accomplished, the team lost 2 laps before the hub failed on track causing instant retirement.

#911 took over the fight for Porsche but soon after developed an engine issue which also spelled ‘Game Over’. The Risi Ferrari #62 battled a tough race to finish a minute behind the Corvette but could easily have won had it not been plagued with overheating issues which necessitated some judicious use of the throttle – not easy for race drivers on the cusp of a major win! I’m sure that the car’s overheating issues made for some similar characteristics for team boss Giuseppe Risi too!

The Flying Lizard Audi R8 in the GTD class seemed to be in peril before the race started.  Despite running well in practice, they started from pit lane having been forced to make more repairs as qualifying took place. With the car on jacks in the garage late on Friday night and leaking oil heavily it seemed that they were experiencing more than your typical pre-race teething troubles. It may be remembered that they had to replace the clutch at Daytona, and with the same drive-train was in the car here, it’s possible that there was some resultant damage perhaps? The car was retired after an hour. 

GTD saw the biggest redemption which, as it always does, came at the expense of another team. It may be remembered that the #33 Viper last year attempted to join the Green Park barbeque crowd for lunch as it burned to the ground towards the hairpin. Meanwhile the  Alex Job Porsche was robbed of a victory when the stewards called it in for a penalty in what proved to be the worst call in racing history as the real culprit factory GTLM 911 fled the scene scot-free! This year the Viper was looking for all the world like a winner with Alex Job right on its tail. With the clock running out and on ragged tires, the Porsche went off seemingly handing the win to the Viper. As so often happens in endurance racing though, defeat was snatched from the fangs of victory as mechanical issues caused heart-break for the Viper just five minutes from the chequered flag thus giving a deserved win to Alex Job and realigning the stars once more!

This gave a boost to the TRG Aston Martin V12 Vantage. After a string of poles dating back to last year, the car started started from fifth. They swapped the lead with the others and were in the hunt for the duration with James Davison, Christina Nielsen and Brandon Davis looking to control the pace. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be but second place is by far the best result TRG has seen since switching to Aston Martin last season.

After the race Kevin Buckler was delighted and deservedly so.”We were really looking forward to this. The team did a flawless job of executing. We weren’t the fastest car by any means which means there’s still some adjustment needed on the Balance of Performance, but we definitely put the best package together in terms of strategy and made no mistakes in the pits. I’m really proud of the drivers and the team…they all did a fantastic job.”

Star driver James Davison was exhausted and soaked from either Champagne or – more likely – sweat as he discussed the race after the podium. “I feel very good! I was exhausted after the race but the podium really got my juices flowing. I’m really proud of the whole team and hope that this is one of many.”  The team has not seen results despite class-of-the-field qualifying until now. What was it that turned the corner for the team? “It was just us not being in the wrong place at the wrong time really. We’d had a number of unfortunate occurrences that were out of our control and a large number of them. It was getting quite frustrating, but we persevered and finally got a result which is the fruition of all the hard work that’s been put in.”

So despite lower than expected attendance and an eerie feeling of unease, we can all hope that our sacred place lives to see several more years without the long arm of NASCAR getting too over zealous with the place. After all, this is Sebring – home of the greatest sports car race in America!