12 Hours of Sebring & #35 (GTD), Audi R8 LMS, Flying Lizard Motorsports & #01 (P), Riley DP, Chip Ganassi Racing. Click image to enlarge
Article and photos by Lesley Wimbush.
SEBRING, Florida – Not since 1969 has a Ford-powered vehicle placed first overall in the 12 Hours of Sebring. After a battle rife with yellow flag delays, spectacular crashes and questionable marshalling in the 62nd running of this historic race, Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 1 Ford/Riley Daytona Prototype took the chequered flag with Marino Franchitti at the wheel.
Saturday’s race was only the second event in the IMSA (International Motor Sports Association) – sanctioned United Sports Car Championship. Sponsored by TUDOR, the TUSC is a brand new series, formed after a merger between the now defunct American Le Mans (ALMS) and the Rolex Sports Car Series.
So far there have been some growing pains under IMSA guidance and the creation of a new class structure.
Basically, there are two types of classes: Prototypes and GT (Grand Touring). Each of those types has two classes: Pro (red numbers and panel markings), consisting of professional drivers, and Pro-Am (blue numbers and panel markings) which pairs a pro driver with an amateur.
Altogether, there are four classes all running at once, each one with its own winner.
ALMS fans used to seeing the mighty LMP1 prototypes will be disappointed by their absence in the TUDOR series. Instead, the Daytona Prototype (DP) and Le Mans LMP2 (P2) cars merge into a single Prototype class – including the distinctive Nissan Delta Wing. With a top speed of 190 mph, these are the fastest and technologically advanced vehicles in the race.
The Prototype class (PC) is a formula class – the cars are identical, open cockpit Oreca Le Mans Prototypes running on Continental tires. Constructed of a carbon fibre chassis, the PC cars have a top speed of 175 mph.
The GT Le Mans (GTLM) are production cars that have been tweaked to produce the highest level of performance possible from a GT car. This 180 mph class acts as a proving grounds for manufacturers and is one of the most hotly contested classes in endurance racing – with fierce competition between Porsche, Corvette, Viper, BMW and Ferrari. The battles fought in this division harken back to the golden years of vintage GT racing.
GT Daytona (GTD) are also production cars, but not quite as heavily engineered as the GT Le Mans cars. With a top speed of 180 mph, this class features Porsche, BMW, Viper, Aston Martin and newcomers Audi R8.
#9 (P), Corvette DP, Action Express Racing, #93 (GTLM), SRT Viper GTS-R, SRT Motorsports, #46 (GTD), Audi R8 LMS, Fall-Line Motorsports. Click image to enlarge
Since its inaugural running in 1950, Sebring has become one of racing’s iconic events and the oldest in the US. It’s one third of the Triple Crown of Endurance Racing along with the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Smack-dab in the middle of south-central Florida, the race is held on a former airfield surrounded by miles of flat swampland and orange groves. Hendricks Air Field was once a WWII training school teaching pilots to fly the B-17 Flying Fortress.
Sebring Raceway came into being when Alec Ulmann, an aeronautical engineer, envisioned an American Version of Le Mans at the former base. Originally incorporating some of the tiny town’s service roads, the course was modified and widened after a tragic accident claimed the lives of five people in 1966.
A preparation event for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Sebring is definitely a harsh test of any car’s endurance and reliability. Not only is there the Florida heat to contend with – the track’s surface, while flat, consists of 3.74 miles (6 km) rough concrete patched with uneven seams.
Managing to score a couple of hot laps (a circuit of the track at race speed) in an Audi R8, I could see that the rough pavement would be challenging for suspension and tires – and indeed this proved to be the case with several blown tires and collapsed suspension components over the course of the day. The surface is rough and jarring, and sparks fly when they come into seams joining bare concrete and asphalt.
From start to finish, the race was marked with incidence. More than half the race was run under caution with a total of 11 yellow flags and even a race-stopping red flag. During the first hour, the GT Daytona Riley Motorsports SRT Viper burst into flames when a broken drive shaft severed the fuel line.
Charlie Putman, #46 (GTD), Audi R8 LMS, Fall-Line Motorsports & #70 (P), Mazda, SpeedSource & #22 (GTD), Porsche 911 GT America, Alex Job Racing. Click image to enlarge
The race was halted by a red flag during the fifth hour when the Oreca Chevrolet Formula PC car of David Ostella clipped the barriers at turn 17 and bounced back into the path of one of the PR1 cars driven by Frankie Monetcalvo. It was a spectacular crash, scattering debris all over the track but fortunately neither driver was hurt.
Another dramatic wreck occurred at the half-way mark at turn 17 when Gaston Kearby’s number 87 Oreca Formula PC spun onto the grass, but then re-entered the track coming into contact with Alex Tagliani’s number 08 RSR. Although neither driver was hurt – both cars were destroyed. There was a lot of commentary around the wisdom of allowing amateur drivers to compete at this level with speculation that newer racers – raised on simulators and video-based training – weren’t following the directions of the flag-waving marshals. A driver should never re-enter the racing line without checking the flag-waving marshall to ensure that it’s safe.
But we spoke with Number #46 Audi R8 GT Daytona driver Charlie Putman shortly after this incident. While he praised the hard-working marshals he’s come to rely on during his racing career, he also said that some are volunteers and inconsistency is something you can’t afford at this level.
His spotter had forewarned him of the accident up ahead but when he “came to turn 16, the marshal was standing arms folded, looking in the other direction” instead of waving the yellow flag.
IMSA officials are under fire for mistakenly penalizing the No. 22 Alex Jobs GT Porsche for making contact when it was actually a different Porsche that had caused the incident. It’s not the first time – a far more serious misjudgement stripped the GT Daytona class winner at the 24 Hours of Rolex Daytona for unavoidable contact, but it was later determined it was a different car that had been involved in the incident.
Overall Sebring winner was the Ganassi Riley-Ford EcoBoost DP driven by Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas and Marino Franchitti
The Ganassi victory is the first win for the Ford EcoBoost engine, and the team is now the first in history to win 12 Hours of Sebring, Rolex 24 at Daytona, Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500.
CORE Autosport’s Porsche RSR won the GT Le Mans class driven by Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Long and Michael Christensen.
Turner Motorsports BMW took the GT Daytona Class, while the Prototype Challenge class was won by the CORE ORECA-Chevrolet FLM09 driven by Colin Braun, James Gue and Jon Bennett.
While many of us will miss the excitement of ALMS, the TUDOR series promises to provide some exciting racing for fans and hopefully will work out some of its issues.