It is probably considered lazy to begin any discussion of the GT classes of any Le Mans Series around the world but calling some of the best racing anywhere.
However, it's also the truth.
With 19 cars on the GT-Pro entry list – aside from the five similar spec cars in the newly created GT-Am category – the class boasts the biggest entry of any of the six classes that will see action at Sebring, and while much of the focus during the race will be on the diesels at the head of the field hoards of fans – notably of the works Corvettes – will be giving as much, if not more attention to the close quarters racing of the GT class.
The challenge is not only to beat your fellow racer, but also battle the track and all while keeping a watching brief for the blue flags to warn you of an up-rushing faster car. Get in their way and risk ending your race in a barrier, just ask Corvette Racing, who saw a class lead go awry at Le Mans last year in the wake of a charging Peugeot.
The Corvettes are back for 2011, as are their normal ALMS rivals. After a name change BMW Team RLL come with two BMW M3s (the marque's endurance sportscar program their main racing distraction before the DTM program debuts next year). Flying Lizard Motorsports return to lead the Porsche change and a fleet of new Ferrari F458 in the hands of Risi Competizione, Extreme Speed Motorports and Luxury Racing.
And the French team are the beginning of the new teams, or those attracted to Sebring by the lure of the ILMC. Among the professional entries AF Corse lead the European challenge with an older F430 car. A Lamborghini makes a rare Sebring visit in recent years with West Yokahama, and ALMS regulars Robertson Racing and Jaguar RSR begin a season of running a pair of cars each.
And if that wasn't enough diversity the striking Panoz Abruzzi makes it's race debut after breaking cover at Petit Le Mans last year.
Eight different manufacturers, nine different models, 12 hours – and did I mention that it's some of the best racing in the world?
No.51 – AF Corse – Ferrari F430 GT2
Gianmaria Bruni-Giancarlo Fisichella-Pierre Kaffer
Ignore the fact it's an old car – AF Corse are more than capable of beating the F458s (and everyone else). AF Corse are Ferrari's leading sportscar outlet in Europe, just as Risi Competizione are in the US.
Bruni and Kaffer could easily be classed among the best GT drivers in the world – criss-crossing the world in recent to climb behind the wheel of Ferraris on both sides of the Atlantic. Fisichella – seeing out his racing dotage as a Ferrari GT driver after his none-to-spectacular F1 adventure in the red cars. He has, however, proved himself more than capable of wheeling a GT Car.
With Jean Alesi and Toni Vilander he was one third of a team that made regular appearances at the top of the LMS last year, and finds his reward in a trip to Sebring.
No.55 – BMW Team RLL – BMW M3
Bill Auberlen-Augusto Farfus-Dirk Werner
Last year's GT class team champions return to defend their title – also carrying the BMW name in the ILMC opener. The no.55 car also includes the team's new regular driver – Werner – who joins the team after being a third driver in the endurance races last season.
That third seat is now filled by erstwhile WTCC driver Augusto Farfus, who makes his American racing debut having got a taste of endurance racing with the Schnitzer-run European operation.
BMW's 2010 title was won more through consistency over the course of the year, taking only a single win during the year. The staying power of the car is undoubted, but in a class which is likely to see someone try – and even succeed in – running flat out for 12 hours, its sheer speed will be tested.
No.56 – BMW Team RLL – BMW M3
Joey Hand-Dirk Muller-Andy Priaulx
“This is our third ALMS season together and I can feel the potential energy. Pre-season testing has shown we have longevity, strength, speed and reliability,” says Hand. “We have worked hard and definitely raised the level of our game.”
The more settled driving line-up may be a positive, but it's the off season work that 12 Hours around Sebring. If Hand's assessment is more than hopeful posturing then both BMWs could easily be the ones at top the class podium. And even if it's not you have to count both BMWs among the eight of so teams who could win on Saturday.
No.59 – Luxury Racing – Ferrari F458 Italia
Jean-Denis Deletraz-Fred Makowiecki-Stephane Ortelli
One of two teams that was initial slated to have two new Ferraris at Sebring as part of a full season in the ILMC. However, as the early start to the season drew near Ferrari were unable to deliver all the new cars on time.
Ortelli and Deletraz bring endurance experience to the team, but Makowiecki – who hails from France and the world of FIA GT1 racing's 60 minute races – is an unknown quantity where the specific needs of endurance races are concerned.
The new car also presents a number of unknowns. Ferrari are unlikely to make a dog, but the opening race, or even opening season of a new car are always likely to prone of teething problems, even after the wealth of pre-season testing.
No.03 – Corvette Racing – Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
Olivier Beretta-Antonio Garcia-Tommy Milner
Both Corvettes are well within the band of teams who could win the race – and it would be a hugely popular win.
This year is shake-up on and off the track. Tommy Milner comes over to Corvette from BMW to replace Johnny O'Connell, and a reshuffle of drivers splits up the long established 'Olis' team of Beretta and Gavin.
The car too has has some alterations over the off-season, a small change in rules enabling the team to install a new paddle shift system in the car which drivers praised after running it in testing.
Since abandoning the dying GT1 – a process which is now complete in ACO regulation racing – class during 2009 Corvette have steadily improved among the GT2-spec racers. The process was complete at Petit Le Mans last year, when the team recorded just their second win since switching classes – and their first in the endurance events. With an improved car Sebring could be another.
Corvette Racing are the latest team to see the advantage in signing Westbrook, who in the past year has spread his wings outside the Porsches he rose to GT racing prominence in through the Carrera Cup championships in Europe.
The addition of Westbrook to regular Corvette men Gavin and Magnussen makes this perhaps the stronger of the two Corvettes.
Whether or not either Corvette wins the race, Program Manager Doug Fehan will be happy if Sebring this year ends better than 2010's edition when his two charges had their chances of victory destroyed by an embarrassing coming together in the pits.
Another team that will be hoping to end this year's race in better form that twelve months ago, when Sharp brought a flaming Ferrari F430 to a halt at the entrance to turn 17. Is now a good time to mention the road-going 458's reputation for fires?
The driving trio is more than good enough to challenge for the class win, but that is the same story as for the whole of the debut season when Sharp and van Overbeek shared the car. However, Sharp's team rarely seemed to be able to break level with the established front runners.
Could the new car be the thing to turn them into race winners?
No.002 – Extreme Speed Motorsports – Ferrari F458 Italia
Rob Bell-Ed Brown-Guy Cosmo
A team that somewhat fudges the now all-important line between amateur and professional drivers, with Patron Spirits CEO Ed Brown one of the regular men behind the wheel. However, the choice of the new F458 puts them in the pro-class, and the late addition of Rob Bell – after the Brit had already been announced as a third driver with a another team – gives the team the abiltity to run good times in stints.
The team are unlikely to trouble the scorers, but will fit in well with the second tier of cars within the class that exists below the probably contenders for victory.
No.004 – Robertson Racing – Doran Ford GT
Colin Braun-David Murry-Anthony Lazzaro
This is another of the teams that will contend in the second tier within the GT class. Braun, before he was lured into oval racing promised much as a sportscar pilot, being part of the Risi Competizion team that took second in class at Le Mans in 2007, but since then his diet has almost solely NASCAR.
Sebring will not be the best test of whether Braun's road-racing talent has survived prolonged exposure to North Carolina as while Robertson Racing are capable of surprising with occasional laps – Murry taking class pole at Petit Le Mans in 2009 for the highest profile example – the reliability and speed of the car has never lasted even the ALMS's shorter encounters. If either of the team's two cars make it all 12 hours it will be an achievement for the small outfit.
No.008 – West Yokahama Lamborghini – Lamborghini Gallardo LP560 4
Nicky Pastorelli-Brett Sandberg-Dominik Schwager
Pastorelli and Schwager come in to the team after contesting the FIA GT1 WC for Munnich Motorsport last year. That team was closely connected to Lamborghini's race team of choice – Reiter Engineering – suggesting there may be a glimmer of official support for the team.
Unfortunately, while the close quarters racing of the series may be some preparation for the competiton of the ALMS GT ranks the pair were not even the best Lamborghini last year, and will probably struggle once more in a GT2 outing for Lamborghini machinery. Outside of the 2010 campaign both men bring experience from and odd-and-ends of GT and endurance racing – VLN, Super GT, Dutch Supercar Challenge – with only a handful of ALMS races.
Sandberg is even less familiar with the challenge that lies ahead with only a handful of SCCA Touring Car outings to his name. In a race as fraught, and filled with traffic, as Sebring that experience could be very costly.
No.017 – Team Falken Tire – Porsche 997 GT3 RSR
Wolf Henzler-Martin Ragginger-Bryan Sellers
A very outside bet for class victory. The driving line-up is good enough to challenge at the top with Porsche works man Henzler joining Martin Ragginger – formerly one of the marques junior drivers – and Falken Tire stalwart Sellers.
Tyres are always critical in an endurance race – especially a race than transitions from day to night and a team with sponsorship from a tyre company – and being that company's only representative on the grid – will only pull more focus on the performance of the rubber. The Falken tyres don't need to give them an advantage – just not be a disadvantage. The drivers are more than capable of delivery on the track if they have the grip.
No.040 – Robertson Racing – Doran Ford GT
Andrea Robertson-David Robertson-Boris Said
The second Robertson Ford is very much the story of the first. The husband and wife Robertsons are joined by road-racing legend Boris Said. As good as Said may be on his day it's doubtful he will ever be in a good enough position to make any fast laps really count at the top of the leaderboard.
Again, if the car finishes – avoiding both driver error and mechanical let downs – then it should be seen as a positive start to an ambitious season which sees a full season with two cars and a first ever trip to the Le Mans 24 Hours.
No.044 – Flying Lizard Motorsports – Porsche 997 GT3 RSR
Marco Holzer-Darren Law-Seth Neiman
Another car whose line-up smudges the Pro/Am distinction the first of the Flying Lizard cars on the entry list is strong enough – Holzer another of the travelling band of Porsche works drivers that circle the globe to bolster the Stuttgart marque's favoured racing squad.
In regular season competition Neiman – team principal as well as driver – and Law are rarely among the frontrunners in class and simply the addition of a Porsche ringer is not the instant cure to the duos lack of form. They will be another team to run among the second tier of GT runners, but they might just be the best of them.
No.045 – Flying Lizard Motorsport – Porsche 997 GT3 RSR
Joerg Bergmeister-Mark Lieb-Patrick Long
This is the strongest Porsche line-up, if not the strongest GT line-up period. Bergmeister and Long are reigning and multiple ALMS class champions, and to slot Lieb – reigning and multiple LMS champion – into the team creates an utterly formidable team for Sebring.
Along with the two BMWs, two Corvettes, Risi , AF Corse and no.001 Extreme Speed Ferraris this is firmly among the contenders for victory. To try and predict winners of endurance events is impossible – there are too many unknowns concealed in a 12, let alone 24 race – and to use the word “favourite” is dangerous, but I, well, wouldn't be surprised of Bergmeister, Lieb and Long are your Sebring class winners.
No.048 – Paul Miller Racing – Porsche 997 GT3 RSR
Sascha Maassen-Bryce Miller-Rene Rast
Returning to series after a number of forays into the GT3-spec GT Challenge class last year are Grand-AM GT class regulars Paul Miller Racing. Like many of the other Porsche teams they enjoy a level of factory support, Porsche Supercup champion Rene Rast coming to Sebring for his first race on American soil.
He will share the car with Maassen (who raced against him in Supercup competition last year) who brings a wealth of experience, not only in GT Porsches but in endurance racing in general including a stint in the ALMS with the Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyders contending for overall wins.
With team regular Bryce Miller completing the line-up the drivers are able, but the team's relative inexperience at this level may be their Achilles Heal.
OK, yes, the car looks very, very weird in profile.
Sadly I fear that Panoz are headed down the route of the Jaguar program (more about that later) in pitching an over ambitious program without the ability to back it up. Perhaps the abortive plans to race the car for the first time at Petit Le Mans last October has unduly set my nerves on edge, but I remain to be convinced.
The successor to the Panoz Esperante, the car is still in its infancy, and with what might be viewed a 12 Hour test ahead of them the chances of this will be another team just happy to finish.
No.062 – Risi Competizion – Ferrari F458 Italia
Jaime Melo-Mika Salo-Toni Vilander
Sebring starts a scaled back 2011 program for Risi – the multiple winners of the event declined to even submit an entry for the Le Mans 24 Hours. Along with the European based AF Corse car the Texan team will lead the Prancing Horse's challenge in the 12 Hours.
Trying to pick the better of the two teams is near impossible. Both include driver trios packed with Ferrari GT experience and with race and series to their name. The difference – as well as any of the quirks of fate that pepper an endurance race – could be the cars. How much is the F458 still in development, how much are the teams and drivers still learning what the car and, and will do.
Risi, as one of the top teams, will be as well prepared as anyone, but there is no test like a race.
No.098 – Jaguar RSR – Jaguar XKR
P.J. Jones-Ricky Moran Jr.-Kenny Wilden
What is there to say about Jaguar RSR? The team – led by Paul Gentilozzi – burst onto the ALMS stage with all the grand intentions that come with taking the Jaguar name racing in any series in the world.
Since then, it has been a case of justifying that noise. The car has struggled to find the pace to compete and has been plagued with reliability problems. It managed only a handful of laps when the team were invited to Le Mans last season and had a similar experience at Sebring last year, when their race week was characterised by a geyser of steam from the front of the car.
And after that why expand to two car? Of the two XKRs this is by the far the weakest in terms of driving line-up, despite the inclusion of P.J. Jones. I just wonder whether all three will actually get a racing lap in the car.
No.099 – Jaguar RSR – Jaguar XKR
Cristiano da Matta- Bruno Junqueira-Oriol Servia
The better car of the two as far as the drivers are concerned, not just for the level of talent, but also for the interest surrounding one time F1 driver and open-wheel champion Da Matta, who makes his regular return to racing after his Champ Car testing accident at Road America.
A team of open-wheel drivers may be enough to grab some interest pre-race, but how they stack up in GT competition is entirely another thing. And then there are the normal problems of Jaguar RSR