Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring: Preview


How will the Daytona Prototypes cope with the Sebring turns and bumps? (Courtesy of IMSA)

When, two months ago, time came to preview the start of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship at the Rolex 24 at Daytona one the things the article focussed upon was the great numbers of unknowns that would influence the course of the race.

Now, with the teams back in Florida for the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring some of those same unknowns, and new ones besides, are going to be key to the race – and to the rest of the series’ maiden season.

It seems a strange scenario to have just as many uncertainties in the second race of the season as in the first, especially when the first was the longest race of the season, but such are the differences between the circuits at Daytona and Sebring, and in the cars that will race there.

At Daytona it was all too easy to cleave a gap between the constituent parts of the TUDOR Championship’s premier class and – quite fairly – this became one of the major bugbears for fans of the series.

However, would moving from Daytona International Speedway – the backyard for the Daytona Prototype machinery – to Sebring International Raceway – the LMP2’s favoured Florida wintering sport, bring the two parts of the Prototype class together.

It was expected so.

Still, though, when the championship tested at the Sebring airfield track, it was the Action Express Racing team – the same squad that had won in Daytona – which dominated the times.

Their success however, has earned the Corvette DP, a hold of the wrong end of the stick that is the Balance of Performance changes. All the top class Chevys have their engine’s governed by a tighter engine restrictor while other cars in the class – both DP and LMP2 are given larger restrictors to try and put them on a level playing field with the so far dominant package.

How – or even whether – these changes effect the results everyone will be talking about come Sunday is a new unknown. But – should the result be markedly different from that Daytona – the role of the regulations versus the role of the track will be up for debate.

Sebring is not Daytona.

Where the emphasis at Daytona is on top speed, the handling of a car is more important around the 17 turns of Sebring. Aside from the two tests, November’s running as well as the test last month, the Daytona Prototypes are relative strangers to the obstacles of Sebring – perhaps the street track at Detroit is the closest surrogate in previous seasons. The Sebring circuit itself is, arguably, more challenging than Daytona. Legendarily, infamously bumpy, Sebring is the track that European teams fear, many testing their cars at the track to simulate the rigours of the Circuit de la Sarthe at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The differences in the track will also affect one of the stranger side-effects of the off season merger. At Daytona the GT Daytona cars were the second fastest class in a straight line – behind only the Prototypes – out pacing both their GT Le Mans cousins and the LMPC machines down the Superspeedway’s back straight and through the tri-oval.

How the shorter straights and slower corners of Sebring effect the inter-class dynamics could be crucial should the race come down – as it did in Daytona – to a late sprint then the faster classes ability to fight through traffic will be as important as the ability to overtake cars for class positions.

The BoP changes – which also include alterations in both the GTLM and GTD classes, their a vast majority are aimed at shortening stint durations, rather than more wholesale changes to the class landscape – are not the only things in the series that will different at Sebring, with several teams withdrawing their entries following Daytona.

Almost certainly the most surprising of these is the Level 5 Motorsports team that won the GTD class at Daytona after a controversial final lap battle with Flying Lizard Motorsports’ Audi. Less surprising was the premature end of the North American Endurance Challenge (NAEC) campaign planned by Bob Stallings Racing after the accident that left Memo Gidley in hospital at Daytona. The Risi Competizione team’s whose Ferrari Gidley was left with little chance of avoiding, however, will be back on track after missing the Sebring test while their car was repaired.

They will return to a GTLM class which won’t include Aston Martin Racing, the manufacturer’s team exiting the series after struggling for pace at Daytona. While they depart Team Falken Tire will join the series, adding a third Porsche 911 RSR to the grid alongside the pair of works cars, including the Daytona winning #911.

That victory came with a narrow margin over the best of the Team RLL BMW, the Z4 the only GTLM car to be given a performance break for Sebring, and after a web of accidents and reliability problems had thwarted the challenges of Corvette Racing, SRT Motorsports and Risi. At Sebring those teams will be looking for a return on their good form, preventing the Porsche squad from taking too big of a lead into the season’s shorter races.

As well as the main championship the 12 Hours is the second round of the four race NAEC – to be completed later in the season with the Six Hours of The Glen and Petit Le Mans.

The Action Express Racing that leads both the overall and NAEC championships – and paced the test session – will be driven by the same three drivers as stepped into Victory Lane in January, with Sebastien Bourdais joining Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi.

Amongst the top competitors in all the classes there is a relatively similar story, though some – including LMPC victors CORE Autosport – trim their driving rosters from four to three. Wayne Taylor returns to retirement from driving to leave the Velocity WorldWide sponsored Corvette DP to sons Ricky and Jordan and Max Angelelli. Similarly Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates maintain their two car entry, shorn of NASCAR drivers Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson since Daytona.

Having raced for Muscle Milk Pickett Racing at Daytona Alex Brundle moves back to his now normal seat aboard OAK Racing’s Morgan-Nissan. Replacing him in taking turns with Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr in the Oreca 03 is Jann Mardenborough, the Nissan GT Academy making his US racing debut in just his second LMP start – his first came at last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

www.theCheckeredFlag.co.uk will have reports from every TUDOR Championship session as well as coverage throughout the race itself.