It’s been more than a month since the last round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship but the grid have not been quiet in their preparations for the 2017 Sebring 12 Hours.
The second round of the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup, the Florida airfield has played host to epic battles down the years and this should prove no different as 46 cars in four classes get set to go once around the clock.
The time The Checkered Flag takes a look at the GT Le Mans and GT Daytona categories and the entries looking to etch their name in Sebring GT legend.
GT Le Mans
With almost 50 entries for the race, anticipation is high and GTLM is no exception, as ten entries from five different manufacturers fill the grid.
As the second round of not just the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship, but also their Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup, the result will be vital for many as they finalise the plans for the year ahead.
The only entry to pull out from the class was the fourth Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford car, driven by Tony Kanaan as well as British pairing Harry Tincknell and Andy Priaulx.
Sebastien Bourdais, Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand took the win at Daytona back in January, but are trailing in the Endurance Cup due to not leading at the half-way stage of the race. All three have had good results in the past but they’ll be desperate to shake off the eighth place from 2016.
The Chip Ganassi sister car also retains its line-up with Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Scott Dixon. The trio ran into trouble at Daytona, but Westbrook’s fastest lap proves the pace of the car during the long runs.
As the only European-based Ford GT, support could waver for the crew of the #68. French driver Oliver Pla has had a spotty history with the race, failing to finish on the podium during any of his previous LMP1 encounters.
From their dramatic one-two at Daytona 14 months ago, the American giants have struggled to live up to expectations since, only finishing 2017’s race fourth, at the hands of Antonio Garcia, Dane Jan Magnussen and Mike Rockenfeller.
Despite this, the #3 Chevrolet Corvette C7.R returns, knowing that the halfway point of the NAEC approaches. The team may have won the GTLM title last year, but success this year may be far less assured.
The #4 will be no different. After winning Sebring, as well as the championship last year, Daytona could not have gone much worse for Marcel Fassler, Tommy Milner and Briton Oliver Gavin who finished down in 16th overall.
The biggest competition to Ford could be the new mid-engined 911 GT3 RSR. The Porsche car made its debut two months ago, finishing second in the race, while also picking up full points in the NAEC standings thanks to Frederic Makowiecki, Patrick Pilet and BMW refugee, Dirk Werner.
Joining the #911 will be their sister car, the #912 for what is shaping up to be another close event. They too retain their line-up from last round, with Laurens Vanthoor still settling into the team.
The Belgian driver has only finished outside of the top six of the standings once, in all the seasons where he featured at every round, as Porsche hope to move themselves forward in 2017.
The rise of the big three manufacturers may have made many concerned with the presence of BMW Team RLL, as the team bank on another 2016. Bill Auberlen took pole position and fastest lap last year, but with no win since 2015, the Germans will sense the opportunity to fight back.
The #25 may have lost Bruno Spengler and Augusto Farfus, but they’ve brought across Kuno Wittmer from their sister car which remains unchanged other than the Canadian.
As the only GTLM runner to be classed as retired at Daytona, it may be up to Nick Catsburg, John Edwards and Martin Tomczyk, to play the team game, despite it being only the second round.
Last but certainly not least is the sole Ferrari-powered car. Factory stalwarts Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander are once again joined by James Calado.
The trio picked up a third place last time out and with the full support of the factory could gain an advantage over their rivals, who will need to seem fair at this stage of the season. Risi Competizione were runners-up in the NAEC last year and may focus more on the championship than this single race.
Since the category started following GT3 rules, the GTD field has gone from strength-to-strength and Sebring is proving no different.
2017 GTD Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona winners, the #28 Insync Porsche 911 GT3 R, returns to the GTD field with drivers Carlos de Quesada, Michael Christensen, and Daniel Morad.
They will be joined by Spencer Pumpelly for this round. Pumpelly is a former Rolex 24 winner and currently holds the title of reigning IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge Street Tuner champion so will add useful knowledge to the team.
But the field is far from lacking competition. Last year’s winners in the #68 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 are also taking on the 12-hour race. The driver’s from last year’s victorious car, Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan, will both co-pilot the car as they will for the rest of the IMSA season.
Jeff Segal, who helped the pair take the 2016 Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring class victory, will not be back in the cockpit this year as he will be racing on board the new #86 Michael Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian Acura NSX GT3 with co-pilots Ozz Negri and Tom Dyer. Nielsen and Balzan will have Matteo Cressoni as their third driver for the 12-hour race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar GT Daytona reigning championship-winning car.
The GTD field still holds one of the biggest variety of manufacturers on a racing grid with eight different manufacturers being represented: Porsche, Lamborghini, Lexus, Audi, Mercedes-AMG, Acura, BMW, and Ferrari. If the racing will be anything like it was last race at the Rolex 24 Hours then the field will not disappoint in close and exciting wheel-to-wheel racing.
Katherine Legge and Jack Hawksworth are the only Brits to be racing in the GTD class at Sebring this year. Legge will be in the #93 Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 whilst Hawksworth will challenge the grid in the #15 3GT Racing Lexus RCF GT3.
Legge raced in the #93 Michael Shank Racing Acura for the Rolex 24 Hour at the end of January. The car classified 11th in class and 29th overall so will be hoping for a quick improvement this time out. The driver line-up remains the same for the 12 Hours Sebring as it was for the Rolex 24 Hours. Legge will be joined in the #93 by Andy Lally and Mark Wilkins.
Hawksworth also ran in the 55th Rolex 24 Hours with the #15 3GT Racing Lexus. He, along with team-mates Robert Alon, Austin Cindric, and Dominik Fambacher, finished 14th in the GT Daytona class and 36th overall. For the 12 Hours of Sebring, Fambacher does not re-join the team, and the car will be piloted by the team of Hawksworth, Alon, and Cindric.
The class of GT Daytona always leads to a race where the winner is only known for certain at the checkered flag. The cars run so close on pace and performance it is usually very difficult to pick a favourite to win before the race starts. The GT Daytona cars hit the track for the first time at 15:10 GMT to partake in the first practice session of the 2017 12 Hours of Sebring.