Sebring 2014 may take some getting used to with new changes

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This weekend marks three major international motorsport events. Formula One kicks off its 2014 campaign with the Australian Grand Prix; NASCAR gets its first short-track racing on at Bristol Motor Speedway.

And in the former airfield of Sebring, Florida, the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship will run its second race of its 2014 season, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

This one’s going to be a weird one, because it will mark the first “former American Le Mans Series” race in the merged championship. Daytona was all well and good overall, but it was a past GRAND-AM affair, and what was good in the past was taken and amplified by the ALMS additions.

Sebring may well be the opposite. Gone, for the first time in 15 years, are the majestic marvels of technology – the LMP1 cars.

Although the full-season LMP1 grid in North America was less than subscribed over the last four to five years of the ALMS run, Sebring always featured a full LMP1 grid count.

Audi and Peugeot waged some epic bouts over a five-year span; the relative underdog Acura and Rebellion teams could always pull a surprise; and the Muscle Milk and Dyson teams had their chance to go against the world’s best, which for a handful of years included a bumper crop of extras from Europe (either of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup or FIA World Endurance Championship).

There was fan footage captured of the new-for-2014 LMP1-H prototypes from Audi and Porsche testing at Sebring last week. Yet for the first time in 15 years, the German manufacturers won’t be sticking around a couple weeks later to grind it out on the notoriously punishing circuit over 12 hours. Well, not with an LMP1 anyway; there’s plenty of representation in the GT classes.

That’s going to be something we’ll miss.

There’s also the lack of official practice for the TUDOR Championship until Thursday, although some teams have participated in private tests over the weekend. In recent years, ALMS on-track activity ran from Monday through Wednesday before official festivities kicked off Thursday. Now, not.

What Sebring does have going for it this year is a back to almost full field, with 66 cars projected to race on Saturday. The 2009, 2010 and 2013 editions of the race were down years, owing to the lack of a secondary major championship to produce a full field. But the 2011 and 2012 races, with an ILMC, then WEC presence, were something to behold.

The 2011 race saw the Hughes de Chaunac-led ORECA Peugeot team score the overall upset, ahead of Highcroft Racing in a one-off start of an HPD ARX-01e (the only time a new-for-2011 HPD LMP1 car raced). In 2012, a colossal scrap between Joey Hand’s BMW and Olivier Beretta’s Ferrari ended in favor of the American for top GT honors.

The potential for a surprise overall winner does exist, which is something that has, as mentioned above, only happened a couple of times in the past. The ORECA Peugeot’s 2011 triumph and the Penske LMP2 class Porsche RS Spyder overall win in 2008 were the only non-factory Audi or factory Peugeot wins at Sebring since 2000.

Live TV coverage is limited to just the first three hours, although the balance will be live streamed on IMSA.com. A mixed bag for sure, considering the race’s prestige, history and place within the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup.

But for the first time in nearly 20 years, Sebring will follow Daytona on the same schedule, and that just feels right.

In total, really, this year’s Sebring will be a radical departure from recent years past, but should offer much of the same good action we’ve been accustomed to in years past.

Just with different cars fighting for the overall win, and a different way of watching if you’re not at the track.

Alonso enjoys maiden Toyota LMP1 test, ends as second-fastest rookie

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Fernando Alonso took his first step towards a possible entry to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2018 by testing an LMP1 car for the first time with Toyota in Bahrain on Sunday.

Two-time Formula 1 world champion Alonso has made no secret of his desire to race at Le Mans, having signed a deal to race in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January as preparation for a possible entry at the Circuit de la Sarthe.

Toyota confirmed after Saturday’s FIA World Endurance Championship finale in Bahrain that Alonso would be testing its TS050 Hybrid LMP1 car in the traditional rookie test on Sunday.

Alonso was given the car for the bulk of the five-hour test day following an initial shakedown by Sebastien Buemi, completing 113 laps in total – more than any other driver – and posting a best lap time of 1:43.013.

“It was a great day,” Alonso said. “Testing an LMP1 car is always a nice thing for any racing driver because these cars are amazing to drive. They are very consistent throughout a stint which is a positive thing.

“I have wanted to test a car like this for a long time now and today I could achieve that, so I am happy.”

However, Alonso did not finish as the fastest rookie, with that honor instead going to Pietro Fittipaldi, who was the final driver to drive the Porsche 919 Hybrid ahead of the closure of the German marque’s LMP1 program.

Alonso is now set to head back to Europe before a test in United Autosports’ LMP2 car on Tuesday as part of his Daytona preparation, before then returning to the Middle East for the F1 season finale in Abu Dhabi next weekend.