Sebring 12-hour: Class story lines to watch

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All four classes in this weekend’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring will have some intriguing action. Some of the key storylines to watch may include the following…

P: P2 FAMILIARITY VERSUS DP UPGRADES

After racing at a relative performance disadvantage at Daytona, the P2-spec cars should be on more even footing at Sebring.

The current generation of P2-spec cars has roughly three years of Sebring data to utilize, while DP cars have only properly tested at Sebring within the last five to six months.

The P2s will be back to a higher downforce package and configuration, while DPs make other aero adjustments, including new dive planes.

Action Express Racing’s No. 5 Corvette DP has been the class of Sebring testing and has accumulated more laps than any other DP thus far at the track. Whether any other DP will be able to match the pace shown remains to be seen.

Additionally, although DPs have had no issues with 24 hours at Daytona, 12 at Sebring is an entirely different challenge. The track’s a grinder; it punishes first-timers more often than not. Continental Tire has 12 hours of running on the PC class cars from last year, but this will still be new territory for the DPs.

American Le Mans Series fans are probably hoping – publicly or privately – that one of “their” P2 cars wins, instead of a DP in their Sebring debut. We’ll see whether that actually comes to fruition.

GTLM: PORSCHE VERSUS THE WORLD

What should have been one of the most exciting class battles at Daytona turned into a battle of survival, as the GT Le Mans-class winning No. 911 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR was the only GTLM class car without major drama.

The pace of the factory 911s in February’s preseason test, plus the debuting Falken Tire entry, was a disconcerting sign once more.

BoP adjustments have been made in the class, primarily in reducing fuel tank capacity across the board. Still, the last thing I would have expected to start this new season and new era is that one manufacturer could potentially open with back-to-back wins and a pace advantage on such disparate circuits as Daytona and Sebring.

This class has seen incredibly dramatic Sebring finishes; Corvette’s win over Ferrari last year; the Joey Hand-driven BMW over Olivier Beretta’s Ferrari in 2012; the door-banging Ferrari versus Porsche finish in 2007.

For the fans, this year’s GTLM showcase needs not to be a one-horse race, and for all intents and purposes, it probably won’t be.

Porsche may enter as favorites, but all of Corvette, SRT Viper, Ferrari and BMW will be giving chase. The RLL BMWs got results at Daytona by surviving more than outright pace, and should be in with a good shot at a handling track this week.

PC: BATTLE OF THE CHANGING LINEUPS

After PC had a good 2013 battle with five cars competing for the class win down to the wire a year ago, in the class’ first race with Continental tires, there should be more of the same in 2014.

PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports enters as defending race winners but with an overhauled lineup, now featuring Bayshore Racing/Camp Boggy Creek partnerships and Gunnar Jeannette, Frankie Montecalvo and Mike Guasch in the No. 52 driver’s seat.

CORE autosport’s relative stability and track experience should play dividends. Both of RSR’s lineups are strong, as is at least one of Starworks’ and BAR1’s.

The 8Star, Performance Tech and debuting JDC/Miller teams could also enter the picture depending on how reliability or contact affects any of the above eight cars.

GTD: A CALL FOR A CLEAN, NON-CONTROVERSIAL FINISH

The dust has settled, mostly, after the GT Daytona finish at Daytona. Level 5 won when a penalty issued for avoidable contact was rescinded; Flying Lizard, justifiably, felt jobbed.

Yet it’s Level 5, along with three of the top four teams from Daytona that actually won’t be in action at Sebring as they were last month. Third-placed Snow Racing has partnered with Rum Bum Racing for a new No. 13 entry; the fourth-placed SMP Racing Ferrari team was a Daytona-only entry.

Level 5’s pair of Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler continues, in the same number and car, but now run by the returning AIM Autosport group.

Elsewhere there’s any of the other Ferraris, Audi R8s, Porsche 911 GT Americas, Aston Martin Vantages and solitary BMW Z4 GT3 and SRT Viper GT3-R that could contend this weekend.

There was good diversity of manufacturers in the top five at February’s test. The key to success in GTD is often how well the leaders manage faster traffic lapping them, and staying out of the way throughout the race. Some cars even have four-driver lineups, which will allow each driver to go close to flat out for their presumably one or maybe two stints.

Street race in Vietnam could lead Formula One’s Asia expansion

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TOKYO (AP) — Formula One is expected to add more races in Asia, including a street circuit in the capital of Vietnam, a country with little auto racing history that is on the verge of getting a marquee event.

“We think Hanoi could come on in the next couple of years, and we’re working with the Hanoi government to that end,” Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, told the Associated Press.

There is even speculation it could be on the schedule next season, which Bratches rebuffed.

Vietnam would join countries like Azerbaijan, Russia and Bahrain, which have Grand Prix races, little history in the sport, and authoritarian governments with deep pockets that serve F1 as it tries to expand into new markets.

“This (Hanoi) is a street race where we can go downtown, where we can activate a large fan base,” Bratches said. “And you have extraordinary iconography from a television standpoint.”

A second race in China is also likely and would join Shanghai on the F1 calendar. Bratches said deciding where to stage the GP will “be left to local Chinese partners” – Beijing is a strong candidate.

Bratches runs the commercial side of Formula One, which was acquired last year by U.S.-based Liberty Media from long-time operator Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula One’s long-term goal is to have 24-25 races – up from the present 21 – and arrange them in three geographical segments: Asia, Europe and the Americas. Bratches said the Europe-based races would stay in middle of the calendar, with Asia or the Americas opening or ending the season.

He said their positioning had not been decided, and getting this done will be slowed by current contracts that mandate specific places on the calendar for several races. This means eventually that all the races in Asia would be run together, as would races in Europe and the Americas.

The F1 schedule is now an inefficient jumble, allowing Bratches to take a good-natured poke at how the sport was run under Ecclestone.

“We’ve acquired an undermanaged asset that’s 67-years-old, but effectively a start-up,” Bratches said.

Early-season races in Australia and China this year were conducted either side of a trip to Bahrain in the Middle East. Late in the season Formula One returns to Asia with races in Japan and Singapore.

The Canadian GP this season is run in the middle of the European swing, separated by four months from the other races in the Americas – the United States, Mexico and Brazil. These three are followed by the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, which means another trip across the globe.

“With the right economics, with the right structure and cadence of events across territories, 24 or 25 is probably where we’d like to be from a longer-term standpoint,” Bratches said.

Big changes are not likely to happen until the 2020 season ends. This is when many current rules and contracts expire as F1’s new owners try to redistribute some income to allow smaller teams to compete.

“There’s more interest than we have capacity in the schedule,” Bratches said, firing off Berlin, Paris or London as potentially attractive venues. “We want to be very selective.”

“Those cites from an economic impact standpoint would find us value, as do others around the world,” Bratches added. “It’s very important for us as we move forward to go to locations that are a credit to the Formula One brand.”

An expanded schedule would have to be approved by the teams, which will be stretched by the travel and the wear-and-tear on their crews. The burden will fall on the smaller teams, which have significantly smaller revenue compared with Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull.

Bratches also envisions another race in the U.S., joining the United States Grand Prix held annually in Austin, Texas. A street race in Miami is a strong candidate, as are possible venues like Las Vegas or New York.

“We see the United States and China as countries that could support two races,” he said.

Liberty Media has reported Formula One’s total annual revenue at $1.8 billion, generated by fees paid by promoters, broadcast rights, advertising and sponsorship. Race promotion fees also tend to be higher in Asia, which makes the area attractive – along with a largely untapped fan base.

In a four-year cycle, F1 generates more revenue than FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, which rely almost entirely on one-time showcase events.

Reports suggest Vietnamese promoters may pay between $50-60 million annually as a race fee, with those fees paid by the government. Bratches said 19 of 21 Formula One races are supported by government payments.

“The race promotion fee being derived from the government … is a model that has worked historically,” Bratches said.