Since Ford Chip Ganassi Racing brought the GT into its parallel IMSA and FIA WEC programs starting last year, it’s had strength in numbers against the two Corvette Racing Corvette C7.Rs.
And Saturday at this weekend’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring was to prove no exception, with three Ford GTs entered against the pair of Corvettes, with that yellow number then reduced to just one early on with a water temperature issue taking the No. 4 car out of the race.
All it did was set the stage for a dramatic toppling by Corvette over Ford that wasn’t in the pre-race script, authored in large part by a “superhuman” stint from Antonio Garcia in the team’s No. 3 Corvette C7.R and an outstanding effort in the pits from the Dan Binks-led crew.
“I have to give most of the credit to Antonio. That was a Superman drive,” said Jan Magnussen, who along with Garcia and Mike Rockenfeller co-drove the No. 3 Corvette to the GT Le Mans class victory. “It was a lot longer in the car than any one of us would want! As the sun went down and track cooled off, we picked up some pace, and Antonio made the most of it.”
So how did the “King of Spain” earn this crown? It all boiled down a fascinating few hours of the race as the sun set.
With two hours and 27 minutes remaining in the 12-hour race, the No. 3 car ran fifth. Garcia had taken the reins of the car over from Magnussen with two hours and 53 minutes remaining in the race; a time frame with just enough of a window where the “King of Spain” could drive to the finish without the need for another driver change. The maximum drive time limit is four in six hours, and seven hours total.
The team had been caught out by a yellow flag earlier in the race that required both an emergency fuel stop and a subsequent full stop not much later, which required the comeback to begin with.
Alas, what went down in those final 150 minutes of the 12-hour race will enter Sebring and Corvette Racing lore. With a car that was better suited for the cooler nighttime conditions at Sebring, with the ambient and track temperatures both dropping below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, Garcia was unleashed to the field. Teammate Tommy Milner, who’d been in the No. 4 car but was resigned to being a spectator, and the official IMSA Twitter account called attention to what was to come.
Garcia restarted fifth behind the three Ford GTs, which ran 1-2-3, and James Calado in the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE.
Over the next 16 minutes and 10 laps, Garcia made three of the most incredible passes of the race on Calado in the Ferrari, then Olivier Pla and Scott Dixon in the Nos. 68 and 67 Fords.
Garcia recalled the dynamic driving on track with a simple calm serenity after the fact.
“I had 10 laps to figure out where I could follow them, or determine the speed I could produce to get ahead of them,” Garcia told NBC Sports. “I had Dixon I think seven, eight or nine seconds up the road, and then Calado in the Ferrari a bit further away. In those 10 laps my engineer told me the pace I was carrying. Whenever the yellow came, all three Fords stayed out, I knew when green I had to make the moves as soon as possible. I knew the pace was there. They struggled on cold tires. I made the moves on Ferrari in two laps, then got behind the three Fords and went after them.”
Strategy and great pit work from there got Garcia past the No. 66 Ford into the lead. He’d got up to second on track and then once the next round of pit stops happened occurred, under green, he’d leap frog the field to where he had 10 seconds in hand over the No. 66 Ford with an hour, 40 minutes or so remaining.
“Everyone on the crew is part of the plan, and you need to maximize that part of it,” Garcia explained. “I figured out we were good the first five laps of every stint, with the cold tire temperature. We had a little advantage there between that and our pit crew. We still didn’t make it to pass (the Ford) on track. But to know you have that feeling, you can do your strategy towards to the end of the race and the tire change won’t slow it down.”
With just over an hour remaining though the epic previous stint on track came into doubt again. Garcia had toppled the Fords on strategy but then had to deal with Patrick Pilet’s No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR, which was flying. Pilet had dispatched of Joey Hand in the Ford, and gained two to three tenths per lap on Garcia within a three-lap period.
But a left front puncture from debris ended Pilet’s charge and helped Garcia through to the finish. Although this denied a potentially epic scrap between the two cars, Garcia said he would have relished the challenge.
“With the Porsche it might have been a bit of a ‘COTA race,’ but I’d seen a few laps of their race, and I had the Porsche two to three tenths behind me. I think I was still picking up the pace. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been easy for him to pass me anyway!” Garcia laughed.
The aforementioned ‘COTA race’ Garcia brought up was in 2013, in a similar-type scenario where his Corvette didn’t have the outright pace of cars behind him – at the time a Dodge Viper SRT GTS-R and BMW Z4 GTE – but held them off with better racecraft in the 2013 American Le Mans Series race at Circuit of The Americas in Austin.
This race ranked right up there as a time when Corvette also won in the face of adversity, and with a pace deficit to the competition. Garcia said this was similar to that day in 2013, but not entirely.
“It was similar, but it wasn’t!” he said. “At COTA, I couldn’t perform the pace the others were doing. This one, I could. I still don’t know how I did it. But I had the pace to stay ahead.
“From the last three hours in the car, I was so happy with the moves I made on both the Fords and the Ferrari to clear them very fast. I knew it had to be done if I wanted to have any chance of winning this race. Once the team put me in advantage, track-position wise, I just worked ahead.
“COTA, it 100 percent was defensive mode, while this was offensive mode. I charged all I had, instead of defending. The gap between us and the Ford was going up, one and two tenths per lap, and I kept it going 100 percent. I survived and let him kill the tires!”
Garcia said this was a magical win for him in his Corvette Racing career, his eighth with Magnussen under the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship banner since the series merged in 2014 and first since a dominant performance last August at Virginia International Raceway. Corvette seems to have a knack where when one car goes out or doesn’t start, the other seems to pick up the slack.
“As a driver, for us as the 3 car, it’s a dream turnaround basically,” he said. “We were coming from last year’s crash at Sebring. We finally won at VIR when we dominated. Then it was a little bit frustrating leading twice at Daytona last month and not being able to do anything to keep them behind us.
“Halfway through the race here, we didn’t expect to have the pace to really win this race. But as we always say, between the drivers and our engineer, we need to do 100 percent and see if it’s enough or not. That was a perfect boost for the 3 car and for the race overall.
“It’s just how Corvette Racing reacts to trouble. Instead of everyone getting upset and it feels like it goes the other way, it pushes the other car forward.”