Some final thoughts following this year’s 65th running of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring are below:
- In terms of Cadillac’s dominance, don’t hate them for getting the car sorted this well, right out of the box. Despite IMSA’s pre-Sebring Balance of Performance adjustments, the Cadillacs only seemed to get better in the race, having been closer to the other DPis and LMP2-spec cars in practice and qualifying sessions. Getting through 36 hours at Daytona and Sebring with no major mechanical issues, and missing only two laps total at Sebring in a podium sweep, speaks to the incredible preparation that the car had to withstand the treacherous nature of the track. Said Ricky Taylor, who shared the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R: “This car is unbelievable. I’ve never had a car that felt as good at the end as it felt on Lap 1. It was super strong, and solid; our’s just ran and ran. I hope (IMSA) doesn’t base BoP on reliability!”
- By contrast, reliability at the car shredder of a track hit nearly the rest of the Prototype class field. Between starter issues, throttle issues, brake issues and other mechanical gremlins, seven of the 11 cars in class encountered some kind of problems during this race. Mazda scored its first top-five finish in class of the year with its new Mazda RT24-P, but 29th place overall, 29 laps behind the overall winner. Daytona saw the new cars more reliable than Sebring, which lived up to its brutal reputation on Saturday.
A sincere shoutout has to go to the privateer JDC-Miller Motorsports team, John Church’s operation having scored surprise fifth and fourth-place finishes in the two endurance races with a pro-am driver lineup in its “banana boat” No. 85 Oreca 07 Gibson. I’m not sure the sports car world fully appreciates the level of preparation Church’s team had within the open-wheel ranks where they won titles in the Mazda Road to Indy. Now having shifted exclusively to sports cars, running six total cars at Sebring this weekend (one WeatherTech LMP2, one Continental Tire ST BMW 228i, two Ligier JS P3s and two Elan DP02s in IMSA Prototype Challenge), the JDC-Miller team of Stephen Simpson, Misha Goikhberg and Chris Miller ran flawlessly and was unlucky not to score an overall podium finish, having lost the pace over the length of a 12-hour race to the Cadillacs. Miller’s early stint, when he ran within a few tenths of past Audi factory driver Filipe Albuquerque in the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac, was particularly special.
Similarly, I’m not sure how much people will appreciate Performance Tech Motorsports‘ effort to finish P5 overall, 10 laps off the overall lead, after a second consecutive flawless run from its trio of young guns, James French, Pato O’Ward and Kyle Masson, and the crew wrenching on the No. 38 Oreca FLM09 for the Brent O’Neill-led team. Performance Tech has been unlucky to have not won races in the past in the Prototype Challenge class the last few years but has made up for it in a big way these first two races. In a class which has been under the microscope for a lot of the wrong reasons in recent years, seeing what the Deerfield Beach, Fla.-based team has done has been a feel-good story that speaks to the true blood of sports car racing – a small team that puts everything together well and executes.
- On a similar note, the Prototype Challenge class as a whole had a great day. Only six cautions in the race was a testament to the overall quality of driving in all four classes, and none of them came from a PC car. This was impressive given the heavily pro-am nature of PC, where there’s a lot of inexperience and ride buying going around to make up the seats. We touched on Performance Tech above, but Starworks Motorsport’s trio of Garett Grist, Max Hanratty and Sean Rayhall were only confirmed on Thursday and Mazda Road to Indy veterans Grist and Hanratty were making their Sebring 12-hour debuts. They finished sixth overall. BAR1 Motorsports’ lineups featured more gentlemen drivers but the pros took their shots when they had the opportunity, Gustavo Yacaman notably having done well to edge French for class pole. The maligned class has taken its licks in the past, but credit should be offered when it’s justified; at Sebring, it was.
An air of shock came over the room when Corvette beat Ford for the GT Le Mans honors. It wasn’t supposed to happen. With Corvette down to one car and Ford still with all three of its GTs in the mix, how Corvette overcame a clear pace deficit came down to Antonio Garcia’s determination and the strategy and pit work from the Dan Binks-led No. 3 crew. It’s rare in sports car racing that the newest technology doesn’t rise to the top while the older cars fade; the Ford GT, in its second year and the new mid-engined Porsche 911 RSR in its second race had the measure of Corvette’s four-year old C7.R on pace. But that’s why you run the race, isn’t it? Corvette made up for its weakness in one area and overcame for a surprise, popular victory.
- The BMW Team RLL team is a race and championship-winning program but its run with the M6 GTLM has been very tough lately. Even at Sebring, the car’s best finish of sixth in class, still on the lead lap, saw it more than one minute back of the winning Corvette (1:18), 20 seconds back of the third Ford in fifth, and nearly a minute behind the second Ford in fourth. This was a car that finished second at Sebring last year in its second race, and the GT3-spec M6 also finished second in its class. It’s been since September 2016, at Circuit of The Americas, that a BMW M6 GTLM has come in the top-five in the GTLM class (it’s only four races ago, but feels longer) and it’s been since August 2016, at Road America where it last stood on the podium.
Meanwhile the deflation of disappointment came over Lamborghini, which lost its first endurance race podium in the final five minutes. Fuel miscalculations left both the No. 16 Change Racing and No. 11 GRT Grasser Race Team Lamborghini Huracán GT3s short in the last couple laps, ending what had been otherwise sterling efforts from both programs. Change Racing’s trio of Corey Lewis, Jeroen Mul and Brett Sandberg deserved their first top-three finish, Lewis and Mul having done the lion’s share of the driving before Mul’s car ground to a halt just a lap shy of the flag, leaving the new chassis an unrepresentative 11th place in class. As in Daytona, it was the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 that ended best of the brand, in fifth place.
- While the Mercedes-AMG GT3 showed what it could do this weekend – Tristan Vautier’s speed in qualifying and the race did not go unnoticed in his No. 75 car, nor did the overall pace of the No. 33 car that won – it was a tougher second race for the Acura NSX GT3 and Lexus RC F GT3, respectively. The Acuras suffered a heavy lack of top-end speed and rallied to finish eighth and 14th in class, the latter after losing time to a shock failure, while the pair of Lexus entries (Lexi?) started fourth and fifth in class and ended 13th and 18th. New cars generally have a few months to get sorted and begin to hit their stride at midseason. And if Balance of Performance tweaks arrive, these cars may also find themselves dicing within the front part of the WeatherTech field.
- How much does no rain, no red flags and only six full-course cautions help the overall lap count? Last year’s winning car, the No. 2 Ligier JS P2 Honda from Tequila Patron ESM, completed only 238 laps at Sebring. This year, the Taylor Cadillac ran 348 laps – or more than 400 more miles of the 3.74-mile circuit.
- The Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race again brought the fireworks in the ST class and the two-hour time window still had enough drama via pit strategy and caution timing. That said, the Balance of Performance there will likely need an adjustment in the GS class before Circuit of The Americas. The CJ Wilson Racing team executed strategy to perfection to get to the lead, but the pair of Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports were left for dead after a restart to the full, new GT4 cars, the McLaren 570S GT4 and the Ford Mustang GT4. ST, meanwhile, proves that older cars with small teams building and running them still puts on one helluva show. TCR’s potential integration to the series may produce a similar evolution as the GT4 car-to-GS one has had to start 2017.
- It will take some getting used to calling the IMSA Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda series that after having back-to-back name changes in 2015 and 2016, respectively, with the LMP3 and MPC class cars mixed in. It was an interesting style of racing and a good first U.S. outing for the LMP3 cars. Even though Indy Lights driver Nico Jamin was new to the LMP3 machinery, the Frenchman produced a jammin’ performance worthy of two rounds of victory donuts…
- The field of competitors in this year’s Porsche GT3 Cup USA Challenge by Yokohama is also stacked. There’s a solid eight or nine race win/podium contenders at least and two of those who should contend for the title, in two more open-wheel veteran-turned-sports car drivers in Scott Hargrove and Haywood Scholarship recipient Jake Eidson split the two race wins.
After the two endurance races to kick off the year, IMSA heads West for one of its two shortest races of the year, the 100-minute BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix from the streets of Long Beach on April 8. The additional series run next at either Barber Motorsports Park later in April or Circuit of The Americas in early May.