Ferrari found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the Formula 1 season-opening Australian Grand Prix at Melbourne, but found a way to secure a victory from the agony of defeat on the other side of the world at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida.
The new Ferrari 488 GT3, incidentally, made its worldwide debut at both venues – at Albert Park in an Australian GT Championship race and on the reformed airfield at Sebring International Raceway for the second round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.
The 488 GT3 had got the pole position in Melbourne but was bounced after failing post-qualifying technical inspection – more here from Speedcafe.
Luckily Jeff Segal atoned hours later on the other side of the world with the pole in the GT Daytona class at Sebring for the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari he’d share with Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan, and so that registers in the record books as the first worldwide pole for the new car.
The team ran the previous generation car, the still venerable Ferrari 458 Italia GT3, at Daytona as the new 488 wasn’t ready yet but then completed good test work at Michelotto before coming Stateside.
The GTD race was a barnburner from start to finish with anywhere from 10 to 13 of the 20 cars in class on the lead lap at any point. Scuderia Corsa stayed on the lead lap throughout and then once in the final hour or so of the race, made its charge from sixth to the lead.
The ultimate winning move came from Balzan in the final 10 minutes of the race, as he got around Jens Klingmann in the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 following a run from Turn 7 through to Turn 10. The Italian got Klingmann on the outside of the right-handed Turn 10, which set him up to have the preferred inside line from there into Turn 11 and beyond.
The win comes 60 years after Eugenio Castellotti, another Italian driver, and Juan Manuel Fangio drove a Ferrari 860 Monza to Ferrari’s first victory at the 1956 12 Hours of Sebring.
“It’s one of the top wins for me in my career,” Balzan said post-race. “I’m really happy, especially with it being the 60th anniversary of another Italian and for Ferrari.
“It’s something special. I have to thank my teammates. You know you have to stay out on the slicks when it was wet. They gave me the car in P2.
“We decided not to change the tires, so as to not lose too much time. We had a nice fight with the BMW. But you’re fighting for the win. It was hard. We, then, did a great job in traffic. The last five minutes was everything for the full 12 hours.”
It was also a huge win for Nielsen, her first in the series, and for Segal, who now has a Daytona and Sebring win in his career.
Segal, arguably Ferrari’s top American driver (not factory employed but has been affiliated with the brand for several years), has spearheaded much of the running Stateside the last five or so years.
Ferrari’s overall success at this race also entered the post-race dialogue, as the iconic Ferrari 333 SP had been the last car to win overall at Daytona and Sebring back-to-back in 1998 with Doran/Moretti Racing and the trio of Didier Theys, Mauro Baldi and Giampiero Moretti (with Arie Luyendyk joining at Daytona).
(Editor’s note: This story on the Heart of Racing sports cars shootout for women is one in an occasional Motorsports Talk series focusing on women in racing during March, which is Women’s History Month.)
Heart of Racing driver and team manager Ian James says his daughter, Gabby, isn’t so interested in auto racing. But she is interested (as a New York-based journalist) in writing about the sport’s efforts and growth in gender equality
It’s a topic that also was brought up by James’ wife, Kim.
“They’re always saying, ‘Hey, you manage all these guys, and you help them, so why not a woman?’ ” Ian James told NBC Sports. “And I feel like there are a lot of women that haven’t had a fair crack at it in sports car racing.
“Our whole DNA at Heart of Racing is we give people opportunities in all types of situations where there’s been crew personnel or drivers. And I felt like we hadn’t really addressed the female driver situation. I felt like there was a void to give somebody a chance to really prove themselves.”
During the offseason, the team took a major step toward remedying that.
The season will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway with Hannah Grisham and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt behind the wheel. The team also picked a third driver, 17-year-old Annie Rhule, for a 2023 testing program.
The Phoenix audition included 10 finalists who were selected from 130 applicants to the program, which has been fully underwritten by Heart of Racing’s sponsors.
“We didn’t want it to be someone who just comes from a socio-economic background that could afford to do it on their own course,” James said. “We can pick on pure talent. We’re committed to three years to do this and see if we can find the right person. I’m very hopeful.”
So is Grisham, a Southern California native who has been racing since she was 6 in go-karts and since has won championships in Mazda and Miata ladder series. She has several victories in the World Racing League GP2 (an amateur sports car endurance series). The last two years, Grisham has worked as a test driver for the Pirelli tire company (she lives near Pirelli’s U.S. headquarters in Rome, Georgia, and tests about 30 times a year).
Starting with the Sonoma during SprintX event weekends (which feature races Saturday and Sunday), she will split the Heart of Racing car with O’Meara-Hunt (a New Zealand native she got to know at the shootout).
“It’s huge; the biggest opportunity I’ve had in this sport,” Grisham, 23, told NBC Sports. “Now it’s up to me to perform how I know I can. But I’m super lucky to be with such an amazing team and have a good teammate. The Heart of Racing has a family vibe and energy to it that’s really amazing. It’s super exciting. It’s hard to put into words.”
Grisham is hopeful that a strong performance eventually could lead to a full-time ride with Heart of Racing. The team has full-time entries in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and won the GTD category of the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the No. 27 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 piloted by James, Darren Turner, Roman DeAngelis and Marco Sorensen.
James said “there’s no guarantee” of placement in an IMSA entry for Grisham and O’Meara-Hunt, but “if they prove themselves, we’ll continue to help them throughout their career and our team. The GT3 program is an obvious home for that. If they get the opportunity and don’t quite make it, we’ll be looking for the next two. The next three years, we’ll cycle through drivers until we find the right one.”
Grisham described the two-day shootout as a friendly but intense environment. After a day of getting acclimated to their cars, drivers qualified on new tires the second day and then did two 25-minute stints to simulate a race.
“Everyone was super nice,” she said. “Once everyone gets in the car, it’s a different level. A different switch gets turned on. Everyone was super nice; everyone was quick. I feel we had an adequate amount of seat time, which is definitely helpful.
“It’s always cool to meet more women in the sport because there’s not too many of us, even though there’s more and more. It’s always cool to meet really talented women, especially there were so many from all over the world.”
James believes “a breakout female driver will be competing with the best of them” in the next five years as gender barriers slowly recede in motorsports.
“It’s been a male-dominated sport,” James said. “It’s still a very minute number of women drivers compared to the guys. I’m sure back in the day there were physical hurdles about it that were judged. But now the cars are not very physical to drive, and it’s more about technique and mental strength and stuff like that, and there’s no reason a girl shouldn’t do just as well as a guy. What we’re just trying to achieve is that there isn’t an obvious barrier to saying ‘Hey, I can’t hire a guy or a girl.’ We just want to put girls in front of people and our own program that are legitimate choices going forward for people.”
“There’s been some really good female drivers, but a lot of them just haven’t been able to sustain it, and a lot of that comes from sponsorship. I think (with the shootout), there’s no pressure of raising money and worrying about crash damage. We’ve taken care of all that so they can really focus on the job at hand.”
Funding always has been a hurdle for Grisham, who caught the racing bug from her father, Tom, an off-road driver who raced the Baja 1000 several times.
“I don’t come from a lot of money by any means,” she said. “So since a young age, I’ve always had to find sponsorships and get people to help me, whether it was buying tires, paying for entry fees, paying for the shipment of a car to an actual race. Literally knocking on the doors of people or businesses in my town.
“So yeah, it’s definitely something I’ve always struggled with and held me back because the sport revolves so much around money. So again to get this opportunity is insane.”
Grisham credits racing pioneer Lyn St. James (an Indy 500 veteran and sports car champion) as a role model who has helped propel her career. She was hooked by the sights, smells and sounds of racing but also its competitive fire.
“There’s a zone you get in, that subconscious state of mind when you’re driving. It’s like addictive almost. I love it. Also I’m just a very competitive person as I think most race car drivers are.
“For sure I want to stay with the Heart of Racing. Obviously, I’m still getting to know everyone, but it’s a super family vibe. That’s how I grew up in the sport with just my dad and I wrenching on the cars. That’s what I love about this sport is all the amazing people you meet. And I think this is one of the most promising teams in this country. For sure, I want to learn as much as I can from them and hopefully continue. I feel so lucky and grateful to be one of those chosen.”