SEBRING, Fla. – Antonio Garcia is nicknamed the “King of Spain.” He earned his crown today.
The Spaniard put in arguably the drive of his career via a mix of speed, determination and strategy to get around the faster Fords and Porsches in front of him, to help Corvette Racing to its third consecutive GT Le Mans class victory in the 65th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.
He shared the No. 3 Corvette C7.R with full-season co-driver Jan Magnussen and third driver Mike Rockenfeller.
A late charge from Patrick Pilet in the No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR, the new mid-engined car showing well in its second race start, was halted via a late pit stop with just over 30 minutes remaining.
But Garcia helped put the car in position with a storming middle stint of the race where he passed Olivier Pla and Scott Dixon in the Nos. 68 and 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs in succession, then closed down on the leading No. 66 Ford of Joey Hand. Once a round of green flag pit stops occurred, the Corvette Racing team helped propel Garcia to the lead by more than 10 seconds over Hand.
After a late caution brought the field together, Garcia then had to play defense against Pilet, who seemed faster but lost his spot.
The win was Corvette’s third in a row at Sebring after Garcia, Magnussen and Ryan Briscoe won in 2015 and Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Marcel Fassler did last year.
The win also denies Corvette archrival Ford the opportunity to sweep Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring in succession, as Corvette did in 2015 and into 2016.
Ford’s trio of Hand, Dirk Mueller and Sebastien Bourdais were second in their No. 66 car, having been the trio that was looking to deliver that triple sweep themselves. Bourdais also came up one spot shy of his own Florida triple sweep in Daytona, the Verizon IndyCar Series season opener in St. Petersburg and Sebring.
After a chaotic final lap, the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE advanced into third thanks to James Calado behind the wheel. He shared that car with its full-season drivers, Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella, advancing into a surprise podium position after starting 10th in class.
The Nos. 67 (polesitting entry) and 68 Fords were fourth and fifth ahead of the first of the BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM, the No. 25 car of which was sixth in class. The No. 67 car was delayed from the start of the race as the car wouldn’t start, and wound up taking the green from the back of the field.
Meanwhile in GT Daytona, a near perfect performance from the No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG Mercedes AMG-GT3 of Jeroen Bleekemolen, Ben Keating and Mario Farnbacher saw them win the race.
Bleekemolen and Farnbacher drove the majority of the race, with Silver-rated Farnbacher doing more than enough to complete the three-hour minimum drive time required for a Silver-rated driver.
Bleekemolen got by Alessandro Balzan in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3, the car which won this race last year, within the final hour and was able to pull away from the rest of the field.
A chaotic final lap saw the podium spots change, Balzan sharing his car with Christina Nielsen and Matteo Cressoni ending second while the No. 75 SunEnergy1 Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 ended third, thanks largely to a comeback drive from polesitter Tristan Vautier in the car he shared with Kenny Habul and Boris Said.
Montaplast by Land-Motorsport ran in the top three all race and was unlucky not to score a podium with its young trio of Connor De Phillippi, Christopher Mies and Jules Gounon, but the No. 29 Audi R8 LMS banked its second top-five finish in as many races in the second of its planned (but perhaps longer) races in America.
The No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 was unofficially fifth in class and top Lamborghini with the trio of Bryan Sellers, Madison Snow and Dion von Moltke, but that was a bit misleading. Both the GRT and Change Racing Lamborghinis ran in the top-five all race but both fell short of making the finish on fuel gambles, and the Nos. 11 and 16 cars unofficially ended ninth and 11th in class.
The heartbreak was particularly stinging for Robby Benton’s Change team; the young trio of Jeroen Mul, Corey Lewis and Brett Sandberg ran an otherwise flawless race and would have fully deserved its first series podium.
Another team that came up on the tough side of luck was the No. 57 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS entry of Lawson Aschenbach, Matt Bell and Andrew Davis. Despite a stop-and-hold plus four-minute, six-second penalty that dropped it back more than a lap, this car came back to finish seventh in class behind the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R, and on the lead lap. Considering the time lost from that penalty, there was a sense of what might have been for this car.
The GT classes resume alongside with the Prototype class at Long Beach next month, while Prototype Challenge is off until Circuit of The Americas in May.