‘Super Sebring’ weekend will produce much IMSA, WEC driver crossover in a 2023 preview

Sebring IMSA WEC

Ricky Taylor will be racing on only one side of the paddock at Sebring International Raceway this weekend, but the IMSA champion will keeping his eyes trained – and his ears open – on the WEC Series, too.

With the return of “Super Sebring,” the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship will hold its prestigious Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on the day after the 1,000 Miles of Sebring season opener for the FIA World Endurance Championship, the European-based sports car circuit whose centerpiece is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Taylor will be racing an LMP2 car for Cool Racing in at Le Mans in June, so he will be checking in with one of the team’s owners, but he also will be trying to glean info from No. 10 Acura DPi teammates Will Stevens and Filipe Albuquerque. Both Wayne Taylor Racing drivers also will be racing in the WEC at Sebring – one of many weekend crossovers in a preview of what big-league sports car racing should resemble on a regular basis next season.

SEBRING PRIMER: Weekend schedule and how to watch the Twelve Hours of Sebring on NBC Sports

“It’s nice to have the WEC back on the weekend with us in IMSA,” Taylor said. “It’s always nice to go see all the teams that you don’t get to see very often and keep my eye on what’s going on because Le Mans is always a big deal. And to keep my eye on who’s competitive and strong. Being on a team with Will and Filipe who are in two other big teams on the WEC side, I may be taking some notes on all their little gossips and things as well to see what I can learn. But yeah, it’s really exciting.”

Because of the pandemic, it’s been three years since WEC and IMSA have been paired at Sebring, and the world’s top two sports car series return on the cusp of even much greater alignment.

With a convergence of the rules governing their premier categories next season, prototypes from WEC and IMSA can race head to head for overall victories in the Rolex 24 at Daytona (and other IMSA races in the rebranded top GTP division) and Le Mans. It’s being heralded as the return of a new “Ford vs. Ferrari” era.

IMSA will be rolling out its new LMDh prototype next year, but the WEC’s Hypercar already is on track and will be making its Sebring debut.

Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez will race Friday in Hypercar for Toyota Gazoo Racing before sliding over Saturday to DPi Cadillacs for the Twelve Hours of Sebring (Conway in the No. 31 Action Express, Kobayashi and Lopez in the No. 48).

There will be even more crossover from the LMP2 class entry list for the WEC race, which will include double duty for IMSA drivers Albuquerque, Stevens, Mike Rockenfeller (No. 48 Ally Cadillac) and Oliver Jarvis (No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing Acura).

Team Penske, which will be re-entering IMSA’s top division in 2023 with Porsche’s new LMDh, also will begin a full-season WEC campaign in LMP2 with a lineup that includes Felipe Nasr, the 2021 DPi champion who also will be driving endurance races in GTD Pro for Pfaff Racing (which won the Rolex 24).

Competing in two events that will comprise roughly 20 hours of racing in less than a day and a half has presented some logistical challenges. Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac driver Sebastien Bourdais was slated to race LMP2 in WEC but was replaced by Rockenfeller.

“It was a Cadillac call, which I totally understand,” Bourdais said. “If the 1,000 miles was after the 12 hours, that would have been a different story. The team was basically not super comfortable with me doing a 1,000-mile race before the 12 hours.”

Other drivers are facing similar logistical juggling with the Toyota drivers electing to focus solely on WEC until Saturday’s IMSA race.

Jarvis, who took part in two days of WEC Prologue testing at Sebring last weekend, said he would be prioritizing his IMSA team over the No. 23 ORECA of United Autosports. But a hectic schedule was worth the extra laps on the 17-turn, 3.74-mile road course whose bone-jarring bumps are legendary.

“The big pro is track time,” Jarvis said. “Sebring is just one of those tracks. This is my sixth race at Sebring, and I’m still learning every time, and it does change. T17 is a corner I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to it. I could do 10,000 laps around Sebring and I’m still finding details in Turn 17. It’s so unique. There’s a lot of work.

“Jumping between the two cars are different. They’ve reduced downforce on the P2 car, which has certainly changed the behavior of that car. And it’s probably moved it further away from a DPi. I expect to see maybe 3 to 5 seconds difference between the two categories, which is quite a large difference. It’ll be my first time doing it. Busy weekend, but I’m confident I can make it work.

“For me it’s very clear (IMSA) is my priority. I wouldn’t say I’ve got an exact schedule, but I won’t qualify in WEC. So I’m not compromised there. I’ll make sure I’m available whenever needed in the IMSA paddock and car. I’ll do as much as I can in the IMSA car and then switch focus for the race for WEC and then move back to IMSA on Saturday. Certainly not the way the Toyota guys are doing it. I’ll be splitting my time between the two, but certainly no compromises on the IMSA side.”

There also will be some team crossover on the GT side. For the first time, Corvette Racing will field full-time entries this year with the No. 64 C8.R in the WEC’s GTE Pro (which is in its final season) and the No. 3 C8.R in the new IMSA GTD Pro category (after taking the 2021 GTLM title in the class’ final season). Both cars raced the Rolex 24 at Daytona and struggled with pace (which the team attributed to Balance of Performance-mandated impacts on weight).

No. 64 drivers Tommy Milner and Nick Tandy were optimistic about their chances in the WEC season opener because of the team’s long history at Sebring.

“It’s probably the best-case scenario in some ways starting at Sebring,” Milner said. “ We know the racetrack, we know the tires, we know the car. We should be pretty competitive out of the box, I would imagine. If that’s not the case, then we will have some data that us as a team and the WEC can use to hopefully make the racing close and exciting as this class always seems to provide.”

Said Tandy: “The thing I’m looking forward to most is seeing how the different weekend plays out. The fact that we have our first weekend in the WEC as a single-car team, we’re actually sharing the weekend with our teammates, even though they are (in a) different race and different category. I’m looking forward to having another car to cheer on in another class and in another race and how the weekend plays out.”

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test


THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500