Sebastien Bourdais won the pole position Friday for the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring as Cadillacs took four of the top five spots in the starting lineup grid for the prestigious sports car race’s 70th edition.
Bourdais is driving the No. 01 Cadillac for Chip Ganassi Racing this season after manhandling the damaged No. 5 to the overall victory last year for JDC MotorSports in the iconic 12-hour event at Sebring International Raceway.
It ranked among many memorable conclusions to the Twelve Hours of Sebring, which Bourdais is expecting to unfold unexpectedly again on the extremely bumpy circuit that once housed a World War II Air Force base.
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“It’s kind of funny because you would think, ‘Oh, well, it’s the same kind of format and the race has been going on for a long time,’ but I can’t remember a single time where the race has played out the same way,” said Bourdais, who is teamed with Renger van der Zande and former IndyCar and Indy 500 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay (making his first IMSA start since winning Sebring in 2020).
“I can’t really tell you how this is supposed to pan out, but there’s no better place to start. I think the car has shown it was really quick and consistent since the beginning of the weekend. Looking forward to it at a track that I very much enjoy.
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“It’s a race that’s always fun, but with 53 cars on the grid there’s going to be a lot of aggression management in traffic if you want to come through and stay out of trouble and make sure the car is in the best possible condition at the end. It’s always a very difficult equation to manage the aggression and how safely you need to try not get yourself in positions that would jeopardize the result.”
Pipo Derani qualified second in the No. 31 Action Express Cadillac that he shares with Tristan Nunez and Mike Rockenfeller. Ricky Taylor (co-driving with Filipe Albuquerque and Will Stevens) was third in Wayne Taylor Racing’s No. 10, the faster of the two Acuras.
Cadillacs have won three of the past five races at Sebring (Mazda won in ’20 and Nissan in ’18), and the five in Saturday’s field are expected to have the advantage on the bone-jarring asphalt.
“There’s no arguing that,” Bourdais said. “It’s a car that is less ride-height sensitive than the competitors, so that visually you can see we can run a bit softer. At a place like Sebring, that’s very beneficial. It’s the same on street courses.
“The drawback is that the car doesn’t really have a big peak in downforce and therefore is less suited to smoother tracks where you can run low and stiff. It’s a balance, but it’s obviously won a lot of championships since 2017 so it seems to be working out pretty good.”
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Taylor can vouch for his rival’s comfort having driven a Cadillac to victory in 2017 at Sebring.
“The Cadillac felt more like a Cadillac,” Taylor said with a laugh, referencing the luxury street model. “It was soft, didn’t make as much downforce, wasn’t quite as edgy. But you go to Acura side, it makes a ton of downforce, and if you pack the downforce on, you can pick tracks and see where the Acura is going to be strong.
“Sebring is one of those places you want a bit of both. Long Beach, Cadillacs are extremely strong over the low-speed bumpy tracks. Go to Laguna, the smooth high-speed tracks, we’re really strong. Sebring falls somewhere in the middle with a bit of both. It’s bumpy, which the Cadillacs do very well, but it’s also high speed and you can really add quite a bit of downforce, which the Acura does very well.”
Oliver Jarvis, who is aiming to become the first driver to win four consecutive IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Endurance Cup events, will start sixth in Meyer Shank Racing’s No. 60 Acura with Tom Blomqvist and Stoffel Vandoorne.
Even though that’s last among the DPi cars, Jarvis is confident in the ARX-05’s ability to get to the front with its “very sophisticated traction control system” and efficient level of torque.
“The Acura is a very aero-dominated car,” he said. “It likes to be driven fast. The faster you drive it, the more aero downforce you get. One of the problems at Sebring is the bumps. There’s not much we can do about it. All we can do is try to tune the car.
“It’s a real compromise between aero grip and mechanical grip. That’s where we discuss a lot that the Caddy seems to ride the bumps really well. It’s got incredible traction. We can’t compete in them areas, but what we can do is maximize our strengths and limit the areas we aren’t as strong.
“Looking on pure pace over the last four years, the Caddys seem to have two or three 10ths in their pocket, but as you saw in (the Rolex 24 at) Daytona, they were probably the quickest car in Daytona, but it’s not the way the race finished, so, as always in IMSA, it’s not just about pure performance. There’s a lot more at play with strategy and staying out of trouble. You can always win, regardless of the exact performance of the car. As a team, you can make the most of it.
“You can almost choose when you want to be strong in the race and dial a car into that and it’s finding the best compromise, because it’s so competitive. You can’t afford to be at the back and expect to suddenly overtake and come through the field with an hour to go. So it’s making sure you’re competitive throughout the race. It’s the little strategy details and having experience in terms of learning in the test days about the track changing. It’s very sensitive to temperature and even more so to wind direction. It can change the balance of the car, which is incredible. We went from one day to the next, and the wind had such an influence.”
Here are the pole-sitters in other categories for the endurance race classic on the 17-turn, 3.74-mile road course:
LMP2: Ben Keating, No. 52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA, 1:49. 954
LMP3: Gar Robinson, No. 74 Riley Motorsports Ligier JS P320, 1:57.048
GTD Pro: Daniel Serra, No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GT3, 1:59.414
GTD: Zacharie Robichon, No. 16 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3R, 1:59.763