Reaction: WEC/ALMS 12 Hours of Sebring 2012

The 60th Anniversary 12 Hours of Sebring promised much but only partly satisfied our need for answers. If anything it only got me looking forward even more to the coming season!

The Race

The first half of the race felt quite flat and I’m sure that’s as a result of the lack of action at the ultimate sharp end combined with the difficulties in actually trying to watch the race. I remember saying the race needed to improve.

The second half was much better, the coverage improved, and despite some big gaps the races tightened up as reliability struck. Could the repairs be made before the slower chasers made up the deficit? Could the fast delayed cars make up lost ground? Then you had both LMP2 and GT with cars on the same lap even after 11 hours! Aside from the outright win you couldn’t pick any class winner at any stage.

The race as a whole must have been a good one because the 12 hours flew by!

LMP1 Diesel

Audi of course dominated as we all expected, but it wasn’t an easy run. Two of the cars suffered delays, the No.2 car (McNish, Kristensen, Capello) winning by 4 laps over the No.3 car (Bernhard, Dumas, Duval) which had needed repairs. The No.1 car (Fassler, Treluyer, Lotterer) lost 17 laps and was classified 16th overall, 6th in LMP1 although it did record Fastest Lap. The complication for the team is that only No.1 and No.2 are scheduled to continue past Le Mans, and here’s the No.3 car scoring points for 2nd – the No.1 has potentially already used up a dropped score. Perhaps the driver line-ups will be shuffled!

It is easy to focus on the front yet there were many fascinating contests throughout the field.

Petrol/Privateer LMP1

The non-manufacturer teams were never going to be able to race a full factory effort on pace. They had a great race amongst themselves, it was like watching the group of F1 teams which fall behind RBR, McLaren and Ferrari. A collection of brand new HPD chassis of Muscle Milk Pickett, JRM Racing and Strakka Racing were clearly the fastest things to have which was impressive given how new they were and how close to the race the teams received them, however this bit them later when they proved to lack reliability.

Their competition included the new Lola of Dyson racing which was strangely off the pace, the more consistent and more reliable year-old Lolas entered by Rebellion, the older OAKs (modified Pescarolos) entered by the OAK Racing, and the four-year-old self-designed car of Pescarolo Team which ran under special dispensation because their new car isn’t ready.

These proven cars were somewhat slower than the HPDs, the only ones taking the fight to them were Rebellion who often got jumped ahead through pit strategy. It wasn’t a head-to-head race, it was a battle spread over several hours.

Eventually the notorious bumps of Sebring and the traffic of a massive entry list conspired against every one of the frontrunners. It was the tortoise which came through to take the ‘non-diesel’ honours in class, the slowest LMP1 was the Pescarolo yet it was this which ran faultlessly and stealthily to the LMP1 podium, albeit only 6th overall behind very impressive LMP2 cars. The Dyson machine survived to be the first ALMS-entered P1 car, 8th overall, after Muscle Milk’s refuelling system cruelly broke with roughly an hour to go.

Perhaps the most fun thing was following Nick Heidfeld and Karun Chandhok on Twitter over the weekend as they discovered how enjoyable this type of racing can be, with Rebellion and JRM respectively. You really should follow Nick, now he’s free from corporate F1 it turns out he’s genuinely funny!

LMP1 Top 5
1. #2 Audi Sport Team Joest (Capello/Kristensen/McNish)  Audi R18 TDI / Michelin
2. #3 Audi Sport Team Joest (Bernhard/Dumas/Duval) Audi R18 TDI / Michelin
3. #16 Pescarolo Team (Collard/Boullion/Jousse) Pescarolo 01-Judd / Michelin
4. #016 Dyson Racing (Smith/Dyson/S.Kane) Lola B12/60-Mazda/ Dunlop
5. #21 Strakka Racing (Leventis/Watts/J.Kane) HPD ARX 03a / Michelin

LMP2

Wow, what can you say? Starworks Motorsport are a very impressive team. I knew very little about them until this year’s Daytona 24, which they won. They took everyone by surprise by jumping out of their comfort zone and entering the World Championship and here they are with a class win to show for it at the big race in their back yard – not only a class win but 3rd overall! Exceptional. With the similar car of Level 5 Motorsports coming in just 32 seconds behind (and top ALMS car), it shows everything HPD may lack in LMP1 with reliability they most definitely do have in their LMP2 car. Their P1 rivals should worry.

What a difference a year makes. Last year the ALMS had no LMP2 entries at all and in LMS/ILMC the cars sufferered poor reliability, like the bad days of a few years back when all the cars were fragile and frankly an embarrassment to the sport. Fast forward to 2012 and 7 cars finished in the top 14, five of those mixing it in with the LMP1 finishers. Impressive. With growing entires in WEC, ALMS and ELMS the LMP2 class is the place to be seen this season.

LMP2 top 5:
1. #44 Starworks Motorsport (Potolicchio/Dalziel/Sarrazin)  HPD ARX 03b / Dunlop
2. #055 Level 5 Motorsport (Tucker/Bouchut/Barbosa) HPD ARX 03b / Dunlop
3. #24 OAK Racing (Nicolet/Lahaye/Pla) Morgan-Judd / Dunlop
4. #49 Pecom Racing (Companc/Kaffer/Ayari) Oreca 03-Nissan / Dunlop
5. #41 Greaves Motorsport (Zugel/Gonzalez/Julian) Zytek Z11SN-Nissan / Dunlop

GT / GTE-Pro

We all expected a close fight and we got one right up until the last lap! The quickest remaining WEC car versus the quickest remaining ALMS car. Ferrari vs BMW. Corvette on their tail. No quarter given. Sadly it was ruined on the final lap when Gianmaria Bruni running 100(!) laps down after a crash decided to race the leaders, hit the BMW of Joey Hand off the road and caused the other Ferrari of Olivier Beretta to spin and drop to 3rd. Dirty and unnecessary driving for which Bruni was fined €15,000.

The Corvettes and BMWs had raced hard all day long, whilst Ferraris were dropping like flies. AF Corse, Luxury Racing, Extreme Speed – all ran into difficulties through contact or reliability, except for that AF car of Beretta. All are quality teams who just happened on poor luck or judgement. Risi Competizione didn’t enter and were missed.

The Porsches were nowhere, it may have been a different story had Flying Lizard not been crashed into on the formation lap. They repaired and rejoined multiple laps down but it was a bad day for one of my favourite teams through no fault of their own. Felbermayr-Proton are strong so perhaps it was a measure of the current 997 that they weren’t in contention. It was great to see Aston Martin return to GT and be competitive immediately, so their retirement due losing a wheel was a great disappointment.

This was the only mixed-class to see an ALMS car beat the WEC cars, but then the ALMS GT field has been stronger than their European counterparts for some time now.

1. #56 BMW Team RLL (Hand/Summerton/D.Muller) BMW E92 M3 / Dunlop
2. #03 Corvette Motorsport (Magnussen/Garcia/Taylor) Chevrolet Corvette C6 ZR1 / Michelin
3. #71 AF Corse (Bertolini/Beretta/Cioci) Ferrari F458 Italia / Michelin
4. #4 Corvette Motorsport (Gavin/Milner/Westbrook) Chevrolet Corvette C6 ZR1 / Michelin
5. #155 BMW Team RLL (J.Muller/Auberlen/Alzen) BMW E92 M3 / Dunlop

GTE-Am

I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the class, and when I did it was the Larbre Corvette invariably leading the way, often with Pedro Lamy in it – until it stopped not long before the end. The Felbermayr-Proton Porsche took the win ahead of the 2nd Larbre car. Nobody else finished within 10 laps of the class winner.

I like the idea of a class catering for ‘gentleman’ drivers who pay for the Pro teams to be there, because before it existed so many GT/GT2 class races were ruined when a bad amateur got in and lost a well-earned win. Now they can enjoy themselves in their own race and get their own trophy, whilst the teams still get the hard cash and get to go for a win in two classes at once (Pro and Am) if they choose. That’s a win for all of us. I’d like to see a few more cars finish and perhaps a better quality of part-timer.

LMPC & GTC

I was impressed with EJ Viso who put in a mature drive to win the PC class alongside Popow and Friselle for CORE Autosports. I wonder if that’ll serve him well in his IndyCar year. Whenever I looked, he or Bruno Junquiera (RSR) were leading. In GTC, the NGT Porsche was looking great until the crash caused by a stuck throttle, I also thought Green Hornet might win but it was the fast Battery Tender Alex Job car of Townsend Bell, Bill Sweedler and Dion von Moltke who took victory.

Mixing Races

This race combined entries from both WEC and ALMS who had paid up for a full-season. Part time entries were turned away purely because there were so many cars. Did it work? In a way it did. I’m a racing geek so always look for an excuse to compare cars racing in different places, we got just that here. I loved it. Perhaps the LMPC and GTC (maybe GTE Am) cars don’t need to be there – they have the rest of the season to play.

What didn’t work was running two LMP1, two LMP2, etc. There was a podium and winner for each. Apparently the podium ceremony lasted a couple of hours! They really needed to be combined as they were in the timing & scoring systems. It makes life easier. Nobody needs a race with 9 classes – you can combine them and still score your own series points independently.

Will it work in 2013, 2014, etc.? My head says not. What happens if the WEC and/or the ALMS increase in car count? The grid was arguably too big as it was this year – if it grew again how would you decide who fails to qualify? Personally I wouldn’t include the ALMS PC and GTC classes but that would never go down well with those teams or IMSA.

Coverage

At first I was a little frustrated with the official online streaming services – one each provided by the FIA WEC (simulcast on LeMans.org) and the ALMS (showing ESPN’s live coverage). Both feeds fell over at some point, as did the live timing system. With more servers added during the race this became less of a problem but perhaps with a World Championship on the line the organisers ought to have anticipated a growth in interest. At least they were proactive in adding the servers, last year the service was bad from start to finish, this year it continued to improve as the race went on.

Amidst criticism of the web performance we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact these streams exist at all. It is still quite the revolution to be able to watch a 12 hour endurance race live, for free, on the website of the championships putting on the race. Then you add in live commentary from one of the best combos in the business: John Hindhaugh and Jeremy Shaw. These guys were on form and to top it off they managed a full 12-hour stint in the booth with only a small handful of very short breaks. Hats off to all concerned.

The WEC feed didn’t have this commentary and it took a while for any commentary options to appear at all. I found the WEC feed used a lot more onboard shots – of course the ALMS.com version had options to view onboard feeds whenever you liked, which the WEC didn’t have. Every now and then the WEC would break from the source feed to go to a live interview with Louise in the pits. Sadly the feed volume was way too high, you couldn’t hear what was being said due to the distortion.

It is promising though. The ALMS already has live streaming in place for every round, and it looks as though the WEC will join it. I don’t think all of the WEC rounds will be live in full on Eurosport or other partners, it’ll be good to be able to fill in the gaps. I also understand the US lockout won’t apply for WEC rounds (it still will for ALMS rounds – a crazy decision).

For the first hour or so I had to struggle on with a woefully under-par performance from Radio Le Mans. Their revolutionary coverage of the past has set such a high bar even when Hindaugh wasn’t around, that when they fail to hit the mark it is to genuine surprise and disappointment. With Hindy doing the TV coverage, RLM (RSL) ended up with Nick Daman giving what can only be described as the trainspotters’ commentary. Instead of an exciting enthusiastic commentary of the warm-up lap and race start of the first FIA World Championship endurance race for 20 years, we were treated to some rambling about chassis whilst the cars rounded the final corner and approached the green at speed. The next hour was not easy to listen to. Sorry guys, Nick is a brilliant pit reporter and colour analyst alongside someone else doing play-by-play, and should probably stay in those roles. I’ve got to call it honestly – guys, you’re great, but this was not good enough and I’ve heard better comms from fans on YouTube talking over racing games. (The common comeback from some is to say ‘you do it then’, but that’s the point, it sounded as bad as if I was!). Maybe it got better later, with ALMS.com stuttering into life I didn’t hang around to find out. I understand they were in a difficult position and I don’t doubt that normality will return at Spa.

Next Race

ALMS: Long Beach, 14th April 2012, Long Beach, California, USA.
WEC: 6 Hours of Spa, 5th May 2012, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium.

Like Sebring both events take place on a Saturday. I’m looking forward to both of them.

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