Thoughts on Sportscars: 2013 12 Hours of Sebring (ALMS)

Sebring wasn’t a classic race this year, rather than being exciting as some past years it was a case of being interesting in terms of who was fast, who was slow, who was reliable and who was not. I can’t say it was compelling enough to hold the attention for the twelve hours, or even for the ten hours I watched (there were a few long spells of simple lappery), but in this tough economic climate, and in a transition year before a major change to the race with the series merger you can’t really ask for big grids and close racing in each class.

Summary

The prototypes battle fell flat early on and in fairness that was expected before the race started. The focus fell on the two GT classes which did a good job of keeping things interesting, and there was a late battle in the PC class as well. With only an hour or two to go each of these three classes were led by something like 10 or 15 seconds! Tiny margins given the distances covered, a mistake on the track or by a pit crew would’ve turned it around.

I had other commitments in the afternoon and wasn’t able to join the coverage until 90 minutes into the race. I watched the rest, although I also dipped into the Red Bull Crashed Ice finale (I found myself unable to concentrate on that), and the delayed F1 qualifying.

I was watching the ALMS.com feed so their server problems were disappointing – I was happy they had the usual Hindhaugh & Shaw presentation and a solid pit crew. The ALMS Twitter feed claimed this race had 4x the viewers as last year, a statistic I find surprising considering last year’s race doubled as the inaugural WEC round, with a far deeper field. Compared to that race, with the ALMS struggling lately, this year’s race was always going to look a little weak in comparison to 2012’s so the increased viewership was interesting to see.

Through The Classes

P1

Audi dominated as everybody expected they would. There was a little fight amongst themselves but it was nothing compared to a battle with another manufacturer team, there was the definite sense they were tiptoeing around each other whenever they were racing – the right thing to do under the circumstances.

The real race in P1 was among the four-car “petrol/independent class” but Dyson Racing encountered problems with their Lola-Mazda, and Muscle Milk Pickett’s HPD was penalised (stop and hold for 60 seconds) following “avoidable contact”, when Klaus Graf and a PC-car collided. This was a shame as they were fairly evenly matched with the two Rebellion Lola-Toyotas, perhaps the Pickett car had the edge (perhaps thanks to their drivers and their circuit knowledge).

So this race was spoiled by a couple of happenings but that doesn’t mean Rebellion didn’t earn it, they were fast and kept their nose clean. I’m glad they’re keeping a car in the ALMS in addition to their two in WEC this year.

The DeltaWing, run by a completely different team to last year and with completely different technical partners, failed to impress after running slower than the PC class pace before an engine failure ended their day early.

P2

Five entries in this class, all top-drawer quality but sadly the race was effectively over by halfway. Level 5’s pair of HPDs were in control, it was always going to be tough to beat their star driver line-up of Marino Franchitti, Simon Pagenaud, and Ryans Hunter-Reay and Briscoe.
Extreme Speed did a good job learning their own pair of HPDs after moving from Ferraris in the GT class, although Ed Brown in particular seemed to struggle with his car with multiple spins and the other, faster car was delayed with mechanical issues. ESM will work on it, they’ll get there.
After splitting the HPDs right down the middle in qualifying, the lone Greaves Motorsport Zytek-Nissan wasn’t able to keep up with Level 5 in the race – which surprised me I have to say. I’m not sure if they encountered any problems.

PC

It was a hard-fought battle in the single-make class, the lead changing handle multiple times throughout the race. Most of this 7-car field was competitive and there wasn’t any way of picking a winner, even when it eventually distilled down to two cars you couldn’t call it, it was still a race as Ostella hunted down Marcelli for the win which is the opposite of what I would’ve predicted! This class is going to be a lot of fun this year.

GT

As expected the GT class proved a dogfight, though I have to say it seemed much cleaner than the wheel-banging of past years, which is impressive given how hard they were all pushing.

The main race was between the Corvettes and the Risi Ferrari, that classic battle between marques. Interloping from time to time were the likes of the Viper, the new BMW Z4 and even the Falken Tire Porsche, which given the struggles of Porsche teams everywhere wasn’t supposed to be near the front. The variety bodes well for a very exciting season.

The Ferrari had better range, the ‘Vette perhaps the better speed over a stint. Despite electrical issues and a penalty for pitlane speeding (caused by temporarily having no limiter) the no.4 Corvette fought back to win by just 3 seconds from the Ferrari, however that was arguably only because Matteo Malucelli’s stellar drive faltered under intense pressure from the yellow ‘Vette.
The Vipers fell back after a while as did the promising new BMW Z4 which had an impressive debut – though as both are running with exemptions for engines that are way too big for the regs, I was quietly pleased they lost (even though they have very cool cars).
Feelgood result of the race was the Falken Porsche, I thought they were a way behind earlier on but they came back to finish 3rd.

Notable absentees were the Aston Martins which suffered car trouble fairly early on and were forced to treat the rest of the race as a test, a very rapid test in which they set the class fastest lap, hinting at what might’ve been.

GTC

It is a sign of these economic times that so many top quality drivers – and teams – are in the low-cost spec class supposedly for entry-level entrants. The benefit for the class is the ridiculously close race! When you have Jeroen Bleekemolen, Sean Edwards, Damian Faulkner, Sascha Maassen, and Spencer Pumpelly you can’t say the class is lacking in talent. The result then depends how good the amateur, ‘gentlemen’ drivers are, and if they’re as evenly matched as they are here you have a race on your hands! Even deep into the race the top half dozen were split by 20 seconds or less. It was only in the very late stages that it got a bit split up. An under-reported, much-knocked class (and I’m fully guilty of that) which should continue to see some great racing this year.

Stars of the Race

I’d never heard of David Ostella or Matteo Malucelli so I was tremendously impressed by their performances. Malucelli put in a near-flawless performance for Risi Ferrari, whenever I looked at T&S he was in the car, his only fault being a little kind to the Corvette as it attacked him in the late stages of the race and that’s just down to inexperience of Sebring. Ostella on the other hand seemed to warm to the race the more it went on, culminating in a fantastic PC-class race-winning pass against Kyle Marcelli, who is no pushover.

If you weren’t paying attention to the laptimes of AMR after their long, long delays, you might’ve missed Bruno Senna’s speed in the car. Some suggested he wouldn’t be suited to GT racing. Wrong!

Kuba Giermaziak seems to be the real deal, too.

Other Business

There were a few controversial stewarding decisions. Some of the faster guys were a little impatient when lapping slower cars. Some were racing incidents, others were the fault of the slower guy wandering all over the road, yet it was always the faster guy that would get the penalty. McNish was definitely unfairly penalised. Graf’s penalty was less clear cut and both opinions were flying around Twitter – I thought the PC car stayed wide and braked early to let Graf through, which Graf may have misread or not expected  – a racing incident but under ALMS rules Graf got the penalty for braking too late, ‘avoidable contact’.

Next Up

The ALMS moves on to the vastly different challenge of a 2-hour race on the short Long Beach street course, one month from now.

Next year’s 12 Hours of Sebring will be part of the brave new world of United SportsCar Racing.

A Promising Start For Baltimore

Last weekend’s IndyCar and ALMS double-header event at the new street circuit in Baltimore was a tremendous success.

Ticket sales had been strong since they were put on general release some months ago, support locally was something we haven’t witnessed outside of each series’ main events (the Indy 500, Sebring 12 Hours and Petit Le Mans) for a long, long time. It reminded me of races at Long Beach or Surfers Paradise 10 years ago.

It was pleasing to see the talk of a large attendance wasn’t just pre-race marketing hype, the place really was full!

Officials from the championships racing this weekend said the crowd on Friday was higher than they’ve seen on race days at some venues this year. That’s partly a measure of how popular this event was, and partly how poorly these series draw at some locations.

The region around around Baltimore and Washington DC has been lacking major motorsport for a long time, the only thing I can think of was the ALMS round in Washington in 2002. There’s a significant amount of population in that region and it was time someone hit it. That’s probably why so many turned out this weekend.

Resurgence

I’m glad it was ALMS and IndyCar which took the chance – it paid off for them. Both series are in desperate need of some good news and this was just the tonic, proof that people do want to come out and see their races, and potentially proof that untapped markets are better propositions than flogging dead horses in established locations. Perhaps it will serve as a wake-up call to these series to race where they are welcome and to drop venues which aren’t working any more, no matter how hard that might be.

From the on-the-ground reports I’ve seen in the media, on blogs and on Twitter, it sounds as if the crowd was a mix between the usual smattering of hard-core fans, a good number of existing racing who may not necessarily follow either/both of these series, and a lot of people completely new to racing. From the sounds of the reactions it was a hit with all concerned. I hope they made a lot of new fans!

Difficulties

The weekend wasn’t without its difficulties. Hurricane Irene was luckily downgraded to a tropical storm before it reached Baltimore but the preparations for its arrival and the necessity to wait until it had passed – and repair any damage – caused severe delays to the build schedule. A street race needs a lot of extra work over and above a road course or oval, including laying the concrete barriers and fencing, repaving the streets, building up the grandstands and creating temporary facilities for teams, drivers and media.

Given the delays it wasn’t a surprise to find construction rolling well into Friday. They finished by lunchtime and cars were on track from a little after 1pm. At that point I expected crash after crash as various fault were found with the circuit. Would the chicanes be alright? Would they slow the cars enough for them to cross the light rail tracks safely?

We needn’t have worried. Somehow despite a 5-hour delay they still fit in practice sessions for all series on Friday, no mean feat when you have two top series and 3 junior series all desparate for track time on a brand new track, some of whom needed to qualify as well as practice.

Tony Kanaan’s warm-up crash was horrifyingly scary and he was very lucky. I don’t think there’s anything the track people can do other than smooth out the bumps in case it was those which caused the mechanical failure. If it wasn’t, then it could’ve happened anywhere in the world.

Racing

The racing was very good by street race standards, better than I’ve seen at many other street tracks. The ALMS race was the better one for me and I think that was a function of having multiple classes, faster cars having to make their way past slower ones engaged in their own tight race. For the first time ever there was the question of whether an LMPC car would win overall because the LMP1 cars couldn’t make 2 hours on a single stop as other classes could. That became moot with the safety cars but it was an interesting dimension – I was rooting for the LMP1s to beat the others on speed because that’s what they should do, but I enjoyed the fact they might not and had to race for it!

The real focus was in the GT class which was as fun as always, and the field of Ferraris, Porsches, Corvettes and BMWs looked right at home on the city streets even more so than any of the other classes racing that weekend including the others in the ALMS.

The IndyCar race wasn’t as good, big open wheel cars always struggle on narrow streets like these. It wasn’t a total borefest though. There was concern it could’ve been like many street courses with a single-file parade, the order only changing when someone crashed. That didn’t happen, we actually had a solid race with a bit of drama and controversy, which is all you can ask for from this type of track. I still prefer natural terrain road courses but Baltimore proved to me it has a place in both championships, perhaps even at the expense of an existing street course such as St Pete.

Perhaps the biggest compliment to the event organisers is that the largest problems over the weekend were down to the series themselves and not the track at all. After all, the Friday delays were forgivable given they just had a near-hurricane.

The IndyCar race start was awful and could’ve resulted in horrible injury, with two safety pickup trucks on track in turns 1 and 2 as the green flag was waved at the start line. Both trucks moved to safety in the nick of time but the second truck was a very, very, very close call. It should not have been there.

The other issue was down to reordering the field on a restart after half the drivers got stuck in a Macau- or Pau-style traffic jam at the hairpin. Eventually I think it turned out that INDYCAR (sanctioning body) had moved the delayed cars ahead of those who continued, except for those which caused the incident or suffered damage. My own opinion is that the delayed cars should’ve been left in the order they resumed which is what happens in every other series in the world. Perhaps the bigger crime was the lack of information, to their credit they played the radio call from Race Control giving the field order, yet everyone at home was kept guessing at the reasons WHY that order was given.

Lessons

The track was too bumpy, everybody knows it and I really hope that is fixed for next year. The drivers generally agreed much of the track was like Long Beach, which is a fairly bumpy street course. The rest of the track was much worse and this area needs to be fixed, it was not safe. There comes a point where a good challenge for a driver tips over into becoming unsafe and I think some areas of this track did that, but as a first attempt this wasn’t a massive complaint and they will learn for next year.

The pitlane was very tight. I don’t think there is anything they can do with the available space where pitlane currently is, I hope they can find an alternative location for it.

The chicane before the rail tracks was too slow and too tight. I’m glad they took the cautious approach in year one, it was the right choice, however next year I’d like to see a chicane which is faster which in turn will make turn 1 more of a passing zone.

Summary

A fantastic debut event which got more right than wrong. Lessons were learned as early as Friday morning and continued to be learned throughout, so that by Saturday evening’s ALMS race it looked like fully sorted, and by Sunday evening’s IndyCar race it looked like it had been running annually for years. I have no doubts whatsoever that things like the bumps will be fixed for 2012.

I got the impression this is a can-do city willing to solve any problems in order to make a race meeting happen. The area of the racetrack seemed perfect with the Inner Harbor as a backdrop. The atmosphere was of curiosity mixed with excitement. I hope both ALMS and IndyCar stick together to make this event a long-lasting success. I want to go to this race meeting.

I keep being told by Americans that their people only like oval racing. Well I’m sorry. On this evidence, I just don’t believe you.

Onboard Lap

To see how bumpy and challenging this course is, take a ride along with Gunnar Jeannette in his LMPC ORECA during ALMS qualifying last Friday:

http://vimeo.com/28684848

2 laps around Baltimore Street Circuit with Gunnar Jeannette, #06 CORE Autosport ORECA FLM09, LMPC class, American Le Mans Series