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.

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2012 FIA WEC Preview

This year’s endurance racing calendar is something special, for the first time in 20 years we have a world championship for long-distance sportscar racing and it promises to develop into something big over the coming years.

It is a shame that one of the main instigators of the FIA World Endurance Championship, Peugeot, was forced to withdraw before the season. Audi vs Peugeot would’ve been even more fraught than we’ve seen in the past with a world title on the line! Toyota had already planned to join midseason. They, the FIA and the ACO should be applauded for working to have then enter more races than was originally planned and for adjusting the points system to allow dropped scores, so the LMP1 championship is mathematically still on the line even if Audi will surely win it comfortably.

Calendar

The centrepiece is of course Le Mans, with a calendar featuring some of the best events of the international endurance racing calendar of the past few years, added to new events in Brazil, Japan and controversially, Bahrain.

A curious and notable absence is Petit Le Mans which will revert to being ALMS-only this year, not a popular decision and even worse when Bahrain was originally scheduled for the same weekend. That madness has been avoided but PLM still falls between two Asian WEC events on weekends either side of it, so it’ll be very difficult indeed for any WEC teams to compete in Georgia.

March 17th – 12 Hours of Sebring (with ALMS)
May 5th – 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps
June 3rd – Le Mans Test Day
June 16th – 24 Hours of Le Mans (with other invitiationals)
August 26th – 6 Hours of Silverstone
September 16th – 6 Hours of Sao Paulo
September 30th – 6 Hours of Bahrain
October 14th – 6 Hours of Fuji
Novmeber 11th – 6 Hours of Shanghai

Prototypes

In LMP1, the fight between the HPD teams Strakka, JRM and at Sebring, Muscle Milk should be tight and they’ll be up against the Lolas of Rebellion, and OAK and Pescarolo with their eponymous chassis. Throw in a mix of engines from HPD (Honda) to Toyota to Judd and at Sebring a Mazda as well. All the runners are on Michelins except for the Dunlops on the OAK and Dyson cars. Familiar names include Brabham, Prost, Chandhok, Heidfeld, Bleekemolen, Watts, Kane, Collard and Boullion.

LMP1 isn’t the only interest, there is a strong field in the petrol half of LMP1, and in LMP2 and the two GTE categories. At Sebring we have the added excitement of the ALMS contenders joining the fun, and at Le Mans we’ll see some of the best teams from the ALMS and ELMS join the WEC for the classic 24 Hours. Also at Le Mans we will see the race debut of the Delta Wing which promises to be very exciting – I hope it is reliable!

LMP2 is worth watching for once. No longer is it a collection of underfunded teams with cars which break down easily. There are solid entries from Signatech, OAK (again), Greaves, PeCom and even the GrandAm team Starworks are entering the WEC. Cars range from Lolas to Orecas to Zyteks to HPDs to Morgans (rebadged OAK) and engines from Nissan, Judd, HPD and Lotus. All cars are on Dunlops. The drivers may be less familiar but Starworks signed a coup with Stephane Sarrazin for the longer races.

GT

GTE Pro features Fisichella and Bruni with AF Corse, in their other car Olivier Beretta switches from Corvette. They’re up against the similar car of Luxury Racing with Vernay, Melo and Makowiecki. Aston Martin rejoin the field after their LMP stints and they have Mucke, Turner and Fernandez. Felbermayr’s line-up of Lieb and Lietz is not to be doubted either. At Sebring of course they are joined by the very strong ALMS teams of Corvette, BMW and various Porsche teams.

GTE Am is for year-old cars and they must run at least one (or two?) amateur drivers. Larbre Competition have a couple of Corvettes and Pedro Lamy, AF Corse and Luxury also entered Ferraris here (including one for Michael Waltrip at least for Sebring), Felbermayr have another Porsche and don’t count out Krohn’s green Ferrari.

Others

There are 35 cars signed up for the full season. These will be joined by ‘wild card’ entries through the year, though we don’t know the details yet.

At Sebring we add in the Prototype and GT Challenge classes for spec Orecas and Porsches respectively. 64 cars at Sebring, and 56 at Le Mans including the Delta Wing.

Even if Audi does win it all, the other classes should be interesting. Perhaps more interesting is this is the first ‘building’ year of the series, taking a step up from last year’s ILMC. After showing what it can do this year, who else might enter in 2013 and 2014? There are exciting years ahead!