Sunday, April 7, 2013

Synopsis of Sebring

Overall winner Audi R18 e-tron Quattro
Story by Gary R.
Photos by Great Eye Studios

This year's Twelve Hours of Sebring was a very significant one for many reasons. 2013 is the last year the famed race was to be run in its traditional configuration. The brutal endurance race has always been used as a testing ground for the 24 Hours of LeMans. Most teams figure if your car holds up to the twelve hours of pounding this track delivered to your car, then the 24 hours at Circuit de Le Sarthe should be a walk in the park. It marks a change in the way it will be structured in future races. As most who follow sports car racing know, the merger between Grand Am and ALMS will be fully integrated in 2014, and with that there will no longer be the P1 class either diesel or petrol. Also the variations to be imposed to the existing classes in the newly titled USCR remain unclear. We’ve been told they will basically remain the same. What 'basically'  means remains to be seen.
Level 5 Motorsports secures its top spot on the P2 podium

Sebring’s Traditions and the Results 
The race itself was fabulous with a full crowd and all the antics from the spectators many have come to expect in the turn ten area of the infield. Every kind of observation platform was erected via bus, crane, numerous scaffold configurations, and adorned with everything from aquariums to fully stocked bars as well as some of the most vulgar effigies imaginable. The platforms were as usual mostly empty as the revelers were either tying one on or sleeping one off. To add to that, it was after all St Patrick’s Day weekend. Even with all that chaos going on, the race itself was great. The two Audi R18 e-tron quattros took as expected the front row from start. And also as expected finished 1, 2 on the podium followed by the Rebellion Racing Toyota powered Lola in third. In P2 the top spot was taken by Level 5’s number 551 piloted by Tucker/Franchitti/Briscoe. Prototype Challenge was won by the line up of Cheng/Guasch/Ostella in car #52. The GT class, where all of last year’s best battles were hashed out, found the #4 Corvette  of Gavin/Milner/Westbrook taking first place with the #62 F458 Ferrari 2.7 seconds behind them and the Falken Porsche taking third. Most disappointing to me was what happened to Craig Stanton who patiently and determinedly fought long and hard for a podium in GTC only to find that he didn't have fuel in the closing laps to hold on to his spot and had to come into the pit for a splash and dash. Top spot in GTC was taken by the #22 of Bleekmolen/MacNeil/von Moltke.

Craig Stanton drives a flawless race but is unable to clinch
the podium due to a less than optimal fuel strategy 

The Paddock Buzz
The notable buzz about the paddock was dominated by the talk of the merger mentioned at the outset. There was among the fan faithful, much disdain toward what is up and coming in the 2014 season. Many are a bit disappointed in the loss of the P1 category. However not a few fans understand the budgetary needs of a full blown P1 team and know that assembling anything competitive with teams like Audi or Peugeot is at best difficult. Although I was reminded by a fellow spectator who pointed to the wall above the front straight, that just in 2011 the privateer Team Oreca/ Matmut won outright against those same teams using a one year old Peugeot diesel!!!  What most are afraid of, is having the vehicle end of competition taken and managed the way GA is run or Nascar. At least one person I spoke to had, in years past traveled to Europe for GT racing there. This enthusiast had said he was afraid of the France family's “ruining ALMS the way they did Daytona!” I hope he is wrong, and tried to give him reasons to substantiate this hope. But it was not only the change in ownership/management that objections were raised about. No one seemed happy even with the newly adopted name, United Sports Car Racing. People went off about the new logo using a helmut. Personally I can see the point with that one. Decades long race fans with a beer in them will readily voice their opinions and I was glad to hear them.
But in addition to the fans being concerned, this buzz had also been swirling about the teams themselves. And truly you would expect this. Because while for us in the seats this as an important diversion from our lively-hoods, the teams and their owners were concerned because this is their livelyhood!

The beautiful Alex Job 458 had its race ended from a bad collision at the Collier Curve

One team that was running a two-car effort in a prototype class actually canned half the crew. The team owner said he will now, given the future, plan the season from race to race as to what they will do or if they will do. People are unsure about what their cars etc. will be worth in the coming series. There is ‘a lot of iron sitting out there’. Or better and more accurately a lot of carbon fiber sitting out there. We all know how much more expensive high tech race gear is to run than older low tech equipment. 

However this was not the only paddock buzz that was humming. The new BMW Z4GTE had quite a stir about it also. It is truthfully an exciting car. I had a brief chat with Joey Hand about his new ride and what we could expect. When asked about the engine and its power, he mentioned that it was basically the same setup they had in the M3. I had also asked if the car punched a smaller hole through the air since it seemed lower to me. His response was another one that kinda disappointed me. He said that in fact this new car had a bigger column of air to displace as it is wider. In fact any advantages the Z4GT3, (the GTE's euro cousin) had over the M3GT in aerodynamics were nullified by IMSA rule compliance. After we talked about a few more things, I walked away thinking, ‘why have they done this then? Basically the same engine sucking air through a cocktail straw, yet having to, in a sense work harder to push this greater resistance through the air? What is going on here? ‘ It might be mentioned that Joey’s enthusiasm for the car remained pretty high. Why could later be seen through some footage of the car in race form. This new car is clearly king of cornering. Watching it and its competitors going into corners you can see that it brakes later, slows down less, carries more speed through a corner and is inclined to a smoother exit. The video link above shows this in real time. It is clear that BMW/RLLR Team have a well thought out scheme for taking it to the 'Vettes and Ferraris this year. After all, if the sanctioning body would not allow for them to be competitive on power, they were going to maximize every other part of the car. Anyone knows one or two miles an hour at corner exit can mean another five or more miles an hour at the next braking zone. So it seems clear to me that while we may not see the Z4GTE owning the podium of tracks like Mosport, others like Laguna Seca and Lime Rock will likely be owned by the BMW. Auberlen doesn’t seem to have to grab as much curb as the other cars do. That should actually save the cars, which could mean less time in the pits. 

Seeing the Z4 perform as well as any car was a real treat. So why then did the Z4s not take the podium? Well, as the number three Corvette team could testify, the stewards are NOT fooling around with any loose application of rules. And with that hawkish approach to enforcement of those rules, teams had to deal with penalty infraction time in the pits. Besides, although Sebring has lots of corners, it is still a high horsepower track.

The GT class winning #4 Corvette was flexing its muscles 
to make a move on the #56 Z4GTE
The 2013 Twelve Hours of Sebring was truly a great race. It is my hope and that of others, that the end of one era of racing will carry with it the great accomplishments accrued into the next. IMSA has made clear that Sebring will be on the calendar for next year and those to follow. If it wasn’t, what would the thousands of Florida hillbillies do with themselves in mid March? Yikes, I pity the thought!! But for now we have some great battles ahead on track for this upcoming season to look forward to.