Sebring 12 Hour – It's one of the biggest sports car races in the US and featured on the American Le Mans Series as the start of the season for a number of years. It's the longest race in our season and it set's the tone for the rest of the year. If you do well here, you put yourself in a good position to challenge for the championship.
This Sebring is a little different, though. The tone has already been set in GT2 over the last year or two. All of the top teams know the challenge that already exists. 2010 will feature one of the most competitive collection of teams, drivers, and cars that I've seen in any top level series or race even in some time. BMW vs. Porsche vs. Ferrari vs. Corvette. 7 or 8 cars that have a legitimate chance to win a race this year every time.
I'm Tommy Milner – I drive one of two BMW Rahal Letterman Racing BMW M3 GT's in GT2. I wrote two blogs for SpeedHunters last year and Rod asked me to do it again for all of 2010. I'm a big car guy and SpeedHunters is one website I have to check out daily. I'll try to give you guys a little look into my weekends at the track and give a little recap of what happened in the race and any other fun stuff I get to do or see. So if you have any questions or something you want to know and I'll try to include them in the next blog.
Thursday is the first day of official practice at Sebring on race day, but in reality we've already been here in Sebring two times previously this year and have been in Sebring for race week since the Sunday before. We were here once in January for a 12 hour simulation run and again a month later for the ALMS Winter Test where we ran with some of our other competitors as a warmup for the season.
We've had a lot of time to prove the M3 will last the 12 hours, which it did, and then spend some time in the winter tests fine tuning our setup for race pace. This year BMW North America decided to switch up the driver lineups some and they switched Bill Auberlen out of the 90 and into the 92 with me and put my teammate from last year, Dirk Müller, into the 90 with Joey Hand. So the Winter Test was a good time for the drivers and engineers of each car get used to each other.
The guys at RLR have a lot of items on their list to get most importantly the car ready for the race but also the team and drivers ready. Thursday was a day that we used to work on our outright pace and less on getting the car prepared for the race. All the brakes are bedded, the race motors are in the car, and we know what to expect from the tires at this point.
For the first day of practice, it went really well. We were 1-2 in the two sessions in the day and 1-2 again in the night practice. Every driver has to get in the car and do three laps to be eligible for the race so that was the first order of business and then we got on with our program of seeing what tires from Dunlop would be best suited for the cooler conditions.
Some teams take the night session serious, others just do the three laps for each driver and call it quits. BMW Rahal Letterman doesn't like wasting time and we used it to be sure we knew what compound tire to use and how it would react over the run.
Friday was a pretty busy day. We had a morning practice session, the last practice session before qualifying; an autograph session and a BMWCCA gathering at our tent for BMW's 35th Anniversary of its Sebring win in the BMW CSL; qualifying after that in the afternoon; and then a drivers meeting at the end of the day.
But an easy day really for me. Since Bill got the nod for qualifying for this race, we always give the qualifying driver the majority of the session before qualifying for a qualifying sim run on low fuel and sticker tires. Dirk Werner, our guest driver from BMW Motorsport, needed a little more time in the car to begin with so I sat the day out driving wise.
Before qualifying the team planned to put in some new parts so that they would have the least amount of time on them going into the race. That's Smokey and Wulfie there working on the car with our regular mechanics Donnie and Jimmy somewhere out of frame working just as hard as usual.
Joy is some damn good cake celebrating BMW's win at Sebring 35 years ago.
We took a quick break from the autograph session to join in a picture with head of BMW Motorsport, Dr. Mario Theissen.
The autograph session is good time for the fans to just walk up casually and chat with us if they want. Most of them like just swinging by and grabbing a hero card to either keep for a souvenir or in some cases grab 4 or 5 and ebay them the next week.
The autograph session is just an hour of us joking the whole time with each other and some defacing of each others pictures on the back of the hero card. Childish stuff like that but entertaining really. I like to keep a pretty relaxed attitude as the weekend starts to get more hectic. Just focus on the goal and the end result. That's all that matters.
Qualifying gets a small mention. Bill qualified and unfortunately the car had a small leak somewhere in the power steering system which pushed the team to work right up until qualifying to fix the issue. Because of that, they weren't able to do a set down on the car to make sure it was perfect, like the car is usually, and unfortunately it was just a little off. Bill qualified a very disappointing for him 9th. Bill had been the fastest guy all weekend of us drivers which made it that much more frustrating.
The 92 car on the grid before it would get thrashed around Sebring's notoriously bumpy track for 12 hours and the crew keeping an eye on her. Dirk Werner would be the one to start the race for us.
Despite the fact we started in the middle of the GT2 pack, all of us on the team knew we had a fast car and we knew if we stayed out of trouble and made no mistakes we'd have a really good chance to win the race. Dirk at the start made his way right to the tail end of the lead pack of GT2 cars.
If you don't already know, Sebring is right during spring break for a lot of people and it's one of the biggest parties I've ever seen. You've gotta go once and experience Sebring both for the on track stuff but for the infield “activities” too. When I went to bed Friday night, I could hear two bands playing live and people yelling and screaming. Definitely a good time.
I had the third stint in the car for our car and I got in for my first time right at the heat of the day. When I got in we were in 2nd place behind the 62 Ferrari with the 45 Porsche 10 or 15 seconds behind us. The Ferrari was the quickest car of any car in GT2 at this point, by a lot, but I kept the gap to the 45 Porsche till the end of my stint.
I was pretty disappointed with my stint as my times were not that fast but I was content with the fact I kept the gap to the 45 Porsche.
The 92 crew hard at work doing a full service stop. Fuel, tires, and driver. These guys had an awesome day. If you didn't think this was a team sport, you don't need to look any further than Corvette who had a rough day. They sent one car out of the pits as the team car was coming in and made hard contact with each other. One mistake and your day can go from really good to really bad.
Check out those blingin' Sparco shoes. I had never wore them before the race, which I know some drivers would never do, but they're the best shoes (and whitest) I've ever worn. I'm just hanging out in the pits here waiting for my turn in the car.
Linhbergh wanted to know what I eat in between shifts in the car. I told him I only eat healthy foods.
Uhhhh, maybe not. Just a quick piece of candy instead of another banana or pasta which is what I normally have in between stints during these long races. Really.
…waiting for the car patiently…
… and same for me. I'm just listening to the radio to hear whats going on with the balance of the car and to be ready if I have to run to my gear quickly to get ready to go in the car. If I'm scheduled to be in the car next I need to be nearby and let the driver who had just gotten out, go back to the truck and take a quick nap if he wants.
At this point, I'd been in the car a second time and was much happier with my performance. The car was feeling really good, I had a lot of grip, and I set a handful of the fastest laps for the 92 car. We are still in 2nd place at this point but thanks to a safety car period just after I got out of the car the first time, we lost 9/10ths of a lap to the leading Ferrari, a gap we never were able to overcome. We would take the gap down to at best a minute on pace, consistency, and fast pit work but a yellow would come out, eliminate all that work, and not work to our advantage to get the half lap back. Frustrating to say the least.
It has to be pointed out that our 92 car crew had the best day in the pits of anyone else in GT2. We spent the least amount of time in the pits over anyone else in the class. The 90 car's crew was only 4 or 5 seconds slower than 92 and both cars over a minute better in the pits than the winning Ferrari. Granted, they didn't have to try very hard since they had the advantage of the early safety car but it shows how well our BMW Rahal Letterman Racing Team is working right now.
Linhbergh panning in 7
Even though all of the drivers and team are really good friends, on the track we're competitors. We've never had any kind of team orders or instructions to back off when I've been with RLR and that became pretty obvious at Sebring.
We ran 2nd and 3rd for the second half of the race, with the 90 car in 3rd most of it due to them having to start from pit lane at the start of the race. Both cars wanted to finish 2nd. Despite the fact we had little hope in catching the Ferrari without a mistake from them and no one challenging from behind, both cars were pushing like we were racing for the win. Thanks to the final caution, the gap that we had on the 90 car all race vanished and Andy was right behind me on the restart. Both of us on fresh tires but Andy having already had one stint in the dark and I had just hopped in.
When it went green, he hounded me for the first lap and was able to sneak past going into T17. I got a better run out of 17 and was next to him down the front straight and into T1 but I was on the outside and for the preservation of both our cars (and my job), I didn't push the issue and let Andy go.
It's always good for me, since I'm still a younger guy, to be able to size myself up to other drivers and see how I stack up. Especially guys like Andy, Bill, Joey, the Dirks, and pretty much every other driver pairing in GT2 right now. I was pretty pissed I allowed Andy by but at least content again that I was able to stick to his rear bumper for that entire stint. Andy has won 3 WTCC championships in recent years so, yeah, he's a pretty good driver.
It was also pretty cool to follow him through T1 and see his car sparking as it just barely touched the ground through the bumps in T1. It's little moments like that where, even though I'm completely focused on going as fast as I can and 10 hours into the 12 hours of Sebring, I still just think to myself for a split second how cool this is.
For the last hour and a half, Bill and myself sat on the pitwall and watched as Dirk Werner in our car chased Dirk Müller in the sister car. Again, as we had 2nd and 3rd locked up at this point, barring any disaster, the team could have told Dirk and Dirk to just cool it and ride home to the end. That wasn't the plan. Both cars were getting longer brake pedals after using the car up pretty good and driving at 10/10ths for the entire race. The Dirks both making hardly any mistakes at all.
Müller, on the last lap, and into the last turn, spun and allowed Werner who was only a few seconds behind to sneak past for 2nd. For us, it was an exciting race right to the end. Unfortunately, it wasn't for the win but we'll take the 2nd and 3rd place for BMW. Our M3 GT with the Rahal Letterman Team, the Dunlop Tires and our team of drivers was, I think, the car to beat at the end and it's too bad we didn't get a chance to show that.
For the first race of the season, Sebring was a great finish for the team. Next, we head from the longest race of the season to the shortest, 100 minutes at Long Beach for what's going to be a no holds barred cage match in GT2. Can't wait.