Just looking at the grid for this weekend's Sebring 12 Hours should be enough to make any racing fan weak at the knees… An unprecedented sixty-four top-flight prototypes and GTs will be taking part in Saturday's 12-hour race; an event that has a rich heritage. The 12 Hours was first held at the track back in 1952, so this year's running celebrates the 60th edition. Along with the 50th anniversary of the Daytona 24 and the 80th running of Le Mans, it makes 2012 quite the year of endurance racing milestones.
Sebring also sees the first race of the new World Endurance Championship: the global sportscar series is sharing the grid with the regular American Le Mans Series runners – hence the enormous field. This does mean that the number of classes competing requires a maths degree to plot, but effectively we'll see LMP1, LMP2 and LMPC prototypes battling with GTE and GTC sportscars. Every lap. For 12 hours.
The track is six kilometres long – and it's no Le Mans with long straights: there's really just the back-straight sprint. That means one car for every 90-odd metres of track. This means there is going to be fast and furious racing all through the field: the quicker cars are going to have to drive like crazy in traffic to maintain advantage; the slower class cars are going to need eyes in the backs of their heads to see what's coming.
Audi start the favourites in the top LMP1 class, but in testing the chasing petrol-powered prototypes have been snapping at their heels: particularly the HPD ARX-03as. Audi are not expecting to walk this: new rules tweaks have brought the petrol-powered opposition back into the game and the time-sheets show that they're going to have to fight hard in the race.
Of note in LMP1 are the two Rebellion Lola B11/60 Toyota-powered LMP1s, who are running in their new Team Lotus colours. They're also going quickly, and are another threat to the Audi diesels.
Fast prototypes are numerous: there are 11 in LMP1 alone – including three of the quick HPDs – and then another 22 in LMP2 and LMPC!
In GTE, Ferrari, Porsche, Corvette and BMW are duking it out to be top of the time-sheets; Aston Martin's new Vantage-based challenger is rapidly getting up to speed, but will likely take a couple of races to be fighting at the front.
Both the Corvette and Porsches are sporting brand new aero packages, so defending winners BMW will have their work cut out to stay on top, though they have kept a car in the top three spots in GTE through the four test sessions so far.
No less than eight Ferrari 458 Italias are in the race: two ALMS regulars in the shape of Extreme Speed Motorsports and then a whole WEC fleet from AF Corse and Luxury Racing.
Turn One at Sebring sweeps in from the wide starting straight (which used to be a runway for bombers during World War II) into an unfeasibly narrow funnel to turns two and three, which means the start is going to be absolutely awesome. And terrifying. I'll be watching from behind the sofa. After the first turn, the rest of the track is not exactly what you'd call wide: every inch is going to be fought over. There's going to be a lot of Florida dust on the track come dusk.
Larry Chen will be on duty for Speedhunters in Sebring, shadowing #4 Corvette C6 ZR1 driver Tommy Milner as he prepares to tackle the great race.
2012 has already been a great year for big-grid endurance races, but the Sebring 12 Hours raises the bar in both numbers and quality. It's going to be an epic battle. If you watch (or listen to) nothing else this weekend, tune in for the start of the race, which starts at 10am Eastern on Saturday. You can catch it live on Motors TV, via the ALMS web stream or WEC web stream in Europe, or ABC/ESPN3.com in the US; you can also listen live to the race commentary from the track on the Radio Le Mans live web stream. Live timing will be available from the ALMS and WEC sites.
Images courtesy of the American Le Mans Series