…and the beginning of another. The 2013 running of the 12 Hours Of Sebring endurance race might have heralded the final time the classic event would run under the banner of the American Le Mans Series (after a 15 year run), but the 61st edition signalled anything but the end. The big LMP1 cars would be welcomed to Florida for the last time, but as usual it would be the GTs that would have their time in the sun – and they will be back in strength no matter what happens next year with the new United SportsCar Racing Series.
Although Sebring might be approaching pension age, the race is still one of the toughest out there. It takes no prisoners: the old airfield track is outrageously bumpy – a real car breaker – the temperatures and humidity can be brutal. What makes it even more of a challenge is that the race is traditionally the season opener on the American endurance calendar. That means no gentle easing into the new year – not with a race like this on the agenda.
Then just imagine next year, when it’s very likely that the blue-riband Daytona 24 Hours will take up the mantle as the first race on the unified 2014 calendar, with Sebring as the follow-up. It’s a left jab, right hook, knock-out combination, and the most exciting aspect of the series link-up between GrandAm and the ALMS, bringing together the best teams on the cream of America’s classic circuits.
The factory teams have of course mostly migrated to the World Endurance Championship, but Audi and even Peugeot have headed across the ocean to tackle Sebring as a warm-up. The one year Audi didn’t pay homage to the Sebring gods was a year that they seemed unusually on the back foot for the whole first half of their season: it’s a race that breaks in both drivers and cars and most importantly forces teams to get race sharp – quickly.
So Audi rocked up this year for a number of reasons: yes, for the final chance in the short-term to run LMP1s at Sebring, but also as reminder of how they’ve dominated this race in the ALMS era, having taken 10 victories up to this point.
The drawback to their participation was that the privateer LMP1 teams, who had thought they had a chance of stamping their name on the prestigious list of Sebring winners, would have to think again. Against the power of Audi there can be no victory…
The field was particularly strong for 2013, with prototype numbers boosted by a dozen LMP2 and LMPC teams, making a packed grid of 42 starters.
The race would start at 10.45am, finishing in the dark of Saturday night, and a night practice session was scheduled for the Wednesday before the race. Glowing rotors? Flaming exhausts? Naturally we aimed Larry Chen at Sebring.
So as usual Larry would be picking off the shots both on…
…and, more surreally, off the track, with headlights illuminating the track-side trees to create a strange petrified forest effect.
Larry also has a habit of attracting local wildlife, and there’s no life more wild than the Sebring crowd…
The main interest would be following BMW’s progress with their new Z4 GTE contender, and specifically two of the team’s latest signings: Maxime Martin from Belgium and young US driver John Edwards.
These two would be part of Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan’s 2013 squad, split across two Z4s, with the white-livered car unveiled at Daytona last month now numbered as #56 and the second car reversed with this mean black base colour.
Maxime cut his teeth in the FIA World GT1 Championship, earning a fearsome reputation as part of the Marc VDS team in their Ford GT and then most recently in their Z4 running in the Blancpain Endurance Series. It’s always great to see that the factories keep an eye on the up and coming drivers in the privateer ranks. Maxime would be racing alongside Bill Auberlen and Jörg Müller in black #55.
John is originally from Louisville, Kentucky, and was born in 1991. He’s only just turned 22 years old, and had been signed up on the back of some impressive performances in GrandAm over the last three seasons. He would be joining Dirk Müller and Joey Hand in #56 for the 2013 ALMS endurance races, but will also drive in regular events that clash with Joey’s DTM commitments in Europe.
Larry’s experience with BMW would be made just that little bit more comfortable by having an M3 at his command for the week: he had the chance to stretch its legs around Florida, so look out for a feature on this new E92 M3 in the near future.
At the beginning of the week things were definitely not looking glorious. The sun was refusing to play ball and it even rained during the test days leading up to the first official practice sessions, so only a few cars made it out as the forecast predicted clear skies for the rest of the week.
A new car always comes with new car problems, and parts were still being delivered to the track as RLL were setting up. Therefore the team took things easy at first, bedding in both the drivers and parts as they were shipped in.
The DeltaWing was back out in its latest guise: now silver, Elan-powered and Bridgestone-shod, and competing in the top LMP1 class, the roadster out on track was also complemented by a coupé version on static display in the paddock – the DeltaWing story is still only just on its opening chapter.
Both the Rebellion and Dyson teams were running Lola B12/60 LMP1s (a pair of Toyota-powered P1s for the former, and a single Mazda-engined entry for the latter). They’re great-looking cars, especially since the nose styling revisions introduced last year, and Larry’s favourites on track.
Dyson are perennial fan favourites as well, but really haven’t had the racing gods on their side over the last couple of years despite having some competent machinery and exemplary personnel and drivers. They just couldn’t match the pace of the Toyota-powered Rebellion cars at Sebring – and the race would turn out to be another tough 12 hours for the team.
Not that it was all going the right way for the normally invincible Audi team either: McNish put his R18 TDI into the barriers at Turn 10. The power of the E-tron Quattro had caught him out, and the brand new R18 sustained heavy hits at both the front and rear corners.
But to everyone’s surprise, #2 was back out for the end of Thursday afternoon’s session and up to full hyperspeed come the night practice. What am I saying, surprised? This is Audi! It’s what they do…
The #1 Audi was a 2012-spec car, with external differences visible to the naked eye mostly confined to the rear wing. A year old, but still light years ahead of the opposition.
By Thursday night the fans had already set up their elaborate track-side homes for the next few days. As with the hardcore endurance fans the world over, there are mini-cities that spring up around the track of incredible construction. There’s theoretically a six-foot limit on the height of scaffolding; I don’t think the organisers expected people to put a shipping container under the six-feet of scaffold…
During the night practice, #56 finally got to put in some fast laps: they’d been sidelined for some of the earlier sessions due to an unscheduled engine change being required – more of those new-car challenges for RLL to overcome. But the car was looking fast: impressively fast.
The problem was that so was the competition. GT in the US is where it’s at: the quality bar is set extremely high, and none more so than by the factory Corvette team. Our friend Tommy Milner would be lining up in a C6 ZR1 again this year, having taken the 2012 ALMS GT drivers, manufacturers and teams championship last year alongside Briton Oliver Gavin. The Corvettes would not be starting 2013 by resting on their laurels.
Last year Tommy and the #4 crew took third in class at Sebring, after being edged out by BMW’s M3 and their sister #3 C6 near the end of the race. 2013 would see that fight resume, though with a new weapon at BMW’s disposal. Which end of the Corvette would the Z4 drivers be seeing?…
Falken was one of just two teams representing Porsche in GT after the factory pulled official support for the old-shape car. Last year their 911 GT3 RSR blew its motor during qualifying the night before the race, meaning the mechanics had to pull an all-nighter to swap out a fresh engine for the start of the race. This year the competition is causing enough sleepless nights; the entire GT field was so closely packed that the Falken boys went from heading the class for most of the final night practice session to tumbling down to near the back as rivals picked up the pace.
On Friday morning the field went out for a quick warm-up session to get their collective eyes in ahead of the all-important qualifying sessions – the sets of prototypes and GT cars would have their own separate 15 minute window to set times.
The illusion of any kind of equality in P1 had already been shattered, and qualifying merely reinforced the phenomenal speed of the R18s. Until you see these silent assassins in action, it’s impossible to understand just how brain-defyingly quick they are in operation. Unlike Formula 1 cars, where the screaming engines are impressive but ultimately sometimes outweigh the impression of speed from a distance, with these LMPs it’s like your eyes are watching on fast forward whilst your ears are still working at normal speed, waiting for the sound to arrive…
It was only ever a question of which Audi would take pole: eventually it was the older #1 car, by – wait for it – just 9 thousandths of a second from #2. The rest of the P1 field were another three seconds back, and the GTs 15 seconds slower. Third overall was the #12 Rebellion Lola, with it, Muscle Milk’s HPD ARX-03C and the sister #13 Rebellion Lola all within two-tenths.
Level 5 Racing headed up P2 with their pair of HPD ARX-03Bs – just a tenth separated them in another extremely hard fought class battle.
When it was time for the GT cars to qualify there was some serious faces in the BMW pits, as the team were not quite sure what to expect. There had seemed to be some considerable sand-bagging going on in GT across practice, but now the gloves would come off. It would be time to discover the true picture.
It was up to Joey Hand, a very experienced BMW Motorsports driver, to pilot the white #56 car…
…while the young European driver Maxime Martin took out #55. He ended up pulling off a 1:59.736s lap, which was less than a tenth of a second faster than Joey Hand – but a second off GT pole.
The pair of Z4s would be starting eighth and ninth in class, though for such a long race the grid position wouldn’t be quite so critical. More important was the lack of racing experience the team had with the car.
Top in GT the #62 Risi Ferrari 458 Italia, which was hotly pursued by the #4 Corvette and one of Aston Martin’s Vantage V8s – they were within two tenths of the Ferrari. But the entire 12-car GT class, including the pair of upgraded SRT Vipers, were all covered by just one and half seconds!
The DeltaWing qualified back in 15th, well off the P1 pace it was classified in and amongst the LMPC runners, but still a respectable speed. Just two drivers would be driving the DeltaWing during the race, compared to the three-driver line-ups used by every other team, so the pressure would be on. The silver livery made the car stand out more though, so everyone hoped for no repeats of previous problems with the low-line DeltaWing being knocked out by other cars…
12 hours of hard racing awaited the 42 cars and their drivers – and Larry Chen. Next up we’ll see how the BMW team and the rest of the crews fared during the race.
Words: Jonathan Moore
Pictures: Larry Chen