Thursday
Apr142011

French Revolution and Digital Revulsion – The Sebring that took it to the Web. 

Sebring, FL – The 59th running of the 12 Hours of Sebring brought so many stories to life, an in-depth examination of them all would take more time and space than practicality allows. So, here in brief, was the low-down:

Team ORECA Matmut scored what was arguably the biggest surprise victory in recent years, thanks in part to drivers Loic Duval, Nicolas Lapierre, and Olivier Panis’ clever avoidance of the on-track incidents that put rivals Audi and factory Team Peugeot TOTAL out of contention and fighting to regain position in a crowded and brutal 56-car field that left virtually no car unscathed.

That a privateer team like ORECA could win at Sebring is impressive enough; but doing with last year’s 908 HDi FAP car? Stunning work. Team Principle Hughes de Chaunac had not tasted victory at Sebring since his Chrysler-backed Vipers swept the podium in GTS-class 11 years ago. “It’s a historic result for us… We finished just in front of the manufacturers,” he cheerfully claimed. “We avoided any mistakes. It was a perfect job from the team and these three drivers.” 

During the week, I was able to meet with members of Team ORECA, who were unanimous in their enthusiasm for racing in America – “We love to come here, to race in America… the excitement, the people and the culture here, is like nothing else. We love America because there is so many (circuits) and no two are the same,” one team member told me. (He’s also apparently never been to a 1.5 mile NASCAR tri-oval.)

It is worth noting here that part of the reason for the car count reaching a fantastic 56 this year, and one reason de Chaunac brought Team ORECA to Sebring (and to Petit Le Mans) is the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup series. Not many people outside the motorsports press paid much attention when the ILMC was announced at Sebring a year ago, but with two dates in the US (compared to one each in Belgium, France, Italy, China, and England), the ILMC plays into how the two biggest dates in the ALMS calendar will run – and if last year’s Petit Le Mans and this year’s Sebring are any indication, that’s a very good thing.

A couple of classes down in GT, the most competitive class in all of sports car racing saw no less excitement and fury. The BMW Motorsport team RLL – led by winning driver Joey Hand in the team’s #56 M3 GT and followed by teammate Dirk Werner in the #55 – ran a clean race through all 12 hours, and held off a hard charge in the late hours from the Corvette Racing C6.R-ZR1 of Tommy Milner. Milner was impressive in the #3 Corvette, his first with the factory Corvette team. A close look at the top teams in GT – BMW team RLL, Flying Lizard Porsche, Corvette Racing, Risi Ferrari and others indicates that, as we saw last year, there is no clear favorite for the title early on, and the battles in GT throughout this season absolutely cannot be missed.
One team making a fresh start with an all-new car was the Panoz Abruzzi “Spirit of Le Mans,” getting a shakedown before ostensibly going to Le Mans later this year. There are many words we heard used in reference to that car – it’s truly a love-it or hate-it design, but one word sums it up without a fight: Weird. At times it may be fast, at times it may spend a week in the pits getting its nails done, but that car is categorically weird – and any car that unusual is worth checking out, just because it dares to be so different.

A notable change to the track was Michelin’s eye-catching new Pilot Super Sport sponsorship of the walk-over bridge near turn 17 at the track. In a nighttime flash photo, Bibendum seems to leap right off the panel, a terrific effect. The new tire, as described to me by a Michelin rep, serves a purpose similar to the walk-over bridge, in that it connects the paddock to the infield. Clever.

Sebring did not just have the most loaded-up grid in years this time round, it also had a rather densely packed infield. Compared with the last few years, the crowd seemed to fill-in earlier and thicker, and by race day it was nearly impossible to find a place to park a pogo stick in the Green Park.

However, while ORECA was carrying out the French Revolution described above and the fans were enjoying the scene trackside, many racing fans outside the track in the US and worldwide were having trouble just trying to watch it. Having ended its deal with Speed Channel (which never gave Sports Car racing 1/10th the attention it gives NASCAR), the American Le Mans Series is taking it to the web with ESPN3.com – with very mixed results.

Some of the feedback I’ve gotten, both in the US and abroad, has been quite positive. I heard from people who don’t carry cable TV but have broadband internet, who were watching Sebring for the very first time and loved it. I heard from a friend in Europe who – though the feed was at times choppy and then disappeared for 40 minutes at a time – found the whole experience exciting. I also heard from huge numbers of fans all over who were aghast – why does ESPN3.com ask me for my provider, why doesn’t this video feed work, and why did the ALMS say at first that they were serving video on their website for this race alongside ESPN3, only to later change that to overseas-only? What overpaid lawyer screwed this up?

For those who logged on Saturday, the 12 Hours of Sebring was a glimpse of the future – a very early, not-fully-sorted glimpse – but an idea of where our sports coverage and entertainment will be in years to come.

The American Le Mans series gets an B+ for ambition in its new webcast package, but a D for execution. The concept of moving coverage from TV to the Internet is certainly forward-thinking and ahead of its time – for the moment, perhaps a bit too ahead. All of the problems facing ALMS with its new takin’-it-to-the-web deal can certainly be worked-out – and this series has always done well with making itself open and accessible to fans – but the lesson of this year’s coverage is that there’s much work left to be done. 

That’s it for now, I’ll see you at the next pit stop.

« Postcards From The 59th 12 Hours of Sebring | Main | "Dual" road racing weekends? More please. »