Tuesday
Mar242015

The Majestic Anomaly

VIEW PHOTO GALLERYTo say that the 12 Hours of Sebring is America’s classic sports car race is doing it an injustice. This event is like no other because this place is like no other. Lost in orange grove country in the middle of Florida - which is quite literally the middle of nowhere - the circuit is a majestic anomaly. Unlike the sanitized Daytona International Speedway, which hosts America’s other endurance road racing event, Sebring is unapologetically Old School to the extreme. Yes, there have been myriad improvements to the facility over the years, but the track itself boasts some concrete surfaces which have remained untouched since its days as a pilot training base during World War II. And that’s part of Sebring’s innate charm, especially in this era of cookie-cutter speedways and orchestrated sameness that permeates so much of racing today.

But the real heart of the matter when it comes to Sebring is its brutal, unforgiving persona that has been hard won over years punctuated by both elation and crushing disappointment. Sebring has a way of breaking spirits and machines with equal measures of finality, because things happen here that are simply inexplicable. The history of this place is littered with examples of drivers cruising along with their cars in the lead and with the race in the bag, only to have it all come undone in the final hour, and sometimes even in the final minutes. To finish here is an achievement unto itself. But to win here is a triumph that endures forever.

And this year, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida as it’s officially called, was certainly no different.

Just ask the factory Porsche North America team, which was the class of the GT Le Mans category from the time they unloaded their machines off the trailer. Blistering fast from the get-go, the Nos. 911 and 912 Porsche 911 RSRs were simply in a class by themselves, so much so that the much-decorated Corvette Racing team acknowledged early-on that they couldn’t match the speed of the Porsches with their C7.Rs, and adopted a strict pace based on overall efficiency during the race, hoping the race would come to them. And just when it looked like the Porsche team had it all going their way, Sebring became Sebring again, and things went wrong in a hurry.

With the two Porsche 911 RSRs comfortably running 1-2 with an hour to go, pole-sitter Frédéric Makowiecki pitted the No. 912 machine for a routine late-race stop and encountered an issue with a recalcitrant left rear wheel lug nut, which forced a second pit stop and then a brief trip to the paddock to repair the left rear upright. Then the No. 911 RSR took over the lead with Nick Tandy at the wheel. All good, right? Wrong. Tandy slowed with a transmission issue not too long after.

Disaster for the Porsche team turned into elation for Corvette Racing as the No. 3 Corvette Racing Corvette C7.R driven by Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen and Ryan Briscoe took the GTLM class victory for the second consecutive race to open the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship season.
It was Corvette Racing’s ninth win at Sebring dating back to 2002 and Saturday’s victory completed a sweep for Garcia, Magnussen and Briscoe at Florida’s two Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup classics: the Rolex 24 At Daytona and Twelve Hours of Sebring.

That was certainly one of the compelling stories at Sebring, but the fact that
Christian Fittipaldi, Joao Barbosa and Sebastien Bourdais (No. 5 Action Express Racing Mustang Sampling Corvette DP) won the 63rd running of the 12 Hours of Sebring on the 50th anniversary of Chevrolet’s lone overall triumph in the race was significant. Even more so given the fact that Jim Hall II opened the day by running exhibition laps in the Chaparral 2 his father and Hap Sharp drove to victory in the 1965 event. A car that is still stunning to this day, the Chaparral II was displayed prominently throughout the weekend, a reminder of the many contributions that Jim Hall and an inspired band of Chevrolet engineers made to the sport. (And it was an in-the-flesh reminder to me personally that the Chaparrals, in all of their iterations, were my all-time favorite racing machines.)

The Action Express victory was a dominant one, as they became the first TUDOR United SportsCar Championship team to lap the field. They led 246 of the 340 laps, including every lap after Barbosa passed Scott Dixon to take the lead at the seven-hour mark.
Richard Westbrook, Michael Valiante and Mike Rockenfeller (No. 90 VisitFlorida.com Corvette DP) took second, followed by Max Angelelli and brothers Ricky and Jordan Taylor in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Corvette DP as the Chevrolet-powered DPs swept the podium. Scott Pruett, Joey Hand and Dixon placed fourth in the 2014 race-winning No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Ford EcoBoost/Riley. Another confirmation that Sebring is tough and at times confounding? The Ford team tested two weeks ago and was right on pace, but when they returned for the race they ended up chasing the set-up all weekend, never getting the No. 01 car back on pace.

All in all it was another memorable experience at Sebring. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the greatest single endurance event in the world, but Sebring
lived up to its expectations - again - as the toughest endurance test in the world. It’s no surprise that the vaunted factory Audi team tested their new Le Mans machines at Sebring in the weeks leading up to this year’s 12 Hour race, because if something is going to break, it’s going to break here.

There is something comforting in the fact that Sebring is still Sebring. You certainly don’t go for the scenery or the ambience. You go because people have been coming here since the 50s challenging themselves while chasing elusive victories and enduring soul-crushing disappointments at the hands of a track that gives no quarter. There is something magical here and I hope that through all of this sport’s transitions and relenteless political hand-wringing, Sebring remains forever, well… Sebring.

VIEW PHOTO GALLERY

« Test Drive: Audi A7 TDI | Main | THE REVS INSTITUTE »