IMSA: Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring Preview Part 1 (Prototypes)

Photo Credit: IMSA

The second leg of the North American Endurance Cup, the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, Fueled by Fresh From Florida Produce is not the longest race of IMSA sports car racing’s major enduro grand slam, but it may well be the most physically demanding. The surface changes from concrete to asphalt can often catch drivers off guard and send them into a spin cycle and of course the infamous rough and bumpy layout of the 3.7 mile circuit can break even the believed to be completely bulletproof car, if not properly setup for the challenge. As has been the case with the first two editions of this classic event under the current IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship sanctioning body, the 2016 edition of the Sebring 12 is full of potential winners in each of the four car categories, with no one team holding a clear advantage on anyone else. In this preview, we will take a deeper look into the contenders in both Prototype (P) and Prototype Challenge (PC) who may come out on top when the checkers fly on Saturday night.

PROTOTYPE

The LMP2-eligible  runners enter Sebring with the momentum after Tequila Patron ESM’s impressive victory in the season opening Rolex 24 at Daytona in January. However, with another set of Balance of Performance settings lay out by IMSA last week, the advantage seems to have shifted toward the Daytona Prototype-style of car, most notably the Chevrolet Corvette DP. Defending Sebring champions Action Express Racing appear the most likely of the GM-branded entries to find the winner’s circle, with solid driving trios in each of their two entries.

The No. 5 Mustang Sampling-backed entry, features Christian Fittipaldi and Filipe Albuquerque, along with Joao Barbosa. The health of Barbosa however, could be less than 100 percent for race week. The Portuguese-based driver suffered a broken wrist in a non-racing related incident last month. The suffered injury prevented Barbosa from participating in the IMSA open test at Sebring two weeks ago. Even if he is not at full strength, the presence of Fittipaldi and Albuquerque should keep the No. 5 machine in the hunt, especially with Albuquerque, who posted the fastest lap ever recorded in last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. The team’s No. 31 Whelen-backed entry is led by the talents of Dane Cameron, who just about single-handedly claimed two overall wins for Action Express last season. While Cameron is the main focus, expect decent support to come from regular co-driver Eric Curran and Scott Pruett, who shifts over from the primary entry for Sebring. Curran showed major improvement last season, his second in prototypes, while five-time Rolex 24 at Daytona champion Pruett, won this event two years ago with Chip Ganassi Racing.

Expect Wayne Taylor Racing’s Dallara-designed Corvette DP to also figure into the final result at Sebring. After illness hampered his returns in the season-opener, a back to 100 percent Jordan Taylor will greatly improve the No. 10 Konica-Minolta-backed entry’s hopes, alongside his older brother Ricky and the long time sports car veteran Max Angelelli. The squad has also retained the services of Formula One veteran Rubens Barrichello for the second leg of the NAEC, however his role could be limited this time around.

Visitflorida.com Racing’s challenge at Sebring, should greatly trump their performance at Daytona as the team entered the opening round with new drivers and team personnel. With a full event under their belt, the challenge from the No. 90 machine should be more competitive and based on their second overall fastest time posted during the Sebring open test that forecast appears accurate. Expect a major challenge in qualifying from Ryan Dalziel, while Marc Goossens and Ryan Hunter-Reay are equally capable of staying out of trouble, yet maintaining a good pace comparable to the other front runners.

The talents of ESM’s star driver Pipo Derani were clearly exposed in full at Daytona, as the Brazilian almost on his own merit took control of the race during the final two hours. However, the Sebring first timer may not be able to achieve the triumph by himself this time around. A stronger outing from both team boss Scott Sharp and Johannes van Overbeek would raise their profile in the contenders comparison, as the Ligier-Honda coupe certainly has the pace to excel on the long Ullman Straight. Ed Brown played a limited role in the Daytona victory and may give way to his more seasoned teammates likewise this weekend.

Equally potent in the Ligier coupe camp, is Michael Shank Racing’s No. 60 Tire Kingdom-backed machine. Olivier Pla posted the fastest lap by any entry during the open test and Oswaldo Negri Jr. is also among the fastest drivers on the IMSA circuit. The continued improvement of John Pew could also influence the final result as will the car’s reliability, a common malady that has limited MSR’s success in the NAEC rounds. If that can be overcome, a victory challenge is in the cards.

SpeedSource Mazda also continues to draw closer to the faster cars in the Prototype class, as they enter their second race with their new gasoline-powered engine. The No. 55 Lola coupe of Jonathan Bomarito, Tristan Nunez, and Spencer Pigot figures to be the factory team’s best hope for a result, although the sister No. 70 could feature. Tom Long, Joel Miller, and Ben Devlin have each had their moments, while top Japanese female pilot Keiko Ihara adds an interesting dimension to the lineup.

A newcomer to the mix in the P class is the presence of Elton Julian’s DragonSpeed group. The squad will enter the relatively new ORECA 05 coupe for the first time in North America, a challenger that dominated last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans in the LMP2 division. The driving team includes former Peugeot LMP1 factory driver Nicolas Minassian, a member of the winning Le Mans LMP2 team in Nicolas Lapierre, and highly-touted prototype newcomer Henrik Hedman. Although experience is lacking for the squad, the potential of the car and two-thirds of its driving team gives DragonSpeed an outside shot to challenge for victory.

After taking the lead on two occasions in the early stages of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, DeltaWing’s unusually designed DWC13 coupe could again challenge for the top spot at Sebring, although the rough nature of the 3.7 mile layout could prove to be too much for the lighter weighted car to overcome. Katherine Legge was the team leader at Daytona, while Andy Meyrick and Sean Rayhall provide solid co-driver support.

Two BMW-powered Riley DPs complete the Prototype field at Sebring. Fifty Plus Racing returns seeking a finishing result after suffering multiple issues at Daytona. Former Daytona overall winners Dorsey Schroeder and Jim Pace lead the older, yet very experienced quartet of pilots. Carlos de Quesada’s Alegra Motorsports team makes its Prototype debut this weekend at Sebring, with GT stars Cameron Lawrence and Dominik Farnbacher leading the effort. Both drivers will face a steep learning curve this weekend, but a finish plus every position gained against the other prototype runners will be a bonus for this IMSA newcomer.

PROTOTYPE CHALLENGE

The scenarios have changed greatly in this division since the opening round at Daytona. The ORECA FLM09 chassis used by all the entrants in PC, will feature a smaller and more powerful Chevrolet LS3 engine from Katech and a new electronics package from Motec, specifically designed for the new traction control settings that were introduced for this season to aid the largely semi-pro and amateur participants. The question now is this; will the changes improve the reliability present in PC? The Rolex 24 at Daytona, went from a battle of the fastest early on, to a situation where just making the finish was a struggle.

Even JDC-Miller Motorsports, who claimed their first IMSA WeatherTech Championship race win in January, overcame an extended stop due to mechanical trouble, only to regain the top spot as similar maladies plagued the rest of the fleet. Although the John Church-led entry was consistently the fastest car in the season opener, largely to the efforts of South African veteran Stephan Simpson, the unknowns related to the new equipment likely will equalize the field of contenders yet again.

In addition to Simpson, the No. 85 yellow and green liveried entry, features veteran Chris Miller and two former Cooper Tires IMSA Prototype Lites champions in Misha Goikhberg and Kenton Koch, who each achieved what was necessary to make a victory at Daytona possible.

Of course, the most likely threat to JDC will come from perennial PC dominators CORE autosport, who suffered a blown engine early in the action at the Rolex 24, before team leader Colin Braun even took a turn at the wheel. Although team boss Jon Bennett and Mark Wilkins are solid contributors, the presence of Braun is what makes the team a dominant force. Also worth noting, the majority of the test work on the new engine and electronics were mainly handled by both JDC and CORE, perhaps giving them a bit of a head start on the competition.

The remainder of the field however, is still potent. Brent O’Neill’s Performance Tech Motorsports team features two solid leaders in James French and the newly appointed full timer Kyle Marcelli, along with a solid young prospect in Josh Norman. Peter Baron’s Starworks Motorsport squad has a pair of solid challengers, led by the primary entry of Renger van der Zande, David Heinemeier Hansson, and Alex Popow. The second team of Sean Johnston, Maro Engel, and Michael Lyons is a couple steps behind the main group, but could claim a podium finish if a clean run is aided with trouble for the competition.

Bobby Oergel’s PR1-Mathiasen Motorsports is not as strong in years past in the driving department, however the team still has team leader Tom Kimber-Smith and with further race mileage may also have two decent contributors in Jose Gutierrez and Robert Alon. After entering two cars at Daytona, Brian Adler’s BAR 1 Motorsports squad is down to a single runner for Sebring. Sports car veteran Johnny Mowlem leads a team largely featuring semi-pro talent, that again may not have the firepower that the top teams in PC possess.

 

PREDICTIONS:

Prototype (P): Wayne Taylor Racing. A greater part of the effort from Jordan Taylor will move the No. 10 Corvette DP back into the mix and the BoP adjustments likely gives the Daytona Prototypes a wheel up on the LMP2-based entries.

Prototype Challenge (PC): CORE autosport. Surely the dominant force in PC cannot fail to finish in both major enduros to start 2016. The previous experience with the new engine and electrical systems will prove helpful against the field, while in turn the element of surprise that JDC-Miller had at Daytona is no longer in play either.

 

Stay tuned to OnPitRoad.com for complete coverage this weekend of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.