The testing numbers entering the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January, predicted a tightly bunched field with multiple challengers in both the upper GT Le Mans and the lower GT Daytona class. Although the twice around the clock distance eliminated many contenders prior to the final battles that were waged for the class wins. Corvette Racing came away with the win in GTLM, even managing a memorable teammate versus teammate battle during the final 15 minutes. In GTD, Magnus Racing’s new Audi R8 LMS outlasted the field and extended its fuel mileage to claim the win. As the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship heads to Sebring Raceway for the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring Presented By Fresh From Florida Produce, a race more influenced on outright pace than durability would seem to be on the table. Of course, the rough and tumble nature of the 3.7 mile circuit has to be overcome first. In the second half of OnPitRoad.com’s race preview, we take a look at the contenders in the grand touring divisions, starting with the professional GT Le Mans class.
GT LE MANS
Despite the rough nature of the Sebring Raceway circuit, a race win settled more on outright pace than durability is the more likely outcome as opposed to what resulted during the Rolex 24 at Daytona. If pace is indeed the ultimate judge, the result likely does not favor a sweep of IMSA’s longest enduros for the second straight year by Corvette Racing.
While the intra-squad battle for the professional grand touring class victory in January made for an interesting story line to open the 2016 campaign, a more serious challenge from at least three of the four competing manufacturers this weekend is the expectation. The most serious of these challenges is likely to come from the twin-turbo V-8 under the hood of the Bobby Rahal-entered BMW M6 GTLMs. The Rolex 24 at Daytona was a test run for the new marque and Sebring should provide a more accurate take on what this entity can offer. The same goes for Porsche North America, who come closest to denying the Corvette 1-2, yet settled for third at the finish.
It is also fair to expect gains from the Ferrari 488s entered by both Risi Competizione and Scuderia Corsa. The fact that the latter appears committed to a majority of the season in GTLM is a sign of a serious effort, one that could allow to eclipse Risi’s effort, long considered IMSA’s best entry for Italy’s “Prancing Horses.”
The question of course is whether Chip Ganassi Racing’s Ford GT program can join the mix of contenders over the course of 12 hours. Within two hours at Daytona, both of its entries hit trouble and problems plagued both CGR entries throughout the remaining distance. If the new car blues can be overcome, a challenge to move out of the bottom half of the grid is possible, although a finishing run could be the major target, as Ford plans to enter four cars in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.
If all goes as planned, the fight for the win once darkness hits the 3.7 mile circuit will come down to marquee drivers. Among these finishing pilots include Corvette’s team leaders Antonio Garcia and Oliver Gavin, Porsche’s duo of Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy, Lucas Luhr and Dirk Werner for BMW, Alessandro Pier Guidi and Giancarlo Fisichella for Ferrari, and if they remain in the hunt, Joey Hand and Scott Dixon representing Ford.
The racing should get good and a little pushing and shoving could ensue as time runs out in the fight for the top step of the podium.
The same drama could also result in the lower grand touring division, with even players and manufacturers in the mixer. Fuel mileage, rather than outright pace decided the winner at Daytona, as Magnus Racing’s new Audi managed to outlast Black Swan Racing’s Porsche 911 GT3-R and Konrad Motorsport’s new Lamborghini Huracan. These players, along several others will certainly be heard from on Saturday.
Audi’s brand new R8 certainly made noise via the Magnus Racing camp, who are also a former winner of the Mobil 1 Sebring 12 Hours, claiming the GTD division in 2014. The core driving trio of Andy Lally, Marco Seefried, and John Potter remains intact and only a few other squads have a team behind the wheel as good as this. While Magnus was a key player at Daytona, fellow Audi runners Stevenson Motorsports and Flying Lizard/Krohn Racing struggled. After putting all of their full time drivers together for Daytona in their primary entry, Stevenson has shuffled their lineups for Sebring more toward what they will have for the remainder of the 2016 slate. Robin Liddell and Andrew Davis will be joined by Connor de Phillippi, who lost out on a ride with Frikadelli Racing for Daytona and instead makes his first appearance of the season here. The second car is equally potent with Dion von Moltke, joining Matt Bell and Lawson Aschenbach. Although Flying Lizard/Krohn will continue with the older version of the R8, Pierre Kaffer leads a decent roster alongside Nic Jonsson and Tracy Krohn, who has shown more potential in GT machinery than he has so far in prototypes, which the Krohn team ran last year at Sebring, even managing to win the overall pole position.
Tim Pappas’ Black Swan squad managed to steal the attention away from Porsche stalwarts Alex Job Racing/Team Seattle, who enter Sebring as the defending GTD race winners. Black Swan Racing is led by Porsche factory driver Patrick Long, who alongside team boss Pappas and young prospect Nicky Catsburg compare favorably to what AJR has on hand. The No. 22 WeaterTech-backed Porsche is led by Leh Keen, with Cooper MacNeil and veteran Gunner Jeannette. The No. 23 Team Seattle/Heart of Racing machine looks to defend its 2015 Sebring success with all three of their drivers back for this year’s edition. Mario Farnbacher, Ian James, and Alex Riberas all provide solid performance numbers. Of course, in terms of Porsche don’t forget about Park Place Motorsports either. This entry tested well at Daytona, but suffered bad luck in terms of mechanical reliability in race mode. Patrick Lindsey is paired with Porsche-backed driver Jorg Bergmeister and talented American Matt McMurry. The team though is without the services of Norbert Siedler, who posted several of the faster laps this entry posted at Daytona however.
After Lamborghini and its partner teams were penalized after Daytona, it will be interesting to see if teams such as Konrad show the same turn of speed at Sebring as they had in the Rolex 24. IMSA came down hard on the Italian marque and are sure to keep an eagle eye on the six Huracans expected to be track side this weekend. Konrad appears to be the biggest threat, based on both pace and the fact that they suffered the fewest mechanical problems during the twice around the clock marathon in January. Only a shortage on fuel kept the car out of the winner’s circle, prior of course to the sanctions. A solid driver lineup from Daytona, may have become even stronger for Sebring. Marc Basseng is gone, however former American Le Mans Series GT Driving champion Terry Borcheller joins the team, as does Norbert Siedler. Change Racing expands from a one-car to two-car team for Sebring, as the organization has picked up the now defunct O’Gara Motorsport entry of Townsend Bell, Bill Sweedler, and Richard Antinucci. Antinucci posted the fastest race lap in GTD at Daytona. The original Change entry of Spencer Pumpelly and Corey Lewis is also a potential challenger, Paul Miller Racing entering Daytona, was expected to be the leader of the Lamborghini pack, however like their counterparts new car issues caught them out. Still the driving trio here cannot be discounted. Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow are solid, while Bryce Miller is not super fast, yet he is consistently able to keep the car out of danger. The new team on the block in GTD is Dream Racing, who features two relative unknowns in Lawrence DeGeorge and Cedric Sbirrazzuoli.
After delaying the introduction of their new car at Daytona, the GTD half of Scuderia Corsa’s operation debuts its new Ferrari 488 GT3 at Sebring. With a scary good driving team of Alessandro Balzan, Christina Nielsen, and Jeff Segal, this team was a complete non-factor in the Rolex 24 with the older Ferrari 458 model. While some growing pains could be ahead this weekend, a solid run is certainly possible. The chances for a challenging run are also in play for AF Corse’s Spirit of Race team, who will continue with the 458 option. Matteo Cressoni and Raffaele Giammaria are the key cogs for the Italian-based runners.
A late charge at Daytona, netted Ben Keating and Bill Riley’s Dodge Viper GT3-R squad a podium finish and despite the car starting to show its age in its second year without factory support, the No. 33 ViperExchange-sponsored V-10 monster is still a potent combination on the long straightaway sections at Sebring. Jeroen Bleekemolen’s talents are well documented, while team boss Keating and Marc Miller have shown marked improvement over the last year of action. Expect likewise a more front running effort from Turner Motorsport’s pair of the new BMW M6s. The Lamborghini penalties gave Turner a top five at Daytona, however their imprint on the outcome did not come to fruition due to issues hitting both entries in the early hours. The primary entry of Markus Palttala, Michael Marsal, and Jesse Krohn is solid, while the secondary entry of Jens Klingmann, Bret Curtis, and Ashley Freiberg could be equally strong. Finally, after initially committing to only the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Aston Martin Racing is also present for Sebring, with the always solid trio of Paul Dalla Lana, Richie Stanaway, Pedro Lamy, and Mathias Lauda at the controls of the team’s V-12 powered Vantage entry.
GT Le Mans (GTLM): Rahal BMW. Although the BoP settings would appear to give Porsche N-A the edge, the power on the Ullman Straight the M6 GTLM can potentially achieve is tough to ignore.
GT Daytona (GTD): Alex Job/Team Seattle Porsche. Two strong driving teams, plus an increasingly potent car gives this sports car racing mainstay the best chance among last year’s Sebring winners to successfully defend their title. Expect a tough fight in a loaded field though.
Stay tuned to OnPitRoad.com for complete coverage this weekend of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.