Two months ago at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, sports car fans in North America were introduced to the talents of Brazilian ace Pipo Derani, who almost singlehandedly dominated at the front leading Scott Sharp and Ed Brown’s Tequila Patron ESM squad to the overall victory in the IMSA season opener. Saturday at Sebring International Raceway in the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, Derani did not dominate from start to finish, but he did take over at the perfect time.
Running third behind the pair of Action Express Racing Chevrolet Corvette DPs with ten minutes to go on Saturday evening, the rising star of prototype sports car racing pulled off back to back amazing passing moves at the challenging turn seven hairpin, first on Filipe Albuquerque and then on Dane Cameron to move into the overall lead. From there the No. 2 Ligier-Honda coupe drove away to win by 2.9 seconds at the finish. With the victory, ESM becomes the first team since the late Gianpiero Moretti’s MOMO Racing team in 1998, to sweep both the Daytona and Sebring endurance races in the same year. Derani, along with team boss Sharp and Johannes Van Overbeek, shared the driving duties in a race that despite being red flagged for over two hours due to lightning and heavy rain, featured a little bit of everything prior to the dramatic climax.
For most of the distance, Gary Nelson’s Action Express Racing looked primed to successfully defend its victory from last year’s Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring as the No. 5 and No. 31 Chevrolet Corvette DPs led several laps, often running 1-2. Unfortunately, what came back to haunt them would be a decision on the final pit stop of the race when both team cars elected to take fuel only, without a fresh set of Continental Tires, while in contrast ESM took on left side tires after suffering through a slow fuel fill on their final service. Although the fresh rubber would not show up until the final moments, the move appeared to be a winning one for AXR as Derani was mired back in fourth place, when the 13th and final caution of the race flew with 20 minutes remaining after both the Fifty Plus Racing Riley-BMW DP and the DeltaWing coupe crashed in separate incidents. Of course, Derani would quickly reverse the scenario as previously mentioned.
Cameron, alongside co-drivers Scott Pruett and Eric Curran would hold on to secure runner-up honors, while AXR’s sister entry of Albuquerque, Christian Fittipaldi, and Joao Barbosa who competed valiantly despite suffering from a fractured wrist completed the podium in third. Despite coming up short at the finish, the podium finish will be a boost to both entries in terms of IMSA WeatherTech Championship and North American Endurance Cup points as ESM heads over to Europe to contest the FIA World Endurance Championship, while other championship rivals, including fellow Corvette DP runners Wayne Taylor Racing finished well down the order after suffering problems before the finish.
Behind the overall top three, another part-time runner made a strong debut performance as Elton Julian’s DragonSpeed squad rallied late to finish fourth in its first IMSA start. The ORECA-Nissan coupe runners, who plan to contest the full European Le Mans Series slate starting next month at Silverstone, England, joined the victory conversation late when Nicolas Lapierre jumped to second place on the next to last restart. A co-driver for ORECA in 2010 when they scored the overall win at Sebring, Lapierre however could not hold his position as damage to the front nose affected his pace despite the fact the team took on four fresh tires on the final pit stop. Henrik Hedman and Nicolas Minassian shared the driving duties with Lapierre. Visitflorida.com Racing’s Corvette DP with Ryan Dalziel, Marc Goossens, and Ryan Hunter-Reay rounded out the top five on Saturday, two spots off their performance at Daytona in January. The home state runners however, could have challenged for the outright win had Goossens not spun out while leading with under one hour to go. The ultimate heartbreak however, may have been suffered by Michael Shank Racing’s Ligier-Honda squad who fell out of the race on the final lap due to a broken suspension. The team was credited with a seventh-place finish.
In the Prototype Challenge division, mechanical woes and off course excursions depleted a majority of the fleet for the second straight IMSA event, however in a duel of perhaps the two best drivers in the division, CORE autosport’s Colin Braun outlasted PR1-Mathiasen Motorsports’ Tom Kimber-Smith to take the victory by just one second at the finish. Taking the wheel of the No. 54 ORECA FLM09 he shared with Mark Wilkins and team owner Jon Bennett for the first time following the extended red flag, Braun rallied from fifth place to first place in under one hour and the team held the lead, until the Bobby Oergel-led squad took command at the eleven-hour mark, leading to the final duel. Kimber-Smith and co-drivers Jose Gutierrez and Robert Alon settled for second on Saturday, while three laps further back Starworks Motorsport’s trio of Renger van der Zande, David Heinemeier Hansson, and Alex Popow persevered through multiple issues to hold off Daytona winners JDC-Miller Motorsports to finish third.
Although Saturday’s success was far from their 1-2 photo finish at Daytona, Corvette Racing’s Tommy Milner, Oliver Gavin, and Marcel Fassler nevertheless came from a lap down to claim their second straight win in the GT Le Mans class to open the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech Championship. It also marks the second straight year in which Doug Fehan’s squad has swept both halves of the 36-hour Florida endurance double. The chances of victory for the No. 4 Chevrolet Corvette C7.R were dimmed after Fassler went off on slick tires on a semi-wet track, managing to even take one of the trackside banners with him on the front nose. The incident five and a half hours from the finish put the entry a lap down, a lap regained however, at the expense of the team’s sister car as Jan Magnussen collided with Porsche North America’s Kevin Estre while fighting for the class lead at turn one, sending both cars hard into the tire barriers. Neither driver suffered injuries in the shunt, however both cars were out of contention for a high finish.
The move however, allowed the No. 4 machine to take the wave around during the ensuing full course caution. While Gavin bridged the gap to the lead group, Milner finished the job eventually passing BMW Team Rahal’s Lucas Luhr to take the lead for good just two hours from the finish. The victory is the third in major endurance competition over the last twelve months for both Gavin and Milner, who also teamed up with Jordan Taylor last June to win the GTE-Pro division at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Although Luhr lost out late after getting caught up in the same incident that claimed Marc Goossens, BMW’s sister entry of Dirk Werner, Bill Auburlen, and Bruno Spengler held on to finish second, just ahead of the sole surviving Porsche North America entry of Earl Bamber, Michael Christensen, and Frederic Makowiekci. The Porsche 911s vaulted to the front during the heavier rain conditions just before and after the red flag period, but struggled for pace as the track began to dry out.
Risi Competizione’s Ferrari 488 GTE placed fourth in GTLM, while Chip Ganassi Racing recovered from a myriad of problems suffered at Daytona in January to place its lead Ford GT EcoBoost entry in the fifth position at the finish.
Finally in GT Daytona, Scuderia Corsa used a late surge by Alessandro Balzan to score a victory Saturday in its debut run with the all-new Ferrari 488 GT3 racer. Balzan, who was third in class with thirty minutes to go, managed to complete passes on each of the two Turner Motorport BMW M6s to take command and held on to secure the win by two seconds. Balzan, who co-drove the No. 63 Ferrari with Jeff Segal and Christina Nielsen, and the Corsa team had less than a month to come to grips with its new challenger, but in opposition to the frustrating 2016 debut runs suffered by both Ferrari and Ford in GTLM at Daytona, the team had a near trouble-free run from start to finish.
Although they came up short of taking the top step of the class podium, the lead Turner BMW piloted by Jens Klingmann, Bret Curtis, and Ashley Freiberg held on to secure runner-up honors Saturday, perhaps marking the first time female drivers have placed first and second in the same division at the 12 Hours of Sebring. Daytona GTD winners Magnus Racing with Andy Lally, John Potter, and Marco Seefried backup their effort two months ago by finishing in third in GTD, putting them in a strong points position in the IMSA points standings after two events.
Stay tuned to OnPitRoad.com for continuing coverage of the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, plus other action from the world of sports car racing.