The 12 Hours of Sebring has a tendency to draw out some tremendous individual performances in sports car racing, which is otherwise a team sport. This weekend sorted out a group of heroes to write into the race’s storied 64-year history: drivers. Sebring International Raceway, which was built on a former World War II base, puts its competitors through a meat grinder of surface changes, unforgiving concrete walls, and tailbone-bruising concrete bumps on the most pleasant days and competitors this year added unpredictable Florida weather to the mix. The winners are often the drivers who simply endure best the challenges and, since this is endurance racing, the 2016 WeatherTech Sportscar Championship’s second round rewarded a number of iron men.
When the checkered flag flew at 10:40 p.m. Sebring time, the #4 Corvette Racing squad was first across the Start-Finish line in the GT-Le Mans (GTLM) class for the second time this year. A strong effort from American driver Tommy Milner, who logged 139 of the car’s 235 laps, vaulted the trio of Milner, Oliver Gavin, and Marcel Faessler to the victory. That win also makes them the best team over the WeatherTech Sportscar Championship’s opening 36 hours in Florida with a class win in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in January.
Milner’s domination started with just under two hours remaining when he shoved the #4 past the #25 BMW M6 into bumpy Turn 17 for second place. On the next restart, he passed the #100 BMW to take the class lead and the GTLM victory seldom seemed in doubt from there. The win should hardly come as a surprise; Corvette Racing have now won five consecutive 12- and 24-hour races dating back to Daytona in January 2015.
The team’s companion car, the #3 Corvette, ended its competitive run in the race’s eighth hour. Corvette driver Jan Magnussen moved to pass Kevin Estre in the #911 Porsche down the front straight by overtaking a slower GTD Audi around the outside into Turn 1. The Porsche, which Estre had moved to the inside of the Audi, seemed to hydroplane on a wet patch in the braking zone and pushed the Audi into the Corvette that was trying to make an outside pass. At press time it wasn’t clear who was at fault, but both the Porsche and Corvette crashed into the tire wall at Turn 1 with heavy damage as a result. The Corvette crew repaired the mangled #3 car after about 90 minutes in the garage, giving the team the small satisfaction of finishing the race.
For the new Ford GT, results were mixed. Heavy rain fell about two hours into the race and the GTs seemed to struggle with the heavier rain on Sebring’s tricky surface. While pushing hard to maintain position on track, the #66 Ford slid off straight in Turn 1 into the barrier at almost the same place the #3 Corvette would later crash. A red flag minutes later for impending severe weather allowed the team to repair the car in the garage over the following two hours and with the rest of the field stopped on pitlane, the #66 lost only six laps. With no other major mechanical hiccups, the Chip Ganassi Racing squad fought back to finish 8th in the GTLM class. Even with a car that wasn’t 100-percent healthy after the crash, Joey Hand clocked a very solid 1:59.8 lap just before the checkered flag.
The second #67 GT led the race a few times and while the pace was certainly in the Ford, the car struggled to stay competitive consistently. Defending IndyCar champion Scott Dixon impressed in his first ever drive in any GT car, leading much of his final stint. The car battled with the also-new-for-2016 Ferrari 488 in a classic Sebring battle, but the #62 Risi Competizione bested Ford this time around, finishing fourth place ahead of the Ford’s fifth place after Richard Westbrook had an off in the race’s last 10 minutes.
Ironically, at the original Ford GT40’s first Sebring outing, it also lost to a Chevrolet, though it was in 1965 a Chevy-powered Chaparral 2A rather than a Corvette. The GT40 did beat the Ferrari 250LM at that race, but Ferrari is two-for-two against Ford so far in 2016. We’re looking forward to more of that renewed rivalry in the year ahead. The biggest takeaway this weekend for Ford and Chip Ganassi Racing seemed to be the GT’s improved reliability. The pace certainly seems there and it stands to reason that they should be a player at Le Mans with four entries and a platform well on its way to being sorted.
In the GT-Daytona class, the #33 Viper Exchange Dodge Viper qualified for the race second and was leading the race in the opening hour before Viper ace Jeroen Bleekemolen suffered a broken driveshaft after a run over the curbing. The repair cost the Viper squad six laps at the beginning of the race, though they fought back to finish 12th place only two laps behind the eventual GTD winners.
Those GTD winners were Scuderia Corsa, whose Ferrari 488 GT3—a different-spec car from the one racing the Ford GT—made its world debut at Sebring by out-qualifying the Viper for pole and then, after 12 hours of dogfighting with an incredibly deep class, with Ferrari ace Alessandro Balzan make a race-winning pass in the closing 10 minutes.
Just as the #4 Corvette won the informal “36 Hours of Florida,” Extreme Speed Motorsports’ Ligier-Honda took the overall win for the second time this year after a stunning Rolex 24 at Daytona win in January. Once again, ESM hitched its Prototype-class Ligier to Brazilian phenom Luis Felipe “Pipo” Derani, who drove an astonishing 151 laps of the race’s 238 at a ridiculous pace. His performance included a jaw-dropping final restart that required lunges past the #5 and #31 Action Express Racing Corvette Daytona Prototypes to go from complete a fourth-to-first run in the final 11 minutes. After that, Derani checked out to win the race for the partial-season entry by a full 2.9 seconds. The two Action Express cars rounded out the podium, giving them a solid points foundation for the 2016 WeatherTech Sportscar Championship.
As is often the case, the Prototype Challenge class, which use a spec Oreca prototype chassis and Chevy LS3 engine, was a war of attrition. The final 3 hours saw an impressive tug of war between Colin Braun and Mark Wilkins of CORE Autosport against Tom Kimber-Smith and Jose Gutierrez of PR1/Mathiasen Motorsport. In the end, Braun made the last decisive pass and then held off Gutierrez from the final restart to win the class. It was sweet redemption for CORE, which was leading the 24-hour race at Daytona in January by a huge margin when its LS3 suffered a rare terminal failure.
What The Rain Tells About 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans
The race was delayed for nearly 2-½ hours after torrential rain and severe weather made Sebring’s already-slick surface unraceable. When racing resumed after the red flag, the track dried out slowly and was at times rendered even more treacherous by intermittent rain showers that left teams making tough decisions regarding slick tires or treaded wet-weather tires.
The Corvettes made an early choice to go to slicks and while it initially paid off for Magnussen in the #3 car, Marcel Faessler in the #4 struggled with it and ended up a lap down. The Corvette crew returned their car to the lead lap with some clever strategy under yellow-flag conditions in the race’s final three hours and eventually won the race.