Corvette Racing rolled into Sebring for the 64th annual Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida on a high note after its historic 1-2 class finish at the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona. The team returned to this year’s race as defending GTLM class champions with the No. 3 car having taken the high spot on the podium last year. This year’s Sebring race also marks the 60th anniversary for Corvette’s baptism into the racing world. In 1956, four factory backed C1’s were entered for the event, with one placing ninth overall, and first in class.
As the team moves ahead to this event, some things have remained constant. The driver pairings that we saw in Daytona will continue to be the same for Sebring. The No. 3 Corvette will be in the hands of Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Mike Rockenfeller, while the No. 4 car will be piloted by Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Marcel Fassler.
While optimism was high for the rest of the season after Daytona, the reality is that there is often a price for success in racing. After the Rolex 24, IMSA decided to reevaluate the Balance of Performance (BoP) in some of the classes. The GTLM field saw the biggest shuffle with their BoP. As a result, the C7.R Corvette and Ford GT received 10 kg of additional weight, while the Porsche 911 RSR shed 10 kg. The Corvette’s naturally aspirated engine also received a 0.4 smaller air restrictor. The Ford also suffered a decrease in boost, while the BMW’s received an increase.
The practice sessions proved that there had been a clear shift in performance within the class. The increase in boost allowed BMW’s Bill Auberlen to set a fast time of 1:57.751, well below the class track record set in 2015. After the conclusion of all the sessions, both BMW entries consistently emerged at the top of the time charts. The best practice time for a C7.R was set by Antonio Garcia with a 1:58.094.
With only fifteen minutes to qualify on Friday, both Corvettes went out and set the fifth and sixth fastest times in-class. The No. 3 Corvette driven by Antonio Garcia laid down a 1:58.856 lap, while Tommy Milner in the No. 4 car clocked off a 1:58.878 time. At the drop of the checkered flag for the session, the BMW’s had swept the front row in the GTLM class. The entire 10-car GTLM field was covered by a mere 0.768 seconds.
In the prototype categories, the BoP was also reevaluated after Daytona. Unlike the GTLM cars, the Corvette DP’s were on the receiving end of a favorable BoP adjustment with a 0.3 mm larger air restrictor, and a 10 kg weight reduction. The Action Express Racing crew took full advantage of this break by topping the time charts in all four of the free practice sessions leading up to qualifying. Both the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Corvette, and the No. 5 Mustang Sampling DP consistently swapped top lap times during the two days of practice.
As the last to qualify, the prototype class had its 15-minute session late Friday afternoon. When the dust settled, the Michael Shank Racing No. 60 Tire Kingdom Honda Ligier JS P2 piloted by Olivier Pla was at the top of the charts with an overall pole position time of 1:51.217. This was the second consecutive pole for the team in the WeatherTech Series. The No. 2 Tequila Patrón ESM Honda Ligier JS P2 completed the front of the grid. While Action Express Racing dominated all the practice sessions, in qualifying, they came up short, having to settle for sharing the second row in-class behind both Honda-powered cars. Dane Cameron was third fastest with a lap of 1:51.943 in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Corvette DP, while Christian Fittipaldi qualified fourth with a lap of 1:52.205. He will be joined by fellow defending Sebring winner, Joao Barbosa, along with Filipe Albuquerque in the 2015-winning No. 5 Mustang Sampling Corvette DP. Scott Pruett, who was at the wheel of the No. 5 Corvette DP at Daytona, has been switched over to the No. 31 car for Sebring as outlined at the start of the season. However, as a result of the recent wrist injury to Joao Barbosa, Pruett’s name has been added on both cars as a precaution. Rounding out the Corvette DP entries, the VisitFlorida Racing entry, piloted by Marc Goossens, ended up in the sixth spot with a 1:53.185 time, while the Wayne Taylor Racing entry was a row back in eighth with a 1:53.576 time set by Rubens Barrichello.
When you run all these numbers through the filter, you get a somewhat balanced view of how the cars are matched up - but it’s Sebring. Most teams will tell you, the real race doesn’t start until the sun goes down. The goal is to stay on the lead lap, have as much of a trouble-free run as possible, and then fight for the win in the last few hours. The track is brutal on equipment, and this year there is an additional twist in the overall equation – the weather. The forecast for race day promises to be one filled with rain shortly after the drop of the green flag. Damp conditions are the great equalizer in endurance racing, and any real advantages are often minimized, or negated, by the presence of rain.