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Sebring, 16 - 19 March 2016

The 64th annual running of the 12 Hours of Sebring actually became the 9¾ Hours of Sebring in terms of action on the track, as a thunderstorm and lightning caused a 2¼ hours red flag period during the Saturday afternoon. The red flag was prompted by the torrential rain of the storm, which caused standing water on various sections of the track, and also by safety concerns for corner workers and the general public, should there be a lightning strike. Prior to this the event had enjoyed unseasonably high temperatures and abundant sunshine for the practice and qualifying sessions, plus the support races.

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With practice and qualifying sessions for the main race, plus the same for the eight support races, then parade laps for the BMW, Corvette and Porsche car Corrals, there was virtually continuous track action from the Wednesday morning to the Saturday evening, apart from the enforced race stoppage on Saturday afternoon. For further entertainment, there was also the Gallery of Legends, featuring a fine array of Corvette race cars, along with Porsches, including the 1986 Sebring winning 962 and the 1987 Le Mans winning 962C, plus a Riley & Scott Mk III, then there were the manufacturer displays and vendor stalls, autograph session, grid walk, and a “Rock the Grid Concert” in the Party Zone on the Friday evening. Anybody who has visited the race at Sebring will know that the whole infield area could be classified as a party zone over the race weekend!

The race attracted a 49 car entry through the four classes, 12 in the main prototype (P) class, 7 in the prototype challenge (PC) class, 10 in the GTLM class and 20 in the GTD class, the latter featuring the race debut of the Ferrari 488 GT3, which was entered by Scuderia Corsa. The large GTD class had a broad spectrum of manufacturers vying for class honours, as apart from Ferrari there were Audis, BMWs, Lamborghinis, Porsches, plus single car entries of an Aston Martin Vantage GT3 and a Dodge Viper GT3-R.

The qualifying sessions took place on the Friday afternoon, after four practice sessions during Thursday and on the Friday morning. At the head of the timesheets was the P class # 60 Michael Shank Racing entered Honda HPD Ligier JS P2 of Pew/Negri Jr./Pla, just 0.174sec quicker than the similar # 2 car entered by Tequila Patron ESM, and driven by Sharp / Brown / van Overbeek / Derani, with the quickest of the Chevrolet Corvette DPs, the # 31 example entered by Action Express Racing of Cameron / Curran / Pruett next up. The PC class pole was taken by the # 54 CORE Autosport entered ORECA FLM09 driven by Braun / Bennett /Wilkins, posting a time over 0.7sec quicker than the similar # 52 car of Kimber-Smith / Gutierrez / Alon entered by PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports.

In the GTLM class the pair of BMW Team RLL M6 GTLMs locked out the front of their class, with the # 25 example of Auberlen / Werner / Spengler 0.19sec quicker than the # 100 car of Edwards / Luhr / Wittmer, with the former setting a new class qualifying lap record of 1min 58.402secs. The “Best of the Rest” was the # 68 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GTE driven by Pier Guidi / Serra / Bertolini, which was 0.235sec off the class pole time. In fact, the qualifying times for all ten cars in the class only spanned 0.769sec, so a close race was on the cards! In the GTD class the qualifying honours went to the new Scuderia Corsa entered # 63 Ferrari 488 GT3 driven by Nielsen / Balzan / Segal, also setting a new class qualifying lap record, which was 0.036sec quicker than the # 33Riley Motorsports entered Dodge Viper GT3-R of Keating / J. Bleekemolen / M. Miller.

The race started at 10.40 on the Saturday morning after all the preliminary ceremonies, including the fan grid walk, although the start list was down to 48 cars after the # 21 Lamborghini Huracan was a non starter following a fire. From the rolling start it was the pole sitting # 60 Honda Ligier JS P2 that held the lead into turn 1, despite the # 2 example having a look up the inside as they approached the turn. The whole field managed to complete the always hectic first lap whilst bunched up jostling for position on cold tyres without any dramas, and they settled into a series of intense battles through the field, notably between the pair of Honda Ligiers at the head of the field, with the # 60 car just maintaining the lead from the # 2 example. However, the first full course yellow wasn’t long in coming, when the #11 Lamborghini Huracan went off the track on lap 28, bringing out the safety car for three laps whilst it was recovered. Just prior to this the # 2 Honda Ligier had taken the lead for a couple of laps, prior to the # 81 ORECA 05-Nissan leading for a couple of laps as the first pit stops panned out, with the # 60 Honda Ligier also leading for a period.

The race went green for 15 laps, then the # 54 ORECA FLM09 had an off track moment, once gain bringing out the safety car. Despite this early setback, the car fought back during the course of the race to take the class win, after a race long battle with the # 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports entry driven by Kimber-Smith / Guttierez / Alon, during which the class lead switched multiple times. A measure of how close the battle was, is that the winning margin after the 12 hour race was 1.282secs. The final class podium position went to the # 3 BAR1 Motorsports example of Popow / van der Zande / Heinemeier Hansson, although this was 3 laps on the class winners at the end of the race.

There was another brief full course yellow when the # 68 Ford GT had contact with the barrier, then the storm swept in rapidly bringing torrential rain, which caused the sister # 66 car to aquaplane straight off the track at turn 1, making a heavy impact with the barriers, that destroyed the tyre wall and even moved the concrete retaining walls behind the tyres. This incident allied to the heavy rain, which was making driving conditions virtually impossible, especially if following another car, and the threat of lightning, brought out the red flag. The cars then sat in the pit lane for 2¼ hours, allowing time for the storm to pass through and for track officials to clear the worst of the standing water. There was some further light rain, but nothing of consequence compared to the deluge that had just occurred.

The rain allowed the Daytona Prototypes to come back at the LMP2 cars, as the Honda Ligiers weren’t comfortable on the Continental wet tyres, whilst they suited the Daytona Prototypes admirably. The pair of Action Express entered # 5 and # 31 Corvette DPs really came on strong, both leading the race at various stages during the remainder of the race, which saw another nine full course yellows. However, the # 2 Honda Ligier was always there or thereabouts, despite a spin when it got off the dry line into the final turn whilst trying to pass the # 31 Corvette DP for 2nd place. It also had to serve a drive-through penalty for what was deemed avoidable contact with one of the GTD class Lamborghinis, so it was fortuitous for the team that the final full course yellow came around 15 minutes before the end of the race, bunching up the leading prototype group, with the # 31 Corvette leading, the # 5 Corvette DP 2nd, followed by the # 81 ORECA and the # 2 Honda Ligier running 4th.

The # 2 Honda Ligier was in the hands of the young Mexican driver Luis Felipe (Pipo) Derani, whose stint in the rain on slicks had brought the car back into contention, and as soon as the race went green he had a run on the # 81 ORECA into Turn 1 to grab 3rd place and set off after the pair of Action Express Corvette DPs. He passed them both with moves into the hairpin over the next three laps to take the lead, which he maintained for the final three laps to the chequered flag, to take the race win. The # 31 Corvette DP of Cameron / Curran / Pruett finished 2nd and the sister # 5 Action Racing example of Barbosa / Albuquerque / Fittipaldi filled out the podium. Thus the Tequila Patron ESM team had back to back victories to celebrate, after their win in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

The GTD and GTLM class contingents had battles equal to anything that was going on at the head of the field, with a number of cars the worse for wear at the end of the race. In the GTD class the top ten finishers were all on the same lap, quite amazing after a 12 hour race despite the stoppage and all the full course yellows. The class pole sitting # 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GTE of Nielsen/Balzan/Segal turned the pole position into a class win. This must have been a great boost to the team, as it was the maiden race outing for their brand new 488 GT3, and must have helped make the accident which lost their GTLM class 488 GTE five laps, after a strong early race showing, easier to take. However, it was not an easy victory, as it was only in the final stages of the race that the car was able to hit the front and stay there. For Christina Nielsen the Sebring victory was her first in the IMSA SportsCar Championship, and becoming the first female winner at Sebring in the GTD class. The runner-up spot went to the # 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 driven by Curtis / Klingsmann / Freiburg, with the final podium spot going to the # 44 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS GT3 of Potter / Lally / Seefried.

As at Daytona the Chevrolet Corvette came on strong towards the end of the race in the GTLM class. However, there was only one example chasing for victory this time, as the # 3 example had been the victim of a Turn 1 incident, which saw the # 911 Porsche 911 RSR eliminated on the spot, after the driver Kevin Estre attempted a 3 car wide entry into the turn which didn’t work out. The Corvette was repaired and back out on the track, but way down the order, as was the # 66 Ford GT, which had aquaplaned off the track at the same spot earlier in the race. There may have only been one Corvette chasing the class win, but it was enough to get the job done, as the # 4 car driven by Gavin/Milner/Fassler kept their noses clean, apart from a couple of off track excursions in the rain, to take the class victory. It may have been a different scenario if the # 25 BMW M6 GTLM of Auberlen / Werner / Spengler hadn’t been issued with a technical penalty during the race for an over-boost infringement. This was the first time that IMSA had issued an in-race penalty from telemetry data. The BMW finished 2nd, with the # 912 Porsche 911 RSR of Bamber / Makowiecki / Christensen taking 3rd, the # 62 Ferrari 488 GTE of Vilander / Fisichella / Rigone was 4th, and the # 67 Ford GT of Briscoe/Westbrook/Dixon was 5th, making it five different marques in the top five places, and all on the same lap.

Although the # 62 Risi Competizione entered Ferrari 488 GTE finished just off the podium in 4th place, the team had some consolation, as it won the DEKRA Green Challenge for being the most fuel and energy efficient car in the race. The award is determined through green racing protocols established by the United States Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency and the Society of Automotive Engineers International as part of their alliance with IMSA. The team feels that the BoP (Balance of Performance) issue needs to be addressed, as both the Corvettes and BMWs were able to leave them for dead on outright speed on the straights.

New race lap records were set in three of the classes, with Colin Braun setting a new record of 1min 55.545secs in the PC class in the # 54 ORECA FLM09. In the GTLM class, after setting a new qualifying lap record, Bill Auberlen set a new race record time in the # 25 BMW M6 GTLM in a time of 1min 59.182secs, and likewise, Alessandro Balzan did the qualifying/race record lap time double in the GTD class, in the # 63 Ferrari 488 GT3, with a race record time of 2mins 02.810secs. The GTD class victory for Ferrari was on the 60th anniversary of the company’s first Sebring 12 Hours overall victory in 1956, when Fangio / Castellotti won in an 860 Monza.

Ferrari Entry
R# Model Chassis # Team Colour Drivers Position        O/A Cl.
Class GTLM
62 Ferrari 488 GTE 3810 Risi Competizione Red G. Fisichella / T. Vilander / D. Rigon 14th 4th
68 Ferrari 488 GTE 3808 Scuderia Corsa Red-White-Blue A. Pier Guidi / A. Bertolini / D. Serra 18th 7th
Class GTD
63 Ferrari 488 GT3 4208 Scuderia Corsa Red-White C. Nielsen / A. Balzan / J. Segal 22nd 1st
51 Ferrari 458 GT3 3492 Spirit of Race (AF Corse) Blue-RWG R. Giammaria / P. Mann / M. Cressoni 31st 9th

Keith Bluemel