Typically the Sebring 12 hour is a race with a party atmosphere. It is one of the great races in the world. It is the oldest sports car race in this country that is organized and held on the same basic track since its concept became a reality back in 1950 with the 6 hour race and then in 1952 when the first 12-hour race began. Sebring oozes with history and carries its own particular type of atmosphere and feeling like no other track in the world today. The 12-hour race is the one sports car race in this country not to miss if you like fast, manufacturer based sports cars. It is the only 12-hour race in America and renowned for its party atmosphere. Fans arrive days, weeks and yes even months ahead of time to set up their temporary camp sites and begin their frolicking and making this a real happening.
The fans at the 12 hour are as unique as this race itself. As I said, they start arriving many days in advance and they begin partying seemingly from the time they hit the Sebring grounds. The exuberance they show usually stems from a large amount of imbibing that starts early on and continues nonstop. That is what makes this event different from others. So Sebring stands alone. And what an event it always is!
Each year I look forward to this race. It just jumps out at me every time I think about the place. It has hallowed ground like a Watkins Glen, but it has this mystique that is all its own and makes Sebring so very special.
This year Audi came back to say goodbye to the American fans with their amazingly fast, quiet and efficient R18 e-tron Quattro LMP1 cars. These all-wheel drive turbo diesel hybrid race cars are stunning examples of today’s high-tech sports car racers. Audi decided to enter two almost identical cars: last year’s R18 Ultra and this year’s version, the R 18 Hybrid e-tron Quattro. The Quattro label refers to the fact that the hybrid drive adds power to the front axle when the car reaches speeds of 75 mph and higher, giving the car an extra boost of acceleration. Both cars share the same 510 bhp turbo diesel power. These cars performed their swan song for the American fans at Sebring this year at this race. They then went on to continue racing in Europe while the remaining LMP 1 cars like the Dyson Mazda and the Muscle Milk HPD ARX-03a will be racing here for their final year of the American LeMans Series.
The big news at this year’s race was of course the announcement and press conference held on the Thursday of the race week. The announcement was the name of the new series that begins a new era starting in 2014 at the Rolex 24 @ Daytona. The series will be called United Sports Car Racing. The talk was all about how this would work, and what the classifications will be, and who is eligible, and who is not, and how many cars can a track field, and what races and at what tracks will the races take place, and on and on. But I will reserve some of the answers for a future article as things are constantly evolving, and until everything is set in stone, there is no need to give information that is not 100% accurate.
This year’s 12-hour race went down pretty much as expected. Audi taking the overall win and made it their 11th in the past 14 years. Their amazing e-tron hybrid machines were something to marvel at. The technology is so far advanced in high-end racing that it boggles the mind. These cars are not only fast but near silent with their diesel engines. Taking the overall win was, ironically, last year’s winning Audi R18 e-tron Quattro, with drivers Marcel Fassler, Benoit Treluyer and Oliver Jarvis. Their margin of victory was 7.68 seconds over the newer spec Audi R18 driven by six-time Sebring winner Ton Kristensen, Lucas di Grassi and four-time Sebring winner Allan McNish. Taking third was the Rebellion Racing Lola B12/60 Toyota with Nicolas Prost, Nick Heidfeld and Neel Jani. Because there will not be an LMP 1 classification next year, this was the swan song for these cars at Sebring. It is a shame, really. They exemplify the highest level of manufacturer representation and technology in sports car racing, and other than at LeMans and the remainder of the races in Europe, the Audis at least will not be seen in this configuration again here in America.
The next class of note was the LPM 2 group which will be carrying on the banner into 2014 in the new series as the highest tech race cars replacing the LMP1 class. The winning P2 car was the Level 5 Motorsports team with owner Scott Tucker, Marino Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe driving their HDP ARX-03b Honda based car. Tuckers other HDP ARX-03b entry took second in class and a Zytek Z11SN took third in class. In the GT class we saw Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Richard Westbrook sweep their group with the Chevrolet Corvette C6 ZR1 machine. Taking second place was the Risi Competizione Ferrari F458 Italia of drivers Gianmaria Bruni, Olivier Beretta and Matteo Malucelli. Third place was taken by the Falken Racing Team Porsche 911 GT3 RSR with Wolf Henzler, Bryan Sellers and Nick Tandy driving.
The less sophisticated machines are restricted in weight and power but nonetheless wonderful to watch. These are the competitive PC, or Prototype Challenge, machines. Here, the Oreca FLM09 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports team with drivers David Cheng, Mike Guasch and David Ostella took their class win. And in the GTC (GT Challenge) class the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup, car of Alex Job Racing with Cooper MacNeil, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Dion von Moltke, took first place. It so happened that this was Alex Job's ninth win at Sebring as a team owner.
Sebring is a track that punishes the drivers as well as the cars. The surface is the same rough concrete and asphalt that has been there since the beginning and the treacherous bump in turn 17 remains a thorn in every driver’s side—probably in their backs and arms as well. The 3.74-mile 17-turn road course is infamous around the world. Yet drivers come from all over to take the challenge this old airport circuit shells out to everyone on an equal basis. It is in fact the premier road course for high-tech sports car racing in America today. The track is in use year round for testing and on this weekend we saw a number of support series racing as well as the Sports Car Vintage Racing Association (SVRA). Some 65 or so historic and vintage racers showcased their talents and the thrill was seeing these good old classics roaring around the course not unlike they did in their own eras.
The fans always enjoy this race. It is a time when they can let their hair down and hang their beer cans over the fence, and just be race fans, sober or drunk. The temporary structures many of these fans build for the time they are there can be rather astounding and very elaborate. Structures to sleep in and sit on and stay dry under, should there be rain. By the way, only 5 times in 60 years has rain pelted this race and made a mess of things. Lights, barstools, ovens and varieties of cooking stoves, barbeques, smokers and swimming pools are some of the equipment brought to the scene. You have to see it to believe it! Once in a while the television coverage will fade out into a commercial break and show you one or two of these structures. If you ride around the circuit you will note thousands of these structures in all shapes, sizes and materials. This aspect of Sebring helps to make this race so special and unique. The famous craziness of the place, especially in the area known as Green Park, has settled down quite a lot over the last ten or so years. The entire crowd really gets into the scene here and makes sure they enjoy every moment of it. I should not forget the weather as a contributing factor, either. As I said, rain is rare here in the central portion of Florida, at least during this race's active week in mid-March. The sun is hot, the clouds few and tanning seems to be every bit a part of the atmosphere here.
Sebring is an experience and worth every penny and every minute of ones time to just be a part of this once a year affair. Ask anyone who has been here before−no one will tell you anything other than that their experience was fantastic. I can’t wait until next March for the new series, the new cars, and the old fans once again.
Article and Photography by: Denis L. Tanney, Automotive Editor
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