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TUSCC: 12 Hours of Sebring, Wrap Up, A Thriller In Florida

It took a while, but a Chevrolet managed to win the 12 Hours of Sebring for the first time in 50 years, the last being the Chaparral back in 1965. After the underwhelming nature of last year’s race it was refreshing to see such good racing back at the Sebring circuit once again.

The P class turned out to be a done-deal after about 7 hours, but the PC and two GT classes were enthralling throughout, and provided one of the more frantic Sebring endings in recent history.

Action Express’ #5 Corvette DP dominated the second half of the race and took a well deserved victory. Christian Fittipaldi, Joao Barbosa and notably Sebastian Bourdais all drove faultlessly, with incredible pace for 12 hours, and cruised home almost unchallenged by the other Prototype class runners.

‘It was one of those days where everything worked out, and to perfection,’ claimed Bourdais at the end of the race. ‘Putting people a lap down on pace rarely happens in this series.’

But that’s exactly what the the #5 did, crossed the line at the end of the race with at least a lap over the whole field.

It looked as if the LMP2 runners would give the DPs a run for their money throughout the build-up to the race, with the Krohn Racing and Micheal Shank Racing Ligiers topping the times during practice and qualifying. But during the race, for a variety of reasons, their fine form simply didn’t translate. Extreme Speed Motorsports, with the ageing open-top #1 HPD chassis was the only P2 car which really challenged for more than an hour, though even that failed to finish the race.

Krohn Racing did finish, but were set back after leading much of the first hour. A collision exiting the pit-lane with the #16 BAR1 PC Oreca, exhaust issues, and a few spins which cost the team even more time left them down the order, and a lowly eighth overall.

Michael Shank on the other hand, found themselves packing up early after Oswaldo Negri had the biggest shunt of the race in the second hour, lapping the Falken Porsche and using too much curb at turn 16 which sent the car careering off into the barriers.

Much of the opening hours were interrupted by full-course-yellow periods. But the race did calm down through its middle portion, and gave the fans on hand a very long stretch of rhythmic green flag running.

The Ganassi Racing team looked to be in the running for overall honours, leading at the halfway mark. The Eco Boost technology allowed the Riley Ford to run two more laps per stint on fuel over the other teams in the class; the pace wasn’t as good as the economy however, and the #01 slowly faded away over the course of the race, losing out to a hard-charging Richard Westbrook in the #90 Corvette in the final hour.

Wayne Taylor Racing managed second, but never fully recovered from brake issues early in the race. And the Corvette wasn’t consistent enough to keep up the fight despite Mike Rockenfeller and Westbrook running the car ragged at points.

PC was a three horse race, between the #38 Performance Tech Motorsports, #52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports and #54 CORE Autosport FLM09s, and in the end it was the #52 which would come out on top. Tom Kimber-Smith and Andrew Palmer both put in stellar performances to keep that car far ahead for much of the second half, with TKS at one point lapping the entire class.

Colin Braun didn’t let the PR1 guys take an easy win though. The CORE Autosport car was in the fight in the final portion of the event thanks to Braun, whose pace was eye-opening as he clawed his way back into the race while the Performance Tech challenge faded away. He couldn’t quite finish the job however.

‘We were put under pressure by Colin,’ explained Kimber-Smith after the race. ‘He closed the gap early on in the last stint but I was able to pull away. It was all down to the team it the end.’

Both GT classes were too close to call, all weekend long. From Free Practice 1 to the 12th hour of the race there was rarely a standout entry. It made for some heartbreaking and nail biting moments, especially as the race came to a close.

Corvette took the GTLM honours, without the fastest car: ‘We knew it would come down to strategy,’ said team Programme Manager Doug Fehan. ‘We weren’t the quickest, so we knew we would have to make sure we could utilise our engineers to come up with a strategy to keep us in the running for the final stint. It worked, that’s why we are the best sportscar team in the world.’

It certainly didn’t look that simple in execution though, with lady luck playing a role at the finish. The pair of factory Porsches were the betting man’s pick during the race to take the win, and even 1-2 as the sun started to set. The #911 and #912 looked a dead cert for a formation finish, but both cars went from hero to zero within 20 minutes of each other during the final hour.

A cruel turn of events saw the #912 have a wheel nut jam during its final stop which dropped it to an eventual fifth in class, and the #911 have a major gearbox issue which saw Nick Tandy limp home 7th in class after leading for hours. The #3 inherited the top spot, much to the delight of Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garica and Ryan Briscoe.

‘Sebring is such a special and important race. To win this way without the fastest car is amazing, we have such a fantastic team,’ said a jubilant Magnussen.

BMW Team RLL were a disappointment, with the #24 and #25 never really featuring in the top three and having mechanical issues – the #25’s being terminal. The sole factory Aston Martin present also failed to make an impression. It was doomed from the start after losing a wheel on the out-lap of its first stop.

The two cars that did eventually make up the remaining two podium spots were the Risi Ferrari which came home an impressive second, and the #17 Falken Porsche which looked poised for a decent result throughout. Pat Long certainly kept the Porsche in with a chance of taking class honours, but the Falken tyres dropped in performance along with the temperature, while the Michelin runners improved as the track surface cooled down.

Much like GTLM, GTD ended with triumph and tragedy. Jeroen Bleekemolen in the #33 Riley Viper and Mario Farnbacher in the #23 Alex Job Racing Porsche were the stars of the class, so it was fitting that it came down to a scrap between the pair during what turned out to be a memorable final stint.

There was such diversity in strategies throughout the class, that you could also make a case for the #73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche, #007 TRG Aston Martin and at times the #22 Alex Job 911 taking the win. The Magnus Racing Porsche had the pace required to feature too, but incidents and mistakes cost them dearly.

Ultimately though, it was the #33 and #23 that were the two cars which always looked set for a win or second. However, the Riley crew were left with nothing after engine temperature issues cost the team the win with under five minutes to go. Brake issues almost cost Alex Job 1st place too, after Farnbacher locked up and went off at the hairpin, allowing Bleekemolen through with 10 minutes to run.

‘We just lost the brakes at the end, and I kept locking up. I went off at the end and I thought it was over, but the Viper came in and I just had to nurse the car home,’ the German explained.

TRG took second place, with the #63 Scuderia Corse Ferrari having an incredibly quiet, but consistent race to take third.

Bleekemolen was in a state of disbelief climbing out of the car in the pit-lane at the end, and understandably so, it was one of his most impressive showings as a GT driver and was all for nothing. The weekend ended the same way it began for the team – with mechanical problems.

That’s racing for you.

Stephen Kilbey