As the race enters its final three hours, and with the sun going down over Sebring, there’s six contenders up front in Prototype remaining.
Leading the race overall is the #55 Joest Mazda, the team’s remarkable run continuing into the final hours. The car is out of sync in the stops, leading at the end of each hour, but is in with a chance of winning, on both pace, fuel efficiency, and reliability; if the opening nine hours have told us anything.
The top three meanwhile, is completed by the #31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac and #22 ESM Nissan DPi 50 seconds back, the pair with Mike Conway piloting the former and Nicolas Lapierre steering the latter battling the lead before pitting at the end of the ninth hour, handing Jonathan Bomarito’s Mazda the lead.
Right behind, outside the top three, just a further 10 seconds back is the #90 Spirit of Race DPi V.R, with the #32 United Autosports Ligier having a quiet run, sitting fifth with Alex Brundle driving. The car did climb as high as third during a pit cycle in hour eighth.
The final car on the lead lap is the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac, which is delayed, but still within striking distance. The car led the race with five hours to go, Renger van der Zande snatching the top spot off of Johannes van Overbeek at Turn 3, but the lead wouldn’t last long.
The car then slipped back in a pit cycle, and came into contact with the Whelen Cadillac of Eric Curran while van Der Zande was trying to re-take third place. The rear of the car sustained damage, forcing the team to replace the rear end of the car at its next stop.
Action Express’ other Cadillac – the Mustang Sampling entry – was also in the wars at this time, Joao Barbosa had an incident at the final turn, hitting the Performance Tech ORECA of James French while running fifth. The collision ended with both cars suffering front-end steering damage, but luckily both were able to pit soon after the contact. The Caddy is still being repaired.
Both Acura DPis meanwhile, are out of the race, and retired within an hour of one another. The #7 stopped out on track at the halfway mark, Ricky Taylor parking the car, the team citing an oil pressure issue.
The #6 was then forced into retirement an hour later after Tristain Vautier in the Spirit of Race Cadillac hit Juan Pablo Montoya into a spin at the final turn while the Acura was running fourth. The Columbian initially got going again, but was forced to park the car moments later. A tough time for the Penske crew, which looked capable of winning the race throughout the opening hours.
GTLM is an extremely tight affair with just the dark hours left to run.
Early in Hour six with just four seconds covering the top six in contention, Connor De Phillippi defended the #25 BMW’s lead hard against Toni Vilander’s Risi Ferrari 488 GTE, Nick Tandy’s third place Porsche 911 RSR looking to exploit any mistakes, Laurens Vanthoor right on the tail of his Porsche team mate. Scott Dixon and Tommy Milner brought up the rear of the GTLM train for Ford and Chevrolet. Strategies having equalised over the preceding Full-Course Yellows the fuse seemed well and truly lit.
De Phillippi finally yielded to the Ferrari’s pressure, Vilander pulling away as the two Porsches started to smother the back of the #24 BMW, its tyres starting to struggle. A door to door drag race over the next two laps traded places, the BMW just having the legs over the Porsches on the straights. Vanthoor swapped places with Tandy and the pair stole second and third before all three took their routine stops.
Porsche fared best, exiting pit lane 1-2, Fred Makowiecki’s #911 car leading Vanthoor ahead of Pier Guidi who had taken over the Risi Ferrari. The #67 Ford GT of Richard Westbrook completed the leading quartet, tied together by just 3.9 seconds with 4 hours to go.
The #912 Porsche triggered one of several FCY’s as the race neared its last quarter. Debris on track was the result of the Porsche’s undertray being ripped from the car as Gianmaria Bruni went agricultural at Turn 13. This put Porsche’s fortunes in the hands of second placed Fred Makowiecki, trailing Richard Westbrook’s leading Ford GT by 1.4 seconds. James Calado was still poised in third for Risi.
Having elected to change brake pads under the next FCY, the #25 BMW had found itself held at the pit exit, time lost extending to a one lap deficit. The ebb and flow of course cautions though would bring the car back into fifth place, only 10 seconds of the class lead as the ninth hour closed.
In GTD, Team Riley’s #33 Mercedes AMG-GT3 led until the round of stops near the Hour 7 mark but caught the attention of the stewards for a pit violation, losing out to Alessandro Balzan’s white liveried Scuderia Corse Ferrari. Pit penalties had shuffled the order elsewhere, the #15 3GT Lexus suffering twice at the hands of the stewards and dropping out of contention.
The two Michael Shank Racing Acuras NSX GT3s had steadily taken control at the front as the race headed into its ninth hour: #93 first and #86 third, split by the #48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracan. Their advantage was minimal though, the flurry of full course cautions having put the top ten GTD cars back on the lead lap, five seconds covering the top six.