The FIA World Endurance Championship returns to North America after the uniqueness of the ‘Super Season’ calendar meant that in 2018, for the first time in Championship history, the WEC did not visit the USA.
The return comes at the scene of the very first WEC event from 2012, an infamous event that saw the WEC grid intertwined with the American Le Mans Series race, the very first WEC event was indeed the Sebring 12 Hours, a mammoth 64 car joint entry producing a race of drama and no little controversy.
This time around the joint event takes place with the IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship, but lessons have been learnt, this time there will be two entirely separate races, a 1000 Mile event on Friday for the WEC, and the IMSA classic as usual on Saturday.
34 cars make up the WEC entry, the field reconvening after a 4-month gap in the calendar, the cars, for the most part, containered from China and with testing under their wheels in two, or in the case of Toyota, three test sessions at Sebring by the time that competitive lappery begins.
Remember too in the WEC that of the three remaining races in the season, two attract increased points tallies (commensurate with the longer races at Sebring and Le Mans) with the points in each class at Sebring looking like this:
1st: 32 Points
2nd: 23 Points
3rd: 19 Points
4th: 15 Points
5th: 13 Points
6th: 10 Points
7th: 8 Points
8th: 5 Points
9th: 3 Points
10th: 2 Points
and lower: 1 Point
All of that means that there are opportunities to close points gaps or for previously dominant teams to turn the screw! As far as the grid is concerned there are no surprises and few changes.
LMP1 sees a seven-car entry. No Ginettas, and after engine supply/contract issues, no ByKolles, the Austrian flagged #4 car set to return at Spa with Gibson power. That leaves the only single-car entry as the US flagged Dragonspeed BR01 Gibson effort, the team in back to back weekends after their IndyCar debut at St Pete this weekend with Ben Hanley.
SMP Racing has a revised driver line-up, Jenson Button sensibly preferring his factory Honda commitments in Super GT for his 2018 title defence. He’ll miss Sebring and Spa. In his place, Brendon Hartley makes a very welcome return (and doubles up in IMSA too). He’ll share driving duties with regular Russian duo Aleshin and Petrov in the #11 BR01 AER whilst the sister #17 car sees current Renault F1 reserve driver Sergei Sirotkin join Stephane Sarrazin and Egor Orudzhev.
There are driver changes too at Rebellion Racing, contractual conflicts causing Andre Lotterer to miss his first ever FIA WEC race (leaving Christian Ried now as the last man standing as a WEC ‘ever present’) instead Lotterer will be sitting in a darkened room on simulator duties for his Formula E paymasters.
His place is taken in the #1 car by Mathias Beche, who, in turn, cedes his place in the #3 car to Nathaniel Berthon, the Frenchman will complete the season in the R13 Gibson after starting the first two races of the Super Season with DragonSpeed in their LMP2 car.
That leaves the red hot favourites for the race, Toyota Gazoo Racing, with both cars having been at a record-setting pace in pre-race testing, and some 2 seconds per lap faster than the fastest of the non-hybrid cars.
The #8 car leads the Championship with Fernando Alonso, Seb Buemi and Kaz Nakajima proving to be a formidable combination in a Toyota TS050 that is as reliable as it is fast!
The sister #7 car though is just five points behind in the standings, and if any circuit is going to have its say on the reliability front you’d have to say that the punishing surface at Sebring is likely to be most people’s best bet!
Current Top 4
#8 Toyota 102 Points
#7 Toyota 97 Points
#3 Rebellion 73 Points
#1 Rebellion 63 Points
There are seven cars too in LMP2, with a headline tyre battle that could be season-defining in both FIA WEC and the ELMS.
The late season in 2018 saw Michelin release their final permitted tyre variant in the current LMP2 cycle, that lead to a number of teams switching in the off-season after teams began to see real success in the ELMS with the French tyres.
In the WEC that total included the Signatech Alpine team, Philippe Sinault’s squad taking their one permitted change for the season as they look to bolster their title challenge. Dunlop though was playing a waiting game and was quietly developing the final bullet in their gun.
The tyres were tested back to back with the latest Michelins recently by G-Drive Racing, and the Russian flagged team have opted to stay with Dunlop for their European title defence. The new Dunlops will though, race for the first time at Sebring, after development testing at the track earlier this year which featured all three current LMP2 chassis.
Whilst all three feature in the WEC ranks, the WEC/ IMSA weekend offering the first ever occasion when a Dallara LMP2 will lap on the same track on the same days as its Cadillac-powered DPi cousin, the reality is that the race on pace is likely to be fought out between the ORECA mounted title contenders.
They’re headed by a trio of cars from teams with real form, the Jota Sport-operated Jackie Chan DC Racing pair and Signatech’s #36 Alpine-badged effort.
The #38 JCDC car leads in the points and will have the new Dunlops to take the fight to the Alpine, 10 points back on the latest Michelins.
Add into the mix an all-new line-up in the #37 Jackie Chan DC car, David Heinemeier Hansson joined by Jordan King and Will Stevens and there’s a top three in the Championship with plenty of potential storylines.
Add into the mix too the Dragonspeed ORECA, again on the Michelins, with Ant Davidson now firmly part of the mix with Roberto Gonzalez and Pastor Maldonado and that’s four capable of taking the race on pace. TDS Racing’s #28 ORECA could be there too, behind in the points after their Le Mans DSQ, but certainly with potential to run at the front, plus the supporting cast of Racing Team Netherlands (Dallara) and Larbre Competition (Ligier) with Gunnar Jeannette adding some local talent to the Larbre mix and the class could prove to be one of the best on-track battles of the race.
#38 Jackie Chan DC Racing 112 Points
#36 Signatech Alpine 102 Points
#37 Jackie Chan DC Racing 98 Points
#31 DragonSpeed 73 Points
#29 Racing Team Netherlands 47 Points
#50 Larbre Competition 46 Points
#28 TDS Racing 30 Points
The big news in an 11 car GTE Pro field for Sebring is the addition of a single car entry from Corvette Racing, the factory team, and a trio of their drivers, doing double duty with their regular IMSA drives aboard the team’s third car, this the same car that ran in Shanghai’s WEC race last October.
That means that once again Corvette gets to hand over plenty of all-important data to the ACO/ WEC tech team ahead of Le Mans this year, Corvette no doubt hoping for a competitive BoP for their 20th anniversary run at Le Mans!
Ironically there is no change whatsoever in BoP for this race after conditions in Shanghai prevented collection of meaningful data for the auto BoP process.
The race proper is going to be about a storyline that might either be Porsche haring away towards the Championship or being reeled in by one or other of the competition!
There’s certainly no shortage of meaningful data available to all here present either via their US-based factory-backed counterparts, or, in Aston Martin’s case, through the pre-launch testing done at Sebring by their Vantage GTE, the turbo V8 powered Astons making their GTE race debut in the USA this week, with Darren Turner back in the saddle aboard the #95 for this one! Porsche have a significant points advantage achieved with a not too dissimilar BoP to that which will again prevail at Sebring, with an opposition that realistically needs the 911 RSRs to stumble if a significant dent is to be made in their current advantage.
The Fords have an additional driver apiece with regular third man Billy Johnson in the #66 and new signing Jonathan Bomarito in the #67, another man on double duty alongside his Mazda ride in IMSA.
Messrs Serra and Molina reprise their roles in the #51 and #71 Ferraris from Le Mans.
In the MTEK-run BMWs Alex Sims switches to the #81 from the #82 he shared at Le Mans, Bruno Spengler joins the #82.
Again though Sebring can be a great leveller, and this place seems to bring out the very best drama available in this glass. Will it be Porsche marching onwards, Ford going for glory in what could well be their final season as a factory effort with the GT, the until now rather underwhelming BMWs making a bid for redemption, the Astons playing their development cars strongly, the Ferraris, feeling ill-served by BoP, but always with strength in strategic depth, or might, just might, the Corvette play a part?
#92 Porsche 911 RSR 111 Points
#66 Ford GT 68 Points
#91 Porsche 911 RSR 68 Points
#51 Ferrari 488 GTE 65.5 Points
#95 Aston Martin Vantage GTE 55.5 Points
#67 Ford GT 37 Points
#71 Ferrari 488 GTE 36.5 Points
#97 Aston Martin Vantage GTE 35 Points
#82 BMW M8 GTE 29 Points
#81 BMW M8 GTE 27 Points
GTE AM fields the regular nine full-season cars but the storylines here could be amongst the least predictable in the WEC field!
Championship Leaders Project 1 is, quite literally, in rebuild mode after their car was damaged beyond repair in testing on Sunday. The team has sourced a replacement chassis from Germany, their race to be back on track comes before the race proper!
The Dempsey Proton Porsches are in fightback mode after losing all of their points prior to Fuji as the penalty for their fuel rig monitor tampering. Japan saw them score a 1, 3 finish, but it’s a long way back!
The #98 AMR and #90 TF Sport Aston Martins are the final examples of the old lady still in the competition, but there’s every chance one or other of them could go out with a Championship-winning bang, they’ll be looking to close the gap to the Project 1 car as a first objective.
Clearwater Racing have a very new look, both in livery, and in the driver line-up, Matt Griffin stays aboard but is now joined for the remainder of the season by Matteo Cressoni and WEC returnee Luis Perez Companc.
The Gulf Racing UK squad are bouncing back too after their Shanghai shunt, with MR Racing’s Ferrari trailing the field.
#56 Project 1 Porsche 911 RSR 84 Points
#98 Aston Martin Racing V8 Vantage GTE 64 Points
#90 TF Sport Aston Martin V8 Vantage GTE 58 Points
#61 Clearwater Racing Ferrari 488 GTE 57 Points
#54 Spirit of Race Ferrari 488 GTE 55 Points
#86 Gulf Racing UK Porsche 911 RSR 40 Points
#70 MR Racing Ferrari 488 GTE 39 Points
#77 Dempsey Proton Porsche 911 RSR 25 Points
#88 Dempsey Proton Porsche 911 RSR 15 Points