For a Super Season and a Winter schedule, the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) does feel as if it has been away for a very long time. Perhaps it is a function of introducing it into a time of year where we are familar with Dubai, Daytona, Bathurst as well as the Asian Le Mans Series, but it does seem forever since these cars left China and have now materialised in Florida, but are we glad to see them. The winter period has given us all time to reflect and consider what is happening, and Sebring will hopefully lift us from that and bring back some of the old-fashioned joy of racing for racing sake.
The Sebring track measures 3.74 miles and crams 17 corners/turns into that length. Given it is an aged (first raced in 1950) army airfield utilised for the training of B-17 pilots it has a heritage akin to Silverstone, though there in terms of investment and change the similarities stop. Sebring is recognised the world over for its unforgiving solidity, concrete block paved with not the hint of a ripple, no deflections in this surface come with a bone-jarring thud and a thump to the suspension. These are some of the out of the way reasons that most race programmes have involved a period of endurance testing at this quite desolute and ever so slightly broken venue, half the distance but twice as hard as the sages would have it!
Take a ride in the #7 Toyota Hybrid TS050, we make the lap time to be in the low 1:40s which equates to the standing race lap record (reported in 2013 by Audi) set by Marcel Fassler @ 1:43.886 this is expected to be obliterated come race day 2019.
Note in that lap the first compromise that the organisers have made. This is not the billard table smooth category 1 circuit that we are used to seeing the technological marvels haul round. As mentioned its rough, but also unforgiving in terms of errors. Traffic and the need to venture offline to make progress could result in an excursion, and leaving this track does not result in run-off, its sandy at best, grassy and then solid bodywork crumpling concrete. Also worth taking another look at that lap and seeing whether you can pick out the WEC pit entrance (& exit), its there on the inside of Turn 15 (off throttle section) before the final two turns, bridges and conventional (IMSA) pit lane, blink and you miss it. Due to the extra distance, unlike in 6-hour races drivers will all likely need more than one stint behind the wheel and as night fall gathers and limps start to weigh heavy it will be all to easy to miss.
So to the categories and expectations –
The greatest challenge for these machines may well be traffic, but they are also most easily upset by the surface given their massive aero and the manner in which it generates downforce. Set the car a little higher for comfort and you lose some of that efficiency.. Toyota have had three weeks of private testing as well as the testing earlier this week and will surely have found a sound setup, and given their inherent hybrid advantage it will take on track drama and delay to surmount them. Do keep an eye on the internal battle between the #7 and #8 crew, neither has the upper hand, and due to the extra distance (1000miles) extra points (32 for the win) are on offer here. Each crew will want to arrive at Le Mans 2019 with an advantage over their sister car so they can play the #1 chance / team leader / best bet card on their own management… Lets not forget the competition, Rebellion have been closest and reliable Toyota chasers with the Gibson power unit proving reliable though constrained by fuel flow associated stop duration. The other Gibson runner Dragonspeed will be looking for a strong finish and with its unique combination of BR01 chassis & power unit might just find a track advantage, important for them as a team to do well in the US market too given their Indycar entry.
The two SMP Racing BR01s with their turbocharged AER power units will be tested in the reliability stakes, but with returnee to WEC Brendon Hartley onboard we can expect an improved showing. For regulars the CLM-ENSO byKolles is missing due to a NISMO dispute and switch for the next round at Spa to Gibson power!
Of course the reliability of the LMP2s is becoming close to bullet-proof as a consequence of the global numbers of these cars being run and the mileages being delivered. It has been interesting to see how well the #29 Dallara P217 of Racing Team Nederland has gone in first practice, others may of course be holding back from peak performance and a challenge could come from any of Oreca(/Alpine) runners. Looking to the driver line-ups for an advantage, it is still much of a muchness, numbers #28, #31, #36 and the two JCDC Racing #37 and ever mighty #38 could contend. #37 is something of a dark horse with again resurgent Will Stevens and new find Jordan King joined by quick vocal gent David Heinemeier-Hansson.
Sees all the usual suspects running all the usual numbers, except one… a #63 Corvette Racing C7-R in the hands of Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Mike Rockenfeller. As per their adventure to Shanghai, Corvette are choosing to run their ‘local’ race, perhaps to curry favour/guarantee their Le Mans entries… Some inside knowledge from their IMSA exploits and especially now running Michelin rubber will prove advantageous (in both directions) though of course Porsche, Ford, and BMW will be gaining the same data advantage. Of course the Porsche 911 RSR was originally developed with much testing at Sebring, and hence you would expect it to be well suited to its surroundings. If as speculated elsewhere Ford are in the final thows of their WEC programme they will be keen to win at their home round. Also any manufacturer running in both IMSA and WEC will be looking for a remarkable double to splash across the papers at Monday morning breakfast, and winning on the weekend, sell on Monday is still very much a thing in the US Market. Finally it would be naive to not expect a surprise from the Prancing Horses of Ferrari and the wonderfully proportioned and massively strong Aston Martin Vantage AMRs.
Has its mix of customer Ferrari and Porsche propped up by the still venerable Aston Martin Vantage of huge heritage. The nine entrants will do well to spend a lot of time eyeing their respective mirrors for cars from the other categories, a clean race could be a winning strategy with all the cars very well matched from a BoP perspective and no real stand-out driver line-ups.
We look forward to an engaging and entertaining category race. If contact becomes a feature, and this probably applies to their -Pro equivalents the legendary four-clip serviceability of any of the Porsche RSR runners could be the difference between the winner and the rest.
Of course we all expect a great race, but given the nature of some of the infrastructure we especially hope this race is a safe one. It is a logistical nightmare running in the same programme as the IMSA 12-hour race on Saturday through just into Sunday, but it would be fabulous if this could become a regular feature on the WEC calendar.
Leave you with a quote from Michele Alboreto said on winning at Sebring in March 2001 “After this success my goal is clear: Winning Sebring and Le Mans in a row is a great dream for me.” Sadly in April the same year that dream was snatched away from him, and him from us. Capello in the same winning car referred to it as his greatest sportscar race win ever, and that sums Sebring up nicely, its hard, its cruel, but it popular with all that go and experience it.
You will find coverage on Radio Le Mans globally and the WEC has done a great job in getting race coverage scheduled in most geographies (check local listings) as well as removing geo-blocking to its app in the United States. The Race Starts Friday 2100 across Europe and will run through until the early morning Saturday and we will be live tweeting the positions as usual with WEC races. We believe it will be worth staying up for. Enjoy!
Free Practice 2 Sectors & Ideal Times –