Nigel Dobbie: The 7 Hours of Sebring (Plus Some Pace Car Laps)
The bright new world of the TUDOR United Sportscar Championship was somewhat tarnished at Sebring, Florida, where the traditional 12 Hours of Sebring was run, or perhaps “walked” would be a better term for the race this year. A bit of history for anyone new to the game: NASCAR took over the American Le Mans Series and combined it with their Grand-Am series for 2014, with racing starting at Daytona at the end of January with the 24 Hour race, the traditional first race of the Grand-Am series.
You’d think that at Daytona, the “home field” advantage would go to the Grand-Am cars, and with Sebring the traditional start of the ALMS series, you would think, “advantage ALMS cars.” Qualifying seemed to bear this out – despite the Daytona-winning #5 Corvette DP of Action Express Racing taking the pole position in the very experienced (especially at Sebring) hands of Sebastien Bourdais, the Oak Racing Nissan was second, the Extreme Speed Motorsport Hondas fourth and the Muscle Milk Nissan fifth.
The Wayne Taylor Racing Corvette DP #10 took the third spot on the grid, and in the GTLM class the qualifying was extremely close, with the #912 Porsche setting a pole time of 1:58.933 and the eleventh-placed Krohn Racing Ferrari clocking a time of 2:00.538, meaning a mere 1.6 seconds separated the whole class! Oliver Gavin driving the #4 Corvette C7.R set a time of 1:59.222, which was good enough for only fourth place, and the fifth place #3 Corvette C7.R driven by Antonio Garcia recorded a best lap of 1:59.224, just 0.002 seconds slower than the #4 car. The two BMW Z4 coupes qualified second and third.
Trouble From (Almost) The Start
The 12 Hours of Sebring started promptly at 10:15 a.m. with 62 cars taking the green flag. The dark mutterings from the paddock and press room all revolved around the number of cars that would be on 3.74 mile track, and the standards of driving to be expected from some of the less experienced / amateur drivers, in particular in the PC and GTD Classes. Everything was going swimmingly for about the first 20 minutes, then a NASCAR-like crash fest broke out for the next 11 hours and 20 minutes before a “traditional” 20 minute dash to the checkered flag. A similar scenario happened at Daytona following a dubious final Full Course Caution, hence the use of word “traditional.”
Of the 12 Hours of Sebring, only about seven were actual racing time, with the other five spent slowly lapping the track behind the Corvette C7 convertible Pace Car, which at least gave Chevrolet a lot of extra exposure in return for their sponsorship. The first three hours of the race were televised live on Fox – if they had made it a seven hour program spread over the 12 hours they could have actually covered all the live racing – and during the first three hours of the race, at least half of the time was run as a full course caution. The start of all of this was when the #8 PC car spun off in the turn 3-4-5 complex.
The Full Course Caution “rules” seem to involve taking a very long time to actually get the car that is off track either towed back on track or to a place of safety, or removed to the pit / garage area. Then the field needs to be “reset” which again takes a minimum of 20 minutes, as everyone has to have the opportunity to pit by class, which inevitably leads to a whole bunch of penalties for various infractions once the race goes back to green flag racing. In the case of this first caution period it actually led to this…
The driver, Ben Keating, thankfully escaped unhurt, but the car was obviously done. Due to the inexperience of the non-dedicated safety crew that IMSA has implemented for 2014, they really struggled to contain and extinguish the fuel fire that erupted after the driveshaft broke loose, fracturing the fuel lines while the GTD Class Viper was circulating behind the Corvette C7 pace car.
Talking to various people after the race, it was explained to me that it appeared that neither the driver or the safety crew had pulled the “fire ring” to kill the electrics and stop the fuel pumps for continuing to pump the gas out of the tank, hence the problems the safety crew were having putting the fire out. I might be doing Ben Keating and the safety crew a disservice in this analysis, but again the dedicated IMSA Safety Crew that used to be part of the ALMS would not have had the same problems getting the fire under control in my opinion, and the car would not have been anywhere near as badly damaged.
More Of The Same
The consequence of this was it took well over an hour to get the mess from the fire, the extinguisher powder, and water cleaned up before racing resumed. The expression in NASCAR that ‘cautions breed cautions’ appears to becoming true in TUSC as well. There were eleven Full Course Caution periods for a total of 65 laps of the race; the #87 PC car was responsible for three of these caution periods on its own when the drivers managed to miss the grey bit of the circuit and head off into the green bit. The officials also penalized at least one car – the GTD Class WeatherTech Porsche – for being painted in similar colors to the factory GTLM Porsches! That case of mistaken identity allowed the #912 to win GTLM and the WeatherTech car to miss out on the GTD Class podium.
The race started well for the #4 Corvette C7.R as fellow Brit Olly Gavin took the outside line at the first corner and moved himself up to second place. As a result, Antonio Garcia in the #3 didn’t fare as well on the inside line, as he deranged the nose of the car but continued to race.
During the long first Full Course Caution, Corvette Racing pitted the #3 to fix the nose and stick the left front fender back down. This dropped the car to the back of the GTLM class, but as the race progressed, through fast driving and savvy pit work the car made its way to first place in GTLM by the end of the seventh hour of the race. Had it officially been the 7 Hours of Sebring, we could all be basking in the glory of a Corvette Racing C7.R 1-2 finish and a Corvette DP 1-2 finish in the P Class and overall standings…
Fuel Issues And Misfortune
Up until the tenth hour, the GTLM Class was still being controlled by Corvette Racing, as the #4 was leading, though the #3 had issues involving the need to replace the fuel pump which put it down three laps from the lead. The race unraveled for the team in the final hour as first Oliver Gavin uncharacteristically spun the #4 coming out of Turn 17, then the team were unlucky enough to attract a stop and go penalty for needing fuel when the officials threw the final, and some would say needless, Full Course Caution flag.
The final nail in the Corvette Racing casket was the fuel pump that failed on the #3 car doing exactly the same thing and failing on the #4 C7.R. Gavin ran the final 2o minutes of the race a full 10 seconds a lap off his race pace, dropping the #4 car back to a disappointing 6th place finish. The #3 was eventually classified in 8th place in the GTLM Class, with the #912 Porsche finishing first ahead of the #93 Viper, while the #55 BMW took the final podium slot.
The overall race victory went to the #01 Ford Ego Boost (okay EcoBoost, but you have agree Ego Boost is way funnier) driven by Scot Marino Franchitti (younger brother of recently retired Indycar driver Dario), Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett. The Action Express #5 DP Corvette took third place overall, and retained their lead in the North American Endurance Cup with the next leg not being run until the 6 Hours at Watkins Glen later in the year.
The Takeaway Lessons
There are three things I think IMSA needs to implement immediately as a result of Sebring. First, there needs to be some process whereby if you demonstrate during the race you cannot drive, then you cannot race as it spoils it for all of the other professional teams and drivers who spend countless millions of dollars at every race weekend – maybe two off track excursions and you are excluded? Second, the Full Course Caution versus Red Flag process also needs urgent review. I think it is ridiculous and downright dangerous to have a Full Course Caution period with the whole field passing a burning car sitting on the track.
IMSA should have immediately Red Flagged the race until the fire was out. What if the fire had caused something else within the #33 Viper to explode as the rest of the field slowly passed by under caution? Yet IMSA threw a Red Flag for a far less dangerous incident to allow the clean up of debris on the track. The pit stops under the Full Course Caution periods cause a false and completely unnecessary extension to the non-racing part of the event and should be eliminated. Let the teams plan and execute their pit stops under green flag conditions.
Finally we need the dedicated IMSA Safety Team back before something really bad happens.
IMSA needs to urgently look at the procedures they have in place and get this fixed before they lose the goodwill of the fans, and more importantly, the money of the manufacturers. A consequence of this year’s extended caution periods is that the 1961 Ferrari 250TR of Phil Hill and Olivier Gendebien actually completed more miles during the 12 hours than the winning Ford of the Chip Ganassi team – not since 1997 has the winning car completed less miles.
I am passionate about Endurance racing and I really want this to succeed, but at the moment it is not working and IMSA needs to recognize this and get it fixed. Some may read this article as a grumpy English Corvette Racing fan who is being negative about NASCAR and their management of the TUDOR United Sportscar Championship, just because Corvette Racing haven’t won either of the first two races yet. This is not the case; no doubt Corvette Racing will fix the problems that have beset them so far and I really hope they can iron out all the bugs before I next watch them live again at the most important race of the year Le Mans in June.
I also hope that the ACO understand the word “balance” when it comes to the phrase “balance of performance” and we get to see a proper race in France this year, not a repeat of 2013 which was an Aston Martin / Porsche benefit race. This is one thing that IMSA has got right – when we get racing it is proper racing as the Balance of Performance is right. ACO take note.