Hello again and welcome back!
It might have been seven weeks since the Daytona 24 Hours, but they’ve been full ones and we’ve been hard at work testing and preparing for the start of the American Le Mans Series which, as always, was at Sebring in Florida last weekend.
This year’s race was special in a number of ways. It was the 60th anniversary of the 12 Hours and it’s one of North America’s oldest and most well established events, taking place on an old airfield in central Florida. The place has so much history and tradition, with parts of the same track surface that were laid down all those years ago, and we all like going there. It’s physically punishing as the track is very, very bumpy, and it’s technically challenging because of the layout and surface, but when you get it right it’s exhilarating. Teams who go on to do the Le Mans 24 Hours in June particularly like going there as it’s a great test for the cars – if they survive Sebring, you’re half way to surviving Le Mans.
Two series in one race
As well as the opening round of the ALMS, Sebring was also the inaugural race of the new FIA World Endurance Championship. This presented us with not only a massive grid of 64 cars, but also the novel situation of two series effectively running separately… but together. There were two sets of regulations, two sets of officials, two sets of timing sheets and a pit lane split with ALMS runners one end and WEC runners the other. Add to that two sets of trophies and podium presentations and it was quite bizarre really. The sight of almost 100 trophies waiting to be presented was, to use an American expression, awesome!
We did, however, have a combined drivers’ briefing, which took place in the Skip Barber warehouse because it was the only place that could accommodate so many drivers and team personnel at one time. New ALMS Race Director, Paul Walters, gave the briefing and did a very good job, although he seemed rather nervous. Mind you, I think I would have been too! To do your first briefing in front of all those people and with the FIA breathing down your neck… as I say, he did a good job, laying out the ALMS rules and regulations, particularly working through safety car procedures, spelling it out clearly so everyone understood it.
Driver briefings in North America are unique in that they start with a non-denominational prayer, in our case led by Richard Anderson from Motorsport Ministries. Whether this is your thing or not, I’ve got used to it over the years as it’s part of the American tradition and approach, but you could see from the faces around the room that some of the European teams were very perplexed by it.
With everyone wanting as clean a race as possible, part of the briefing was about how faster and slower cars could both exist and race safely together. A suggested approach from Europe was that when faster LMP cars came up on slower traffic, there should be a system of flashing their lights twice to the car being overtaken, and then the slower cars should put their indicators on to show to which side of track they were going to move to allow the pass. With 64 cars on a fast track like Sebring, and so many different levels of experience, it was never going to be a practical or effective solution.
As it turned out there weren’t any major clashes between LMP and GT cars, although there were 11 safety car periods. There were huge contrasts in the field between big factory teams from Audi, Porsche, BMW, Ferrari and Corvette and small, privateer teams with drivers who were new to maybe not just American racing and Sebring, but also to sports cars. This must have been hugely challenging to them, and some of them looked pretty out of their depth once it came to the hours of darkness.
A new, taller, team-mate
The GT category in the Sebring race was once again hugely exciting for the fans and TV audience, with plenty of door-to-door action from start to finish. There were at least six cars in with a shout at any one time, from BMW to Ferrari, Porsche and Aston Martin to Corvette, and we got to lead at various times which was great, although we eventually had to settle for third rather than the win.
(L to R) Tommy Milner, Richard Westbrook and Olly
This year I’m teamed with Tommy Milner rather than Jan Magnussen – with Richard Westbrook joining us for the endurance races – and it’s a novel experience to be able to stretch my legs out in the race car instead of having to compromise for a shorter team-mate. There’s now a tall car and a short car according to the team!
BMW just managed to pip us at this one, but the usual suspects were all there at the end. There were a couple of big name casualties including the lead Flying Lizard Porsche and two of the Ferraris who would have been real contenders in the race. One of them, the Bruni/Fisichella/Vilander car, managed to return to the race albeit almost 100 laps down, and right at the end had a huge effect on the result. Bruni unnecessarily got involved with the battle for the lead, causing the leading BMW to go off track and his own team-mate Olivier Beretta – who was running second – to spin off in avoidance. Ultimately their loss was Corvette’s gain as we profited from the shenanigans to claim podium positions but no one was impressed by those sort of tactics.
I’m off to Paul Ricard now for a GT3 test session in a Chevy Camaro but back in the Corvette for Long Beach in April. See you then.