Ferrari Hypercar shows promise at Sebring's sports car bonanza

Sports Car News

Despite the Toyota 1-2 in Sebring, Ferrari showed serious promise, while Porsche and Peugeot endured serious sports car pain

2023 Ferrari WEC Hypercar Sebring

Ferrari exceeded Sebring expectations with pole and a podium


What a dismal weekend for Ferrari at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, eh? Forget podiums or heroic comeback drives through the field. Carlos Sainz Jr and Charles Leclerc had nothing to smile about following an abject race that left them a sorry sixth and seventh respectively.

Happily, the contrast to the Prancing Horse’s fortunes across the Atlantic couldn’t have been more stark. Finally, after so much chatter and expectation, Ferrari returned to the top class of sports car racing last Friday as its striking 499P Hypercar made its debut at the Sebring 1000 Miles World Endurance Championship season opener – and sensationally took the start from the pointiest bit of the grid.

Antonio Fuoco’s banzai lap that gained him pole position was all about total commitment, as the sun briefly blinded him through the Florida track’s famous final turn. It didn’t stop him finding a remarkable 1.7sec to knock Toyota off the pole. This was just what the WEC needed as the most anticipated return of the century lived up to its high expectations.

2023 Sebring WEC start

Scuderia led early on, but sacrificed lead with ill-advised pit stops


It didn’t last, of course. But then it was never likely to. In the race, cracks inevitably appeared as AF Corse took its first steps in the premier division. Sure enough, choosing to pit and give up the early race lead during the one and only safety car period of the eight-hour race was a mistake – Sainz and Leclerc could tell their comrades all about dodgy Ferrari pit strategy – and by the end Toyota’s pair of GR010 HYBRIDs took a dominant 1-2 by two laps. But the fact that the No50 Ferrari had run reliably to beat the lone Ganassi-run Cadillac for the final step of the podium still made this a successful debut – with the promise of much more to come. It all bodes well for the rest of the WEC season and specifically the 100th anniversary running of the Le Mans 24 Hours in June.

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Ferrari still faced its troubles though. The second No51 499P was in the wars, Britain’s James Calado having crashed on cold tyres during the Prologue test that preceded the WEC opener. That Turn 1 shunt meant a replacement monocoque had to be built up for the race meeting, only for Alessandro Pier Guidi to collide with a pair of GTE Am cars in the sixth hour of the contest. The resulting suspension damage meant a long visit to the pits, although the car did return to finish 15th overall and seventh in the Hypercar class.

Ferrari has consciously avoided hiring a cast of superstars for its high-profile campaign, remaining admirably loyal to the GT exponents who have carried it this far in modern sports car racing. Only ex-Alfa Romeo F1 driver Antonio Giovinazzi has been drafted into the two-car squad from outside the ‘family’, the Italian lining up with Pier Guidi and Calado. But the trio who finished third in No50 are relatively unknown outside of the world of GT racing, Italian Fuoco being joined by Spaniard Miguel Molina and Dane Niklas Nielsen. There’s some irony that it was the two best-known drivers, aside from Giovinazzi, who made the big mistakes in Sebring. Whether that policy of sticking to tried and trusted internal talent will pay off in the long-term remains to be seen. It’s up to the GT graduates to prove they are worthy of Ferrari’s faith – but the decision also ensures the car is very much the star, which wasn’t always the case when F1 ‘Galacticos’ have been hired by sports car teams in the past (see Fernando Alonso at Toyota during the LMP1 days, for example).

2023 Sebring WEC Ferrari 2

Scuderia was able to mix it with Toyota early on


“We surpassed the goals we had set ourselves, considering that we wanted a podium finish, and to this we added a splendid pole position,” said Antonello Coletta, the satisfied head of Ferrari’s Attivita Sportive GT department. “We are happy and at the same time aware that we have a long way to go. In the championship, we are up against some highly experienced and quick opponents and others who have recently entered the Hypercar scene, like us, but just as fast.” He also mentioned his team’s lack of “reliability problems.”

To be fast and largely problem-free – that’s always the goal. Just ask Porsche and Peugeot, both of whom found the going tough at Sebring – particularly the latter. Was it the infamous Sebring bumps that unsettled the wingless 9X8? Whatever, Peugeot looks to be in a world of woe on the back of the opener. But perhaps it will be a brighter story when the series returns to Europe for the second WEC round at the Algarve circuit in Portimao next month.

As for Toyota Gazoo Racing, a largely trouble-free race and comfortable 1-2 was precisely what was expected of a manufacturer that has an obvious head start over its new LMH rivals. But that doesn’t mean Toyota shouldn’t take great pride in this result. On the contrary, it’s not Pascal Vasselon’s fault that his well-honed operation has faced too little opposition in past seasons. Now against properly funded manufacturer rivals, everyone involved at Toyota knows and accepts victories will have greater meaning. There’s an element of vindication in the Sebring win, especially as it was so emphatic. It sets the standard Ferrari, Porsche, Caddy and Peugeot know they must aspire to.

As usual, there was little to separate the No7 and No8 GR010s as the crews went at it, until Toyota sensibly called a halt to the battle after the final pitstops, this time in the favour of former. The victory was an emotional one for Mike Conway, who dedicated the win to his late father, and for player/manager Kamui Kobayashi. But it probably mattered most to José María López following his spectacular crash at this race last year and in the wake of a further shunt this time in free practice. Lopez looked set to be replaced this season, only to be reprieved after Nyck de Vries landed an F1 drive with AlphaTauri.

As for Porsche, there was intermittent pace, but not enough to beat the No50 Ferrari and the Caddy helmed by Brits Richard Westbrook and Alex Lynn, plus ex-Porsche ace Earl Bamber. Fifth and sixth for the Penske-run 963 was a little underwhelming, especially as neither car ran trouble-free. Still, Porsche had a second bite of the cherry on Saturday as IMSA ran its traditional blue riband, the Sebring 12 Hours. A shame the great race can’t be a part of the WEC, but in this era of the LMDh rules convergence between the two series perhaps that’s an alliance too far, at least for now.

2023 Sebring WEC Porsche 2

Porsche struggled across the weekend


In the closing stages of the 12 Hours, a race that finishes in darkness, Wayne Taylor Racing’s Acura driven by Filipe Albuquerque found itself squaring up against Mathieu Jaminet’s Penske 963 when the pair tangled while negotiating GT cars. Just to make it worse Felipe Nasr’s Porsche also became involved in the accident, which eliminated all three frontrunners! A Sebring 12 Hours victory would have gone some way to assuage Porsche’s concerns about its WEC form. As it was, the Action Express Cadillac picked up an unlikely victory, to make Pipo Derani a four-time winner of the Sebring 12 Hours. The result also means Brits Alexander Sims and Jack Aitken have landed a sports car ‘major’ too. Sweet for Aitken, a rising star on the sports car scene after his one and what is likely to be only F1 start for Williams in Bahrain in 2020 – and perhaps even more so for Sims, who is focusing purely on endurance racing after the 35-year-old’s self-confessed troubles in Formula E.

Final word on the Sebring super-weekend, as we return to the WEC race on the Friday. Spare a thought for Richard Dean’s United Autosports equipe which was on course for an LMP2 class win, following an excellent pole position by Oliver Jarvis. While comfortably leading the race in the third hour teenage Silver-rated ace Josh Pierson suddenly found all power had died in his ORECA. Turns out a cockpit TV camera installed by the race organiser had worked itself loose and hit the external kill switch from the inside. A second place for the sister car offered some consolation, but it was reigning LMP2 champion team Jota that picked up the pieces. What a way to lose a race.