Potholes and parties at Sebring


Saturday’s 57th Sebring 12 Hours kicks off this year’s American Le Mans Series, and an interesting race it will be with Audi and Peugeot staging a full dress rehearsal for Le Mans. Two of Audi’s new R15s will take on a pair of Peugeot’s 908s, and the race winner should come from one of these two teams. But Acura’s highly-touted new ARX-02a LMP1 car will also make its race debut at Sebring. The rough old Florida airfield circuit is the worst conceivable place to debut a new car, but the ARX-02a’s designer, Nick Wirth, reckons the Acura P1 teams are up to the task.

Two of the new Acuras will race at Sebring and campaign the entire ALMS season. At this stage there are no plans to race the car outside North America. Gil de Ferran’s new De Ferran Motorsports team will run one of the ARX-02as for the Brazilian and Simon Pagenaud, with Scott Dixon joining them at Sebring. Duncan Dayton’s Patron/Highcroft team will run the other Acura, with David Brabham and Scott Sharp as the regular drivers and Dario Franchitti helping their cause at Sebring.

“I love Sebring,” says Wirth. “I love the history, the people… I love walking round Sebring and finding a hole that you would put traffic lights around and get a road crew out to fix because you might kill somebody. I love the corner worker walking up to me, smiling and saying, ‘Do you love our pothole? Somebody asked us to fill it in but we said we’d rather die. It’s getting bigger and bigger, and don’t you just love it?’

“You ask, ‘How can you have a hole like that on a corner on a racing track which is so fast, and with our new car is extremely fast?’ The answer is it’s fantastic and wonderful and dangerous and scary, and part of what I love about coming to Sebring. I love the challenge of making a car be fast and reliable under the most amazing circumstances.

“You’ve got to be a car designer or an engineer to truly appreciate what a challenge Sebring is,” adds Wirth. “I love taking my engineers out there and telling them to go and stand down by the inside of turn 17 and watch those guys drive that car in there at 190mph. They come past the point where you think they should be braking and they’re still on the gas, and you then see the car do the most amazing bouncing and thrashing over the bumps through that corner. And you don’t want anything to break through there because there’s no run-off and the driver is going to get hurt.”

Wirth says getting the car balanced to operate well through the track’s wide selection of corners is as difficult as dealing with the exceedingly rough surface.

“Sebring has got everything that makes a car designer go mad and that a race engineer can’t get, which is a balance between high-speed and low-speed corners, and that’s what makes it so wonderful,” he says. “It’s one of the greatest racing circuits in the world and it’s at an airfield in the middle of Florida where you’d never imagine it to be. People talk about Spa, but it’s nothing compared to Sebring. Sebring is a destroyer of cars.”

And, of course, there’s the rare ambience of the place, with the infield reverberating to a night-long party. “There’s the race and the fireworks and the cookouts and the smells,” says Wirth. “The drivers know where they are round the circuit by the smells. They can close their eyes and tell you where they are by who’s cooking steak and who’s cooking curry.”

Like Le Mans, Sebring is as much a party as a race. It’s a motor sport experience any fan worth his salt should take in at least once.

You may also like