Sebring’s great past and hopeful future


America’s oldest long-distance sports car race takes place next Saturday at the old Sebring airfield circuit in central Florida. The Sebring 12 Hours was run for the first time in 1952 and was a round of the World Sportscar Championship for the next 20 years from 1953-72. It then became a more parochial IMSA GT race for a few years before enjoying a great era through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s as IMSA’s GTP series went from boom to bust.

More recently, Sebring enjoyed a revival as an ALMS race and became one of Audi’s favourite stops for testing and development. In fact, Audi and Porsche tested their latest LMP1 cars together for the first time at Sebring last week although neither team will race at Sebring next weekend because LMP1 cars have been ruled out of American sports car racing.

This year, Sebring is the second round of the new Tudor United SportsCar Championship – an amalgamation of the ALMS and Grand-Am series –following the launch of the new series at Daytona seven weeks ago. The Action Express Corvette Daytona Prototype team won at Daytona with Joao Barbosa/Christian Fittipaldi/Sebastien Bourdais and was quickest in testing at Sebring a few weeks ago. However, there’s plenty of competition from the likes of Wayne Taylor, Chip Ganassi and Greg Pickett’s teams.

Sebring’s legend was built, of course, on those 20 years from 1953-72 when it stood with Le Mans, the Targa Florio and the Nürburgring 1000kms as one of the world’s most-renowned sports car races. Sebring was the opening round of the FIA’s brand new World Sportscar Championship in 1953 and was won by John Fitch and Phil Walters driving Briggs Cunningham’s C4R.

The start of the race in 1953

The following year’s race was led initially by a trio of factory Lancia D-24s but they all ran into trouble and Stirling Moss/Bill Lloyd won in the end, aboard Cunningham’s little 1.5 litre Osca. Incredibly, Cunningham’s team won for a third year in a row in 1955 with Mike Hawthorn/Phil Walters driving a Jaguar D-type. Then began a long stretch of Ferrari domination.

Juan-Manuel Fangio scored a pair of consecutive Sebring wins in 1956 and ’57 driving a Ferrari 800 Monza with Eugenio Castellotti in ’56 and a Maserati 450S with Jean Behra in ’57. Phil Hill and Peter Collins won in ’58 aboard a Ferrari Testa Rossa and the following year Hill and Olivier Gendebien took over Dan Gurney and Chuck Daigh’s Testa Rossa to win the race after their car broke.

The first Sebring 12 hours of the ‘60s was won by a Porsche RS60 driven by Gendebien and Hans Herrmann who scored the first of Porsche’s 17 outright wins at the track. But from 1961-64 Ferrari was unbeatable at Sebring, finishing one-two in ’61, ’62 and ’63 and scoring a one-two-three sweep in ’64. Ferrari won with front-engined TR61s driven by Hill and Gendebien in ’61 and Jo Bonnier/Lucien Bianchi in ’62, then with rear-engined 250P and 275Ps driven by John Surtees/Ludovico Scarfiotti and Mike Parkes/Umberto Maglioli.

Jo Bonnier on the way to victory in 1962

The foreign stranglehold on Sebring was broken in 1965 by Chaparral and Ford as Jim Hall/Hap Sharp drove their new rear-engined Chaparral 2A-Chevy Can-Am car to win by four laps from one of the new Ford GT40s driven by Bruce McLaren/Ken Miles. The following year resulted in a one-two-three sweep for Ford with Ken Miles/Lloyd Ruby winning with the rare open-top Ford X-1 roadster after Dan Gurney/Jerry Grant’s Ford Mk II ran away with the race only to blow its engine on the last lap. Gurney pushed the car home, but was disqualified.

Ford also dominated Sebring in ’67 finishing one-two with Mario Andretti/Bruce McLaren winning aboard a Mk IV. Porsche scored its second win in the race in ’68 with Jo Siffert/Hans Herrmann driving a 907 and the German manufacturer looked a likely winner once again the next year only to have all its cars run into chassis or other mechanical problems. In the end, to everyone’s surprise, one of John Wyer’s Ford GT40s driven by Jacky Ickx/Jackie Oliver came through to win.

Sebring 12 Hours victories by manufacturer
Porsche (18) 1960, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1976–88, 2008
Ferrari (12) 1956, 1958-64, 1970, 1972, 1995, 97-98
Audi (11) 2000–2007, 2009, 2012–13
Nissan (4) 1989–91, 1994
Ford (3) 1966-67, 1969
Toyota (2) 1992-93
BMW (2) 1975, 1999
Peugeot (2) 2010-11
Allard (1) 1950
Frazer-Nash (1) 1952
Cunningham (1) 1953
O.S.C.A. (1) 1954
Jaguar (1) 1955
Maserati (1) 1965
Riley & Scott (1) 1996

In 1970 Mario Andretti scored one of the most memorable wins of his career after taking over the Ferrari 512S of team-mates Ignazio Giunti/Nino Vaccarella. Andretti was asked to step into the car in the race’s final hour after his own 512S blew an engine and Mario put in an inspired performance, running down a pair of Porsches to score Ferrari’s first win at Sebring in six years. Andretti led the race again the next year co-driving a Ferrari 312P with Jacky Ickx, but they were out by half distance allowing Vic Elford/Gerard Larrousse’s factory Porsche 917 to win easily from a pair of Alfa Romeo T33s.

Jo Siffert/Derek Bell 917K, which finished fifth, leads the sister car of Vic Elford/Gerard Larrousse

The final world championship race at Sebring in 1972 saw Andretti score his third win in five years at the dusty old airfield circuit. Mario and Ickx drove one of three Ferrari 312Ps and the red cars ran one-two-three for much of the race. Andretti/Ickx won by two laps from Ronnie Peterson/Tim Schenken’s similar 312P after the leading Ferrari driven by Brian Redman/Clay Regazzoni caught fire with only an hour to go.

This year Sebring hosts the fledgling United SportsCar series. Unlike the old WSC and the contemporary World Endurance Championship, the latest American sports car series caters for independent teams instead of factory operations. It’s all about close, competitive racing rather than spectacular racing, high-tech cars and big money teams. There’s much to be said for this philosophy, but it remains to be seen if the TUSC can succeed and establish itself as a major form of top level sports car racing.

More from Gordon Kirby
The racing wisdom of Mario Andretti
The career of Mark Donohue
American greats: Milton, Murphy and Lockhart

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