With yesterday’s announcement of the newly-formed United SportsCar Racing series for 2014, this Saturday’s 61st annual 12 Hours of Sebring will be the last under the current American Le Mans banner.
The series was started by Georgia businessman Don Panoz to incorporate Le Mans style racing here in the United States in 1999. The ALMS combined high-performance prototype machines built by manufacturers and using the latest technological advances alongside grand touring cars like Porsche, Ferrari, BMW, Corvette and Viper.
Preparation for the 24 Hours of Le Mans is what has brought Audi to Sebring every year since 1999. The team, run by legendary owner Reinhold Joest, is looking for their 11th overall victory at this circuit and should be favored over their competition in the main class with their pair of R18 e-tron Quattro hybrid diesels. The cars are running at Sebring before embarking on their defense of the World Endurance Championship (WEC)
Two-time defending Le Mans 24 Hour winner and 2012 WEC champions Marcel Fassler and Benoit Treluyer will be teamed with Audi German Touring Car driver Oliver Jarvis in the 2012-spec R18 No.1. Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish will team with Lucas Di Grassi in the 2013-spec R18. McNish crashed the No.2 in practice Thursday, but have recovered with a fast time in practice today.
Defending ALMS P1 champions Muscle Milk Pickett Racing return with an HPD ARX-03c. Drivers Klaus Graf, Lucas Luhr and Romain Dumas will be in a close fight with Dyson Racing and Rebellion Racing for the ‘best of the rest.’ Dyson Racing brings their Lola-Mazda back for 2013, run on Isobutanol fuel with drivers Chris Dyson, Guy Smith and veteran Butch Leitzinger. The car is fast for one lap but reliability issues and the pace of the Audi leaves the Dyson team chasing for the final podium place.
Rebellion Racing made a splash in the Petit Le Mans in October, taking a dominant overall victory with their Lola-Toyota package along with winning the Privateers title in the WEC. The team is committed to one full-season entry, with former F1 driver Nick Heidfeld and Neel Jani running for the title with Nicolas Prost completing the driving lineup for the race.
The wild card in the class will be the revolutionary DeltaWing car, running classified in P1 for the first time. Plenty of changes have taken place, with Panoz running the team now, a new Mazda engine, Bridgestone tires versus Michelin and two new drivers in Oliver Pla and Andy Meyrick. The previous group finished fifth with the car at Petit Le Mans, but it will be tough for them to repeat that on Saturday.
The Prototype Two category sees a grid of five cars for Sebring, but only two cars committed after this race. Extreme Speed Motorsport made a late decision to join the class with two HPD ARX-03b cars after campaigning two Ferrari 458 Italia’s in the GT class in recent years with the support of long-time sponsor Tequila Patron.
Team owner Scott Sharp is no stranger to prototype racing, winning the P1 title in 2010 in a similar car before moving to GT. Joining Sharp will be prototype veteran David Brabham and full-season teammate Guy Cosmo in the No. 01. Patron Sprits executive Ed Brown drives the No. 02 with Johannes van Overbeek and Anthony Lazzaro.
ESM makes the move with a year to prepare for the new technical regulations in the USCR, which places P2 machinery and the DeltaWing in the same prototype class as Grand-Am’s Daytona Prototypes.
Defending class champion Level 5 Motorsports is running two HPD ARX-03b cars with team owner Scott Tucker driving both. Defending IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and IndyCar rookie of the year Simon Pagenaud will run in the No. 551, while 2012 Indy 500 polesitter Ryan Briscoe returns to sports car racing to race with Marino Franchitti in the No. 552. Even with problems in testing and a late start, Level 5 should be on pace for the class victory.
The final P2 car is the Greaves Motorsport Zytek Nissan from Europe. A WEC team coming to Sebring for a warm up event, the team has a solid lineup with Eric Lux, Christian Zugel and Tom Kimber-Smith. The No. 41 car topped the P2 timesheets earlier this morning.
The GT class will be the one to watch on Saturday as it has been for the past couple of years in the series. Corvette Racing comes into Sebring off their first class title, after being the dominant force in the now defunct GT1 class during the previous decade.
However, Corvette has not won in GT at Sebring but with two solid driver lineups in class champions Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner joined by Richard Westbrook (No. 4) along with Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor (No. 3), they should be up front all 12 hours.
Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing brings the BMW Z4 GTE to the states after being a proven winner in European GT3 competition. American’s Joey Hand and John Edwards will share the No. 56 with Dirk Mueller while long-time BMW driver Bill Auberlen will run with new teammate Maxime Martin, joined by Joerg Mueller in the No. 55.
Aston Martin Racing brings two Vantages to Sebring: one for the all-pro lineup of Darren Turner, Stefan Mucke and Bruno Senna which will run for the WEC GTE-PRO title. The second car consists of American’s Paul Dalla Lana and Billy Johnson along with sports car veteran Pedro Lamy as a preparation for a full WEC GTE-AM title assault.
Giuseppe Risi brings his Risi Competizione Ferrari team back to the ALMS after a one-year hiatus. With factory drivers Oliver Beretta and Matteo Malucelli driving and the F458 Italia as a proven winner worldwide, it would not be a surprise to see them on top Saturday night.
Two sleeper teams to keep an eye on are the SRT Viper and Falken Tire Porsche efforts. SRT Viper embarks on a full-season campaign after a limited effort in 2012. Drivers Dominik Farnbacher and Marc Goossens make up a formidable combo joined by all-around sports car ace Ryan Dalziel. The second car will be driven by Jonathan Bomarito, Kuno Wittmer and Tommy Kendall, who moves to an ambassador role for the organization.
Derrick Walker’s Falken Tire team, with Porsche ace Wolf Henzler and American Brian Sellers joined by Porsche factory driver Nick Tandy can contend on speed. If there’s any wet weather on Saturday, this team can surprise with a victory.
For the challenge classes, look for the defending champions to take off where they left off. Two-time defending Prototype Challenge class champions CORE Autosport drop to one full-season with team owner Jon Bennett, Colin Braun and Mark Wilkins on the driving slate and poised for victory after winning last year in Sebring. BAR1 Motorsports with two cars and RSR Racing pose the biggest challenge.
In GT Challenge, Alex Job Racing and the WeatherTech team with college student Cooper MacNeil, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Dion von Moltke are the favorites after three wins and a title in 2012. Watch for new entry Flying Lizard Racing along with TRG Motorsports to contend for victory.
The race will be live on SPEED with live streaming of timing and scoring on ALMS.com. Stay with Drafting the Circuits all season long for domestic sports car coverage.