The 34 American Le Mans Series entries at the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring represent more than half the total field, but enter as the underdogs for the overall victory. Still, some ALMS teams could upset the influx of European teams and manufacturers from the World Endurance Championship, even if they're not technically classified in the same class. The field here will break down into prototypes (P1 and P2), GT (on its own) and the Challenge classes (PC and GTC).
P1 – As in 2011, the P1 class entries from Muscle Milk Pickett Racing and Dyson Racing will be in a race-within-a-race…within-a-race. Sound complicated? Yes, but, here's a simpler look at how they can approach this year's Sebring.
First, the two ALMS P1 teams have a race versus just themselves. As the only full-season class entrants at Sebring, the top finishing one will get maximum points toward the ALMS championship. Last year, that was as simple as Dyson merely finishing the 12 hours, which they did, and Muscle Milk didn't. The 30-point gap achieved by Dyson proved an insurmountable gap for Muscle Milk to claw back.
As to the other “race-within-a-race?” These two new cars, the Muscle Milk HPD ARX-03a and Dyson's new Lola B12/60 Mazda, are gasoline-powered cars up against the might of Audi's diesels. One of the intriguing subplots of sports car racing since the diesel era began is seeing who's the top gasoline prototype, and both cars will be gunning for that unofficial honor.
The HPD had its first running at the winter test and showed some impressive pace. Dyson's biggest change with its new car is upgrading from P2 to P1-spec tires from Dunlop; the car will have the same size rubber on both the front and rear tires.
For drivers Klaus Graf, Lucas Luhr and Simon Pagenaud (Muscle Milk) and Guy Smith, Chris Dyson and Steven Kane (Dyson), the goal is to beat each other first, and then see how they stack up against the other gasoline-powered prototypes from the WEC, which they aren't directly racing against.
P2 – Level 5 Motorsports enters as class favorites. Scott Tucker's team is two-for-two at Sebring with two different cars. The team won on debut in the LMPC class in 2010, and in its P2 debut a year ago with a Lola-HPD Spyder. Now, the team has two new P2-spec HPD ARX-03b entries and the exact same driver lineup of Tucker in both cars, Christophe Bouchut and Joao Barbosa in the No. 055 and Luis Diaz and Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No. 95.
The class will have four cars, with Conquest Endurance and Black Swan Racing new to the class. Conquest is new to sports car racing and although its pro driver Martin Plowman overachieved in three IndyCar starts last season, the Englishman is a raw sports car rookie, and his goal should be just keeping the team's Morgan-Judd in one piece and bringing it home with co-drivers David Heinemeier Hansson and Francesco Dracone. Black Swan, which has already announced its intentions to step up from GTC, is testing its Lola-HPD coupe formerly run by Level 5, with team principal and lead driver Tim Pappas expecting to make a formal announcement of its Sebring assault later this week.
Corvette – It isn't “win-or-bust” for Corvette in 2012, according to program manager Doug Fehan, but make no mistake – this is the most important Sebring for Corvette since it entered the GT category halfway through 2009.
Its two previous Sebrings with the GT2-spec C6.R have been mixed, at best. An embarrassing pit road collision upset their 2010 race. Last year, an early spin after contact with Patrick Long's Flying Lizard Porsche put pause to their efforts, but still ended a better third and fourth.
Armed with a wider car, higher rear wing and the lessons learned from the past two years, Corvette has all the elements necessary to recapture the winning ways they had while in GT1 (seven class wins). After GM laid an egg on its Corvette DP debut at Daytona, they can't afford to go 0-for-2 in the two most important domestic sports car races on the calendar. No pressure, then, Mssrs. Magnussen, Garcia, Taylor, Gavin, Milner and Westbrook…
Flying Lizard Porsche – If one could argue Corvette needs a Sebring win and badly, the Lizards could say, “So do we!” – and 2012 represents a golden opportunity. Risi Ferrari's withdrawal opens the door to a class that they dominated, winning the 2007, 2009 and 2010 Sebrings – a streak that only the Lizards interrupted. But the 2008 win with Jorg Bergmeister, Wolf Henzler and Marc Lieb is an eternity ago in sports car terms.
Bergmeister's the only holdover in the driver lineup, and the car he'll be driving is new for everyone in the Porsche camp this year. The 911 is substantially wider and has a revised aero package at the front and sides of the car. It's essentially a completely different beast than what the team has been used to, and tested in an unpainted livery in February (LEFT).
The team's lead No. 45 entry features the long-time pairing of Bergmeister and Patrick Long, with Marco Holzer shifting from the sister car for this race to create a trio of Porsche factory pilots. As ever, the sister No. 44 (044 for this race per a WEC conflict) won't be a contender on outright pace, but team principal Seth Neiman, Darren Law and Andy Lally know a thing or two about surviving in endurance races. Lally's already got a Rolex in 2012 from his GT class win at Daytona, and makes his Lizard debut in Sebring.