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.
BMW Team RLL – With little changed from last year to this year, and with four podium finishes in two years, including a 1-2 last year, it's hard to see Bobby Rahal's BMW squad as anything other than the class favorites. But Rahal is canny and smart enough to know half the reason for the success, besides the BMWs surviving on their own, was that their rivals incurred some self-inflicted wounds.
This is not to say that the BMWs won't be strong again in 2012, but the same level of pace shown a year ago might not be entirely matched. Case in point – the advances made by Corvette and Porsche, and by technical tire partner Michelin, should see those cars as a stronger package more similar to the characteristics shown by BMW and Dunlop on track last year.
Additionally, Sebring was one track where BMW lost out on a pole – AF Corse nabbed the top spot with its older Ferrari 430 a year ago. The driving lineup still includes defending class champions Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller, with Bill Auberlen and former Sebring overall winner Jorg Muller in the second car. Newcomers are a sports car veteran in Uwe Alzen and former Atlantics star Jonathan Summerton, keen to impress after two years on the sidelines. Summerton's role is third driver this race and Hand's replacement for conflicting rounds in the DTM. But overall, the gap among the top GT runners should be reduced at Sebring, leading into the rest of the year.
Extreme Speed Ferrari – ESM is into its third full season of ALMS and is probably due for its first class win at some point on the calendar. It wouldn't be a shock if it came at Sebring.
Risi's demise is ESM's benefit – technically, the Michelotto test mule Ferrari 458 that ran at February's winter test was listed under the ESM banner – and it was fast. The Patron-liveried 458s were too. The team now has a year of development under their belt with this car, including the full adjustment to paddle shifters, which premiered on this car last year.
With Risi's status uncertain for the remainder of the schedule, the potential exists ESM could adopt more Ferrari support, and that can only be a benefit. The team's No. 01 entry features a stronger lineup, with Guy Cosmo now joining Johannes van Overbeek and Scott Sharp, and the No. 02 completes the team's all-American lineup plan with Jeff Segal and Anthony Lazzaro late signings to partner Ed Brown. Either car could be in contention for a podium at the end of 12 hours.
Falken Porsche – Falken's in a tough spot for 2012, because now the team can't sneak up on anyone, as they did a year ago. It's Sebring, so rain is pretty much out of the question, much to the chagrin of the Falken engineers who put together 2011's most impressive rain tires. So where Falken is going to have to perform is in mastering the car setup on its new Porsche, not just gaining an advantage on its tires.
Falken does have its advantages, in team manager Derrick Walker and an all-pro driver lineup in Wolf Henzler, Bryan Sellers and Martin Ragginger. Henzler led the race in 2010, but that race for Falken was sabotaged, in part, by punctures. Falken might be a good pick for the rest of the season, but is more of a darkhorse at Sebring. Where they undoubtedly have upped their games this offseason is with one of the series' most active Twitter accounts.
Paul Miller Porsche – Paul Miller Racing is the third and least heralded Porsche squad, and while it's just sort of “there,” it's another squad that could be in line for a top-five if attrition takes its toll. The Miller squad's biggest change from 2011 to 2012 is a switch from Yokohama to Dunlop tires. Three of the four drivers that competed for the team in its Grand-Am spec Porsche at the Rolex 24, Bryce Miller, Sascha Maassen and Rob Bell, will run this car.
With tail-enders Jaguar, Panoz and Lamborghini not in this race as they were a year ago, the Miller Porsche faces an uphill battle to make it into the upper half of the class. That's not an indictment of the team, but rather an acknowledgement of the challenge they have chosen to undertake. A class podium, frankly, would surprise.
PC – From top-to-bottom, the PC class and its participants really deserve a pat on the back for the amount of quality efforts put forth both for Sebring and the full schedule. This is going to be a fascinating subplot of the 12 hours, because there are a host of quality pro drivers split equally among the nine entries.
Also, the PC class drivers might have the most difficult job in the race. PC represents the “middle class” in-between the four prototype and four GT classes, and therefore, its drivers have to be able to run their own race, pass the GT cars without incident, and avoid being compromised when letting the leading P1 and P2 cars go through.
The pro drivers include Memo Gidley (No. 5 Muscle Milk), Kyle Marcelli (No. 8 Merchant Services), Bruno Junqueira (No. 9 RSR), Raphael Matos (No. 18 Performance Tech), Butch Leitzinger (No. 52 PR1), Colin Braun (No. 05 CORE), E.J. Viso (No. 06 CORE) and Dane Cameron (No. 025 Dempsey). Only Leitzinger, Marcelli and Cameron of that group have PC class race experience; Cameron is the defending class winner.
Where those cars will all rise or fall is in the hands of their co-drivers. The PC class regulations state that only one classified “platinum” or “gold” rated driver can run, alongside a combination of two “silver” or “bronze” ones. That means mostly semi-pro drivers to pure amateurs are mixed in, and how they handle the challenge presented by the class differences will determine how the class's race unfolds.
GTC – The nine GTC class entries have some quality teams and drivers, but will struggle to garner the proper recognition at the bottom of the race's nine-class structure.
There's a handful of genuine pro drivers thrown into these cars, with Michael Valiante, Sean Edwards, Nick Tandy, Damien Faulkner, Spencer Pumpelly, Leh Keen, Townsend Bell and Cort Wagner among them. Still, even their maximum efforts in the Porsche GT3 Cup cars won't see these cars doing anything except going slowest, likely some 20 seconds per lap off the overall leaders, at best. GTC has the same “pro-am-am” driver structure as does PC.
It's going to be difficult for anyone other than the class competitors to focus on GTC for its own race, as realistically, the GTC class's biggest challenge at Sebring is making sure its competitors stay out of the way of all the overtaking.