The 30 FIA World Endurance Championship entries at the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring may represent less than half the total field, but will stand out more than normal as the influx of European teams and manufacturers descends on the track for its first race of the new championship. We'll split the field breakdown, simply, into prototypes (LMP1 and LMP2) and GTE (Pro and Am).
PROTOTYPES - P1
Audi – The dominant prototype force of sports car racing since the American Le Mans Series started its tenure at Sebring, Audi has shifted its priorities as a manufacturer to the global stage – 2012 marks the fourth straight year Audi won't embark on a full-season ALMS program. The previous four years at Sebring haven't brought near the success as Audi's eight-year win streak from 2000 to 2007, but then again, what could?
In the last four years, Audi has been defeated twice (2008, Penske Porsche RS Spyder and 2011, ORECA Peugeot 908 HDi FAP) and skipped the 2010 race as its updated version of its 2009 Sebring-winning R15 TDI wasn't ready. Last year, Audi brought its older open-top R15 Plus Plus, as it was dubbed, out for a final run before shifting to the R18 coupe later in the year – and it will again bring a year-old car to Sebring in 2012.
The R18 brought to Sebring en masse is the not the team's updated hybrid version, which will debut in the European season. The three 2011-spec R18 TDIs that are in Sebring are certainly the favorites, even despite the 15kg weight penalty per the one-off exemption from the ACO. Still, with this being Sebring and considering two of the three were written off at last year's Le Mans, nothing's out of the question.
Rebellion – The Bart Hayden-led squad enters 2012 with several changes. Rebellion's cars will change to updated Lola B12/60 coupes once the European season hits, but at Sebring, the team will run its pair of 2011 chassis, still with Toyota engines. As these cars don't have the newly mandated shark fin for prototypes per 2012 regulations, this is another team running with the one-off ACO exemption and the corresponding 15kg weight penalty.
The liveries, however, are new – Rebellion's Lolas move from the red-and-gold of 2010 and 2011 (RIGHT) to the seemingly ubiquitous black-and-gold livery that is sprouting up throughout the world of motorsport this year. On the driving front, Nicolas Prost, Neel Jani and Andrea Belicchi return for full-season efforts, with Belicchi now joined by Harold Primat after the Swiss switches from Aston Martin Racing. The team's third drivers are Porsche Supercup ace and ALMS GTC class champion Jeroen Bleekemolen, as he was for Rebellion last year, and Nick Heidfeld – the ex-Formula 1 veteran who makes his initial voyage into sports car racing.
OAK Racing (P1 and P2) – OAK has two WEC entries for the season after three one year ago, and is the only team to split them between LMP1 and LMP2. The team's P2 entry has been badged a Morgan, although it will still be the Pescarolo-based chassis the team has campaigned for several years.
Last year, the team briefly led overall with its all-gentlemen driver P1 car during an early pit stop cycle, but a repeat situation is unlikely. Nevertheless, a stout driver lineup sees Bertrand Baguette alongside Guillaume Moreau and Dominik Kraihamer in the all-pro P1 entry, and Olivier Pla and Matthieu Lahaye joining team principal Jacques Nicolet in P2. Either car has the potential of achieving a respectable result.
Pescarolo Team – Henri Pescarolo soldiers on to fly the French flag with Peugeot out, and enters the WEC for 2012. Like Audi, Pescarolo isn't running his main 2012 challenger at Sebring – a one-race exemption has been granted for Pescarolo to run the grandfathered Pescarolo 01-Judd. The team will premiere its Pescarolo 03-Judd, based off the AMR-One tub, later in the year. The all-French driving lineup includes Emmanuel Collard, Jean-Christophe Boullion and Julien Jousse.
Strakka, JRM HPDs – Probably the best of the petrol cars on paper, Strakka moves up to LMP1 and JRM enters the WEC from the FIA GT1 World Championship, where it ran a Nissan GT-R. The HPD ARX-03a seems the best challenger to the Audi juggernaut, as was demonstrated with the staggering pace set by the sister Muscle Milk HPD during the ALMS winter test in February.
This updated version of the HPD ARX-01e ran to second at Sebring last year after being assembled barely a week in advance of the race, and both cars have solid driver lineups. Strakka's trio of Jonny Kane, Danny Watts and team principal Nick Leventis enters its third year together, with a P2 Le Mans 24 Hours win to its credit. Meanwhile, JRM's lead driver David Brabham should work well with sports car veteran Peter Dumbreck and part-time F1 racer Karun Chandhok. Assuming at least one Audi could hit problems, the HPD seems the logical car to move into podium contention.
PROTOTYPES - P2
Nissan entries – Nissan-powered LMP2 cars showed they had the pace at Sebring a year ago, as Soheil Ayari took pole in the Signatech Oreca 03 car over the Level 5 Lola HPDs. They didn't have the same level of reliability, though, on debut.
A year later, six of the nine WEC P2 entries have the Nissan engine, with three of them with Oreca 03 chassis (Signatech, ADR-Delta and Pecom), two Gulf Racing Middle East Lola B12/80 coupes, and a singular Zytek from Greaves Motorsport.
While ADR-Delta and Gulf are new P2 entrants, Signatech captured the 2011 ILMC P2 crown for teams, and Greaves snatched the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Le Mans Series P2 titles. Signatech's lineup features young pro drivers Franck Mailleux and Olivier Lombard alongside GT Academy winner Jordan Tresson, who moves into Lucas Ordonez's seat this year.
Greaves' ALMS-prepared trio of Elton Julian, Ricardo Gonzalez and Christian Zugel make the best of their respective ability levels. Pecom's lineup is perhaps strongest in Nissan's arsenal, as Ayari moves to the team alongside ex-Ferrari driver Pierre Kaffer and Luis Perez Companc. Pecom was the only WEC team to test at Sebring at the ALMS Winter Test in February (ABOVE).
Starworks HPD – Peter Baron's team has taken the plunge into the WEC as one of two American entrants, and may have the strongest lineup overall of the WEC P2 entrants. The team has recruited Stephane Sarrazin, ex-Peugeot pilot, alongside full-season drivers Ryan Dalziel and Enzo Potolicchio. Armed with the P2-spec HPD ARX-03b, this is a car and team that could make some noise.
Lotus – The Kodewa Lotus squad run by ex-F1 team principal Colin Kolles, who has dabbled in sports car racing before with customer Audi R10s, is another new team on the grid and has badged its Judd V8s as Lotus engines to go with its Lola B12/80 Coupe. The project is ambitious but unlikely to do much in the way of results its first time out, although if nothing else, it has an excellent dark blue, black and gold livery.
Ferrari – There will be six Ferraris split between GTE Pro and Am, three apiece. Defending ILMC GTE Pro class champions AF Corse now have a pair of Pro class Ferrari 458s entered after only going with one a year ago, and it's a good thing considering there are only five GTE Pro class entries in the 2012 WEC. With Risi's withdrawal, Toni Vilander became available to join the AF Corse Ferrari contingent.
Besides the Finn, Giancarlo Fisichella, Gianmaria Bruni, Andrea Bertolini, Olivier Beretta and Marco Cioci will be in the two Pro AF Corse cars. The team also had an Am class 458, a 2011-spec entry, to be run by the joint AF Corse-Waltrip partnership and drivers Michael Waltrip, Rob Kauffman and Rui Aguas.
Luxury Racing also has two 458s, but as they were unable to do a year ago with the 458 then a new car, now they're split between Pro and Am. The American-entered Krohn Racing 458 completes the Ferrari six-pack, as Tracy Krohn's squad upgrades from the 430 it ran a year ago. Krohn, Nic Jonsson and Michele Rugolo look to repeat their GTE Am class victory at Sebring.
Porsche – With only three European Porsche 911 GT3 RSRs making the voyage to Sebring, Porsche has one of its smallest “bumper crop” entries in recent years. The German Felbermayr-Proton squad has two of them, and is another team to split its cars into Pro and Am. Its Pro lineup is stout, with a trio of Porsche factory drivers in Richard Lietz, Marc Lieb and Patrick Pilet. The new JWA-Avila squad enters the WEC as the third of the one-off Porsches.
Aston Martin – The Prodrive-run factory Aston Martin Racing squad returns to its GT roots after its several year prototype sojourn. While the team's Lola Aston Martin V12 was among the crowd favorites and scored a number of victories, its last the overall win at last September's ALMS round at Mazda Raceway, its AMR-One was, frankly, an unmitigated disaster with persistent engine woes and a grand total of 6 race laps completed between its two cars at last year's 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Since 2011 couldn't have gone much worse, the team runs its newly premiered Vantage in the Pro category for Stefan Mucke, Adrian Fernandez and Darren Turner – another strong lineup. Now, the drivers have a car with which they can contend.
Corvette – Larbre's two GTE Am class Corvettes enter as defending class champions in the 2011 ILMC, and have upgraded its lead car's driver lineup. Ex-Peugeot pilot Pedro Lamy of Portugal joins Frenchmen Patrick Bornhauser and Julien Canal, two of the three that took Jack Leconte's squad to victory in class at last year's 24 Hours of Le Mans. The team's all-gentlemen second car is now entered for the full WEC.