If attending the 12 Hours of Sebring has been on your bucket list, start making your way to central Florida. The 61st edition of the event marks the final appearance of the American Le Mans Series at the legendary airport circuit before it's replaced by the unified, Grand-Am-sanctioned championship in 2014. And, like the ALMS itself, the headlining P1 cars will also be gone when practice gets underway for next year's race. With sports car racing set to undergo this dramatic change of eras, many fans, teams and manufacturers are going to be feeling a bit nostalgic.
41 cars are currently listed on Sebring's ever-evolving entry list, a significant drop from the 60-plus cars at last year's confusing ALMS + FIA WEC round. Despite the reduction in volume, and after months of speculation, it appears some of the more costly classes will have decent representation around the 3.7-mile, 17-turn course, and so this Saturday's 12-hour goodbye to P1 giants such as Audi is a must-see experience.
Of all the major marques, Audi has been bitten most heavily by “farewell fever,” sending a pair of its Le Mans-winning R18 e-tron quattro turbodiesel hybrids to make their competition debut in America. With 10 overall wins at Sebring, Audi has become synonymous with the event, the standard by which every other P1 car and team is measured and, without the Toyota factory squad to provide a challenge, there's no reason to expect that dynamic to change this weekend. Barring crashes or mechanical maladies, an Audi 1-2 seems inevitable, but that doesn't mean their internecine battle will be the least bit boring.
2011 and 2012 Le Mans winners Marcel Fassler and Benoit Treluyer will be without the fiery Andre Lotterer for the event, making the addition of rapid Brit Oliver Jarvis to the No. 1 R18 a rather interesting move. Based on pure speed and the less ragged, more complementary driving style of Jarvis, this should be the car to score Audi's 11th victory at Sebring.
And then there's the sister No. 2 car with Le Mans heroes Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish who once again have the services of Brazilian ex-F1 pilot Lucas di Grassi to rely upon. The hard-nosed trio worked well together at the 6 Hours of Sao Paulo last year, and the fact that each driver has something to prove – that they're fast enough, can avoid critical mistakes and deserve long-term contracts – should guarantee plenty of fireworks behind the wheel. One thing is certain: With factory P1 programs relying increasingly heavily on young open-wheel drivers, the elder statesmen in the No. 2 can't afford to let their younger teammate or the drivers in the No. 1 car come out ahead in a straight fight.
P1's informal “gasoline class” has four representatives, with 2012 ALMS champions Muscle Milk Pickett Racing flying the privateer flag with its HPD-ARX03c. Gearbox issues plagued the team last year, so if reliability can be maintained, the high-downforce machine and its talented driver lineup of Romain Dumas/Klaus Graf/Lucas Luhr should pose a threat to claim a podium finish.
Rebellion Racing has shipped its pair of Toyota-powered Lola B12/60 coupes stateside, and with its overall win at last year's Petit Le Mans in mind, the all-pro No. 12 entry of Nick Heidfeld, Neel Jani and Nicolas Prost will be a dark horse to monitor.
Dyson Racing's No. 16 Lola B12/60, returning with the AER-built Mazda turbo powerplant for a fifth season, will also have Michelin tires and technical support at its disposal. Coupled with the effortless rhythm found between drivers Chris Dyson, Butch Leitzinger and Guy Smith, the veteran team will run Sebring with its usual wide focus view on the ALMS P1 championship. A win is the goal, but earning maximum points will be the biggest priority.
The final member of the P1 class doesn't conform to the standard gas class conventions, but could be interesting to follow while it lasts. The DeltaWing, now owned by series founder Don Panoz, is back with a new Mazda-based turbo engine built by Panoz's Elan Power Products and Bridgestone as its tire supplier. Run by sports car veteran Dave Price, the team has conducted limited testing to date, and would surprise many by surviving late into the race with an unproven engine. Olivier Pla and Andy Meyrick will pilot the chrome-liveried prototype.
With four of the five P2 entries using HPD's ARX-03b chassis and its new-for-2013 direct-injection twin-turbo V6 engine, picking the winning manufacturer is easy. Selecting the winning lineup, however, isn't quite as simple.
Level 5 Motorsports owner/driver Scott Tucker, who will spend time in both of his Nos. 95 and 055 cars, has raided the sharp end of the IndyCar grid in search of co-drivers. 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay will trade his Chevy-powered Dallara DW12 for Honda horsepower as he makes a return to L5, while 2012 Indy 500 polesitter Ryan Briscoe and 2012 IndyCar Rookie of the Year Simon Pagenaud have recently been drafted into the program. 2010 ALMS P2 co-champion Marino Franchitti completes the 6-driver squad. Bearing in mind Briscoe's four-year absence from the P2 class, the Tucker/Hunter-Reay/Pagenaud combo in the No. 055 should have the edge.
The late switch by Extreme Speed Motorsports from ALMS GT to P2 will limit its chances, but with David Brabham reuniting with team owner/driver Scott Sharp in the No. 01, at least one of ESM's two cars should be in the mix with L5.
The most heavily subscribed prototype class for Sebring is found within the PC ranks, and while the spec V8-powered ORECA-Chevys might not set one's imagination alight, the sturdy cars tend to produce fraught battles from start to finish. Defending class champions CORE autosport is the natural pick for the win in the No. 05, while BAR1 Motorsports' two-car effort could spoil its plans. With seven cars in PC, and the frequent contact that occurs (when the slowish prototypes struggle to clear the faster GT cars), it's the one class where victory is usually awarded to the car that takes the fewest hits.
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