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.
Next page: GT classes
Although the prototype classes will look decidedly different at Sebring in 2014, fans of the ALMS GT category can breathe a sigh of relief. The wildly popular class will go forward unchanged, but there are questions regarding whether every manufacturer will stay in GT or switch to one of the Rolex Series categories.
For now, the 12 Hours represents a guaranteed opportunity to witness reigning class winners BMW duel with factory entries from Aston Martin, Corvette, and SRT Viper. Works-supported Ferrari and Porsche privateers bring the count to 12 cars.
BMW, with its partners at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, has parked the proven M3 V8 platform in favor of the stunning Z4 V8. The Z4 isn't new to endurance racing, and RLLR put the Nos. 55 and 56 through the paces in preseason testing at Sebring, but there are always concerns about reliability when a car like the Z4 debuts at a concussive circuit like Sebring.
If one of the Z4s can race without interruption, back-to-back victories for BMW is within the realm of possibilities, but the increased speed and zombie-like constitution of the Corvette Racing team makes me believe a C6.R will be the first to reach the checkered flag. The C6.Rs are always there or thereabouts, always moving forward, and with the wider suspension and higher rear wing mounting that transformed them into 2012 ALMS champions, the title-winning team of Oliver Gavin/Tommy Milner/Richard Westbrook in the No. 4 should open their season in grand style.
Risi Competizione is back with essentially the same team that earned the 2011 ALMS GT championship, and with Gimmi Bruni leading the No. 62 Ferrari F458 effort, a podium finish is more than possible. Two separate Porsche entries have plenty of talent to draw upon, but with 2013 serving as a transition year for the brand as it readies the GT version of its new 991, Sebring could be a forgettable experience.
Aston Martin and SRT Viper rank as the two major wild cards in the entire event. In terms of year-to-year development progress, the Vipers made the biggest leap in the GT paddock. SRT also revised its driver lineup, adding 2012 FIA WEC P2 champ Ryan Dalziel and 2010 Rolex GT title-winner Jonathan Bomarito to the program for the entire season. All of the tweaks and upgrades should result in a strong return to the 12 Hours for the Riley Technologies-run Vipers. The potential is certainly there for the V10-powered Nos. 91 and 93 to race inside the top 5, and with their debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans set for June, getting to the finish will be the most important goal to achieve on Saturday. First comes reliability, then reliability and speed…
Depending on the track, AMR's Vantage V8s can be blindingly fast, and of its two entries, the No. 97 of Darren Turner/Stefan Mucke/Bruno Senna can be expected to live on or above the limit throughout the race. Newcomer Senna is the car's personnel wildcard, and if the ex-Williams F1 driver and his co-drivers can avoid getting caught up in accidents, the British marque could be a handful to deal with.
The identical Porsche 911 GT3 Cup cars will be absorbed into the Rolex GT class for 2014, giving the ALMS GTC competitors one last dogfight at Sebring in their own category. Multiple ALMS GT champions Flying Lizard Motorsports has dropped down to GTC this season, making them a Sebring and title favorite based on history alone, but the class is overflowing with stellar drivers and teams that have no intention of letting that happen.
Frankly, I could offer suggestions on which car might win, but when the two Lizard cars have possibly the weakest driver lineups in GTC, there's no need to bother. The class receives the least amount of coverage during the race, but for those in attendance, it's the only one that guarantees a 12-hour slugfest that will defy any predictions that are made!
Qualifying will be streamed live on Friday, March 15, at 1:05 p.m. ET on SPEED.com. Race coverage begins Saturday, March 16, at 10:30 a.m. ET on SPEED.