Sometimes it's necessary to take a half step backward to go forward; short-term pain, long-term gain. In the best of all possible worlds, you tread water while others make the short-term sacrifices, then grab the long-term gains when they're there for the taking.
In a nutshell, that's the Ferrari contingent's tale at the 59th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. While Risi Competizione, Extreme Speed Motorsports and Luxury Motorsports debuted the striking (but tardy) new 458 Italia with a minimum of testing, AF Corse, CRS (62, ABOVE) and Krohn Racing ran the Ferrari F430 GT that has been the backbone of Modena's worldwide GT effort since 2006.
Nobody doubts the totally new 458 will ultimately prove superior to the 430. When will that superiority in speed and, just as important, reliability manifest itself? That's the $64m or, rather, (at Sebring), the 12-hour question. For while there are longer races on the schedule, none are more brutal than the 720 minutes of automotive S&M meted out by the washboard surfaces of Sebring International Raceway.
“The 458 has been tested in Europe,” notes Giuseppe Risi. “They've done a lot of miles, a lot of component testing, but the proof is going to be in the pudding. And this is going to be the track that tells us what it doesn't like about us.”
Truth be told, if Risi had his druthers, his team would have run a 430 at Sebring. He well knows the 458 is a little too new, his team a little too unfamiliar with it, to extract its maximum performance and reliability – things that would be second nature with the 430. But ESM brought two 458s to Sebring and it wouldn't do for Risi, Ferrari's ALMS standard bearer, to run old faithful while a customer team ran the cutting-edge car. Then again, ESM's hand was also forced, albeit for different reasons. The team sold one of its 430s to Krohn Racing over the winter in anticipation of a two-pronged 458 effort in 2011. Had they known the 458 would be delivered in March instead of January, they might have taken a different tack.
“I believe the only common part between the 430 and 458 are the taillight lenses,” smiled team owner Scott Sharp. “If the 458 was just an evolution of the 430, we might have considered starting the season with the 430 and switching to the 458 when we got comfortable with it. Or we might have brought a 430 as a spare. But the cars are so different, we'd have needed a separate transporter and spares for the 430, like two different operations.”
In contrast, AF Corse made an 11th-hour decision to run its 430 after getting a brief test of its 458 at snowy Paul Ricard circuit hours before loading for the trip to central Florida. Krohn, on the other hand, only gave passing thought to a 458 before settling on the 430. That had much to do with its plans to contest the new GTE category for pro/amateur driving teams in the Intercontinental Le Mans Championship that bars such teams from running state-of-the-art equipment. Equally, having a known quantity appealed to Tracy Krohn.
“I kind of like things that I know are going to perform,” he says. “I've made a lot of money buying old oil and gas fields, putting a little bit of effort into them and making them more valuable. This is sort of the same approach. The 458 is certainly fast and it's going to get faster, but on the other hand, that's a development program.
“We considered getting a 458 and then we said ‘No, we want to go run the ILMC and GTE class.' That's a better class and series for me and it was a chance to see a bunch of good tracks in some other areas of the world.”
Practice and qualifying suggested Ferrari faced a win-win proposition. Although one 458 or the other topped the official practice sessions, it was AF Corse's F430, in the hands of Gianmaria Bruni, that stopped the qualifying clock at 2min01.561sec. That was half a second quicker than Jaime Melo in Risi's 458.
“If I'm totally honest, I would rather have the 458,” said Bruni, “but we know the 430. The track conditions for qualifying were very hot and we knew what to do. The track conditions will change a lot, I think, over 12 hours.”
Over at ESM, a puzzled Sharp noted, “We know the car is good when it's cool – we were fast in night practice – but we're chasing it when it's hot. The challenge is to get it better in the heat of the day…and make sure we're still running when it cools off. With double points for this race, if you have a problem you spend the whole season trying to dig yourself out of the hole.”
There was more to the GT class than the intergenerational Ferrari matchup. A fiercely diverse manufacturers battle saw BMW debut its new M3, ever-strong Corvette with its bullet-proof C6-ZR1s and five Porsche 911 GT3-RSRs supplemented by an assortment of Ford GTs, Jaguar XKRs, an Aston Martin Vantage, Lamborghini Gallardo and Panoz Abruzzi.
From the get-go, there was little to choose among the BMWs, Corvettes, the quickest Porsches and the quickest Ferraris, regardless of their vintage. Although Oliver Gavin got the drop on Bruni, the Italian dove under the Brit's 'Vette at the start of lap 7, then held his ground – with a little bit of contact – into Turn 2. When Dirk Mueller tried to follow suit a few laps later, the contact was a little harder, sending the BMW to the pits with a flat tire. Meanwhile, Melo looked on from a discreet distance with ESM's Patron 458s also in the mix.
A flubbed pit stop cost AF Corse several spots in the first hour, but Bruni was never in danger of falling off the lead lap. A steady flow of full-course yellows and the new pace car procedures (to ensure prototypes and GTs got equal treatment), coupled with the fact that the BMWs, Corvettes, top Ferraris and Porsches lapped within one second of each other – kept front runners in close proximity.
Literally. Patrick Long's ambitious effort to dive under Jan Magnussen's Corvette two whole hours into the race sent both cars into a spin, and left a closely following Johannes van Overbeek nowhere to go but into the wall…to the extreme detriment of his ESM Ferrari.
That apart, the GT battle continued unabated through the afternoon, although pit penalties continued to hurt the AF Corse entry, likewise ESM's 458.
“The car is very good on the racetrack,” said Bruni. “It's the pit stops that have not been good! The team put so much effort into the test and then preparing the 430 for the race that there was no time to practice pit stops.”
Nevertheless, the AF Corse 430 stayed in the mix along with the BMWs, Corvettes and the Risi 458. Clever pit strategy put Mika Salo and the Risi Ferrari out front during one caution, only for the BMWs to blow past on the restart. An hour later, a sanguine Salo turned the car over to Toni Vilander.
“They had fresh tires and it took mine two or three laps to get up to operating temperature,” said the ex-Formula 1 driver. “There was no sense in fighting them and, anyway, at the end of the stint we were only four seconds behind.”
Oddly, the first chink in the Ferrari armor appeared when the right-rear window on the AF Corse 430 worked loose. Worse was to befall both the Risi and ESM 458s as the Patron Ferrari's gearbox played up, then the Risi car suffered electrical problems. While the ESM crew effected repairs and returned to the race some 40 laps in arrears, the Risi entry retired around 9 p.m. with a broken alternator. That left the AF Corse 430 to uphold Ferrari's honor, finishing fifth behind the BMWs and Corvettes after falling a lap down during another pit penalty.
And coming home 11 laps behind the GT-winning BMW of Muller, Andy Priaulx and Joey Hand was the Krohn 430 (RIGHT). That would be second in the “Ferrari class” but first in GTE. “Not a single mechanical issue,” smiled Krohn. “We changed tires, added fuel and a little oil. The car was never behind the wall.”
The highest placed Ferrari 458? That would be the Luxury Racing entry which finished ninth in GT, 20 laps down to the class winners.
So what did the most brutal 12 hours of the season prove? For all the talk about the need to finish, their late mechanical issues dropped EMS and Risi to 11th and 12th in GT. As only cars and teams running the full ALMS schedule are included in the points table (AF Corse and Luxury Racing, like Krohn, are committed to the ILMC), Ferrari collected just 13 manufacturer points (to 30 for BMW and 27 for Corvette) and now Risi and ESM begin digging themselves and Ferrari out of the hole.
With only Risi and ESM planning a full ALMS campaign, Ferrari's fortunes rest on the new car. Half a second off the 430's pace in qualifying, the Risi 458's fast lap of 2:01.9sec was nearly a second quicker than the AF Corse entry in the race. For perspective, the BMWs' fastest lap was a 2:01.5, the Corvettes' a 2:02.0 and the Porsches' a 2:02.6. But then, fast laps don't tell the whole story.
“We need to improve, work a little bit on the setup and try to get some straightline speed,” says Melo. “I can tell you, it wasn't easy to keep up with the BMWs or the Corvettes at the end; they were pretty consistent…. The 458 is a brand-new car and now we understand a lot about it. We just need to test and develop the car, make it easy to drive and get a little more speed from it.”
Rest assured, the Ferrari contingent will do just that, but knowing full well that BMW, Corvette, Porsche and the rest will not be treading water.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the May 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.