Although testing was held at Sebring International Raceway on Monday and Tuesday, official practice kicked off Thursday with three sessions – two in the day and one of everyone's favorite sessions, the two-hour night practice, later on. Some news and notes from around the paddock:
RACE TO BUILD THE NEW CARS – If some observers may regret the fact some WEC prototype teams are running cars in 2011 specifications this weekend, a reality check of how hard assembling a new prototype is served by the teams that are running their new 2012 models.
New WEC entrants JRM Racing (LEFT) and Starworks Motorsport only got their HPDs within the last couple weeks, one P1 and one in P2 spec, and took them out for their first shakedowns late Tuesday afternoon. JRM's David Brabham, twice a class winner at Sebring (GT1 with Aston Martin, GT2 with Panoz), was in a similar situation last year when his Highcroft team assembled its HPD ARX-01e from boxes to a full car throughout the week – and with almost no time to fine tune, still finished second overall.
“It's almost déjà vu,” Brabham said of his situation. “Realistically we have a tough challenge. Our team is new to this form of racing, Peter (Dumbreck, co-driver) was last in a GT1 Mercedes-Benz in 1999, and our pit stops probably won't be there. Our goal's to finish, but the good news is the car is almost exactly the same as last year save for the aero.”
On the ALMS side, two prototype teams have had their first running of their new cars this week. Dyson's P1 Lola B12/60 Mazda (ABOVE the JRM car) and Black Swan Racing's ex-Level 5 Lola HPD coupe for P2 only arrived recently. Black Swan, which steps up from GTC, worked throughout the winter figuring out how to make its P2 aspirations a reality.Conquest Endurance was also new on track this week with its Morgan Judd, but its drivers at least had prior testing time last month – Martin Plowman's initial running came in France, but this week has had to make three different seats to accommodate himself next to his co-drivers.
“Once I'd agreed to make the switch, I was honestly a little nervous,” Plowman said. “Would it be a different kind of car, would it be jumping into something without I knew what I was getting into? But in the first 5-10 laps, in the car, it was real just like learning an IndyCar all over again. The driving style, driving balance is the same. Essentially it's a slightly heavier open-wheel car, and coming from IndyCar, it wasn't a dramatic switch.”
A video of Dyson putting its new P1 car together is below:
ALMS GT FIELD TIGHT, IF DOWN IN NUMBERS – The ALMS' GT class still has the most entries of any of the nine classes taken on their own (rather than combined), with 10 of the 64 entries. That said, the 10 still represents a sharp drop by seven from 17 a year ago at Sebring.
Risi Competizione's Ferrari 458 is the most obvious absence, but also gone are Robertson Racing's two Ford GT-Rs, the two Jaguars, and a single Panoz Abruzzi and Lamborghini Gallardo apiece. While Panoz and Lamborghini were each gone mid-season last year, Jaguar has now ended its disappointing two-year program, and the privateer Robertson squad has not found the funding to continue into a fifth season with its Fords. After debuting with a Panoz in 2007, this marks the first Sebring since 2006 devoid of the husband-and-wife team of David and Andrea Robertson.
The technical number may be down, but there's still north of 30 combined GT entries of the 64, with 10 ALMS GT, 9 GTC and 5 WEC GTE Pro and 9 GTE Am cars. And according to Corvette's Jan Magnussen, the 10 still running from Corvette, Porsche, Ferrari and BMW, are more closely linked than ever.
“At the moment it's hard to pick a clear favorite because it looks so evenly matched,” Magnussen said. “Last season, the BMWs were very strong and especially at the first part of the year. At the end of last season, the Ferraris were really fast. At this point I think that everyone's probably caught up a little bit, so I think the GT class will be about evenly matched up. Honestly I wouldn't be surprised if many of the cars would be really close at Sebring qualifying on Friday. It's going to be quite a fight.”
UNOFFICIAL 2003 REUNION – There's a handful of 2011 IndyCar part-timers all linked in their new sports car opportunities this weekend at Sebring. On a similar note, one look at the entry list notes a particularly high number of open-wheel drivers active in either Champ Car or Atlantics circa 2003, in a coincidental reunion.
Nearly 20 percent of the full-time Champ Car competitors from that year, Bruno Junqueira, Adrian Fernandez, Ryan Hunter-Reay and more obscure names like Joel Camathias and Roberto Gonzalez have popped up in the field. Junqueira, the 2003 Champ Car season runner-up, actually will co-drive with Gonzalez, brother of 2011 PC class co-champion Ricardo, in the ex-Genoa chassis now run by RSR Racing.
Fernandez, meanwhile, makes his return to Sebring after a year's hiatus in the Prodrive factory Aston Martin Racing GTE entry (RIGHT). The AMR squad missed last year's race while it was developing its AMR-One open-top prototype; Fernandez was third in the Lola Aston Martin V12 in 2010 with Stefan Mucke, one of his 2012 co-drivers, and Harold Primat. He also captured the P2 class win in his own Fernandez Acura ARX-01b in 2009. Hunter-Reay seeks to defend his P2 class win of a year ago in the Level 5 HPD ARX-03b.
The Atlantic field from 2003 is a more populous number. Eight of the 23 drivers who competed in at least one race that year are in the field. Ryan Dalziel, Michael Valiante, Joey Hand and Luis Diaz ran the full season, while Bryan Sellers, Jon Fogarty, Louis-Phillippe Dumoulin and Romain Dumas all made cameo appearances. Dalziel and Dumas are in WEC-entered prototypes while the remaining six span the ALMS P2 (Diaz, Fogarty), GT (Hand, Sellers) and GTC (Valiante, Dumoulin) classes.
OH BROTHER, CAN YOU GET A CLEAR LAP? – The consensus around the paddock Thursday was that the leap from 56 cars last year to 64 this year, although only eight in number, was still monumental in terms of getting a clear lap in without hitting traffic at some point.
"It's one word – nuts!" said Jeff Segal, who is making his ALMS debut this weekend with Extreme Speed Ferrari in ALMS GT.
"There's not huge breaks in the class timing, as it just follows one shortly by the other with not much differential," explained Fogarty, making his ALMS return after a long hiatus in a one-off drive for Black Swan Racing in P2. "There's no rust in handling it, but it's different, and it's been a long time."
"The important thing here is to get into a rhythm when you're being overtaken," said Dion Von Moltke, who will be in the GTC class with Alex Job Racing's Porsche GT3 Cup. "The sooner you allow the flow of traffic to happen, the better off you'll be."
Traffic is always a concern, but seems even more paramount this year.