After 18 hours of running during IMSA’s multiple-day test for 35 cars entered – and one surprise newcomer – we go through the stories that came from the bumps and runways of Florida’s legendary theatre of endurance.
First up, and most difficult for fans who usually catch the action online, IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar test sessions were run without timing and scoring for purposes of BoP. There were stopwatches galore on the pit wall, both to work out where teams were at and what the competition was capable of.
After an unseasonably cold Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, the conditions at Sebring were close to what we can usually expect for the race, with daytime air temperatures brushing 30 Celsius. For the teams looking to get data on their high-downforce aero kits and understand Continental’s new tyres, it was ideal.
On that, the new Continental tyres were getting much more love. It was welcome news for after the horror show at Daytona that saw multiple punctures across all classes and forced WTR to retire its Cadillac for safety reasons following a constant spate of unexplained punctures. The new spec Continental boots will be the P2700 for Prototype runners and G6500 for GT Daytona, and are expected to be used for the remainder of the season. Michelin has already been announced as the “Official Tire of IMSA” for 2019 onwards.
The new GT tyre has more rounded edges and was reported to cool better than earlier Continentals by Park Place Motorsports’ Patrick Lindsey. CORE Autosport’s Colin Braun and gentleman racer Jon Bennett were equally complimentary about the new Prototype boots, reporting to SC365 that they are better able to deal with simultaneous cornering and acceleration, making corner entry and exit more comfortable for Prototype drivers.
There were a few changes from the planned entry list in the prototype field, including a last minute trans-Atlantic dash by Alex Brundle.
“Bruno wasn’t feeling too good and not up to the test so I’m just lending a hand with the test until he’s up on his feet,” said the British LMP2 ace.
Brundle had a day’s notice after a call from United Autosport team boss Richard Dean. With experience in LMP2, at Sebring and with the team, he was the perfect plug-and-play guy to get Sebring newcomers Phil Hanson and Paul di Resta up to speed.
“Paul’s a class act so he should be on it in five seconds flat, I’ll help as much as I can with LMP2 specifics. Phil’s got the right mentality and a bit of time in LMP2 now so it’s just the lumps and bumps of Sebring to learn,” said Brundle.
We can’t say much at all without timing and scoring data, but the Anglo-American squad were generally confident in how things went. Both United’s owner and MD Richard Dean and race driver Phil Hanson were very happy with the development of their Ligier JS P217 over the test.
“We’ve integrated ourselves with Sebring – which was a new track for me – and collectively, as we tried to do at Daytona, focus on the race by gathering as much information and data as we possibly could for next month,” said di Resta.
The United chassis is the car they ran in ELMS last year, and will stay in the USA at Andretti Autosport’s shop in Indianapolis for the remainder of United’s previously announced NAEC campaign. As well a hashtag #WalkAndUnite that looks so pre-planned you’d think the teams picked each other deliberately, the global tie-up between United, Andretti and Walkinshaw also resulted in United getting their newly-liveried truck sorted before the test.
Beyond the red, white and blue Ligier, JDC-Miller Motorsports had a new driver in the #85 ‘Banana Boat’. Double ELMS champion and Signatech Alpine favourite Nelson Panciatici joined the team to test alongside full season crew Robert Alon and Simon Trummer. Despite considerable experience in Alpines that were so directly badge-engineered from their Oreca counterparts that the cars had two chassis plates, this was the Frenchman’s first go in Oreca’s latest LMP2.
You don’t need timing and scoring to tell you something’s wrong with an engine. Sebring newcomer Harry Tincknell stopped on track during Thursday’s running with smoke coming from under the rear deck of his RT24-P. It was less than ideal for Mazda Team Joest, who’ve suffered relentless problems with the AER powerplant in their DPi. It was an early bath for the team, with neither car turning another lap after Tincknell’s issue. The team packed up and left, although it’s been reported that the sister #77 car completed the team’s planned evaluation of the new Continentals before running ended.
There were brief reliability issues for ESM too. The 2016 Sebring winners had a scare on Friday, with their #22 Onroak Nissan DPi stopping out on the circuit with Pipo Derani at the wheel. A tow back to the pits followed, and the crew went to work. Clearly, no major damage was done, as the car resumed running shortly afterwards.
It was mostly productive, uneventful running in the GTLM field. It only takes one, however, and on Friday the #25 BMW Team RLL M8 GTE hit the barriers at Turn 17, damaging the left and rear bodywork on the car. Although no critical damage was done, the car lost some running time in the later sessions that night.
BMW also took the opportunity to bed in their latest acquisition – official test and reserve driver and BMW Motorsport Junior Colton Herta. The 17 year old son of former road racer Bryan Herta (the other car in Zanardi’s pass at Laguna – you can have that for free) got his first taste of GT3 machinery after a career spent mostly in the cockpit of single seaters.
“Having never driven a GT car before, it was a day of firsts for me. I really enjoyed the experience and felt that I fit right in,” said the young Californian.
“While I was expecting to sense the weight difference from the open wheel cars I currently race but what did take some laps to really understand was the braking. You sit in a different relationship to the tires so your sense of the force is much different. I had thought that a GT car’s grip would be less in the high speed corners, but there was a surprising amount of downforce.”
There were new drivers in GTD too. Two, in fact, sharing one car – the surprise addition of CJ Wilson Racing’s Acura NSX GT3, which arrived unannounced to the test. The team made its on-track WeatherTech SportsCar Championship debut at Sebring, with established CJWR drivers Marc Miller getting gent racer Till Bechtolsheimer accustomed to GT3 racing and multi-class traffic. There’ll be a separate article on IMSA’s new kids on the block soon.
Drivers were also very happy about IMSA’s decision to offer night practice at the official pre-race test. Driving the only Lamborghini present, series veteran Bryan Sellers was full of praise for IMSA’s relationship with its customer teams.
“The night practice thing is great. These are the things you like to see in the evolution of a series – listening to the feedback from the people at hand and giving us the things that are reasonable to us,” he said in an extended conversation with IMSA Radio pit reporter Shea Adam.
“Opportunity to run Sebring at night is few and far between, we get an hour and a half to two hours running before the race but it’s never really enough. We can get things like lights aimed correctly now, and run through things we need to run before the race.” With the race at Sebring running into the night, this was a valuable chance for new drivers to learn how to drive the notoriously difficult track at night, as well as give teams data on the new tyre and aero performance in the changing conditions at night.
Off the back of a hugely contentious decision by IMSA during the Rolex 24 that resulted in a stormy aftermath in media and fan forums, Montaplast by Land-Motorsport came to Sebring intending to make a different kind of headline. Audi R8 LMS Cup champion Alessio Picariello joined the team Stateside, fresh off the back of an announcement that he’ll contest the ADAC GT Masters with Land sharing an Audi with Chris Mies. It was Mies who picked the upcoming Belgian for Sebring, too, and decided to rebrand his new co-driver ‘Pikachu’.
“The team told me I can choose my teammate and he was the first guy in my mind,” said the factory Audi star.
“I rate him very, very, very high and he’s Silver! He’s one of the best Silvers I know and I’m sure he’ll do a good job.” Mies. “With Sheldon, ‘Pikachu’ and myself we work really well together, and with the mechanics as well as the drivers we have a really good team.”
Given the undoubted speed of ‘Pikachu’ and his eagerness to prove himself in America, as well as a team so well-prepared that IMSA penalised them (and amended the rulebook) for having completely legally discovered a way to save seconds at each pitstop by carefully rearranging the baffles in their fuel cell, expect Land to go catch them all come race day. We’ll know the result in under three weeks.