Endurance Racing

IMSA: Sebring – A Look At The Prototype Entries

Credit: Richard Dole LAT Images/IMSA

IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship returns to Florida for round two this weekend – the 12 Hours of Sebring

Welcome to the start of our coverage of the 66th Annual Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring presented by Advance Auto Parts, to give it its full name. The teams have set up, the hauler parade is over, and Green Park infield camping is already a smoky paradise of beer towers, paddling pools, grill setups and hardcore spring breakers. Pat Long once described the scene to Autoweek as “Burning Man meets sports car racing.” Now that’s our kind of party.

Turning towards the racetrack, there aren’t many changes affecting all teams. IMSA’s official test was run without timing and scoring, so although teams got old-school and clocked each other on stopwatches, any online number-crunching of the sort that happens between the Roar and Daytona has been reduced. On the tyre side, Continental needs to deliver after the nightmarish Rolex 24. Their newly-developed tyres will be run from Sebring throughout the rest of the season; teams and drivers have been complimentary so far, praising the P2700 prototype tyre‘s ability to handle multiple loads at the Sebring test, but race conditions are another story.

Most noticeably, and sadly, BAR1 Motorsports is missing from the entry – Brian Alder’s Plain City, OH based crew choosing to keep their Riley-Multimatic MkXXX at home for this one, and staying very quiet about future plans. The team had a difficult run up to the Rolex with limited parts availability and upgrade kits, and underwhelmed in the race itself. It’s never easy, or pleasant, watching teams struggle, and we hope that BAR1 can still make something happen and manage a successful step up from LMPC to the competitive and commercial realities of Prototype.

Despite BAR1 Motorsports staying away and an unsurprising silence from the D+3 Transformers entry that was supposedly making its debut at Sebring, the Prototype field boasts a healthy 16 cars and driver quality to match any race on Earth. Here’s our run through the entry list:

 

#2 – Tequila Patron ESM Nissan DPi / Scott Sharp, Ryan Dalziel, Olivier Pla

We expected the ESM crew to continue their 2017 season-ending form and take the fight to the Cadillac arsenal this year. However, a disappointing Rolex saw the team deal with a pre-emptive engine change during qualifying, multiple tyre issues and ultimate retirement in the early morning with gearbox issues. The speed of all three drivers was never in doubt, and Pla has multiple overall poles around here in Ligiers. If ESM can tune the car to suit the new Continental boots, expect this to be one of the very fastest cars on track. However, they’ll need to improve reliability to win.

 

#5 – Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R / João Barbosa, Filipe Albuquerque, Christian Fittipaldi

The record-beating performance at the Rolex hid a fraught final few hours for the team, as overheating problems racked up the tension in the pits and cockpit. At one point, the overheating situation was so desperate that engineers were telling Albuquerque to switch the engine off when braking keeping the throttle open, trying to maximise cooling airflow through the intakes. WTR took a Cadillac to the top step last year and this team, with these drivers, were the bridesmaids. However, a 10kg weight increase since the Rolex now makes the Cadillac the heaviest car in the class, putting teams at a relative disadvantage. Daytona showed AXR’s methodical preparation and gritty attitude, and the driving talent is world-class. That said, if you overheat at Daytona in January, you had better come up with a good fix for Sebring in March.

 

#6 – Acura Team Penske Acura ARX-05 / Dane Cameron, Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud

Despite the Rolex being their debut with this car in IMSA, the Penske crews probably went home disappointed. Ninth and tenth after extensive preparation and testing, including a podium at Petit in what was really a toe in the water, is not up to team boss Roger Penske’s standards. The team tested heavily at Sebring and should have some serious data banked already, and engineering talent at Penske should make light work of adapting to new tyres. Former champion Cameron is a star, IndyCar champion Pagenaud was previously a factory Peugeot man, but Montoya will need to sharpen his endurance skills to match the still huge speed he delivers – he made contact with traffic at Petit and the Rolex, and left several GT drivers unimpressed. The Acuras have also lost a litre of fuel capacity through BoP, as well as provisional boost revision right through the rev range from 2000-7550rpm.

 

#7 – Acura Team Penske Acura ARX-05 / Ricky Taylor, Helio Castroneves, Graham Rahal

Last year’s winner Ricky Taylor wants back-to-back wins with different teams, cars and co-drivers. Castroneves came to Sebring with Penske in 2007, running the incredible Porsche RS Spyders, and took fifth. Rahal’s been a regular name in endurance rides across America, including a seat in Michael Shank’s Acura NSX program and an overall victory at the Rolex for Penske arch-rivals Chip Ganassi Racing. Helio has been a revelation in sports cars, mixing maturity and on-track savvy with humility and eagerness to learn – a Sebring victory will surely come in time for the fan favourite. Whether it’s this year alongside the returning victor in a new car depends on the reliability of the established entries.

 

#10 – Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R / Jordan Taylor, Renger van der Zande, Ryan Hunter-Reay

Last year’s Sebring winners. Team boss and US sports car hero Wayne Taylor retired his entry from the Rolex after multiple unexplained tyre failures, citing his unwillingness to risk the drivers’ safety on the 200mph high banks. Of all the teams in the paddock, WTR are probably most pleased to see the improved Continental tyres from Sebring onwards. Flying Dutchman van der Zande knows the track from his two third-place finishes for Starworks in LMPC, and Hunter-Reay has clocked serious testing miles around the Florida concrete – both are missing a big trophy from the race itself in their cabinets though. Tyre failures aside, WTR had a reliable and fast car at Daytona – even with IMSA’s BoP revision, WTR’s proven engineering talent and a driver lineup that blends speed with hunger should worry its rivals.

 

#22 – Tequila Patron ESM Nissan DPi / Johannes van Overbeek, Pipo Derani, Nicolas Lapierre

It was with this team, on this track, that Pipo Derani carved through the field – “like a thermic lance through a muffin,” according to IMSA Radio’s John Hindhaugh – to put ESM in Victory Lane in 2016. The pint-sized Brazilian has been devastatingly effective ever since, and ESM did well to keep him locked into the team when his stock soared. ESM stalwart van Overbeek was alongside him for that win, and Lapierre took a surprise overall win here in a privateer ORECA Peugeot back when LMP1 still ran at Sebring. ESM come to the race off the back of testing here too, so have plenty of data and pit garage talent to match the quality of their driving squads. The only question mark is over reliability.

 

#31 – Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R / Eric Curran, Felipe Nasr, Mike Conway

Different name, same parent team as the #5. The Whelen Engineering team come under the Action Express Racing banner, and won’t have taken their defeat at Daytona lightly. They took a hard-fought second earlier this year and came third at Sebring in 2017, again behind the sister car. Having lost Dane Cameron to Acura Team Penske, Whelen gave ex-F1 man Nasr a shot after he impressed in the ride he won through the Sunoco Whelen Challenge. Safe to say, Nasr has already impressed far more in IMSA than he ever did in low-ranked F1 equipment. Eric Curran’s developed into a top-flight driver and Mike Conway is capable of prototype heroics. If the new squad can keep gelling together and catch a lucky yellow flag or play cunning with fuel, they’ll be in the mix.

 

#32 – United Autosports Ligier JS P217 / Paul di Resta, Phil Hanson, Alex Brundle

United’s single car is confirmed for the remainder of the NAEC following a fairly successful debut at the Rolex 24. Although the hero car with Alonso aboard finished well down the order, a fourth place finish for the sister car which counted endurance rookie Paul di Resta aboard was reward enough for the happy Anglo-American team. With planned lead driver Bruno Senna recovering from surgery, United favourite Alex Brundle got a last-minute call up. Phil Hanson continues to learn, and clocked mileage at the Sebring test as well as Dunlop’s tyre test in Motorland Aragón. United have some support from new technical partners Andretti, who have been successful here in the past. Honestly, despite Brundle’s Sebring history, the team’s lack of experience could bite. That said, a decent top ten isn’t off the cards, and would make the Garforth-based crew very happy indeed.

 

#38 – Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca 07 / James French, Kyle Masson, Pato O’Ward, Joel Miller

Performance Tech walked all over the swansong year of LMPC, romping home with every title. Their first race in the top class saw a top ten finish for the team, who have brought all their drivers up the ladder with them. French and Masson have climbed the US sportscar ladder and know every kerb and bump at Sebring. Pato O’Ward blinded everyone with his speed last year, and is dovetailing his climb up the Mazda Road To Indy ladder alongside a drive in IMSA Prototype Challenge. Mazda refugee Joel Miller is back for Sebring too. This is a team worthy of their place in the class, so look for them to keep punching up.

 

#52 – AFS/PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 / Sebastián Saavedra, Gustavo Yacamán, Roberto Gonzalez

Endurance newcomer Saavedra meets quick but accident-prone Yacamán for the full season. Saavedra answered any doubts about his speed at Daytona, admirably getting dialled into WEC-spec LMP2 kit and Daytona and proving his pace can match his teammate. Yacamán is doing better work now than previous years, leaving fewer carbon shards and angry drivers in his wake. Mexican racer Roberto Gonzalez competed in Champ Car in the early 2000s, as well as the Silverstone, Spa and Le Mans rounds of the 2017 WEC for CEFC Manor in their Oreca LMP2. He also has Sebring experience courtesy of an LMPC seat in RSR Racing. There are definitely gems of talent in this outfit, but expect them to shine once the team’s had longer to settle down.

 

#54 – CORE Autosport Oreca 07 / Jon Bennett, Colin Braun, Romain Dumas

The surprising not-quite-surprise of Daytona. On one hand, a single car team with a gentleman driver up against the multi-car powerhouse efforts elsewhere. On the other, the fastest WEC-Spec LMP2 with three quarters of its crew being Colin Braun, Romain Dumas and Loïc Duval. CORE retain Dumas at Sebring, who brings race-winning experience from his time in Penske Porsches. Braun and Bennett took two wins and a podium at Sebring driving CORE Autosport’s LMPC entry together before a quiet year in GTD. A return to Sebring in prototype machinery pleased them both, with Bennett commenting that the new Continental tyres improve the driveability of the car through corners, making the gentleman driver’s job easier. Although other teams will have developed their way out of reliability issues that gave CORE a dream run at Daytona, Braun and Dumas will be on the pace immediately.

 

#55 – Mazda Team Joest Mazda RT24-P / Jonathan Bomarito, Spencer Pigot, Harry Tincknell

Despite being achingly pretty, the Mazda RT24-P is a problem child. Even the legendary Team Joest, whose decades of Le Mans winning experience was brought to bear on the Riley Multimatic-based DPi, are finding the going tough. The car is closer on pace this year but still suffers from consistent reliability issues, including a habit of catching fire. Mazda loyalists Bomarito and Pigot are owed a good results in sports cars after all they’ve done for the brand, and Bomarito in particular for the development mileage he’s put into the RT24-P. Harry Tincknell can’t be too pleased either – the Allan McNish protege’s been unluckily involved in Nissan’s abortive LMP1 effort and now the capricious Mazda. More mechanical trouble at the Sebring test saw the team leave after Day 1, reportedly after completing their job list.

 

#77 – Mazda Team Joest Mazda RT24-P / Tristan Nunez, Oliver Jarvis, Rene Rast

Another stellar driver lineup hampered so far by poor reliability. Mazda’s attempts to squeeze 600bhp from a 2 litre 4-cyl when rivals are using larger capacity V6 and V8 blocks has been suggested as the cause, but sadly there’s seemingly no movement towards screaming rotaries, as used in Mazda RX-8 Grand-Am cars. Mazda Team Joest were using the #77 for tyre evaluation at the official IMSA test, but no stopwatches give us little to go on when assessing pace. However, high downforce bodykits are being deployed at Sebring, which Joest has had ample time to develop and which could potentially surprise a few. A 2 litre bump in fuel capacity also gives Mazda the joint-largest tank in the class for Sebring, and team boss Ralf Jüttner has been reported as saying engine partner AER have identified and fixed the specific issue that’s been causing fires.

 

#85 – JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 / Simon Trummer, Robert Alon, Nelson Panciatici

The Banana Boat has a new shipmate for Sebring – Frenchman Nelson Panciatici joins the crew, bringing new data sponsor Smartlogic with him. Panciatici’s first taste of the Sebring concrete came at the test, and he came away very happy with the car and team after his first crack at racing Stateside. Simon Trummer bedded in well at Daytona, and with a few more miles in IMSA the ex-WEC Swiss competitor will certainly make himself felt at the top of the field. If the less experienced Robert Alon can keep his nose clean and Panciatici acquaints himself with IMSA racing quickly, this could be a top 5 finisher.

 

#90 – Spirit of Daytona Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R / Tristan Vautier, Matt McMurry, Eddie Cheever III 

Spirit of Daytona kicked off 2018 on their third chassis since DPi was introduced, having ditched the uncompetitive Riley Multimatic in favour of the Ligier that van der Zande used for one of the most incredible passes you’ll ever see, before returning to the General Motors fold for this year with a new Cadillac. It was effective, too – Vautier in particular was consistently one of the very fastest drivers on track at the Rolex. It was an early bath for the Florida team however, as they were the first team to retire – expect a renewed effort at Sebring. Matt McMurry – son of Autocon, Miracle Motorsports and 2005 Sebring class winner Chris – looked comfortable too. A lack of experience could hold Eddie Cheever III back, but the team has enough experience to bring him up to speed throughout the event.

 

#99 – JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 / Stephen Simpson, Misha Goikhberg, Chris Miller

After years spent away from its spiritual home of American sports car racing, it was a joy to see GAINSCO sponsorship back again, the fan favourite ‘Red Dragon’ honour falling this year to JDC-Miller’s 2017 crew in the reliveried Oreca. Stephen Simpson is still one of the most underrated drivers in the world and despite being less famous than some, is capable of taking the fight to anyone on the grid. Misha Goikhberg is a driver transformed, too – long gone are the mistakes of previous years, and in their place is a capable and committed gentleman driver. The coach-amateur pairing keep endurance partner Miller aboard for 2018. It’s a carbon copy of the setup that netted JDC-Miller fourth overall last year, beating more fancied teams. It’ll take reliability woes in the DPi ranks for that to reasonably happen again, but the WEC-Spec Oreca should be a reliable warhorse by now and has shown speed too. If DPi teams hit strife once again, expect this car to be one of the first WEC-Spec entries picking up the pieces.

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