Pipo Derani, Johannes van Overbeek and Nicolas Lapierre took ESM’s lean green twin-turbo machine to a St Patrick’s day win at America’s oldest road racing track.
It was a masterclass in old-school endurance racing that landed ESM their second win at Sebring, and Nissan their fifth. The #2 ESM car had looked fast before the race, but Olivier Pla’s move around the outside of polesitter Tristan Vautier’s #90 Spirit of Daytona Cadillac resulted in side-to-side contact, shattering the gearbox internals and forcing retirement without completing a single race lap.
One team who were surprised to make it through the first lap were the #99 JDC-Miller Motorsports ‘Red Dragon’ crew. The car had refused to start and, suspecting an electrical issue, the team chased the fault down through miles of wiring, eventually repairing the Oreca and sending Stephen Simpson out without power steering or telemetry to start the race from the pitlane.
Vautier survived the first corner incident with Pla and made the early running, leading from the pair of Acura Team Penske entries and both Action Express Cadillacs. As the field were carving their way through the GTD traffic, Sebastian Saavedra lost the #52 AFS/PR1 Mathiasen Ligier over Sebring’s fast, bumpy Turn 17. Frankie Montecalvo went wide to avoid the spinning Colombian, but clipped the prototype and flipped the #64 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 into the barriers. Montecalvo walked away unharmed and as safety teams righted his car and set about repairing the wall, IMSA Radio reported the team preparing equipment and parts to get the car back out into the race. Unfortunately, a later interview with #64 driver Bill Sweedler revealed the car was now shorter than Ferrari’s design intended and had to be retired, leaving Sweedler and Townsend Bell without any race mileage.
It was Ricky Taylor in the #7 Acura Team Penske entry who led following pitstops under caution, in front of Felipe Nasr’s Whelen-sponsored Action Express Cadillac and Derani in the surviving ESM Nissan. The top three ran closely for the rest of the opening hour, as a repeat of Daytona’s extended green flag running showed the true pace of the prototype field on long runs. Clearly, IMSA had found a sweet spot with BoPing the different DPi teams; a top three of Acura-Cadillac-Nissan proved the technical team’s calculations were going to make for a very even race.
What was also immediately obvious was the improved pace and reliability of the Mazdas. Team Joest, I’m sorry I called your baby “a problem child.” Seemingly all grown up, both Mazdas were not on fire, instead turning competitive laptimes in the hands of Spencer Pigot and Olly Jarvis; they could hold their drink too, consistently stretching their fuel loads to a lap over other DPi runners. This frugal running put both cars out of sequence, and with two hours gone it was a Mazda Team Joest 1-2 at the top of the timing screens. Whatever else happened that day, Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan could say the team had come a long way.
More green flag running and slick pitwork by AXR saw Eric Curran lead in the Whelen car, putting in one of the stints of his life to hit fuel numbers, conserve tyres in the midday heat and hold off defending champion Jordan Taylor in the WTR Cadillac. Taylor had a scare leaving the pits – Andy Lally’s #44 Magnus Audi R8 was fully committed through Turn 1 as Taylor accelerated out of the pits; the two made contact, unsettling the Cadillac enough for Taylor to have to catch a slide but luckily not breaking anything major on either car. Elsewhere, Nicolas Lapierre was pushing the #22 like a man determined to bag a second overall Sebring win and Helio Castroneves was trying similar things in the Penske Acura, which seemed more settled over the bumps than the hyper-stiff ESM Nissan.
And then a tent blew onto the track. After more than three hours of green, a full course caution was served to let officials remove the large gazebo from where the wind had blown it onto Turn 10. The #77 Mazda had been suffering from brake problems, and lost time behind the wall as mechanics tried to rectify a lack of pressure in the system. WTR were suffering too – despite IMSA allowing a pressurised coolant refill system to be used in the pitlane rather than in the team garage behind the wall, a geyser was spewing high above the Cadillac from the vent above the cockpit at every stop.
Cautions breed cautions, and a spate of them followed. Firstly for Alex Brundle, who’d had an off in United’s Ligier as he was getting his lap back under wavearound. Then other incidents and GT contact, during which time ESM serviced Derani quickly enough to beat the #7 Acura and #55 Mazda out of the pits to lead again in the early afternoon.
Into the second half of the race, it was Renger van der Zande showing his speed in the #10 WTR Cadillac. The Dutchman hunted down and caught Johannes van Overbeek, who’d taken Derani’s place and was lapping consistently slower, mindful of fuel consumption and the hot conditions’ effect on tyres. The Mazda pilots were driving in miracle slippers, still holding a fuel mile advantage that wasn’t enough to save a pitstop, but would definitely shorten their final splash before the flag. The Penskes couldn’t lead through strategy and didn’t have the outright pace to drive to the front, but both their Acuras were comfortably shadowing the leaders.
It had been a mixed day for WEC-Spec teams. CORE Autosport had lost time after replacing a door when the window popped out as Jon Bennett was in the car – even with codrivers as fast as Colin Braun and Romain Dumas, their single lap pace was around a second slower than the DPi field. Florida-based Performance Tech ran a livery commemorating the 17 students who were shot in the Parkland, FL shooting – team owner Brent O’Neill’s daughter was there and the team were racing in memory of her schoolmates. Despite their relatively good pace, some impressive brake issues and contact would see them lose laps before an overheating clutch ended their race late in the day.
Rule #1 of racing – don’t hit your teammate. Nobody told AXR’s new hire Felipe Nasr this though, and he clumsily drove into the side of the sister car, spinning AXR Sporting Director and endurance driver Christian Fittipaldi. A corner later, Ricky Taylor pulled the #7 Acura off with fire the the exhaust. The defending champion jumped out and had a look before trying to refire the car. A safety team towed him back to the Acura Team Penske garage, and they set to work.
It’s often said the track doesn’t owe you anything. Be that as it may, Sebring seemed determined to offload a job lot of spinning Colombians – contact between Montoya and Vautier pitched the #6 Acura around at Turn 17. Montoya had been suffering from intermittent power loss for a few laps previously, and the hit was enough to end the race. Adding insult to injury, Penske confirmed it would be a double retirement for Acura Team Penske’s first Sebring.
The limited cautions at Daytona were just a memory now. Curran and van der Zande made contact in Hour 8, bringing out another caution as the Dutchman lost bodywork. All this let the United Autosports crew climb to third, as repeated caution periods handed their laps back and limited time lost to the faster DPi cars during extended green flag running. The #55 Mazda and #31 Whelen AXR Cadillac led, chased hard by Lapierre in the #22 ESM Nissan as the shadows lengthened and sunset poured gold light across the circuit.
With the track now dark, Bomarito pitted the #55 Mazda from the lead, leaving the raging Conway-Lapierre battle behind him to it. A move inside at Turn 17 gave Lapierre the lead in the #22 Nissan, and Bomarito made quick work of McMurry in the #90 Spirit of Daytona Cadillac to exit the pits in third. Routine pitstops saw some cars change drivers, as strategists began deciding how to split fuel and drivers for the rest of the race – with two hours to go, Lapierre held the lead from Conway, Spencer Pigot now had the #55 Mazda in third and Jordan Taylor had the overheating #10 WTR Cadillac in fourth.
All questions about final driver changes were answered when Vautier hit the Turn 17 outside wall hard, sending the #90 Cadillac airborne and scattering debris and a tyre bundle over the track. Spencer Pigot threaded a high-speed needle between the wreckage and pit wall but couldn’t avoid debris – the Mazda pitted under the inevitable yellow, with the rest of the prototype field following suit as their strategy dictated during a long caution period. A perfect restart saw Derani take the lead from Nasr; van der Zande kept the ‘Old Faithful’ WTR Cadillac in third but couldn’t hold off a fiery Tincknell for long as the clock ticked into the final hour. Mazda Team Joest’s new hire wasn’t done yet either, as the Brit passed Nasr for second.
The stops under caution had evened out the strategy – final pitstops would be crucial. Derani had pulled a gap of six seconds from Tincknell as Nasr faded, but it was heartbreak for Joest in the pits. Combined battery and clutch issues meant Tincknell couldn’t pull away, only managing to leave the pits in sixth after mechanics pushed the car out of its box. Derani now had almost ten seconds in hand with just over 30 minutes remaining and was getting instructions to save fuel.
With the chequered flag flying, Pipo Derani took the #22 ESM car across the line for Nissan’s first overall win at Sebring since 1994. Renger van der Zande came home second for WTR, capping a solid run from last year’s winners who initially appeared to be sidelined by engine trouble. The #31 Whelen AXR Cadillac of Nasr, Curran and Conway rounded out the podium. An honourable mention goes to the CORE Autosport crew, who not only finished on the lead lap but missed the podium by just 30 seconds. If it wasn’t for a long stop replacing a door, the Braun/Bennett/Dumas car could’ve made it two podiums from two races. Even so, CORE were the best WEC-Spec P2 car and Jon Bennett has a commanding lead in the Trueman Akin Award for amateur prototype drivers.
The next Prototype race in the IMSA calendar is the Bubba Burger SportsCar Grand Prix at Long Beach, from April 13-14th. There’ll be a Sebring report for both GT classes in one coming soon, and as usual we’ll keep you informed of every story between now and the next race. Sebring 2018 was a classic – and the IMSA season shows no signs of slowing down.