Tandy, Pilet and Makowiecki edged the new BMW M8 for GTLM victory; a late charge gave Paul Miller Racing and Scuderia Corsa podiums in GTD
The GT classes were eventful from Turn One. The defending GTLM winning #3 Corvette and GTD polesitting #51 Spirit of Race Ferrari suffered left rear punctures on the first lap – both returned to the pits and were able to continue, but it set both cars right back. As the cars crossed the line at the end of the first lap, Jesse Krohn was already making a break at the head of GTLM in the #24 Team RLL BMW, chased by both Ganassi Fords. In GTD, Jack Hawksworth was proving 3GT’s Daytona pace was no flash in the pan, leading in the #15 Lexus from Madison Snow’s #48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini and the sister Lexus of Dominik Baumann.
Twenty minutes later, Frankie Montecalvo had nowhere to go in the #64 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari, riding over the spinning AFS/PR1 Ligier of Sebastian Saavedra at the exit of Turn 17 and landing hard on the car’s roof, ending their day with over 11 hours left to run. After the caution, Krohn held the GTLM lead as teammate and new BMW signing de Phillippi faded from second to eighth. Ford held second and third despite Hand and Westbrook collecting each other in the pits, and James Calado’s Risi Competitizione Ferrari 488 wasn’t far behind. At this point, Porsche looked unwilling and Corvette unable to hit the front of GTLM.
In GTD, Katherine Legge in the #86 MSR Acura NSX had stayed out during the caution and inherited the lead. An off-sequence pitstop put the #15 Lexus of David Heinemeier-Hansson on top, ahead of the Land Audi driven by Sheldon van der Linde and Corey Lewis’ #48 PMR Lamborghini. An unfortunate penalty to the leading Lexus for driving over pitlane equipment saw van der Linde turn quick, clean laps in the #29 Land Audi to consolidate their lead; Heinemeier-Hansson’s teammate Kyle Marcelli inherited third in the #14 Lexus following the penalty.
The long period of green saw the Risi Ferrari rise to the top in GTLM. Jesse Krohn jumped out of the #24 BMW after a very impressive stint, and a pitstop for the lone Ferrari saw Westbrook in the #67 Ford take the lead – the Ganassi cars showing decent speed covering for their lacklustre pitstop. The #3 Corvette’s luck wasn’t changing either – Antonio García took the car behind the wall for a battery change in Hour Two, the car losing six laps before returning to the track with Jan Magnussen behind the wheel. Both Porsches were looking more competitive, and definitely held their pace across the stint more consistently than the competition.
In GTD, the strong showing from Lexus continued – Jack Hawksworth and Philipp Frommenwiler heading the GTD field in the 3GT-run machines. The PMR Lamborghini was still in contention, now with Madison Snow behind the wheel, as was the #86 Acura with Álvaro Parente unleashed. Some GTD teams were further down than expected – the Wright Motorsports Porsche landed a penalty, Magnus weren’t on the pace and were lucky to get away without damage following contact with Jordan Taylor’s #10 WTR Cadillac. Despite the cautions, the polesitting #51 Spirit of Race Ferrari couldn’t get back onto terms with the meaty end of GTD either.
Then came the tent. As the caution came out, Sebring rookie Alessio Picariello led GTD in the Land Audi, whilst the Risi Ferrari headed up GTLM. An extended full-course caution gave almost everybody long enough to get their regular fuel stop in under yellow. By the time IMSA’s Race Director Beaux Barfield declared the track green again, it was Oliver Gavin in an off-sequence Corvette leading GTLM, although the car didn’t look to have enough pace to keep the Risi Ferrari or Pilet’s #911 Porsche at bay for long. The early frontrunning #24 BMW made an unscheduled stop for nasal surgery following contact with Dirk Müller’s #66 Ford, which also pitted to fix a puncture.
(credit: BMW Motorsport)
Lexus’ stops had put Frommenwiler in the GTD lead, pursued by last year’s class-winning #33 Riley Mercedes-AMG and the Basecamp-liveried #15 Lexus. Land had slipped from first to eighth during the caution, and new team CJ Wilson Racing came in to fix damaged front bodywork – which was done with former RealTime pieces, still with last year’s dayglo orange highlights.
Mismatched strategies and excellent speed saw Connor de Phillippi lead the GTLM race at the race’s halfway point, his BMW pursued by Vilander in the Risi Ferrari and both works Porsches, Nick Tandy leading Laurens Vanthoor. Ford weren’t out of it but were paying the price for contact out on track, the #4 Corvette’s brief moment in the lead was gone and the #3 was still laps down.
Into the second half of the race and Luca Stolz had replaced Ben Keating in the #33 after a phenomenal stint by the Texan former snake salesman, taking the #33 Riley Mercedes back out into the lead. Lamborghini Super Trofeo Pro-Am 2015 champion Corey Lewis was holding the #48 PMR Lamborghini in second, being hunted by Gunnar Jeannette in the WeatherTech-liveried Scuderia Corsa Ferrari.
As the afternoon wore on, Porsche were on a march. Makowiecki was towing Laurens Vanthoor in his slipstream through the GTD traffic, but Pier Guidi, Westbrook and Fässler were swarming behind them. The Ferrari in particular seemed to be very settled, and defending WEC GTE Pro champion Pier Guidi was comfortable shadow-boxing with Vanthoor for lap after lap rather than hustling the 488 GTE over Sebring’s bumps to hold off the economical Ford of Westbrook and a fired-up Fässler on a charge.
Stolz had handed over to Bleekemolen, and the Dutchman held the GTD lead in the #33 Mercedes-AMG after a flawless pitstop from the Riley-led crew. Mario Farnbacher was second in the #93 MSR Acura – this the car that was totally rebuilt after a 130mph crash caused by brake failure that threw Justin Marks into the wall before the race. For a team that had brought out welding equipment and started repairing bits of smashed Acura in the paddock, this was already as good as a win. The sister #86 was third in the hands of Katherine Legge and – surprise surprise – the PMR was still pinned in the top 5, still driven by Corey Lewis. The volunteer HART team had their Acura in the top five too; with former MSR third driver Tom Dyer replacing 3GT-bound Sean Rayhall, it had been a quietly impressive race within the top 10 for the Honda crew.
The GTLM battle into the night was pure magic. Patrick Pilet’s #911 Porsche and Toni Vilander’s Risi Ferrari spent entire stints never separated by more than a few car lengths. Further back, a storming run by Bill Auberlen got the #25 BMW to within two seconds of Earl Bamber’s third-placed #912. The Ford challenge had faded and the #4 Corvette was struggling for balance, unable to do anything about the Ferrari that’d looked fast all day and a Porsche pairing that had clearly been set up to fight the end of the race. The top five were covered by ten seconds at points, running virtually nose to tail for laps on end.
Trend Hindman inherited the GTD lead when Snow pitted out of sequence. Audi Sport Customer Racing hero Chris Mies had wrangled the #29 Land car up to second in class, Mercedes factory gun Luca Stolz was in third for Riley AMG and Gunnar Jeannette had the ever-competitive WeatherTech Ferrari in the running too. The Wright Porsche was working its way up thanks to Pat Long and Mathieu Jaminet turning excellent laptimes, but wouldn’t close the gaps until late in the race. If GTLM was incredible, GTD was shaping up well as the amateurs’ minimum drive times were completed and thoughts turned to the final sprint.
With two hours remaining, Vilander led Pilet by just over a second in GTLM, and Snow had the PMR Lamborghini in front of Lawson Aschenbach in the #93 MSR Acura miracle phoenix. Bryan Sellers and Alessandro Balzan were preparing to jump into the #48 PMR and #63 WeatherTech Scuderia Corsa cars respectively until the end of the race.
Vautier’s heavy crash just inside Hour 11 mixed things up. Tom Dyer was one of the first cars to arrive on scene and put the #69 HART Acura into a broadside slide trying to avoid the huge debris field, but had to pit with chunks of SDR’s Cadillac embedded in the heavily remodelled NSX. Once the caution and pitstop melee had settled, it was the newly installed Nick Tandy in the #911 leading GTLM from Pier Guidi, Vanthoor and Sims. Aschenbach had slipped back in GTD, handing the lead to Sellers’ PMR Lamborghini. Mies and Stolz were still battling, now for second and third in class, but the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari was coming from behind.
A disappointing day for Ford got even worse when Dirk Müller pulled the #66 GT off, totally blacked out. He was trying the master switch as safety crews arrived to tow the car but no joy – it was a sad retirement for the #66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing crew with just over an hour of the race left. The sister car was out of podium contention, and Sebring had beaten Ford for another year.
Something special was happening in GTD. Bryan Sellers was flying, taking chunks of time out of Jeroen Bleekemolen’s #33 Riley AMG. A brave and committed sweep around the outside at Turn 1 saw the American through, and from then on the Lamborghini ran and hid to seal a commanding performance by Paul Miller Racing. Alessandro Balzan was also carving through the field, sliding the WeatherTech Ferrari through the night in a late charge for the podium. The team’s Silver, Cooper MacNeil, had needed medical attention the day before the race after an allergic reaction to peanuts – there was a serious chance he’d go from emergency room to podium in 24 hours. Balzan clinched second to net Scuderia Corsa their fourth consecutive Sebring podium as Bleekemolen, Ben Keating and Luca Stolz rounded off the podium.
If ever you doubt Nick Tandy’s ability to close a race, watch the Sebring 2018 replay. If ever you doubt how much winning Sebring means to drivers, look at photos of Fred Makowiecki and Patrick Pilet as Tandy crossed the line in the #911 to win GTLM; neither Frenchman had won here before despite both being stalwart Porsche performers. Alex Sims took second for Team RLL in only the second race for the BMW M8, and Porsche’s other crew of Laurens Vanthoor, Gimmi Bruni and Earl Bamber brought the banshee-like #912 home third. If Sebring was a shop front for GTLM battles this year, roll on the huge entry at Le Mans.