SEBRING, Fla. — staff report — Photo courtesy of IMSA —
Coming off of a stirring victory in the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona, the No. 2 Tequila Patrón ESM Honda Ligier JS P2 returned to Victory Lane with a second consecutive triumph in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship on Saturday night.
And once again, it was Pipo Derani who captured the checkered flag; this time in the 64th Running of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida.
Just as he did in Daytona, Derani used a masterful final sprint to grab the win, using a caution period for a two car crash — that left just 13 minutes on the clock — to grab fresh tires and fuel. He pitted from the lead and fell to fourth as Action Express Racing’s Nos. 31 and 5 cars moved to the head of the race, but Derani would not be denied. He drove to the podium and then passed the Mustang Sampling No. 5 for second as he set his sights on Cameron’s race-leading car.
The pass for the win would come in turn seven with five minutes and 45 seconds remaining, as Cameron went wide and Derani stormed up the inside, never looking back as he led the final four laps of the 12-hour endurance spectacle en route to victory lane.
Prior to Daytona’s season-opening event, the 22-year-old Brazilian — a factory driver for Ligier — was a name without a face, brand-new to the WeatherTech Cnampionship field and to North American sports car fans.
That changed completely when he carried teammates Scott Sharp, Johannes van Overbeek and Patrón Spirits CEO Ed Brown to the win in the Rolex 24. Now the quartet is two-for-two, and Derani may be on his way to being a household name.
“It’s a very difficult track to learn, Sebring is — with all the bumps and dips,” he said. “What a tough race this was.”
“We had some contact, some spins, and moving our way back to the front was just unbelievable. In the end, I knew we had a great car, and new tires. But with only 10 to 15 minutes to go and still being in fourth, it was difficult to believe that we were going to make it. God had an eye on me and everything I executed was perfect. I can’t believe it all happened like that. I was so focused on bringing the car home. The adrenaline was so high I couldn’t think about anything else.”
The No. 2 Patron ESM Ligier JS P2 is the first team to sweep Daytona and Sebring since Doran-Moretti Racing last accomplished the feat in 1998 in a Ferrari 333SP.
Cameron took second place in the No. 31 Corvette DP along with co-drivers Eric Curran and Scott Pruett. It marked “a good points day” for the former two drivers, while the latter (Pruett) departs the team after having signed with AXR for Daytona and Sebring only.
“It was eventful for sure, a pretty wild day – between the weather and delayed race and red flags,” Cameron admitted. “The pit strategy got us to the front, and we just tried to run away and hide. I think we executed well on pit lane, and the team worked together really, really well.”
“Overall we’re really happy. The Whelen staff did such a good job putting together a great car. Leading with just a few laps to go and finishing second is still a great result … a win would have been nice but we’ll take the second and head on to the next race.”
After leading the first two Patrón Endurance Cup segments, the sister Action Express No. 5 Mustang Sampling Corvette finished third, driven by Christian Fittipaldi, Joao Barbosa and Filipe Albuquerque.
The GT Le Mans class also saw a sweep of Daytona and Sebring, as Tommy Milner, Oliver Gavin and Marcel Fassler led Corvette Racing to victory in the No. 4 Corvette C7.R for their second straight win in the class.
Milner passed the BMW M6 GTLM of Lucas Luhr for the class lead at the nine-hour, 38-minute mark. From that point, the Corvette led all but one of the remaining laps, briefly relinquishing the lead on a pit stop. The battle saw Porsche, Ferrari and Ford also take turns in the lead in the highly competitive class.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong race car when I got in for the final three hours,” said Milner, who also co-drove with Gavin in winning the GTE Pro class in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans. “I knew I could pass the cars in front of me. It was difficult with all the cautions, but we got it back up there. I had a 20-second lead and then we had a caution. I knew everyone was racing for the win, so I kept pushing and was able to bring it in.”
“Today showed the class and strength of Corvette Racing, dealing with all the different conditions thrown at us,” added Gavin. “It doesn’t get any better than to win the first two races, but it’s a long championship season.”
The Corvette team car, No. 3, was attempting to repeat its performance from a year ago with a second-straight Sebring win. However, it was dashed from contention on Saturday when Magnussen tangled with Porsche driver Kevin Estre entering Turn 1 while battling for the class lead with four hours, 49-minutes remaining. Both drivers walked away, but Magnussen was left dejected at the dramatic turn of event.
“It’s such a huge shame for everyone on the team,” Magnussen said. “The weather made it really difficult out there. The decision to go to slicks felt wrong, but we did it. After a while, I could see that times were coming down and I could build a little bit of temperature. I kept working at it. I don’t know how far back we were but we were a long way but caught everything up. We got into the lead there for a very short while and then it all went south.”
“(Kevin) Estre came and apologized. That’s nice enough but it doesn’t change the fact that we are in here building the car. I really, really feel bad for the crew because man, we were fast.”
Dirk Werner took the checkered flag in second place, 2.882 seconds behind, driving the No. 25 BMW Team RLL IHG Rewards Club BMW M6 GTLM started from the pole by Bill Auberlen and also driven by Bruno Spengler. All three drivers took turns up front, leading five times for 61 laps.
Rounding out the GTLM podium was the No. 912 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR driven by Earl Bamber, Frederic Makowiecki and Michael Christensen.
In Prototype Challenge (PC), Colin Braun took the lead just under the halfway mark – at 5 hours and 52 minutes – and the No. 54 CORE autosport Flex-Box Composite Resources ORECA FLM09 dominated the second half of the race.
Joined by Jon Bennett and Mark Wilkins, Braun gave the team its second Sebring victory in three years.
While attrition thinned the seven-car PC field, Tom Kimber-Smith stepped up in the defending class-winning No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA FLM09 to challenge Braun. Kimber-Smith was leading with 23 minutes remaining, but Braun executed what proved to be the winning pass moments before the final caution period began on lap 229.
“It was fun racing Tom [Kimber-Smith] and that whole group,” Braun said. “They are all class competitors. We almost had the field a lap down, but then the Corvette and the Porsche got together to close up the field. Mark did a great job holding Tom off before I got in. Then on the restart, some GT car ran into my door and spun me out. So we worked our way back through the field, and we did, because we had a fast race car. Jon did a great job early in the race managing the car in the monsoon – that certainly wasn’t an easy task. So it was a great job for the team.”
Braun took the checkered flag 1.282 seconds ahead of Kimber-Smith, who co-drove with Robert Alon and Jose Gutierrez. Renger van der Zande, Alex Popow and David Heinemeier Hansson rebounded from problems early in the event to take third in the No. 8 Starworks Motorsport entry.
And in a GT Daytona (GTD) battle that was rife with competition from the start, the pole-winning No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 of Alessandro Balzan and co-driven by Jeff Segal and Christina Nielsen was king.
Balzan took the lead with nine minutes remaining and went on to take the class victory in the maiden voyage for the new Ferrari machine, finishing 2.280 seconds ahead of Jens Klingmann in the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 for Ferrari’s first class triumph at Sebring since 2011.
“The last five minutes were almost like the 12 hours,” Balzan said. “We decided not to change the tires, so it was the advantage not to lose a lot of time with cold tires. We had a nice race with the BMWs. We had a bit of contact, but that is to be expected because you are fighting for the win. Then I took advantage of the traffic and was able to pull away.”
Nielsen became the first female class winner at Sebring since 2006, when Liz Halliday won the LMP2 class.
“I’m just as thrilled as I can be,” Nielsen said. “Sebring is a unique event, probably my favorite beside Petit Le Mans. Getting my first win here feels amazing – it’s something we worked super hard for. Now I guess we’re in a good path for the championship.”
Nielsen and Ashley Freiberg made it two women on the GTD podium, as Freiberg joined Klingmann and Bret Curtis in the runner-up BMW. They were followed by Rolex 24 class winners John Potter, Andy Lally and Marco Seefried in the Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS GT3.
Prior to halfway, weather at the 3.740-mile Florida circuit was a force — wreaking havoc with the event.
A front that moved from west to east hit the track just after noon, with downpour conditions and lightning that finally forced IMSA to stop the race for a two-hour, 15-minute, nine-second red flag period. After running under yellow as track drying continued, the race went back to green at 4:08 p.m., with six-hours, 31-minutes remaining.
Saturday was the seventh time the Sebring event has been impacted by rain in its 64-year history, and the first time since 1997. It was just the fifth time the Twelve Hours has been red flagged, following stoppages in 1993 and 1995 for rain, and 1997 and 2014 for on-track incidents.
The IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship season continues April 15-16 with the Grand Prix of Long Beach in California, while the Patrón Endurance Cup resumes at Watkins Glen International in July with the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen.