Sebring, 2016 –

The Season Starts Here

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With Daytona done and dusted, the eyes of the Sportscar world turn to the City on the Circle, and the Mobil 1 12 Hours Of Sebring. John Hindhaugh breaks down all the lessons and learnings from the Rolex 24, and looks forward to what we can expect from another battle taking place amidst the warmth of the Sunshine State.

Of course, the title of this piece is factually incorrect. The newly-titled ‘IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Champsionship’ has already had its 2016 opener at Daytona International Speedway.

Daytona is different. This seems a very obvious thing to say, not least because no other IMSA circuit has the same characteristics as the 3.5 mile ‘road’ track laid out within the famous 2.5 mile oval. Crucially, though, the performance equalisation criteria is different at Daytona. So perhaps the headline should really read: ‘The REST of the 2016 IMSA season starts here’.

The 2016 curtain-raiser – on the high banks at the home of NASCAR – gave us great racing and many talking points, including the closest class finish in the history of the Rolex 24 Hours, as well as an important insight into the application of regulations by the new IMSA. But it probably didn’t provide us with all that much in terms of how the rest of the season will pan out for the major combatants.

Corvette Rolex 24 Hero

That said, the Rolex 24 was far from irrelevant. So before we delve into any talk of competitive potential at Sebring, let’s reflect on what we learned at IMSA’s longest race of the year.

At the head of the field, the LMP class has been thrown wide open. Although for the rest of the year the balance of performance will change a little between DP/LMP2, what the technical gurus can’t – and should never – be able to legislate for, is a driver who simply outperforms his teammates, his car and his competition. At Daytona, that driver was Luis ‘Pipo’ Derani. The youngster has already marked himself out as a potential ‘Man of the Year’, and there will now be added interest every time he climbs aboard the ESM LMP car. He’s signed up for the full season of FIA WEC with ESM, but hopefully we’ll see him at Sebring, too, as the Tequila Patron team is also contesting the similarly sponsored North American Endurance Championship within the IMSA WeatherTech Championship.

In GTLM, the raft of new cars at Daytona was impressive and bewildering in equal measure. They all look better than ever, but clearly the ‘evolution not revolution’ mindset behind the new Corvettes and re-styled Porsches produced more reliable pace in the early season running than the more extreme Ferraris and Fords. In fairness, the new turbocharged 488 probably just needs more time – it was the latest of late shows to even get the car to Daytona. Things for Ford, however, were far more worrying.

Ford have taken a bold route with the GT. Essentially, they have designed a race-machine that exploits the ACO/FIA GTE regulations to the maximum. Some have dubbed it a ‘class killer’, expecting the other manufacturers to have to spend big and design a brand new model to compete with the Ford strategy.

Released from the constraints of basing the racing car on an existing volume production car, specialist racing car builders Multimatic have produced a stunning design which has more in common with LMP1 prototypes than their competitors in Grand Touring racing. In fact, some of the aerodynamics on the Ford GT are so advanced, they wouldn’t even be allowed on LMP1 cars.

It’s beautiful, purposeful, intimidating and very, very clever. With no street car yet on the roads, it is also a controversial decision for IMSA to allow it to race in a production-based class. There’s disquiet among other manufacturers but, so far, they need not overly worry.

The new Ford GT racing car had been running in development and testing for over a year when it arrived at Daytona. The drive train was even longer in the tooth, being the same EcoBoost engine and gearbox announced in 2013, which raced in Ford’s DP programme from 2014, and which won the Rolex 24 Hours in 2015.

Ford GT Hero

Despite this, at Daytona it failed to deliver. The best of the cars was 7th in class – not bad for a new car on debut – but 32 laps down on the new-for-2016 Corvette class winner, and nowhere near the banner result that Ford’s PR machine had perhaps expected. The second Ford was troubled all week and finished 40th overall – 162 laps down on their long standing GM rivals. The problems were many and varied: electrical, cooling and gearbox issues being the recurring reasons for trips back to the garage. Many onlookers were bemused to see that, in a programme so advanced (in time, as well as concept), the whole electronic dashboard set up was swapped to a different manufacturer on the Thursday of race week.

So, at Sebring, the pressure is on Ford to get cars to look like they should, especially given the amount of time, money and brainpower already invested.

The GTD class at Daytona was another big success, in several ways, not all of which were obvious or visible at the time. For 2016, IMSA have – not before time – sanctioned a class for full-hours FIA GT3 cars. GT3 is THE success story of the last decade in terms of endurance racing, and the formula has contributed to the global growth of long distance racing.

The new Audi R8 won at Daytona, thanks to a masterful last 90 minutes or so by Rene Rast who – in what appeared to be a final roll of the tactical dice by Magnus Racing – was told to save 500ml of fuel EVERY lap of his stint to give the 44 car a chance to make it to the flag, even if there was no full course caution. The yellows didn’t come out and Rast was told to up his fuel save to 700ml a lap – which he managed with minimal loss of lap time – the main competition subsequently either ran dry on the track or had a late pit stop and, hey presto, a brilliant victory was secured. A great start to the new GTD era.

Early in race week, a massive storm had erupted behind the scenes. The new Lamborghini Huracan GT3s were quicker than the opposition; quick enough to give GTE and even PC and LMP cars a run for their money on the banking. And in the race itself, the difference was far from subtle.

The full story involves a very clever piece of engineering, conceived by Audi, in order to show IMSA what ‘could’ be done within the proposed rules on engine restrictors for the GTD classes. This design was put before IMSA by Audi Sport Customer Racing last year, with an agreement put in place that it would never be used competitively. Given that engine restrictors are the main tool used by series to balance the pace and performance of widely differing designs of GT3 cars, it was a big deal.

Somehow – and no-one is admitting to knowing how – the CAD data for these less-than-restrictive restrictors found its way to Lamborghini Squadracorse, and they supplied ‘updated’ parts to 5 cars run by their customers at Daytona. Given that Audi Sport Customer Racing were one of the manufacturers being extremely vocal about the issue, it’s pretty safe to say Audi hadn’t supplied the information.

OK, so a manufacturer caught supplying parts outside of regulations is nothing new. But it wasn’t the offence – nor the somewhat lame and disingenuous response from Lambo – that caught the eye of seasoned observers, so much as the response of IMSA.

Brumos%20Win%20Hero

Cast your minds back to 2009, and the Brumos DP Rolex 24 win at Daytona. At post race technical inspection, the 59 car was found to be almost 5.5 kilos (or 12 pounds) underweight – well outside any margin for error and clearly a performance advantage. Operating as Grand-Am under NASCAR style regulations, Brumos and the drivers were allowed to keep the win, although the team were fined $5,000 and they and the drivers were docked points.

Although IMSA are now part of the same organisation as NASCAR, all 5 Lambos in the race were given a time penalty of a pit stop plus five minutes (dropping the Konrad car from 5th to 10th in class) and Lamborghini were fined $25,000 on top of being stripped of all manufacturer championship points.

Many thought that the manufacturer would just be given a stiff talking to, consisting of them being told that the hooky parts had to disappear for good. Of course, the more stringent action was the right decision by IMSA, but – importantly – it was one which clearly signals the intention of the sanctioning body to plough their own, sports car based furrow.

And so, on to Sebring. Here’s a quick and dirty look ahead of what’s in store in Florida:

Prototype

• Expect to see another good (early) showing by Deltawing.
• ESM to continue to set the pace if Derani is in the car.
• With Chip Ganassi  gone from the class, the two Action Express cars should be the best of the DPs on show.
• Mazda to be a dark horse as their switch back to petrol power will pay performance dividends.

LMPC

• An upgrade to the engine and a new electronics package, including traction control for the first time, could lead to reliability issues. So expect a battle of attrition.

GTLM

• Corvette to continue at the head of field.
• Porsche will likely be good in very hot conditions.
• Ford must be competitive and reliable.
• BMW need to be less anonymous than at Daytona.

GTD

• Audi are still the favourite.
• Aston Martin could pull a surprise if yellows fall for them.
• Lambos will be off the pace (obviously).

Our coverage on IMSA Radio starts on Thursday March 17th at 3pm GMT – Check the full schedule at www.radiolemans.com, or at IMSA.com.

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