Sebring Version 06: Rolling Down The Highway
Stories, ah yes, we have all heard the stories; debauchery in Sebring's Green
Park and outrageous behaviour from the young college kids, released into the
wild for the Spring Break weekend; the exposure of flesh in return for a necklace of
beads, coloured green in honour of St Patrick who would doubtless turn in his
grave if he saw what these crazy college chicks were doing with them. It was
about time we found out whether or not this was all true so, on Sunday night, off
we trotted into the zoo to discover what could have been anything between
Woodstock '69 and Daytona's Sea Garden Inn 06, still living up to its tag of 'God's
Out in the zoo, it was quickly determined that neither Rob Schirle, riding shotgun
on this mission of discovery, nor I had come equipped for what lay ahead in any
way, shape or form. Firstly, we had no beads, which immediately set us apart
from the maddening crowd. Secondly, we had no beer. Thirdly, Rob was wearing
his team shirt, which looked frankly woolly in comparison to the college kids. Yet,
bizarrely and thankfully, this team shirt we slowly realised was our key to gaining
one of the two items we were missing. "I have raced here in the Saleen Mustang,"
was loosely translated into American: "Give these guys a beer!"
Priscilla, Queen of the Infield
What we found in the infield was a mixture of what we had been expecting, and
what we were not. Firstly, we found a bunch of people hanging out under an
awning with their young children, mixing smoothies with a two-stroke strimmer
engined smoothie maker machine. Coke and ice for the kids, and slightly
stronger brew for the adults. While there, an older chap, slightly rotund, turned up
in a pink wig and asked if we wanted to visit F-Troop. How could we refuse?
What awaited us was a highly organised patch of field, with a band knocking out
quality renditions of Mustang Sally (Rob's tune from his driving days – give that
man a beer) and other such melodies. Out the back, the leader of the troop, one
Ken Koleos who by now had ditched his pink wig for a green jacket and a bowler
hat, proudly showed off his kitchen, made up of some industrial size barbeques
and a smoker to keep the food warm. Coors Light was dispensed freely in one of
the most hospitable patches of the US I have ever encountered. The F-Troop was
celebrating 35 years of enjoying the Sebring 12-hours – their first was, by process
of deduction, 1971, when the race was won by Vic Elford and Gerard Larrousse in
the 917. No wonder they keep coming back.
This year, of course, they were in for a new treat, the Audi R10 TDI, powered by
an all-aluminium 5.5 litre V12 diesel engine. The car looks like a single seater
with bodywork and most were expecting it to win the race handsomely. What
happened was that it won the race not quite so handsomely, but instead ran like a
race horse with a leg tied under its belly. Allan McNish set pole position time, 1.8
seconds quicker than team-mate Marco Werner and 1.9 seconds quicker than the
third-placed LMP2 Porsche. That was not just driver talent. Post race testing
suggested that the Werner, who had completed but two laps in qualifying, was not
far off a good race pace.
Hot Cakes and Sausage
The second placed Lola had an engine problem, which Jon Field highlighted in
the post race press conference, for the last five or so hours of the race, so what
was the Audi doing? Having qualified in 1m45s, its race laps were ten seconds
off. Win at the slowest possible speed, by all means, that is the perfect race, but
while the race answered some questions, it threw up a few more. If the race pace
was so slow, how come the Audis could only do an hour on a tank of fuel? When
they get to Le Mans, will they suddenly be able to go that much further and claim it
is development? Or was that really what they could do? McNish thought it was,
given the power output, but what does that then mean for Pescarolo? Another
shot, or are Audi playing down its chances?
Certainly they treated the race as a test session, though the drivers admitted if
they had driven flat out for 12-hours they would have learned more. Frank Biela
spun away his lead when he got caught out by the massive torque of the R10, and
Marco Werner admitted that the car was lively on the brakes into the hairpin. They
hadn't raced in traffic before, and didn't have much experience in practice either so
the drivers were wondering what would happen too. What actually transpired was
that the R10 has an estimated 30 per cent advantage over its rivals, telling out of a
corner and they need take no risks whatsoever into the corners. The Pescarolo is
blindingly fast, and will be stronger this year, but will that be enough?
Werner retired in the fourth hour with overheating problems, and Audi was keen
that no one found this out by unorthadox means. It taped up an on-board camera
to the disgust of John Hindhaugh, who called yet another race exceptionally well,
despite the handicap of having me as a studio guest for a few hours. While Hindy
reckoned they should have been more open much quicker, Peugeot
representatives were watching closely on-site, and they have yet to complete their
car so Audi's secrecy was perfectly understandable.
That OTHER German car…..
What also came out of Sebring was that the Porsche simply was not ready.
Whether Laguna was a fluke, or the LMP2 car is too fragile for Sebring, both cars
retired and the manufacturer was not happy. Had they expected problems?
Perhaps, but not like this. The cars were not reliable, which is forgivable given that
they are still new, but they were also too fast. The ACO confirmed that it would not
rein in the Audis before Le Mans, though IMSA might, and Dr Ullrich's response
was that, if IMSA was to penalise the R10, they must also penalise the RS Spyder.
It should be two seconds slower than the Audi, he reasoned, and it isn't.
The RS Spyder is stunning on the brakes, while Lucas Luhr and Timo Bernhard
demonstrated their different driving styles in qualifying, one angrily stabbing the
throttle through Gendebien while the other smoothly applied throttle. But it is the
brakes that surprised the drivers, and if they have to wait until they see God before
hitting them, how brave does a privateer have to be? Will the car be beyond him,
or her? Is that the point of the RS Spyder, or do they have other goals in mind?
How many cars will they sell? At the moment, there is no price tag on the
machinery. Figures of Euro1.4 million have been bandied around, but Porsche
isn't saying officially and that is a sure break from tradition.
This ain’t no party or DBGT, this ain’t no foolin’ around….
In the GT1 class, the Aston Martins looked to have the pace over the Corvettes in
qualifying, though the British manufacturer wondered if there wasn't some
gamesmanship going on. They have just switched to Pirelli tyres, have been given
performance breaks with weight and restrictors, and the Corvettes would not want
to be quicker than them still. During the race, the Aston drivers worked their way
down to the 1m57s race pace, yet each time they found a second, so did the
Corvettes. Doug Fehan claimed he was not looking at the Aston lap times lap
times; he had enough on his plate and Oliver Gavin revealed that they were
nursing their brakes. The magic number for them was 23, the number of seconds
per lap they were allowed to use the brakes. Olly got it down to 17s, while others
in the car did not have the driving style to do so.
The relationship between Aston Martin and Pirelli is new, fresh, and needs time
to bed in before we will see its true performance. Perhaps they will get their act
together for Le Mans. Tomas Enge's final 20 minutes, when he held off Max Papis'
Corvette, was true legend and no doubt those in the F-Troop followed that one
with a beer in hand, oohing and ahhing with the rest of us. At the end of the race,
Fehan shook Dave Richards firmly by the hand, a broad grin on his face. "That's
the kind of racing I like," he said.
By the Holy Dad, are you congenitally mad ?
While the F-Troop may have thoroughly enjoyed that fight, they may also have
been watching GT2. There, Ferrari, Porsche, BMW and Panoz were at it hammer
and tongs, a glorious fight which seems to have become a habit at Sebring. In the
past, it has been a Porsche tribute, with Alex Job Racing, the Flying Lizards and
the J3 teams getting their hands dirty. To have four manufacturers take their turn
at the head of the field, 25 lead changes during the 12-hours, and the top three
finishing 50s apart, the top two separated by little more than five seconds, you
could not have asked for more. David Brabham made a triumphant return to
Panoz when he, Scott Maxwell and Sebastian Bourdais won the class. Marc Lieb,
who in 2005 won Le Mans, the Le Mans Series and the FIA GT Championship
before getting married, having a child and then becoming a student of
engineering, was second in the Flying Lizard Porsche shared with Johannes van
Overbeek and John Fogarty. The new Ferrari 430 GT Berlinetta was third after
having changed brake pads twice.
Back home, people say how lucky we all are to go to the Florida sunshine while
they are freezing. They don't know the half of it.