A GTLM Victory Snatched from its Grasp in November Still Haunts
By David Phillips
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When it comes to this month’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts, BMW Team RLL has some unfinished business.
Although 2021 marks the 13th year of the partnership between the German automaker and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and although that association has produced multiple IMSA team, manufacturer and driver championships and nearly two dozen race wins, their last victory at the historic Florida venue came in 2012.
What’s more, BMW Team RLL came agonizingly close to breaking its victory drought in 2020, leading much of the race only to be rudely punted out of the lead by a GT Daytona (GTD) competitor on a late – make that very late, as in a dozen minutes shy of the finish – restart.
And with the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship replacing the GT Le Mans class with a new GTD PRO class in 2022, this is BMW Team RLL’s final chance to rebound from last year’s disappointment and add another Sebring GTLM victory to the tally.
“We kind of wish that last year’s event had been the Mobil 1 Eleven Hours and 48 Minutes of Sebring,” joked Victor Leleu, BMW North America’s motorsports manager. “That would have been fine with us. But it wasn’t.
“We all had to take a little bit of time to get over it because, obviously, it was a major disappointment in more ways than one. But I kept going back to, ‘What other sport can you lose it all through absolutely no fault of your own, from something entirely external to you, like motor racing?’ I’m not sure I have found the answer.
“So the answer this year is quite simple: We know we can do it. We have a good car. We executed very well last year. Our marching orders are simple: Replicate the performance and this time stay out of harm’s way 12 minutes longer if we can.”
All the more compelling is that Sebring occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of more than one of BMW Team RLL’s key players, beginning with team co-owner Bobby Rahal. As a student, Bobby accompanied his father, Mike, to Sebring when the elder Rahal competed in the Twelve Hours. Bobby Rahal began racing at Sebring himself in 1976, he teamed with Jochen Mass to capture the 1987 edition of the race and has two wins as a team owner.
“Sebring is a big deal,” Rahal begins. “I’ve often told people that the most meaningful victory I ever had was winning at Sebring in 1987. Which surprises people who would normally think Indy. Of course, (the 1986 Indianapolis 500) was very, very important, no question. But Sebring has always meant so much to me because I did go there with my father in the late ‘60s as a high school and then college student and happened to see the greatest drivers in the world driving those cars. It was really something quite magical and I still feel that same way.
“I kind of have a romantic emotional response. … When you drive in and smell the orange blossoms, I remember that so vividly when I went there in 1969 for the first time. So whenever I go there it takes me back in time.
“For me, it just has a lot of meaning. Everybody on our team knows what it means for me to do well there. It was great to win there two years in a row with BMW in 2011 and 2012, and then last year was just a heartbreaker. The team deserved to win and through no fault of their own we were taken out. So going down there, if there’s one I always want to win in the IMSA world, it’s Sebring.”
Although he doesn’t have as lengthy of a history, BMW Team RLL driver Connor De Phillippi has deep connections of his own to Sebring.
“Sebring is where the roots of my career really started,” he said. “It’s one of the first tracks I ever drove, when I raced in the (Skip) Barber School. So it’s always had a special place in my heart from racing the Skip Barber National Series, which was a support race for the Twelve Hours back in the American Le Mans Series days. Dreaming of driving an LMP1 Peugeot or Audi and now to be with BMW has been pretty special. Especially this being the last year of GTLM, it would be nice to sign off on that phase of my career with a win.”
De Phillippi said the newfound pace that the Nos. 24 and 25 BMW M8 GTEs found at Sebring in November provides reason for optimism this time around. The two cars combined to lead nearly half the laps in GTLM before finishing third and fourth.
“Last year’s race was a hard way to end the year, but in a way it was a positive because Sebring hadn’t been a strength of ours, and to be as competitive as we were and to lead hours of the race was a big step forward,” De Phillippi said. “I won’t say we weren’t expecting it, but we had tried a new philosophy and found some performance, so I was really excited to get this year underway and carry that confidence into this year.”
The performance wasn’t quite as strong in January’s Rolex 24 At Daytona to open the 2021 season, something De Phillippi hopes to turn around at Sebring.
“Again, we had good performance, some good speed but we didn’t have the luck at Daytona,” he said. “So we’re reloading for Sebring and hope we can shake the monkey off our back and have not so much good luck as not have bad luck.”
BMW Team RLL is running a limited program this season, focused solely on the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup events instead of the full season. It leaves only four chances (Daytona, Sebring, Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen and Motul Petit Le Mans) to grace victory lane this year, not to mention the No. 24 vying to defend the Endurance Cup driver, team and manufacturer crowns.
“BMW is our longtime partner and, like a lot of companies, has had to tighten their belts and do just the four races,” Rahal said. “I think everybody is working as hard or perhaps even harder because you only have four shots at winning, and for me, the four endurance races are the ones you want to win most of all, anyway. So yes, we’re going to do everything we can to win the race. I don’t think there’s any race we’ve ever gone into where we’ve been willing to accept second, third or fourth right off the bat: We’re there to win.”
“Whenever that chance comes, you have to go for it and seize it,” he says. “That’s our mentality whether we do four or 11 races. Now with this year, there’s more pressure because we’re the defending (IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup) champions, so there’s a bit of a target on our back.
“We’re ready. We know what we’re dealing with. We are capable of capitalizing on a car that we know very well and with a team that we know extremely well.”
WeatherTech Championship practice for the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts begins Thursday, March 18, with qualifying to set the grid the following day (streaming live on IMSA.com at 11:10 a.m. ET). The live race telecast begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 20 on NBCSN, switches to the NBC Sports App at noon and returns to NBCSN at 7 p.m. through the race conclusion. The entire telecast is available from start to finish on TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. IMSA Radio provides weekend coverage on IMSA.com and SiriusXM Radio.
Tickets for the race weekend are available at sebringraceway.com.