The Legendary Circuit ‘Makes You Appreciate How Wasted You Are at the End of That Race’
By John Oreovicz
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – You won’t find too many racetracks more polarizing that Sebring International Raceway.
Many drivers rave about the character of the former airfield turned racing circuit, with its notorious bumps and tricky transitions between concrete and asphalt surface. Other believe it’s a godforsaken throwback to a previous generation that should have been abandoned after World War II.
But you’ll rarely find that kind of disparaging sentiment spoken in public. That would be like admitting defeat to the track before a wheel is ever turned in anger.
The 71st running of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring is this Saturday, and once again, Sebring International Raceway remains unchanged. The same 17 turns laid out over 3.56 miles of runways and taxiways, most of it consisting of an original surface now some 80 years old.
“It’s the motto of this place: Leave it rough, leave it natural, don’t touch it,” observed Cadillac Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais, after claiming pole position for the 2022 Sebring Twelve Hours. “It is very difficult, but overall, it’s the same challenge for everyone.”
It’s a challenge most drivers relish, whether they have been pounding around Sebring in a variety of cars for decades like Bourdais, or for someone like Marco Sorensen – winner of three GTE Am titles in the FIA World Endurance Championship as an Aston Martin factory driver – but a first-time competitor in the Twelve Hours this year.
Sorensen, 32, from Denmark, competed at Sebring for the first time in 2022, finishing second in the WEC 1000 Miles of Sebring. This year, he is contesting the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship fulltime for the first time with the Heart of Racing Team, paired this week with Roman De Angelis and Ian James in the No. 27 entry in the GT Daytona (GTD) class.
Riding the momentum of a class victory in the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona, Sorenson has seen enough of Sebring to know that he likes it. He relishes the challenge of tackling the Twelve Hours for the first time.
“You get a lot of different opinions about Sebring as a track from different drivers,” Sorensen said. “Some really don’t like it and say no one should race there, but I really, really like it because it’s a driver’s track. It’s such a special track in so many ways and if you like a good challenge, you should definitely go to Sebring and try to go quick, because it has everything to it.
“It’s not just about riding over the bumps, because you can use the bumps,” he continued. “If you’re on old tires with low grip, you can use the bumps and the curbs to turn the car, or the opposite, to settle down the car. You have so many tools with experience you can use, and it’s definitely one of my favorite tracks to go to.”
For a driver, running a double stint at Sebring is akin to a lengthy session in a paint shaker. But it’s not just the physical beating that makes Sebring tough. The difference in a car’s handling in the temperature extremes between night and day is, well, night and day. Even the transition from day to night presents challenges. That Florida sunset may look beautiful in your camera viewfinder, but it’s a bear to drive into at several points on the track.
Opinions are split over whether 12 hours of competition at Sebring is a more difficult test for driver and machine than 24 hours at Daytona. But the fact that it’s even discussed at all speaks volumes.
“I’ve gotten in for the last 20 or 30 minutes of daylight where you’re trying to stare through or away from the sun and it kind of burns a hole in your retina,” said Andy Lally, the 2014 GTD class winner at Sebring for Magnus Racing. “Then it gets dark and now you’ve gone in the opposite direction.”
Lally, along with Magnus team founder John Potter and co-drivers Spencer Pumpelly and Nicki Thiim finished second in GTD at Daytona – giving Aston Martin a 1-2 result.
“All of those grueling factors, whether it’s the bumps, whether it’s the darkness, whether it’s a March sunset, all of it contributes to why you feel good if you get a podium there,” Lally concluded. “It’s the challenge that makes you appreciate how wasted you are at the end of that race if you’ve done the bulk of the driving or the finish.”
Count Laurens Vanthoor among those drivers who came around to appreciate the joy of Sebring. After his first laps of the track in 2017, he tweeted: “Is it me or is Sebring a bit bumpy? Almost lost a tooth.”
Since then, five Sebring starts netted the 31-year-old Belgian three trips to the podium, including a GT Le Mans (GTLM) victory for Pfaff Motorsports on the way to the class championship in 2021. He gets to double his pleasure this year, bolstering the Pfaff team’s IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup effort in GTD PRO again in the Twelve Hours while also holding down his fulltime role in the Porsche Penske Motorsport Porsche 963 in the WEC 1,000-mile race.
Vanthoor’s fondness for Sebring accentuates his love for Florida in general. His family maintained a vacation home near Tampa, and he still enjoys spending holiday time in the Sunshine State with his wife and children. They hope he can eventually wrap up his sports car career living in America and racing in the WeatherTech Championship.
“Three or four years ago, we were very close to moving there, and we are actually still considering doing it someday,” Vanthoor said. “We just love spending time there and enjoy the American way of life. It seems motorsport is more alive, in a fun way, in America compared to Europe, especially in endurance racing.
“I think of Sebring as a huge event,” he added. “A very special track that you can hate or love, depending on how it’s going. It’s an event that I am very much looking forward to and am proud to be a part of.”