Drivers Overwhelmingly Want to Keep the Track As-Is
By Holly Cain
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Unique. Full of character.
Toss out these vague but kindly track descriptions and the vast majority of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship drivers don’t hesitate with their reply. “Ah, Sebring!”
The 3.74-mile, 17-turn circuit using some of a former World War II airfield in rural Central Florida has bumps scattered throughout and features one of the most famous hairpin turns in American racing. Its premier event which takes place Saturday – the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring – showcases high-stakes driving in a classic race spanning early daylight to setting sunlight to moonlight.
And yet, these drivers wouldn’t change a thing.
“The fact we know there are problems with the track and we don’t want to fix it … we know there are some treacherous corners and we know there are bumps and cliffs and holes and stuff, that’s all part of the historical value of Sebring and what it brings,’’ said Andy Lally, the 2014 Sebring winner who will drive the No. 44 Magnus Racing Aston Martin Vantage GT3 in the GT Daytona (GTD) class this weekend.
“As much as it is fairly grueling on a driver, and it’s barely nice weather there, that’s what makes it satisfying if you do well.”
Legendary drivers from Mario Andretti to Phil Hill, from Tom Kristensen to Juan Manuel Fangio, from Brian Redman to Allan McNish all raced on essentially the same surfaces as the 54-car field that will compete in the 71st running this week.
There have been “touch-ups” to the surface and some modifications to the layout that have seen its length vary from 5.2 miles from 1952-1982 to the current 3.74 miles. But part of what makes this race so endearing to the competitors and beloved by the fans is that it presents a tough and true test of competition. “Easy” has never been in the Sebring vernacular.
“Everybody tries to explain to you where to go and what to heed and what not to heed, but it’s almost impossible to figure out what to expect until you do a few laps,’’ conceded Corvette Racing’s Antonio Garcia, the defending GT Daytona Pro (GTD PRO) class winner in the No. 3 Chevrolet Corvette C8.R GTD. Garcia’s four Sebring victories are most of any driver in the 2023 field.
“I think you do (appreciate it),’’ Garcia continued. “It’s just the whole environment there. Starting from early in the morning almost with the sunrise after warmup. Most of the races are super hot during the day, then you go into the night with the classic March sunset where you don’t see a thing going into (the final Turn) 17 and Turn 7 (hairpin).
“Every single aspect of that race is unique. Even if at times it feels undrivable, it is one of my favorite, if not my favorite race of the year.’’
Filipe Albuquerque, driver of the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura ARX-06 in the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class, agreed, noting that ultimately, it’s a test of strength and resilience at Sebring. Physical strength and mindful resilience that isn’t required in the same doses elsewhere.
“It’s known as a unique track all over the world because of the amount of bumps,’’ Albuquerque said. “And no one wants to restore those bumps because it’s the character of this track. From the driver’s point of view, it’s super demanding on the steering wheel. You have to deal with the car jumping over the bumps and hold the steering wheel super hard.”
While the track surface certainly presents its own challenges, the course layout presents a high technical requirement. The Turn 7 hairpin is renowned and there are plenty of long straights capped by surgical turns.
And this year, the WeatherTech Championship includes the new hybrid-powered GTP cars on the storied surface; a different sort of test for this class that performed so well at Daytona last month.
“The track is the same, the bumps are completely the same, but the cars are different from year to year,’’ Albuquerque said. “This year it’s a brand-new car for the LMDh, a completely different car from the DPi era – hybrid engine, it’s heavier, it’s faster. So it’s going to be interesting to see how it rides the bumps and how it is with the heat in the cockpit.
“For sure, we will encounter different challenges during the race, so I’m looking forward to see what’s the difference, to be honest.”
It’s actually a rarity in modern motorsports where the challenges of a particular venue are embraced and even celebrated instead of criticized and changed. The historical significance of a victory at Sebring – over bumps, on this one-of-a-kind course, door-to-door through the day and into the night – makes it one of the most rewarding trophies in the sport.
“The unique aspect is actually driving the track,’’ Lally said. “The atmosphere with the fans that show up, the spring break sort of mentality that seems to be quite a bit amped up over other races and is neat.
“But as far as why you would look forward to accomplishing a race win there, it is because of how tricky it is to put together the perfect lap one after another.’’