By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. It wasn't supposed to work out this way. The dominant Chip Ganassi Racing Team brought three Ford GTs to contest the GTLM class at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida - the second race on the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship - and the expectations were that they weren't just going to win, but that they were going to crush the opposition from BMW, Corvette, Ferrari and Porsche. After winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the top GT class last June and then the Daytona 24 Hours just two months ago, the Ford GT juggernaut was aiming to make it three straight victories with a win in the 12 Hours of Sebring. Nothing was left to chance, either, with CGR bringing three Ford GT GTLM machines to Sebring, including the No. 66 Ford GT driven by Joey Hand, Dirk Müller and Sebastien Bourdais; the No. 67 team car with Richard Westbrook, Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon; and the No. 68 machine from its WEC team with Stefan Mücke, Billy Johnson and Olivier Pla.
And after Ryan Briscoe grabbed pole position with a blistering 1:55.939 lap in the No. 67 Ford GT, and Dirk Müller turned in a 1:56.175 in the No. 66 car for second-quick in the class, the competition was left reeling. Why? The feeling was that the Fords could run those speeds at will, and that they were able to dial-in more power as needed with the mapping of their turbocharged engines. It didn't help that the the third-place qualifier, Tommy Milner (No. 4 Corvette Racing Mobil 1/SiriusXM Corvette C7.R, co-driven by Oliver Gavin and Marcel Fässler), who had turned a lap of 1:56.252 in his factory-supported Corvette, was found to have an illegal ride height in post-qualifying inspection and would have to start dead last in the GT category. It was going to be a long, tough race, and in the GTLM class - which is the most competitive road racing in the world - the feeling was that the Fords were damn-near unstoppable. But then again this is Sebring. The track still utilizes some of the brutal concrete surfaces remaining from the ancient Hendricks Army Airfield - a U.S. Army Air Forces training base for B-17 bombers in WWII - and it flat-out destroys cars.
Right off the bat, the No. 67 pole-winning Ford GT encountered a problem; it wouldn't start, so it would have to start at the back of the field. And the No. 4 Corvette Racing Mobil 1/SiriusXM Corvette C7.R retired with water temperature issues in the opening hour, and was out. But once the race settled down, the Ford GTs ran at the front at will for most of the race, with one of the factory Porsche 911 RSRs right there too. The No. 3 Corvette Racing Mobil 1/SiriusXM Corvette C7.R driven by Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen and Mike Rockenfeller at one point led at the three-hour mark, but the No. 3 machine encountered many troubles along the way, including bouts with traffic and a less-than-ideal pit sequence that cost the team dearly. But despite it all, the No. 3 Corvette was still running sixth in GTLM at the eight-and-a-half-hour mark, but a fortuitous full-course caution and a perfect pit stop by the crack Corvette Racing team allowed Jan Magnussen to emerge for the restart in third place, and it was then that the complexion of the race changed.
The gifted - and lightning quick - Antonio Garcia climbed into the No. 3 factory Corvette for the final and two hours and 53 minutes, and put on a stunning display of driving that will be remembered for a long, long time. He ran down the leaders and stormed into the lead with 35 laps left, and then he withstood intense pressure from the Ford and Porsche factory teams to pull out a 4.453-second victory. Even though it was the third straight victory by Corvette Racing at America's oldest and most prestigious endurance road race - and its eleventh class win at the classic venue - it still felt like a huge upset.
Garcia was exhausted and thrilled with the result. “I knew it was going to be really, really tough," Garcia said. "Since yesterday in qualifying it was super close, the first two hours I managed to make my way up to P2. I did two hours first following the No. 66. Then I did that third hour and I was kind of sick of following Fords. So at some point I just needed to go. We made that really good call to come in with the Ferrari. So the Fords stayed out on a poorer set of tires than us. I knew that had to be my stint. That first stint with two or three stints to go, I needed to make the moves and pass the Ferrari. I passed the No. 68; I passed (Scott) Dixon. I passed everybody because I knew it had to be done then because that was probably the only time they would be a little bit weaker than we were. It worked. At the end the Porsche looked very, very strong. That second-to-the-last time they pitted quite a bit later than us, and they were flying. They passed all the way up to us until that last safety car. Again, there was a magnificent stop by the Corvette Racing crew. I think the Porsche made a mistake there. Without knowing, I thought it was Joey (Hand) behind us, but it was again the Porsche. I knew it was going to be tough. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to hold him , but probably. The car kept going faster and faster. When you lead the way, the aero works pretty decent compared to when you follow someone. At the end things went a little bit in our favor. It was a sprint to the end. I can’t believe what Corvette Racing did today. Just awesome. Amazing.” Saturday’s victory was also Magnussen’s fifth at Sebring; it was the third for Garcia and first for Rockenfeller. The trio also won the second of four Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup rounds of the season.
The team was understandably jubilant. “I think what we saw tonight may have been the most intense mix of tremendous engineering and strategy from our engineering crew and flawless pit stops all day long by our Corvette Racing crew," Doug Fehan, Corvette Racing Program Manager, commented. "Then there was the driving exhibition that I’m sure will be a highlight of Antonio’s career - certainly at Corvette Racing. When you put those three elements together, we are hard to beat. It was an amazing demonstration by everyone at Corvette Racing.”
As people who have been in and around racing understand so well, anything can happen on any given day, especially at Sebring. Since the 50s, racers have learned the hard way that at Sebring expectations can go begging, bad things can happen, dreams get crushed and the best laid plans are meaningless. It's why they play the games in football no matter what the odds are and it's why they run the races, because absolutely anything can happen. And as proved yet again on Saturday, at Sebring it usually does.
Congratulations to Corvette Racing, Pratt&Miller Engineering and GM Racing on a superb effort and a job well done.
And that's the High-Octane Truth for this week.
(John Thawley ~ Motorsports Photography @ www.johnthawley.com ~ 248.227.0110)
(Courtesy of Michelin)
The jubilant Corvette Racing Team celebrates its historic win at Sebring.
Editor's Note: Many of you have seen Peter's references over the years to the Hydrogen Electric Racing Federation (HERF), which he launched in 2007. For those of you who weren't following AE at the time, you can read two of HERF's press releases here and here. And for even more details (including a link to Peter's announcement speech), check out the HERF entry on Wikipedia here. -WG
Publisher's Note: As part of our continuing series celebrating the "Glory Days" of racing, we're proud to present another noteworthy image from the Ford Racing Archives. - PMD
(Photo by Dave Friedman, courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives)
Sebring, Florida, March 21, 1964. The Lew Spencer/Bob Bondurant No. 12 Shelby American Cobra makes its final night pit stop on its way to a fifth overall in the 12 Hours of Sebring that year. Mike Parkes/Umberto Maglioli (No. 22 S.E.F.A.C. - Ferrari 275 P) won that intensely hot day, followed by Ludovico Scarfiotti/Nino Vaccarella (No. 23 S.E.F.A.C. - Ferrari 275 P); John Surtees/Lorenzo Bandini (No. 21 S.E.F.A.C. - Ferrari 330 P), Bob Holbert/Dave MacDonald (No. 10 Shelby American Cobra Daytona Coupe) and Spencer/Bondurant. Watch a cool video here (see Roger Penske wheel a Corvette Grand Sport!). And go to racingsportscars.com for more historic race info.