Non-hybrid LMP1 cars on the track in the WEC race, all powered by Gibson or AER.
Photo by Colin Sword
Sebring Truly ‘Super’
by Reggie Smith
SEBRING, Fla., Mar. 13-16 — The promoters called it “SuperSebring” and the fans really could not have asked for more. It isn’t often that two world-class races are scheduled back-to-back at the same venue, and this run featured no fewer than 137 cars and 338 drivers.
Add the two IMSA supporting races, the Michelin Pilot Challenge and the LMP3 Prototype Challenge, plus all the practices and qualifying sessions, and the action was literally non-stop.
At SuperSebring, the sanctioning organization for Le Mans and other races in the World Endurance Championship — the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, or FIA — joined forces with IMSA and brought cars and teams to Sebring International Raceway that most American race fans don’t ordinarily see, at least not in person.
This also gave those cars and drivers an opportunity to experience storied Sebring, a place alive with history and with its own special challenges for racers.
A little background...
The events leading up to SuperSebring need to be reviewed from both sides to get a better appreciation of just how big a deal this was.
Since 1973, IMSA has sanctioned the 12 Hours of Sebring — as it did this extended weekend. With many revisions over the years, Sebring still remains the brightest star in IMSA’s galaxy.
The “12 Hours” endurance concept was patterned after the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The French race is not related, but the respective sanctioning organizations, IMSA and the FIA, have always had a very genuine appreciation of each other.
Last spring, the FIA introduced a new twist to the World Endurance Championship, which features an elite grid of cars and graded drivers competing in four classes for points and end-of-season prize money. The FIA called it the “Super Season.” The first round was a year ago at the Spa-Francochamps circuit in Belgium, a six-hour race, then Le Mans (24 hours), and then Silverstone, Fuji and Shanghai (each six hours again). Now it was Sebring, soon to be followed by Spa, and then Le Mans again, to end the first Championship season.
The WEC Super Season is more than a “class” of racing or a “series” — it’s an entire circus in as much as all the competing cars, pit structures, paddock enclosures and FIA management quarters get put into containers and transported to the next location! It is a bit like Formula One except it appears the only time to try some allowable modifications to suit the host track is during the very brief time immediately before the race.
Aston Martin Racing’s new #95 Vantage. It ran in WEC’s LMGTE Pro class.
Photo by Colin Sword
The WEC teams at Sebring had not seen their cars for several months — since the last race in Shanghai, which was back in November. Financial support was evident with certain on-car advertising, but the running expenses rely heavily on end-of-season prize funds for support. It seems only the hopelessly wealthy players are in the elite series.
By hosting both IMSA and the WEC at SuperSebring, the track proved itself a pioneer as it has been in the past with such launches as F5000, Trans-Am, Formula Vee, Formula One, the Firestone Firehawk Series and more. The WEC race at Sebring, dubbed the “1000 Miles of Sebring,” was a standalone race separate from IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship contest, the 12 Hours, and a first-ever happening in that regard.
The WEC race
The cars in the WEC are in four class structures with points and funds on offer for each, but realistically, the premier LMP1 class was the show. Toyota Gazoo Racing, with its cutting-edge hybrid cars, faced prototypes powered by Gibson or AER engines, including two entries from Rebellion Racing and its new partner TVR. Toyota’s dashing Spaniard Formula One star, Fernando Alonso, was the focus personality of the race, but he had plenty of support from the other five drivers on the two-car team.
The other three WEC classes are LMP2, LMGTE Pro and LMGTE Am, comparable to the LMP2, GT Le Mans and GT Daytona in IMSA’s WeatherTech series. There is British interest across the board with the all the LMP2 cars powered by Gibson V8s, and Aston Martins represented in both LMGTE Pro and Am.
The program began with a two-day test the weekend prior to the WEC and IMSA races. All four WEC classes were able to learn the course and tune the cars with suspension adjustments appropriate for Sebring.
It was immediately obvious which cars were going to be qualifying at which end of the grid, but the fascinating part was discovering that the two fastest cars (the Toyota hybrids) were actually getting through Turn One without lifting or braking. Curiously, close observation showed the brake lights coming on, but with no reduction of speed.
When I had a brief chat about this with Toyota driver Mike Conway, a well-known Brit, he smiled and confirmed my observation. He explained that the brake lights were on due to a light left-toe pressure on the brake pedal that obviously lit the lights, but more importantly turned on the massive recharging system for the electronic hybrid storage that facilitated a 200-horsepower surge down the next straightaway!
In further exchange, I asked how well traffic (all the other cars) behaved when he gave a headlight flash when he came up on them. He said it was always a concern because even at night, when the lights might be more noticeable, the closing speeds are difficult to judge, and he had to be careful not to assume too much as he prepared to pass.
At any rate, the Toyotas dominated the eight-hour race, and through the field the other LMP1 and LMP2 cars filled most of the top ten positions. Chip Ganassi’s Ford GTs ran very closely in 12th position, and while the new-generation Ford GTs are not UK-built virtually their entire team is headquartered and staffed in England.
Aston Martin Racing fielded two cars in LMGTE Pro and one in Am, the latter with Canadian champion driver Paul Della Lana heading the team. One of Paul’s co-drivers was none other than Formula One legend Niki Lauda’s son, Mathias.
The highlights of the WEC were the incredible speeds in the top classes and the quality of driving through the rest of the entry.
Jackie Chan Racing’s #37 LMP2 ORECA-Gibson.
Photo by Colin Sword
Both the WEC and the traditional 12-hour competitors no doubt found the 3.7-mile course to be a unique challenge due to the advancing science of ground effects and chassis body design.
It begins with a simple principle: airplanes fly up and racing cars press down. This has to do with air management as speed increases. As airplanes gain lift, negative pressure causes them to gain altitude and vertical rudders steer them. With cars, air is used to push down on the body and the tires are used to steer. The additional factor is a fairly new science of managing negative pressure under the car to draw it to the ground like a mobile suction cup, which adds physical weight through the tires to improve traction for cornering and braking.
Most British Marque readers would understand these factors clearly, but there is more. At Sebring, the course is a classic combination of roads and corners, along with some straightaways and fast corners on concrete slab runways originally poured and used for Air Force pilot training in 1942. Adjustments in ride height and rake are necessary to avoid scraping the surface and losing stability.
Team philosophy and strategy
One WEC team was particularly interesting to interview, and that was the Jackie Chan DC Racing — running an LMP2 ORECA-Gibson. Team manager Sam Hignett shared some fascinating background for the car, engine, and philosophy.
The team “identity” is a show business celebrity who really loves racing (yes, that Jackie Chan). The team is based in England, but the bits and pieces have multiple bloodlines. The ORECA car (chassis) is basically a development of the Peugeot cars that won the 12-Hour races in 2010 and 2011. The engines are from Gibson (like all of the LMP2 and many of the LMP1 cars), and there are some well-established bloodlines there, too. Bill Gibson was significantly responsible for the Zytek engines in the last decade and also had quite a bit of involvement with the Walkinshaw Jaguars that appeared so strongly in the ’90s. Many Zytek engines appeared in Formula 3000 cars in those days also. The Zytek name went on to Continental, but Bill Gibson continued solo with a new engine carrying his own name.
The reliability of the Gibson engines is extraordinary, even though from just 4 litres they develop a dependable 600 brake horsepower. The ORECA car uses a 6-speed X-trac gearbox and performs like a well-rehearsed orchestra. Very steady, don’t expect mistakes!
Jackie Chan’s 4th-place overall, 1st-place LMP2 finish was truly excellent, but more importantly it was not lucky — just a strong team with strong machinery.
It is certainly appropriate to mention the Toyota manager of marketing and communications, Mr. Allister Moffett. It was an easy guess that the Hybrid Toyotas would dominate the WEC race, but fascinating to watch the constant lines of autograph seekers in front of their garages due to their driver line-up. Mr. Moffett assisted us with the chats we had with Mike Conway and his teammates. The technical side of Toyota may currently be the standard for comparison, but it benefits immensely from his best-in-class skill in public relations.
The #55 Mazda-AER DPi kicks up some spray during the wet going early in the 12 Hours of Sebring.
Photo by Colin Sword
The 12 Hours of Sebring
The 67th 12 Hours of Sebring was a bit more of an “endurance” race than usual due to the strength of the entry and the intermittent rain showers. For a start, the pace laps varied slightly in speed because of the wet surfaces, and when the clock finally started its 12-hour countdown, yellow and white flags waved instead of green — yellow meaning “no passing” and white indicating “slow or non-racing vehicles on the course.” They were non-race vehicles for sure — big tractors with big brush rollers trying to move standing water puddles from the course!
When the race finally turned green, it was like recess at an elementary school — or the Cadillac division of General Motors. Six of GM’s finest roared away at the front of the pack and they all seem to have had the exact same speed. The only difference was the old faithful asset, experience.
Lap times showed the conditions were a handful, and it helps to understand that all of the aero tricks that aid high-speed handling and braking are almost a menace on a wet surface. It might have been worse somewhere else, but Sebring’s racing surface is a bit like “rally-cross” because more than half the 3.7-mile course are those aforementioned concrete slabs that have been around since World War II. Over time, the gaps and slight settling of the matured runway sections will aid drainage, but throughout the 12 Hours new rain showers continued to create more spray than speed. Ironically, the slower cars in the back of the field didn’t seem as severely hampered, and the effect was like a long rush hour parade.
The TV coverage of the race made the best of a damp situation, and it was remarkable there were only four full-course cautions — two of which attributed to the #55 and #77 Mazda-AER DPis this paper has been following with much interest. The #77 car stopped on course after smoke was reported coming out of the rear, and #55 slipped off-course and into a tire wall about 3 1/2 hours later. Both eventually rejoined the race, #55 relatively quickly but #77 after more than three hours of downtime.
The other two cautions were prompted by mechanical issues that hobbled two GT Daytona cars, the last a BMW only 15 minutes before race’s end.
As has been the case in recent years, it was 11 hours of get ready and the last hour of go! The finish was extremely close and it was a brilliant victory for driver Eric Curran in the Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi. The #55 Mazda finished 6th, but #77 could only manage 37th. Everyone involved gets credit for the light attrition rate.
[Reggie is a former professional racecar driver and a frequent contributor to this publication. His report contains additional material courtesy of IMSA and Pit Notes.]
Reggie chatted with Toyota’s Mike Conway...
Photo by James Edmonds
Conversations at SuperSebring
by James Edmonds
2019 promised to be a year to remember at Sebring, with the WEC making a return to Central Florida’s world famous event for the first time in seven years — having broken ties with its previous North American venue, the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Tex., in 2017. Although the top LMP1 field was a little thin, the Le Mans-style spectacle brought out record numbers of fans eager to see the cars and their star drivers again.
With the WEC race being run to a “1000-mile” format on Friday and the IMSA 12 Hours of Sebring keeping its traditional Saturday morning start time, there was a lot of ground for my old friend Reggie Smith and me to cover.
Seeing the new Aston Martin Vantage GTE cars was a huge thrill, as this marked their debut on American soil. The new machines do not have the grace of the older ones in my eyes, but in the flesh they were certainly a terrific presence — and sounded fabulous despite their now-turbo-muffled exhaust note.
These cars run in the LMGTE Pro class. Two other Astons, in the LMGTE Am class, are from the previous generation with naturally-aspirated engines.
Previous Sebring and three-time Le Mans class winner Darren Turner was happy as always to chat about all things Aston Martin before the race, and he talked about the return to Sebring and his latest ventures.
“My last race with the works team was Le Mans 2018, but since then I’ve been racing with customer programs in British TT, VLN, and the Abu Dhabi 12 Hour. We [also] do a lot of testing as the works team with some GTE cars, but mainly GT3 and GT4,” he said.
(VLN, for the uninitiated, is the German acronym for the “Association of Nürburgring Endurance Club Organizers,” a group of motorsport clubs that each host one event in a nine-race series at the Nürburgring circuit in Germany. The series is closely associated with the 24 Hours Nürburgring and run under similar rules.)
It had been several months since Darren’s last race in the new car and I asked about its progression.
“There’s been some good progress,” he replied, “especially in the wet conditions that we had at Shanghai. That seemed to suit the car very well. We had a big test here [in Sebring] last weekend, and there are still areas that we need to develop and continue to improve and that will take shape as we head to Le Mans.
“The one lap pace is pretty good, but the main area of improvement is always going to be the race run. Managing tire degradation is an important part — not so much here at Sebring because we’re allowed seven sets of tires for an eight-hour race. A couple of full course yellows and the last set are only going to have to do a little bit more than a full stint.
“When you do the normal WEC six-hour races you are only allowed 18 tires so there’s a lot more tire management going on,” he added, “and the team strategy is critical in making the most of the six hours. It’s not an easy thing to work out. The teams all have the same challenge and have to work out the perfect scenario. And what happens when that scenario changes — which every race it does!”
Darren has raced at Sebring many times, but this was the first time that he and all the other WEC participants would be racing here to an eight-hour format. Did that change the approach?
“In the 12-hour race you’re under IMSA rules so there’s always a chance of gaining back a lap, whereas with the WEC, if you’re a lap down, you’re a lap down. You can be a little looser and more creative in IMSA in terms of risk-taking because if it doesn’t work out, there’s a chance to get it back and then change your strategy. It gives bravery a little more freedom,” he smiled.
“WEC, you can not afford to go a lap down at any point because it’s game over in terms of any real possibility of a race win. It means that there is more risk involved in being creative, but being very disciplined with your strategy.”
This year Darren is going to making his annual return to Goodwood for the Revival. Although he owns an old Turner that he has raced in the past, this year he will once again be racing a Mini against a few of his fellow WEC competitors.
Last year his daughter took her first foray into racing when she took part in the kids’ pedal car event. Although his little boy is not able to reach the pedals quite well enough to “really put the power down,” hopefully he will also see what it’s all about next year when he turns 6!
...and James with AMR’s Darren Turner.
Photo by James Edmonds
The Team Principal at Aston Martin Racing, John Gaw, gave his impressions of Sebring during a rare, if forced (!), spare moment before the race.
“The challenges here are the bumps,” he said. “Compared to a European circuit, it’s just trying to keep the tires on the ground. We are probably through that now because we’ve done the two-day test.
The biggest thing now is to make the tires last for a stint,” he added, echoing Darren’s sentiments. “It’s also very hot, the tarmac is different here, so managing the tire temperature across the stint is really critical. Just getting a little bit more than the competition is helpful.”
I asked John if the data from previous races here provided any help with the new car.
“Zero,” he replied. “The only thing that helps you is human experience. Tire ‘deg,’ bumps, the racing in the dark is important, but in terms of technically with the car it’s all new.
“I was surprised to be that competitive yesterday because we are a bit behind on tire development. We switched to Michelin a bit late this year so historically our slick performance this year has been a little poor because everyone’s got a different version of the tire. When it’s wet we are fantastic because the tires are all the same so the basic car is good. At the test we were the slowest, but yesterday [in two practice sessions] we were quickest!”
I guess that proves that on any given day, even the smallest changes in air temperature, track temperature, humidity or wind direction and speed can make a huge difference to modern racecar performance.
(The AMR Astons would go on to place 9th and 10th in LMGTE Pro and 8th in LMGTE Am. An Aston run by TF Sport finished 6th in LMGTE Am.)
Those who follow endurance racing on television or on Radio Le Mans will know Andrew Marriott — if not by his face, then certainly by his voice. Andrew has been covering Le Mans and the major races for 50 years and is a fixture at the track. His insight, knowledge and wit are often more interesting than the racing itself! His animated style and long associations with just about everyone up and down pit lane mean that he can be both his natural self and add huge insight to any situation.
It always amazes me that people like him can be seen strolling the paddock with no entourage and few fans around. A chance casual meeting led to a great conversation.
“I think this weekend will be very interesting indeed,” Andrew offered. “The WEC have taken a huge gamble because we know who’s going to win that race, but we don’t know who’s going to win the IMSA one, do we? It will be very, very close.”
(Prophetic words, indeed. The victor in the 12 Hours of Sebring won it by a mere 1.030 seconds, the closest finish in the race’s history.)
Returning to the WEC race, Andrew said, “Obviously one of the Toyotas will win it unless they are disqualified like they were at Silverstone.”
Andrew was referring to both Toyotas failing a post-race technical inspection after finishing 1-2 in that six-hour race.
“Unfortunately,” he added, “the way the regulations are means that they have no opposition anymore because nobody else can afford to do it. It’s sad, but the regulations have become too complicated and too expensive.”
When asked about next year’s proposed rule changes, Andrew was equally candid. He said, “They are going to go with the so-called ‘Hypercar,’ which I think is a good move, but they haven’t clearly defined the regulations yet and the manufacturers won’t sign up until they know what they are. In theory it works very well and goes back to the 1995 era when long-tailed McLarens were running.”
Andrew has been around for a long time, indeed, and now is involved in a couple of film projects. His following observation is worth noting:
“We need a world sports car series not as a rival but as an adjunct to Formula One because most people can relate to it.”
[James is Editor-in-Chief of The Motorsport Diaries, www.TheMotorsportDiaries.com, and a frequent contributor to this publication.]
Jaguar D-type ‘Short Nose’ Continuation — 1 of 25 to be built — on display at Rétromobile.
Photo by Russ Dennis
by Marguerite Dennis
PARIS, France — Paris is known throughout the world as the City of Lights. For the better part of a week in February, thanks to a phenomenal event called Rétromobile, it should also be known as the City of Classic Cars.
From February 6th through 10th, at the Porte de Versailles Exhibition Centre, more than 620 exhibitors, 1,000 cars, 120 car clubs, 60 artists, and 132,000 people participated in Rétromobile 2019.
The largest indoor classic car show in the world, Rétromobile began in 1976 and for the past 44 years has chronicled the history of the worldwide automotive sector, from lorries and tanks and motorcycles to most of the classic cars designed in Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Private collectors, museums, foundations, and car clubs throughout the world participate in the event.
For lovers of classic cars, car restorers, car sellers and auction houses, there is no better venue to see Aston Martins, Alfa Romeos, Bentleys, BMWs, Bugattis, Citroëns, Ferraris, Jaguars, Lamborghinis, Lancias, Land Rovers, Maseratis, Mercedes, Porsches, Renaults, and Skodas all sharing space on the exhibition floor.
Citroën center stage
The featured marque of this year’s Rétromobile was Citroën, a giant in the history of French cars, celebrating its 100th anniversary. Spanning the years from the 1919 Type A-10HP to the 2019 C5 Aircross SUV, the Citroën display was by far the star of this year’s Retromobile.
André Citroën was both a pioneer and a visionary. In addition to the cars he designed and built, Citroën was also a talented marketer. He was one of the first people to use the Eiffel Tower to advertise his cars. From 1925 to 1934 Parisians could see models of Citroëns on the tower’s three sides.
The Citroën DS19 Cabrio by Chapron caught Marguerite’s eye.
Photo by Russ Dennis
I am a lover of all things Jaguar. I always thought the classy and classic lines of the XK120, 140 and 150 could never be matched. But I was wrong. If there was a contest for the Best in Show at Rétromobile, a 1965 Citroën Cabriolet Usine convertible, white with a gray interior, would surely get my vote. This car and all the other Citroëns in the private collection that was on display gorgeously reflected the imagination and elegance of their times. People waiting in line to get closer to these cars must have agreed, because the wait time was more than 30 minutes.
Rétromobile’s consultant and manager of the event for 44 years, François Melcion, told me that these cars were lent to the exhibition to celebrate Citroën’s centennial and will not be displayed publicly again.
Brits at Rétromobile
Lovers of British cars would not be disappointed with Rétromobile’s displays of British cars. A 1928 Alvis 12/50 FWD, the first car with front wheel drive, was parked alongside a display of Morgan roadsters. A 1954 Jaguar XK120 in its original yellow-green color was nearby.
This year also marked the 60th anniversary of the Mini, and to celebrate one section of an exhibition hall was devoted to these cars. Like the Citroën line-up, the display was a walk through time. I was impressed by the earliest uses of these cars, the functionality, and the nod to history.
British car clubs were well represented at this year’s Rétromobile. Stopping at the booths of the French Jaguar Club, the MG Club of France, Club Healey, the Morgan Club and the Rover Club made me feel right at home. It is amazing how these cars can unite a diverse group of people.
Viewers of the Australian detective series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries would not be disappointed with the 1920 display model of a Hispano Suiza, an elegant car whether on the screen or on an exhibition floor. Two other cars were placed next to the Hispano Suiza with similar lines and elegance — a Delahaye and a Delage, both examples of French design. It seems the Delage club, Les Amis de Delage, has resolved to rebuild the mythic Delage V12 Labourette and re-introduce the car to the racing circuit.
Minis on display for their 60th anniversary.
Photo by Russ Dennis
Auctions, too, and more
Serious buyers and classic car enthusiasts come to Rétromobile either to add to or to sell from their collections. One dealer told me that several million-dollar cars were sold on the first two days of the exhibition, but there were also many affordable cars for sale. While the price for a 1933 MG Midget was €72,000, a 1958 Jaguar XK150 Roadster €178,000 a 1959 Austin-Healey BN4 Cabriolet €85,000 and a 1960 MGA 1600 Coupe €47,500, there were 250-300 other cars for sale that were under €25,000, and 75% of them were sold during the show.
A 1956 Austin-Healey M-Le Mans had no listed price. A serious buyer would have to negotiate privately with the seller for that one.
If you wanted to buy vintage or period clothing, electrical parts, model cars, auto books, works of art, club shirts, or classic car parts, there were booths to meet every need and fancy. I could have completely outfitted myself for the Goodwood Revival with the many vintage clothing booths I passed.
No single article or picture can adequately capture the richness of Rétromobile. You would have to see the displays, the unusual cars, and the enthusiastic crowd to understand why I have come to the conclusion that this is truly the best indoor classic car show in the world.
When I asked François Melcion what made Rétromobile so special, his answer was simple: “First, it is because we are located in Paris and that is a big draw for car enthusiasts and collectors, and second, we want to show the public things they have never seen before.”
And that’s why you have succeeded all these years, François.
[Marguerite and Russ Dennis are frequent contributors to this publication.]
Left to right: Gary Ferrera and Kris Wilson, Automatic Racing, #99 Aston Paul Holton and Kumo Wittmer, Compass Racing, #75 McLaren and Corey Fergus and Jesse Lazare, Motorsports in Action, #69 McLaren. Holton took the win, with Wilson just edging out Lazare for 2nd.
Photo by Tom Murray
Win, Place, Show
British Cars Grab the Podium at Debut of IMSA’s Michelin Pilot Challenge
by James Edmonds
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Jan. 24-27 — So this year it was “all change” with the application of the new IMSA rule set — or perhaps I should say for the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the races to follow in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, “all change back”!
For casual followers, the major and most important change for the WTSCC was the splitting of the Prototype class, which has been discussed in these pages before. The Daytona Prototype International (DPi) machines and Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2, or simply P2) cars are now in separate classes. This reminds us of the old American Le Mans Series, with its P1 and P2 classes.
And for those who like watching British-made GTs do an enduro, the change was doing it on a new brand of tire — to be expected in something called the Michelin Pilot Challenge — and with only one class of smaller car competing alongside.
Even without the MINIs this year, Daytona was a big win for us British car fans if you look at the Michelin Challenge, served up as the supporting race to the main event. It was held on Friday, replacing the previous Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge. All of the drivers put on a show that will be remembered and talked about over many pints of ale for some time to come, because when the dust settled, the podium was monopolized by British cars — win, place and show.
There were two McLarens and three Astons taking part in the GT4-based Grand Sport (GS) class in the Michelin, the other class being the Touring Car (TCR) category. Smaller, as mentioned, but no less exciting to watch, especially since Luis Perocarpi’s LAP Motorsports was back, albeit in a Honda Civic TCR. (Perocarpi and his team captured the Manufacturer’s Championship for MINI last year in the now-defunct Street Tuner class.)
Paul Holton and Kuno Wittmer drove the #75 McLaren for Compass Racing, moving that team up to GS this year from last year’s Conti TCR class and a Championship-winning Audi RS3. Corey Fergus and Jesse Lazare teamed up in the #69 McLaren for Motorsports in Action, while Kris Wilson and Gary Ferrera paired up in the oldest car in the race — the #99 Aston Martin Vantage — for Automatic Racing, who also entered its #97 Aston and a new-generation Vantage running #09. The #75 and #69 McLarens qualified 1st and 2nd, but the #99 Aston only managed 27th.
The race was an edge-of-the-seat nail-biter from the drop of the flag, although our intrepid photographer Tom Murray was none too happy with pole-sitter Holton, as he jumped the start by a large margin and ruined the green-flag photos Tom had spent some time setting up!
The #75 McLaren mastering the famous banked course at Daytona.
Photo by Tom Murray
Teams from Audi, BMW, Porsche, Mercedes AMG and Ford duked it out with the McLarens and Astons for the duration of the four-hour enduro. Whether due to the door-handle-to-door-handle racing or the large number of “gentlemen drivers,” there was rubbing and bumping that caused cars to go off with alarming frequency. The #09 Aston was hit in the first 10 minutes and was forced to pit, never to get back into serious contention.
Yellow flags are a common sight at Daytona, but they appeared a total of nine times in the four hours, leading to green-flag racing being only marginally longer than the laps run under caution. This may have artificially kept the racing very close, but certainly didn’t seem to spoil the fun. This caused the lead to change frequently with the pit stop rotations, but not more than the on-track passing that gave many laps of wheel-to-wheel, old-school racing to the delight of the large crowd.
The McLarens seemed awfully fast in a straight line, leading to the inevitable speculation that they will be pegged back by BoP (Balance of Performance) come Sebring — but their speed on the oval didn’t stop the competition from gaining on the infield.
At about two-thirds distance, the Compass Racing McLaren jumped the start again after a yellow, this time leading to a drive-through penalty. The old #99 Aston meanwhile had moved up and was challenging in the top 10, keeping its nose in the hunt going into the final hour.
That last hour saw more yellows, but left both McLarens and now the old Aston battling for the lead. The Vantage even took the lead for several laps, resulting in huge cheers from the fans as Wilson looked to be combining rallycross and drifting with road racing. He literally tried to drive the wheels off the old girl as he held the much newer and more advanced McLarens at bay.
Inevitably, the faster Compass Racing McLaren was able to take the lead, but not before a brilliant battle.
As yet another yellow was lifted towards the end, one of the Audi R8s managed a daring slip-stream pass for the lead going into Turn One, but after fighting for the lead with all the Brits, it was forced to pit for a splash-and-dash with only minutes remaining, leaving the finish to be decided by our glorious trio.
On the last lap, the old Aston managed to split the McLarens, and despite the huge speed of the newer car, was able to hold onto 2nd place, just seconds behind the leader and a remarkable seven-thousandths of a second ahead of the 3rd-place car. Yes, the Aston Martin finished .007 of a second ahead of 3rd place. You couldn’t make this stuff up!
A tremendous day for the McLarens, which, despite looking rather fragile in the past, both crossed the line seemingly unmarked against the ravaged cars around them — and of course for the Aston team, who also won the “Spirit of the Race” Award and deservedly so!
[Exec. Ed. note: Not only was the #99 Aston the oldest car in the race, its drivers, Kris Wilson and Gary Ferrera, were, at 57, two of the oldest teammates. “Old age and treachery vs. youth and exuberance!” Wilson would later quip about his run with the McLarens. —BV]
The #99 Aston had a 2nd-place finish in the Michelin race that would have made ‘Q’ proud.
Photo by Tom Murray
The Rolex 24
This season, with manufacturers from Acura, Mazda, Nissan and Cadillac making large investments and attracting top drivers to their DPis, IMSA’s new P2 class is really running as second billing to a BoP-specific DPi class.
P2 is now subject to a Pro-Am driver line-up as it is in the FIA World Endurance Championship and elsewhere around the globe, albeit with no BoP restrictions. P2 also has new starting and qualifying rules, and P2 pole-sitters must start behind all the DPi entries, regardless of qualifying times, putting them at a distinct disadvantage for an overall victory.
Has the new scheme discouraged P2 entries? Maybe. Last year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, with the combined Prototype class, had ten P2s on the entry list. This year there were only four.
The WTSCC’s session at Daytona, the season opener, was one for the books. The race goes for 24 hours and is sponsored by Rolex, so it is known as “the Rolex 24 at Daytona” — except maybe this year, as it didn’t go for 24 hours. And it will go down as the slowest in history, with two stoppages due to the constant and heavy rain that arrived with the dawn on Sunday.
The miserable weather left a sodden track with rivers of water that the track engineers seem to have made little plans for, meaning that 126 laps were run under full-course caution. This ultimately led to “the Rolex 22 at Daytona” when a red flag halted the race some two hours early, I am sure much to the pleasure of all the teams who could finally go the hell home!
If you follow the British drivers, there were a couple who made surprising headlines. First, Oliver Jarvis of Mazda Team Joest, driving the #77 Mazda DPi, beat the outright lap record on the way to a spectacular pole time. Unfortunately for the team, they were unable to capitalize on this, but more in a minute.
Next was James Calado in the sole Risi Competizione Ferrari GTLM car, who had been desperate ahead of the race because of the huge difference in lap times between his car and the factory teams from BMW, Corvette, Ford and Porsche. Despite trying everything — ultimately resorting to running almost no wing to maximize top speed — with almost a second per lap between them, he seemed angry and resigned to a last-place finish.
That rain, though — it really is a great equalizer. Calado and his team managed to stay out of trouble and had perfect pit stops while all the works equipes crashed, broke, or succumbed to both. The fact that the giant-killing Taxas team was able to finish in the rooster-tail of the winning BMW left the fan-favorite underdogs with tears streaming down their rain-soaked faces.
If it’s the British cars that you follow, then prospects for this year were tenuous at best. Granted, all the P2 cars have British engines (the Gibson V8s) up to spec, but given IMSA’s new rules about starting and qualifying the cards were stacked against them. On the other hand, the Joest Mazda team, running the latest AER engine in DPis with a revised Multimatic chassis, turned in sufficiently impressive qualifying times at Daytona to suggest the Japanese-Canadian-British partnership would be dominant in the race.
In the garage with the #77 and #55 Mazda-AERs, which qualified 1st and 4th respectively in the WTSCC race. Their efforts resulted in a disappointing finish, however.
Photo by Tom Murray
However, after leading or contending for the first six hours, both #77 and #55 had serious problems. Jarvis’ teammate in #77, Timo Bernhard, came to a stop at the entrance to the track’s “Bus Stop” with an engine fire and quickly exited the car. The team later announced #77 could not be repaired and the car was retired.
Minutes before the incident Mazda team driver Olivier Pla pitted in #55 with a fuel leak probably resulting from contact with an Acura GTD. The #55 car managed to re-enter the race about ten minutes later and tried to make up for lost time in the wee hours, but was also forced out after an incident in the 14th hour, putting an end to the team’s campaign.
The rain made things horrific for the teams that were left on the track, with all sorts of consequences. Just before the race was red-flagged for good, Sebastian Saavedra in the #18 Dragonspeed ORECA LMP2 slid into a wall but was able to limp back onto the track to slink into the pits with a terribly bent car. But at the time of the red flag, he was leading the class by four laps and, as the race never resumed, managed to win it.
After the race, John Doonan, Team Director for Mazda Team Joest, had this to say.
“While it is disappointing that we didn’t see the checkered flag, our crew and drivers can leave with their heads held high that they had put together an effort that ran at the front and was a contender for the victory at Daytona.
“Our approach was to race from the front and push ourselves and the competition as hard as we could. We’ll learn everything we can, put a plan into place to address the issues we had here, and go for it again at Sebring.”
Ah, yes, Sebring, where the WEC will stage its own race, “the 1,000 Miles of Sebring,” in addition to IMSA’s “12 Hours of Sebring.” With a doubleheader in the cards, might it be twice as good?
[James is Editor-in-Chief of The Motorsport Diaries, www.TheMotorsportDiaries.com, and is a frequent contributor to this newspaper.]
The Elan ‘on the road to Morocco’ — actually, in Morocco, with a dusty wait on the way to a night stop in Taroudant.
Photo by Peter & Allison Cotes
The ‘Curse of Midelt’!
by Peter Cotes
I wouldn’t expect many to have heard of Midelt, but those long-time readers with retentive memories may remember the Dakar Rally in 2005 when my wife Allison and I, and our Lotus Elan, visited for the first time and lost our back wheel...
Midelt is in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, northeast of Marrakesh at an altitude of 5,000 ft. Our second visit was in 2009, when we tried bump-starting the Elan in reverse and snapped one of the diff output shafts. Our third visit was last April, and we had to wonder — what would happen this time?
ROARR’s ‘Atlas Rally’ started in Seville, Spain, with a run down to the port of Tarifa and a ferry to Tangier, Morocco. Our previous trip had been to the USA and Route 66. Since then, I had replaced my well-worn Brazilian tyres, changed the clutch hydraulic components (I’ve had enough of changing the slave cylinder in hotel carparks!), and replaced the brake master cylinder. Everything else seemed O.K.
The organisers gave us a choice of really bad and not very good routes, so we chose the not very good. The Ford Mustang that joined us opted for the really bad and ended up in thick, sticky mud up to the doors – and that was just in Spain.
We headed south via Chefchaouen, Morocco, to Fez. The ‘blue town’ of Chefchaouen, located on a hillside, is famous for its blue-washed buildings — but it was cold, with a biting wind that howled round its narrow, winding lanes. The souvenir vendors had a hard time coaxing any money out of the few tourists. Our room in the Auberge had a wood fire, which kept us warm.
Day 3 to Fez saw the Mustang and a Mercedes sliding off a crumbly track and stranded with two wheels dangling over a trench. We avoided that, but did have an exciting moment when we launched ourselves into a deep muddy rut that we somehow scrambled through. It was the only available track and I am sure someone would have pulled us out if necessary. Sure we could have taken the main roads, but our organiser felt we would prefer dirt, river crossings and potholes!
Leaving Fez we attracted the attention of a ‘man with a hair dryer’ who decided I was doing 73kph in a 60 limit, which cost me £12.50. The Mustang passed as we were being processed and was baffled that we were stopped and not him!
Chefchaouen, the blue town.
Photo by Peter & Allison Cotes
We continued south and west to Marrakesh. Another Mercedes (there were four of them) had a scrape with a lorry on a bend and lost part of the rear bumper along with having some ‘re-alignments’ to the door and wing. One of the two Volvo PVs, a rally veteran, needed welding to a shock absorber mounting to match the work done to the other side in Patagonia in 2010!
We had a rest day wandering round Marrakesh, trying to avoid the scams arranged to part tourists from their money. Our next stop was Essaouira, a fishing port and holiday destination on the Atlantic coast.
Which brings us to one of the contradictions of Morocco — alcohol. The Western-style hotels have plenty (at a price), but this being a Muslim country it is not ‘accepted’ and most local restaurants do not serve it. They also produce wine, and Essaouira is in a wine-growing area so we had a group vineyard visit, though no one got beyond the sampling phase.
(Later, in Ifrane, we’d meet the retail side — an epicerie, or grocery, with shelves of bottles and an all-male clientele, all of whom departed with sagging jacket pockets or discrete cloth bags.)
We headed south along the coast, turning inland just short of Agadir and the first of a number of excessive and lengthy rally lunches. The food just kept coming! Our night stop was in Taroudant, a small town with impressive town walls. There was a festival in town this evening, but only men could attend and gathered in clusters round the musicians and performers. There were women in the souks, but in this society that was as far as they could go.
Day 10 took us over the 7,000-ft. Tizi n Test pass, constructed in 1929 and once considered a fearsome and dangerous road. None of the cars had any problems one driver was hit by a local car at a viewpoint but fortunately suffered only backache and bruising.
We dropped down from the High Atlas to the Ourika Valley, where a rutted and bumpy track led us to our hotel, a kasbah, a (once) fortified dwelling on top of a rocky hill. Midelt was just two days’ drive away — so far so good!
In the Kasbah carpark making repairs.
Photo by Peter & Allison Cotes
The next day’s route through Skoura was uneventful and we headed for the Todhra Gorge and on to Midelt. The Gorge entrance was occupied by dithering tourist cars and vendors, but the horn was in good working order and we soon climbed to our lunch stop in a village on the high plateau. As ever there was an embarrassment of food but worse was to come — Allison found there was a lady weaving rugs in a shed round the back. She traded in the first rug she bought, an obviously insufficient packing challenge, and settled on one twice the size!
We continued to a river crossing where the organiser was waiting for us, camera in hand. I went through ‘for the cameras’, and then we stopped to photograph Allison coming through, clinging to the side of the 4WD (she had stayed behind to take pictures).
Afterward the Elan complained that it was wet and would only fire on one cylinder. The others soon dried out with the bonnet open. We tightened up loose fuel lines I hadn’t noticed a fall in mpg but fuel was washing round the outside of the carbs.
On to El Rich, and the throttle return spring came detached. I had 2500rpm and zero control. We stopped at a fuel station outside town. The fuel pump attendant thankfully got rid of a group of most annoying kids — no, I don’t want to give you money or pens when I’m under the car trying to find that damned spring!
Then there was grumbling (from the Elan, not me), and it got worse. It wasn’t just a gentle grumble, but a collection of screeches with a few other even less pleasant noises thrown in. I stopped, knowing that my diagnosis would be rear wheel bearings, which was confirmed by jacking up one corner of the Elan and waggling the wheel.
We limped on to Midelt and into the carpark of the same hotel that had witnessed two previous Elan ‘moments’. The rally mechanics helped change one side’s bearings. (And yes, my spares kit includes bearings and a rear hub extractor!) Our friends Phil and Kieron used a dinner plate to conduct an archaeological reconstruction of the old bearing, the theory being that the already hot bearing (gentle grumble) had shattered on contact with the cold water at the crossing.
Next stop Ifrane, a mountain town built by the former French administrators to shelter them from the summer heat at the coast. It looks nothing like any other Moroccan town — no street vendors, no souks, and good roads — just like any town in northern Europe! We had a rest day to wander the waterfalls and find the off-licence.
From ‘modern’ (okay, 1929!) Ifrane we headed back in time at Volubilis, a major Roman settlement with surprisingly many remains still intact. This was one of Allison’s goals on the trip as the mosaic floors are spectacular.
Detail of mosaic floor of the House of Orpheus, Volubilis.
Photo by Peter& Allison Cotes
We were stopped by two sets of police that day, the second just wanting to know who we were and how many. The first was convinced I was doing “sixty fifteen” kph in a 60 limit (that’s the literal translation of the French soixante quinze, or 75), but decided the following Mercedes was a softer target — and anyway his camera hadn’t picked up our front number plate.
Another lunch followed in the nearby, once-religious preserve of Moulay Idriss, where an English master chef opens his house a couple of times a month as a restaurant.
The road that afternoon was awful, and no, I hadn’t touched a drop, which is more than can be said about the navigator! Subsidence had caused the surface to undulate alarmingly without warning — and to no great surprise, when the next time I looked I saw I had a broken front spring. I don’t carry a spare of that, but Tangier, the ferry and Seville were only a short distance ahead.
Maybe a fourth trip to Midelt would be trouble-free, but you know I really don’t plan to find out!
Visit us and the Elan at www.rallyelan.com.
[Peter, Allison and their classic Elan are very well traveled, having had rally experiences on five of the seven continents. Wonder where they’ll go next? Watch these pages!]