IMSA sports car fans throughout the United States are always aware of the magnificence of the 36 Hours of Florida. Starting with the Rolex 24 at Daytona the end of the January and ending with this weekend’s 71st Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, teams and drivers have had to wait more than a month to get back on track – testing notwithstanding – and they’ll be joined, once again, by the cars and stars of the FIA’s World Endurance Championship, as those racers compete in the 1,000 Miles of Sebring the day before IMSA’s 12-hour romp.
WEC has been joining IMSA for the Sebring weekend since 2019 – 2020 excepted, of course – and with WEC’s new Hypercars on-site to prep for their battles against the elements and 24 hours of racing in June at the 100th anniversary running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, there’s a lot to digest in central Florida, at this site of the bumpiest road course in America. This year IMSA’s LMDh GTP prototypes are going to be a big factor at Le Mans, racing for the first time as equals to World Endurance Championship’s Hypercars.
Chip Ganassi Racing and its friendliest foe, Team Penske, are both taking part in WEC and IMSA in 2023. That allows for more track time for some of the cross-over drivers and the ability to further hone both of their Cadillac and Porsche entries, respectively. With the WEC showcasing three categories during their 1,000-mile trek over the massive bumps of this former air field: Hypercars LMP2 and LM GTE Am, they are definitely easier to discern by class.
IMSA, on the other hand, has its LMDh (GTP) prototypes, along with LM P2, LM P3, GTD PRO and GTD, the latter correlating mostly to the GTE Am of WEC’s classification. What this means is that there are opportunities for drivers to attempt more than one series this weekend and, of course, for manufacturers to discover who their true opponents might be, especially in the top-tier classes of Hypercar and LMDh GTP.
The weather, often a factor in sports car racing that runs rain and shine, looks to be cooperative, if warm this weekend in central Florida. Thursday’s WEC qualifying, set for late afternoon, will be held under moderate temps and winds with only passing clouds getting in the way. The race, on the other hand, will be conducted under warmer conditions, with highs expected in the mid-80s for much of Friday, when WEC cars drive around for a thousand miles of bumpy and traffic-ridden Sebring International Raceway.
IMSA qualifies on Friday for its 12-hour contest, and can expect that race to be conducted under far warmer circumstances. Once completed, however, Sunday thankfully is the chilly and rainy day, when teams face the prospect of cleaning up and clearing out. If these forecasts hold, the spring break party that is Sebring will be conducted under the best circumstances. If it doesn’t, well, nobody had proper warning, aside for those with their own weather stations (like Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing).
There are 37 race cars entered for the 1,000-mile Friday afternoon, evening WEC race, with 111 drivers taking part. Six entries in Hypercar highlight the race and celebrate manufacturer participation by Cadillac (through Ganassi’s entry), Vanwall, Porsche and Toyota; beyond Ganassi, only Vanwall has a single entry and includes among its drivers Jacques Villeneuve, the former CART champion, 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner and 1997 Formula One champion. Ganassi has Earl Bamber, Alex Lynn and Richard Westbrook driving the No. 2 Cadillac, while Team Penske’s two cars have the No. 6 Porsche 963 occupied by Dane Cameron, Michael Christensen and Frederic Makowiecki. Kevin Estre, Andre Lotterer and Laurens Vanthoor pilot the No. 6 from Penske’s stables. Toyota’s dual entries are reserved for former INDYCAR winner Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez in the No. 7, with Sebasstein Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Roy Hirakawa driving the No. 8 Hypercar.
In the 12-hour Saturday race, 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona victors Meyer Shank Racing (MSR), together with their No. 60 Acura ARX-06 race car, are working under difficult circumstances. They’ve been penalized – heavily – after manipulating minimum tire pressure data and racing below the threshold set by tire supplier Michelin in that late January, season-opening race. After taking their second consecutive victory in the midwinter classic, it was discovered there was a performance advantage taken and IMSA, after learning of this from chassis and engine supplier Honda Performance Development, took big steps to ensure this never happens again.
The team, while not stripped of its victory, did lose 200 team and drivers championship points in IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. MSR also lost all team and driver IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup points, all race prize money from the Rolex 24, was issued a $50,000 fine and IMSA place team co-owner and entrant Michael Shank on probation through the end of June, 2023. IMSA revoked the annual credential of team engineer Ryan McCarthy and placed him under indefinite suspension of his IMSA membership, as well.
These were big hits, but both the team and its manufacturer, Acura, are primed to return to prominence this weekend, even with all of the penalties issued. Acura, of course, also provides equipment for Wayne Taylor Racing (WTR), who have immense endurance competition success, having won four Rolex 24 contests and a single Sebring race. WTR were quickest in the first practice session on Thursday in Sebring with drivers Ricky Taylor, Felipe Albquerque and Luis Deletraz, followed by six (of the seven) of the team’s LMDh competitors. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Cadillac No. 01 was second, with Sebastien Bourdais, Ranger van den Zande and Scott Dixon driving, followed by the No. 31 Cadillac of Pipo Derani, Alex Sims and James Aitkin from Whelen Engineering. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLLR) BMW LMDh GTP cars were fourth and fifth in practice, with Conor De Philippi, Nick Yelloly and Sander van den Linde in the No. 25 and the No. 24 of Philippe Eng, Alexander Farfus and Marco Wittmann, the team faring far better than it did in January. Team Penske’s No. 6 Porsche 963, with Nick Tandy, Mathieu Jaminet and Dane Cameron (doing double-duty) were sixth. Their teammates, in the No. 7 Porsche, had issues in first practice and were 15th overall, with Matt Campbell, Felipe Nasr and Michael Christensen (another two-race driver) at the helm.
In IMSA competition, there are a total of 53 entries for Saturday’s race, making the always crowded paddock area even more difficult to work through. Most of the entries are in the GTD category. WEC is using the back straight as its pit area, opening up the Ullman Straight for pit entry and exit.
As the 36 Hours of Florida concludes this weekend for IMSA and the WEC season begins, IMSA has also introduced its first 2023 IMSA Hall of Fame entrants. The inaugural class includes racers Peter Gregg, Hurley Haywood, Al Holbert and Scott Pruett. In addition, the three founders of IMSA – John and Peg Bishop, along with Bill France Sr. – will be honored and inducted as part of October’s WeatherTech Night of Champions, traditionally held after the Motul Petit Le Mans season closer. The inaugural class is inducting four iconic race cars: the Chevrolet Corvette C5.R, Ferrari 333 SP, Mazda RX-7 GTU and the Porsche 962 for its first class of honorees.
Leave a Reply