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Flat Spot On – Before the Deluge

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 19 2022

The No. 36 car of Alpine ELF was the overall winner at Friday’s 1000-mile WEC event in Sebring. (Photo courtesy of Alpine ELF)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

SEBRING, Fla. – The race of the Hypercars at the Sebring International Raceway turned out to be hyper-dramatic.

It seems highly unlikely another World Endurance Championship race will experience three red flags—two for lighting that ended the scheduled 1,000-mile season opener and one for a hyperactive Toyota hybrid that lost its brakes and cannonaded into the tire wall at Bishop’s Bend, where driver Jose Maria Lopez crawled out from his overturned GT010 unharmed.

Strange Sebring weather is no stranger at the central Florida facility. Combined with the NASCAR-operated track’s rule for lightning strikes, it meant a sudden “denouement” of the daylong race followed by a deluge. It was so heavy at least one journalist in the media center began looking around for a lookalike—in case there was an evacuation for two-of-a-kind under such biblical conditions.

The last time there was a red flag at a WEC event was 2018 in Shanghai, China. There are no recollections of two in one event since the current iteration of a world championship for sports cars, much less three. 

’Twas a shame that a blistering spring day that epitomized instant sunburn for the untrained skin of winter brought a storm that ended such a torrid race over the rugged concrete runways won by a deserving Alpine ELF Team. The A480-Gibson in the hands of pole winner Nicolas LaPierre, Mathieu Vaxiviere and Andre Negrao struck yet another blow for normally aspirated V-8 power after pushing the pace all day. By time the rain followed lightning, the race had been called and it was too late for Toyota’s remaining GR010 to employ all-wheel drive in an all-out last minute recovery drill in the wet.

The intrepid WEC types, following the deluge, shrugged off the sheet lightning worthy of Zeus and thunder worthy of Washington Irving’s dwarves bowling in the sky (or maybe on the media center’s roof) and held open-air podium ceremonies in the globetrotting series’ pop-up paddock. Given the track owner’s response to lightning, i.e. shutting down, and the fact it also owns IMSA, one wonders if the mooted joint set of rules for hybrid racers with the WEC and Le Mans will ultimately come about—or be grounded. There’s just so much history of doing and seeing things differently.

The Chevrolet Corvette C8.R driven by Tommy Milner and Nick Tandy raced to a second place finish in the GTE Pro class at Sebring on Friday. (Photo by Richard Prince for Corvette Racing)

As for the Americans racing on home soil, the Team Penske’s ORECA, an LMP2 class stalking horse for next year’s Porsche hybrid campaigns in both the WEC and IMSA, ran consistently among the veteran LMP2 teams in the hands of Dane Cameron, Felipe Nasr and Emanuel Collard. They finished 11th overall and eighth in class. At the top of the heap, pace and smart pit strategy resulted in a class victory for U.K.-based United Autosport, owned by American racing mogul Zak Brown, and drivers Paul DiResta, Oliver Jarvis and 16-year-old Josh Pierson.

Corvette Racing’s split series strategy resulted in one entry in LMGTE Pro from the WEC paddock for Tom Milner and Nick Tandy. The latter Englishman kept the No. 91 Porsche GT within shouting distance in the early going before hopping out to talk about possibly driving Rick Hendrick’s Next Gen NASCAR Camaro entry at Le Mans in 2023 out of Garage 56. “I’m available,” said the fan of Cup Series racing.

Alas, that mid-race red flag for the overturned Toyota upset the tire strategy (the series limits a team’s sets of Michelins according to race distance) for a team that knows this concrete well. Milner’s door was slammed by an LMP2 car on the restart and had to be repaired on the next scheduled stop. The ground was never made up on the winning Porsche GT Team’s 911 RSR of Kevin Estre and Michael Christensen and a German squad that also has a fair amount of experience on the old Army Air Force runways.

The promising combination of Dempsey-Proton Racing, co-owned by American actor Patrick Dempsey, and Multimatic Motorsports drivers Harry Tincknell and Seb Priaulx had a, well, promising start. Their Porsche 911 RSR-19 started in sixth place in LMGTE Am and finished just off the podium in fourth along with Christian Reid. Texan Ben Keating’s decision to bring in Marco Sorensen as a pro partner paid off with a second in class for the Aston Martin team of TF Sport along with Florian Lattore.

At the front of the field, it just wasn’t meant to be for the Toyota Gazoo Racing team’s day with its latest hybrid. First, Lopez damaged his front wing by hitting a LMGTE-Am Porsche, lost his brakes while trying to get back to the pits with bodywork damage and discombobulated one entry. Prior to the re-start, the sister Gazoo entry had to make an emergency stop for fuel in a closed pit, which meant a return trip and ultimately a deficit of 37 seconds to the winning Alpine entry when the dark skies began to light up.

How many French teams have ever won an WEC round? On the same Sebring stomping grounds that have been good for back-to-back Peugeot victories in 2010-2011, the Alpine ELF Team became the first. 

As if the thunder and lightning was not enough, just under two hours after the race and long after all the transient ticket holders had disappeared, post-race fireworks finally hit the sky. It was that kind of disjointed event on a day when the racing gods were indeed a bit quirky.

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram and Bill Lester are co-authors of the 2021 release from Pegasus Books titled “Winning In Reverse.”  Ingram’s book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” illustrates the 20-year struggle to establish racing’s first head restraint. Both books carry five-star ratings on Amazon and are also available at www.jingrambooks.com.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 19 2022
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