Motor racing is a sensory experience and it’s always refreshing when an event carries its own scent. The forests of Finland smell divine, with wild blueberries growing on the ground; a wholesome adjunct to the lunacy of rally cars flying over lethal crests. In central Florida, one is never far from the smell of the orange groves.
Our journey from Orlando to Sebring is slightly laboured, on account of the lumbering Ford RV which is to serve as both our transport and our home for a long weekend. We stop at WalMart for provisions and are grateful for the fact that the fridge operates off the main battery meaning cold food and drink right from the off.
The first orange tree is quite exciting but soon we’re bored to death of the monotonous rows of fruit trees as we spear through the Floridian interior. Arrival at the track can’t come quickly enough, even if the sweet smell is quite appealing.
Once again, we find ticket collection very simple and are soon bouncing our way over the ancient concrete slabs that once housed B-17s and B-29s. Running parallel to the front stretch is a great novelty though things become less novel when we try to find somewhere to park. We are naturally wary of the notoriously lawless Green Park and instead try to find room on the vast outfield campsite between turns 17 and 7. This area is densely filled with every conceivable kind of RV, trailer, camper van and the odd vestigial tent. We try nosing into various unlikely spots before eventually befriending a group of Brits who kindly shuffle their vehicles around to accommodate us. We are able to repay them by leaving open our awning to provide 24/7 shelter from the elements – and that becomes a serious blessing as the weekend unravels.
It’s late afternoon and we’re able to sit on the roof of the RV with a drink as the sun slowly descends ahead of evening practice. We can’t really see the track action from here but we sure can hear it and we can have our noses on the fence in less than a minute. With quick access to comestibles, showers and merch, we’ve inadvertently turned up late and bagged a prime spot.
One of our new pals is kind enough to show us around. He’s a veteran of the race and we soon find ourselves high up in a makeshift scaffold grandstand full of some kind of wicked homebrew booze. In fact, the warmth and welcome of the people is something which truly marks out this event – in spite of some questionable signage, the spectators are all super friendly and we enjoy some excellent craic over the course of the weekend.
Dusk practice for IMSA is hugely evocative as the sun drops over the western end of the circuit above turn seven. In spite of my best efforts, the camera (and its inept operator) fail to capture the majesty of it all. Suffice it to say, that it was another great Florida sunset; this time playing out to the soundtrack of race engines.
It’s hard to take much away from the session beyond the sheer drama and excitement of seeing endurance sports cars at dusk around one of the world’s great tracks. It really doesn’t get much better than that.
Our new best mate knows a couple of lads with an RV berth right on the exit of turn 16. Not normally a noted spectating spot, this has taken on a different complexion for 2019 as the World Endurance Championship has adopted the succeeding Ullman Straight for its pit lane. Perched high up above the final turn on another makeshift tower (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t designed to TG:20 and I never saw a scafftag all weekend), we have a prime view of the world’s fastest sports racing cars as they hammer out of 16 and all the corresponding pit activity. Cracking spot.
The sheer motive force of the current Toyota TS050 never ceases to startle – most particularly when fully lit on a qualifying run. The two hybirds streak to a front-row lock-out in commanding fashion and hopes for a challenge from the privateers looks forlorn when the fastest Rebellion is 2.5 seconds off the pace. Fernando Alonso leads the way, the reigning Le Mans champion proving he can still cut it over a single lap.
GTE Pro is once more too tight to call though an honourable mention should go out to the Porsche RSR for its raucous soundtrack. A coarse, howling banshee of an engine, this is the last time I’ll get to hear this version of the venerable 911 before it’s replaced. It is magnificent and may represent the last top-level sports car to genuinely raise the hairs on one’s neck; lap after noisy lap.
The pit area is relatively devoid of punters but it’s buzzing with team personnel and the odd race driver. Brendon Hartley is in the Toyota hospitality wing which raises the eyebrows and elsewhere we spot Giancarlo Fisichella having his dinner. It’s all very relaxed by world championship standards and certainly everyone looks more at-ease than the likes of Silverstone or Spa.
Friday morning is gloriously atmospheric. It’s already warm when IMSA practice kicks off but there’s a haze in the air giving everything a brilliant tinge but creating a subtle degree of claustrophobia. Most of the spectators seem to be sensibly sleeping off Thursday night’s indulgence, with just a handful of souls savouring the final qualifying session ahead of the big race.
I end up at the challenging complex at turns three – five. The direction change here is aggressive and the boldest runners are working hard over the kerbs. Given that the cars have 12 hours of punishment over Sebring’s notorious bumps tomorrow, it’s a surprise to see them abusing the kerbs to this extent. That said, it makes for an awesome spectacle, with the mists clearing to reveal the ubiquitous Florida palms and equally ubiquitous Sebring RVs as a backdrop. The loaded outside rear sidewalls are flexing, while the unloaded inside fronts dangle briefly in the air before hammering back down, ready for the transition into the left-handed turn five. What an introduction to our first full day at Sebring.
Our first race of the weekend for us is the Michelin Pilot Sport Challenge for GT4 and TCR runners – much as we saw in the Pirelli equivalents a week earlier at St Pete. The field looks stronger even than it did a year previously at Daytona, with great entries in both classes. In GT4, there’s the usual mix of North American Mustangs facing down German squadrons from Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche (only air force metaphor of the blog, I promise). The latest Cayman looks particularly purposeful, even if it fails to challenge at the front.
From the onset, it’s Audi vs Mercedes with Tyler McQuarrie driving a faultless race from the front in his R8; Owen Trinkler’s AMG GT is never more than a couple of car lengths behind but cannot force an error – neither on the road nor in the pitlane.
The Audi emerges victorious but it’s desperate for the Mercedes crew when the car is assaulted at the turn seven hairpin by an optimistic Mustang, incurring suspension damage which eventually leaves it out of the top-ten. The TCR category is also strong and it’s refreshing to see representation from Alfa Romeo and Hyundai with the Veloster. Podcasting legend-in-the-making Ryan Eversley manages a podium in the HART Honda Civic Type-R.
While it may not be the headline act, there is excitement in the air concerning the World Endurance Championship’s appearance at Sebring. We chat with one Australian who has come to the event specifically to see the LMP1 rocketships in action. With the current hybrids on borrowed time, there’s no better excuse to come and witness them in person.
It’s a treat to find ourselves watching the start in the company of a chap who must rank as the circuit’s biggest fan; this gentleman having a full back piece tattoo depicting the circuit layout. We are all grateful to him for removing his shirt to allow us a really good look.
We enjoy a leisurely stroll around the circuit as the race proceeds, catching up with old friends and making a few new ones. The race is run at one hell of a pace. The two Toyota TS050s run in convoy for much of the 1000 miles and it’s only a slip-up in traffic from Jose-Maria Lopez that eventually settles the overall win in favour of Buemi, Alonso and Nakajima. Lopez would doubtless not have tripped over a backmarker were he not intent on taking the fight to his team mates.
The Toyotas will always steal the headlines for their otherworldly performance – the punch out of the corners continues to amaze. Behind them, the LMP1 privateers can only gasp in their wake. The leading Rebellion puts up a good fight for a couple of laps, but the battle is in vain. Both Rebellions suffer gearbox woes which leaves SMP to the scraps – bottom step of the podium but a full 11 laps behind the mighty Toyotas after eight hours’ racing.
The race kicks off at 4pm, finishing at midnight. The timing feels slightly bizarre but eight hours is plenty of time to get around and explore the circuit. The spectating is especially good between corners seven and 11. The turn seven hairpin is a cracking overtaking spot with a big screen and a large elevated bank. This offers a great chance to plug into Radio Le Mans and catch up on all the latest shenanigans.
From seven, the Fangio sweepers are fantastic. You stand eye level with the cars’ underbodies which gives a really unusual, unobstructed view of the cars and they’re working hard through here – the bodywork bending hard to the loaded outside rear tyre, even on the sportiest of sports prototypes. They then disappear directly away from you before hammering hard on the brakes and popping down through the ‘box for ten, each downchange pulsing straight at you.
Turn ten affords really close views of the cars at one of the slowest points on the course. A big braking zone, the LMP2 ORECAs show off glowing rotors long before the sun has dropped. It’s also the preferred lodging of some of the event’s most distinctive characters.
You quickly learn not to be surprised by anything at Sebring. Live roosters in cages, fish tanks, RVs dressed as tanks, Donald Trump enthusiasts…this is the land that political correctness forgot. It all appears very well-meaning and we don’t detect any malice or menace in the air but subtle many of the campers are not.
Turn 11 is a blinder. It’s a flat-out left-hander – basically an acceleration zone – but it looks like a proper corner from the ground. The cars are well loaded up and howling through the gears out of sight – and all done under a towering star-spangled banner. This is the classic American endurance race.
An unusual diversion during the WEC race is a musical set by IMSA star Tristan Nunez, with his band. This is virtually his first gig and he’s visibly nervous though obviously giddy to be performing. The music isn’t to my taste but fair play to Nunez for getting up there – it’s tough baring your soul on stage. Among the interested observers are Justin Bell and Tommy Kendall. Bell is now a major TV pundit in the States and he hosts a show with Kendall, who was the name in Trans Am when I was growing up. It’s only more recently that I’ve researched his racing past and his freakish turn of speed in the Intrepid GTP car before a horror shunt left him with awful leg injuries.
From Nunez’s guitar riffs, we revert to our RV – and more specifically the roof. Word has reached us via social media that a rocket is due to be launched from Cape Canaveral and that it should be visible at Sebring.
I’d carefully studied the launch schedules ahead of our trip and any hope of seeing a live lift-off seemed forlorn. We’ve got lucky though and join a handful of others standing on the RV and watching in wonderment as a glowing orange orb spears across the sky, some 70 miles away to the east. What a moment – absolute bucket list stuff and accompanied by the ongoing sounds of racing engines pounding all around us.
Bringing us back to earth is the prospect of the run-in to the end of the motor race. We stock up on a few beers (still nicely chilled in the fridge) and settle in at turn seven where we enjoy the company of a variety of good characters. Much of the circuit is in significant darkness and finding one’s way around without tripping up is a challenge in itself. The big braking zone provides more rattling downchanges and glowing brakes, accompanied by that evocative hot smell of racing cars which have been hard at work for a long time. There remain lingering questions about whether the race really needs to finish this late, but the extended dark running does evoke the proper endurance vibes.
There’s a firework display during the closing period of the race which is rather exciting, especially as I was, shamefully, asleep for the legendary display at Daytona in 2018.
Rainfall hits about 20 minutes from the end and adds a welcome layer of jeopardy to proceedings. While the four-wheel drive Toyotas extend their advantage, the GTE Pro battle really gets spicy as the track quickly soaks.
BMW has had an unusually strong run today but an inspired closing stint from Gianmaria Bruni sees him snatch the win for Porsche from the leading M8. Nobody else has managed to stay on the lead lap though it’s seriously tight behind and another demonstration that BoP does appear to work in GTE Pro with Ford, Aston, Ferrari and one lone Corvette all within two laps after a frantic eight hours of competition.
With the rain falling heavily, the crowd quickly disperses except for one chap who has settled in for the night, his pals leaving the hapless soul as he appears to have made himself comfortable. I can only imagine his horror on awakening.
Having left this poor man sleeping alone in the rain, I find myself experiencing karmic horror during the night. I awaken sodden from the waist down – an unexpected scenario as am not a regular bed wetter. Fortunately, the source of my soaking is merely the rain, for we have left open the RV’s roof vent; a heavy shower during the warm night having liberally doused our tiny bed. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions from misery to relief via vexation and frustration.
The overnight watery disturbance has set the tone and we awaken to heavy skies and dense rainfall. This continues right through the morning and the spectator banks throng as much with umbrellas as with people while the clock ticks down to the start of the 2019 12 Hours of Sebring.
The race kicks off behind the safety car and this continues for perhaps the first half hour of the race before the runners are released and left to their own devices. It’s really bloody wet and we’re left to curse our lack of a stiff brolly. Fortunately we do manage to locate a couple of cheap but highly weather-resistant ponchos and are soon steaming gently in those as the ground continues to dampen.
While the rain is a bit of a nuisance, I keep thinking of photos of that ridiculous Sebring in 1965 when the circuit looked more like the Everglades than an old airport. It can always be worse – although, remarkably, this is the first 12 Hours ever to start in the rain.
Acura and Mazda look to be the favourites in the top class in qualifying, but the form book is turned on its head by the unfavourable conditions. The Acuras plummet, scarcely able to keep ahead of the leading GTLM runners at one stage, while the rumbling Cadillacs ascent the order. It all looks to be happening on the corner exits – the compliant Cadillacs just grip and go while the Acuras wait an age to get on the power.
Various runners suffer little off-track excursions, but everyone is generally well-behaved and it’s a testament to the quality of the drivers in both the professional and amateur ranks (and perhaps the cars’ traction control systems) that the race runs mostly green.
The prototypes in particular look incredible in the wet condition, throttles wide open with huge plumes of spray in their wake. Smaller mists burst from each of the vents atop the wheelarches to add to the visual drama.
The crowds appear unfazed by the conditions, pushing around bizarre, booze-laden effigies of past racing cars – these guys are passionate about the heritage of their sport.
Eventually the rain stops and the clouds lift. It’s still warm but never truly sunny. Having access to the RV is welcome and we’re never more than a ten-minute walk from anywhere on the circuit so it’s easy to explore the facility but still drop back to rest and replenish. It’s certainly not the cheapest way to go endurance racing but I’d suggest it’s the most effective. One chap next to us has rented an MPV and is simply sleeping in the back. Whatever it takes, I suppose.
There’s a small display of Sebring past masters in the paddock that warrants investigation. From sublime BMW V12 LMR through to ridiculous Deltawing, there’s a cool cross-section of the event’s history here, including one the works BMW 3.0 CSLs of the sort which took outright laurels in 1975. There’s a little something for everyone in here.
The IMSA pit area is quite so open and easy as Daytona but it’s still significantly better than you’ll find at a typical European event these days. We bump into Tristan Nunez again – this time he’s deep in conversation with engineer (and endurance racing celebrity) Leena Gade and there isn’t a guitar in sight. Several other drivers are kicking around the back of the pits catching up on the latest strategic occurrences and keeping themselves nourished.
Meanwhile, time hasn’t stopped for the WEC runners and their own paddock is being dismantled. The cavernous Michelin tent is remarkable and houses more than 16,000 tyres for potential deployment over the weekend. It’s an incredible logistical exercise for the French company to supply 140 cars across four separate series. The smell is overpowering.
This side of the circuit really defines Sebring as you would know it from the media and the legend. The pit straight and the corners immediately either end of it are on the old concrete runways and they’re ferocious. Sunset Bend, turn 17, is the last of the lap and loops round 180deg but it’s still a properly quick corner. It’s hellishly bumpy and the cars look upset throughout, with only the invisible help of aerodynamic downforce apparently keeping them facing forwards. The GT runners are more compliant but that means more body movement and the AMG GTs kick out sparks as they compress over the worst of the bumps while fully loaded.
It looks absolutely punishing for the cars and must be grim for the drivers.
This continues through the flat-out Turn One. Lined on the inside by an unyielding concrete barrier, the drivers simply have to turn in on blind faith, for the apex and exit are out-of-sight. It’s super dusty out there and even the racing line looks slippery. Woe betide any driver who misses their turn-in point – the margins take no prisoners.
It’s an absolutely mighty corner and there’s plenty of good spectating if you’re happy to skip between the RVs and the usual crazy homebrew grandstands. The spectators’ wild accommodation creations are one of the most notable features of the weekend. The RVs were queuing for days before the gates opened to ensure they were ready to hit their favoured spots. While many of the trackside berths are predetermined years in advance, there are plenty of pitches right on the fence for those prepared to get there early enough. The more ingenious your rig, the better you’ll fit in. There can be few greater pleasures in motorsport than kicking back on your own grandstand right on the apex of Turn One at Sebring with a few close pals and a couple of cans of your preferred brew.
Sebring is certainly a circuit of contrast. Airfields have been tempting would-be racers for decades and the Sebring pioneers were enjoying the pleasures of runway running at the same time as their Austrian counterparts at Zeltweg and the Brits at Goodwood and Silverstone. While the Floridians still hammer down the original concrete in parts, the track also sprawls across a wider area onto purpose-built asphalt. There are moments where you might be at a traditional road course, surrounded by mature trees with the scent of oranges on the breeze. But turn around and there’s heavy plant and industry right on the site boundary – and look further on and there are aeroplanes on the ground. It’s a strange mix where it actually feels like the crowds and their funny makeshift town are what really give the place its beguiling personality, as much as the facility itself. Given the sheer anonymity of the region, this race is like Burning Man Festival – an oasis in the desert.
Still the race pounds on – and now the light is fading. Cadillacs are to the fore, with the #31 of Pipo Derani, Eric Curran and Felipe Nasr in control. Behind them, the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing entry – recent winner of the Daytona 24 Hours in the hands of one Fernando Alonso – has suffered a slow start to the race but hits hard as it nears its conclusion.
A full course yellow right towards the end of the race means a seven-minute dash to the flag, with the lead runners all nose-to-tail. Jordan Taylor, part of the Daytona winning squad, gives the #10 its fastest lap of the race on the final tour but it’s not enough to knock Nasr off his stride; the Brazilian making amends for a missed opportunity at the sodden Daytona season opener. The final margin of victory is one second – the closest finish in the race’s history. The #5 Cadillac completes the podium, just three further seconds in arrears.
Staggeringly, Acura manages to sneak home in fourth; Helio Castroneves, Ricky Taylor and Alexander Rossi having dropped off the lead lap while the track was at its worst. The Penske runners simply don’t have enough sheer speed in their pockets when it matters, and they fall away quickly during the final dash to the flag.
GTLM is just as fiercely competitive. The four manufacturers each fill the top four positions, with the Porsche of Nick Tandy, Patrick Pilet and Fred Makowicki ahead at the end. The two works RSRs are sporting Brumos tribute liveries for the event – a nice break from the corporate white, black and red of the WEC entrants. The 911s, much like the Acuras in DPi, looked woeful during the first phase of the race; apparently suffering with the Michelin wet tyres. Once it dried, though, they ascended the order on absolute pace, with Tandy in particular taking no prisoners as he rose to lead for the final portion of the race.
The final laps are held in total darkness and once more we are able to savour the glowing brake discs and bursts of flame as the machines pound out the last miles of a gruelling event. There’s something properly special about long-distance races – the changes in weather and light; the cumulative suffering of the cars, drivers and team members. To win a modern endurance race requires almost total perfection and to achieve that through adversity and the ever-changing environment is no easier now than it was 70 years ago.
This is one of the best spectator events in the world: an old school circuit and old school experience. It’s a fine way to sign off on a holiday which has rather surprised me. I am now a Floridaphile and keep looking for excuses to head back for more beach time and more racing. Thankfully, there’s still plenty of the state to explore – and a few race tracks too.