WeatherTech Championship: Florida Double For Extreme Speed Motorsports At Sebring
The Sebring-winning Tequila Patrón ESM crew | Photo: IMSA

The second round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship took place at Sebring International Raceway. The Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida was won by Tequila Patrón Extreme Speed Motorsports, running a Honda-powered Ligier JS P2 prototype.

The race was stopped before the completion of the third hour due to lightning and track conditions. Yet once it continued over two hours later, it provided brilliant racing and a top four separated by under five seconds.

Like at the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona, the Ligier-Honda turned out to be the quickest car in the field. In the qualifying, Olivier Pla qualified the No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier on pole, with the No. 2 Tequila Patrón ESM Ligier alongside in the front row.

The race was essentially decided during the last one and a half hours which saw three caution periods. During the first of those cautions, the No. 90 VisitFlorida Racing Corvette DP and the No. 2 Patrón ESM Ligier had quick stops and beat the previously-leading pair of Action Express Racing’s Corvette DPs off pit road.

VisitFlorida Racing’s lead lasted only half a lap as their driver Marc Goossens got spun in the traffic following the restart. Although two more caution periods followed in the race, the VisitFlorida Corvette DP didn’t anymore get in a position to race for the win.

If the previous short stop allowed the ESM Ligier to gain positions on pit road, it meant a longer final refuel which happened under caution with just over half an hour remaining. During the final stops, the ESM Ligier fell from lead to fourth place behind the Action Express Corvette DPs and the Michael Shank Ligier. However, while the other leaders had a tire change during the previous caution period, ESM changed tires during the last pit stop, a decision that paid off in the closing minutes.

Dane Cameron in the No. 31 Action Express Corvette DP led the field after the restart. Nicolas Lapierre in the Nissan-powered No. 81 DragonSpeed Oreca 05 LMP2 machine jumped into second place with a brilliant restart, yet was soon passed by Filipe Albuquerque in the No. 5 Action Express machine.

That green run lasted under ten minutes before the last caution of the race. With 12 minutes remaining at the restart, Pipo Derani in the ESM Ligier immediately passed Lapierre’s DragonSpeed Oreca for third place. Two laps later, Derani with fresher tires outbraked the second-placed Albuquerque into the turn 7 hairpin. A lap later he did the same maneuver to overtake Cameron for the lead. Since then he built a gap to Cameron to win by 2.9 seconds while Albuquerque finished in third, a second behind his Action Express Racing teammate. Lapierre brought the DragonSpeed Oreca home in fourth place, missing the podium only by 0.4 seconds. The No. 60 Michael Shank Ligier-Honda was the fifth victory contender in the restart; however; suspension damage forced them to retire on the last lap, getting classified as seventh.

Tequila Patrón ESM and its drivers Pipo Derani, Johannes van Overbeek, Scott Sharp, and Ed Brown were the first since 1998 to achieve the “36 Hours of Florida” double as they were the winners also at the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona. ESM’s season doesn’t continue in the WeatherTech Championship but in the FIA World Endurance Championship with two Ligier JS P2s but a new engine manufacturer Nissan. Meanwhile, the Daytona and Sebring winning Honda-powered chassis will be leased by Michael Shank Racing for the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Like at the Rolex 24 At Daytona, the overall victory at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring was the first for the engine manufacturer Honda and the Ligier chassis constructor Onroak.

Three Brands On Both GT Podiums

The GT Le Mans podium | Photo: IMSA

Like the Prototype class, also the GT Le Mans saw a Daytona-Sebring double as the Rolex 24 winners Tommy Milner, Oliver Gavin, and Marcel Fässler piloted the No. 4 Corvette Racing C7.R to victory. Thanks to late race cautions, the gaps between the podium finishers were small.

BMW Team RLL had a good weekend with the German manufacturer’s new M6 GTLM; the BMWs claimed the GTLM front row in the qualifying and the pole-sitting No. 25 entry finished the race in second place, under three seconds from the class winner.

As seen in previous instances, Porsche 911 RSR is the best GT car in wet conditions and that was the case also in Sebring. However, on dry track the Corvette and the BMW were quicker and the No. 912 Porsche North America entry finished third, though only five seconds from lead.

Corvette and Porsche lost their second cars in an incident where Corvette’s Jan Magnussen and Porsche’s Kévin Estre were lapping a GT Daytona car. Estre on the inside line couldn’t brake hard enough on the damp track to avoid hitting Magnussen who turned into the first corner. The contact sent both cars crashing heavily into the tire barrier.

Outside the podium, the top five was completed by two more manufacturers. Risi Competizione achieved the fourth place with the new Ferrari 488 GTE whereas Ford’s return to GT racing continued with a fifth place for the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing entry.

In GT Daytona, the victory got decided with a late-race pass by Alessandro Balzan on Jens Klingmann. Balzan alongside Christina Nielsen and Jeff Segal achieved the victory for Scuderia Corsa in the GTD debut of Ferrari’s new GT racer Ferrari 488. Klingmann brought the No. 96 BMW M6 GT3 of Turner Motorsport home in second place, the first GTD podium for BMW’s new GT racer. In third place was the Audi of the Rolex 24 class winner Magnus Racing.

The Prototype Challenge class had two cars finishing on the lead lap. Jon Bennett, Colin Braun, and Mark Wilkins of the No. 54 CORE autosport entry beat Tom Kimber-Smith, Robert Alon, and Jose Gutiérrez of the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports entry by 1.2 seconds for the class victory. The No. 8 Starworks Motorsport entry finished third in the PC class, three laps from leaders.