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SEBRING — The Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring is one of the world’s premier endurance races – day-into-night competition pitting the finest sports car drivers in the world on a challenging road course on a former World War II runway in rural Central Florida.
But Saturday’s 71st running of the renowned IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship event – which ushered in the highly-anticipated GTP prototype era – felt more like a sprint race. The competition was close all race long, in all five race classifications, that a grueling 12 hours of spirited competition among 53 cars was ultimately settled in a few dramatic seconds.
The pole-winning No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac GTP emerged from the night as the overall winner – assuming the lead with only 20 minutes remaining after the three prototypes at the front of the field were caught up in an accident trying to settle the winner’s trophy themselves in a final push forward.
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It was a historic fourth overall Sebring win for Whelen team driver Pipo Derani – most in the 2023 field – and the Brazilian’s 12th in the series. His British co-drivers, Alexander Sims and Jack Aitken, celebrated their first victory in the renowned event.
They finished 2.940-seconds ahead of the No. 25 BMW M Hybrid V8, co-owned by former Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal and television legend David Letterman, and co-driven by American Connor de Phillipi, Brit Nick Yelloly and South African Sheldon van der Linde.
The two cars were the only ones of the eight-entered prototypes on the lead lap after the late-race incident that sidelined a pair of Porsche Penske 963s and the Wayne Taylor Racing w/ Andretti Autosport Konica Minolta Acura ARX 06 – and decided the race outcome.
Aitken smiled and said, he was “trying to do some quick counting,’’ to calculate where he stood with the No. 31 Cadillac after the GTP cars in front of him were eliminated in the Turn 3 accident in the Sebring night with 19 minutes remaining.
“Especially so late in the race, you’re just pretty much in the moment. I saw a crash. I was watching out for debris because it was pretty much everywhere, and just trying to survive [it].
“It was very, very tough racing, we were trying to hold our position as good as we could,’’ Aitken continued, “but the other guys were fighting extremely hard and at some point you have to realize when it’s time to give up the smaller bit [in the race] and that’s part of the reason why I think we made it to the end today. We all raced pretty smart as well as racing as hard as we could when we had the pace.
“I was – a little bit – waiting for an accident to happen at some point in that race. It was just really really hard racing all day long.”
New Zealand driver Scott McLaughlin, a three-time Australian Super Cars champion and currently a fulltime NTT IndyCar Series driver, finished third overall and first in the LMP2 class co-driving the No. 8 Tower Motorsports ORECA LMP2 07 car. McLaughlin finally took the lead for good with less than 10 minutes remaining in a spirited battle with the No. 11 TDS Racing team.
The No. 74 Riley Motorsport Ligier JS P320 won the nine-car LMP3 class – the first win in the historic Sebring race for all three team drivers, including team owner Gar Robinson, Felipe Fraga and Josh Burdon.
The always-exciting, high-energy GT class races featuring production-based cars did not disappoint either.
The No. 9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R was able to conserve enough fuel and stay on track for the final – and often frantic – hour and 52 minutes to hold off the No. 14 Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 by 2.706-seconds in the GTD Pro class. It was an especially satisfying win for the Pfaff team, which spent 11 hours repairing its Porsche after an accident in qualifying that relegated the team to a seventh-place start in the eight-car GTD Pro field; 51st among the 53 race starters.
It marked the third Sebring class victory for Pfaff Motorsports driver Patrick Pilet, of France, whose fuel-saving work in that final stint made the winning difference Saturday. Klaus Bachler and Laurens Vanthoor each have a pair of wins in the famed 12-Hour classic.
Jupiter’s Kyle Kirkwood top Floridian finisher
South Florida’s Kyle Kirkwood, of Jupiter, was a co-driver on the runner-up Vasser Sullivan Lexus – the top-finishing Floridian on the day.
Similarly, the GTD class win went to a team that prevailed on fuel strategy. The No. 1 Paul Miller Racing BMW M4 GT3 stayed out during the late race caution periods and ended up saving enough fuel to hold off the No. 96 Turner Motorsports BMW M4 GT3 – giving the make a 1-2 finish.
The win in the race’s largest class of competition – 20 cars – was the second Sebring trophy for all three drivers of the No. 1 BMW: Americans Madison Snow, Bryan Sellers and Corey Lewis.
“In the car they don’t really tell you a whole lot,’’ Snow said of his fuel-saving strategy to win. “You’re doing what they tell you and you hope they’re telling you right. So, I’d say it was the team and the drivers for 10 and a half hours and it was definitely the engineer the last hour and a half.’’
The Sebring win moved the Whelen Engineering Cadillac into the GTP Class championship lead, by 10 points over the Wayne Taylor team and 70 points over the Ganassi Cadillac, which suffered a DNF.
The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship resumes for Race 3 on the streets of Long Beach, Calif. on April 14-15.