By Jonathan Ingram
- Rivals Audi and Peugeot face off
- Sebring to host first ILMC 2011 event
Ingram’s Flat Spot On: Aging Sebring’s New Blood
The Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring is a wonderful event in the most unlikely of places: the flat sand and rough runways of a former bomber base in one of America's geriatric capitols. (I’ve been so often for so many years, I'll soon qualify as a full-blown, if not addled, Sebring citizen.)
This year's entry, in fact, includes the most cars since 2002, which was the fourth season of the now long-running but far from ancient American Le Mans Series – according to information provided by this same source.
Once again, the Audi Sport team will face off against the Peugeot Sport team, the latter with its 2011 chassis, in preparation for Le Mans. But this time it's more than a preliminary test. Points for the ILMC are at stake. Later in the year, the same will be true at the ALMS's season finale at the Petit Le Mans in Atlanta, the penultimate round of the ILMC before heading to China.
The ILMC is a French phenomenon grown out of the ongoing success of the Le Mans 24-hour, revived in recent times by American entries from the ALMS and by the entry of the European Union, which has curtailed monopoly practices by the FIA, so often the financial playground of marketing man Bernie Ecclestone.
The total number of prototypes entries at Sebring this year will be 14, compared to 26 in 2002. (And compared to 18 starters at this year's Rolex 24 at Daytona.) As usual, the statistics don't tell the full story. In 2002, the European Le Mans Series had just died (due in no small part to Ecclestone's monopolistic practices) and teams were desperate to find a route to get an invitation to the Le Mans 24-hour. And, of course, the economy was different then.
This year, Europe’s re-born Le Mans Series is relatively healthy and obviously so is the Le Mans 24-hour, now the centerpiece to the expanded seven-race ILMC. And, it's not just a matter of car count at Sebring. Audi was the only manufacturer with a fully committed program at Sebring in 2002, which proved difficult for the other factories to keep up with, such as GM’s Cadillac Northstar and the Panoz LPM1 Roadster. (At least, it must be said, the Panoz LMP1 beat the vaunted Audi R8's in heavy rain at the Nurburgring once upon a time while GM’s Cadillac prototypes were beautiful cars whose life story was more akin to a grim fairy tale.)
This year, in addition to the Franco-German faceoff, the factory entries will also include Honda's spanking new ARX-01e and works-assisted entries from Aston Martin and Mazda.
What else is new and different? The TV package has migrated to a new dimension.
To watch Sebring live this year on a TV, one needs access to ESPN3.com or the AmericanLeMans.com and a hook-up from the computer to the home TV screen. (Otherwise, it's a matter of which device you’re actually able to watch ESPN3.com on.) The 12-hour race will be reduced to 90 minutes on Sunday, a day later, by ABC Sports.
The public reason given for these changes has been the effort by the ALMS to continue to break new technical ground. The private opinion here is that the ALMS feels compelled to break away from Speed TV, which has become a minion of NASCAR, which also now owns the Grand-Am series. Time will tell how all this works out.
Other comparisons are interesting. In the GT class in 2002 at Sebring, the top ten finishers in the GT class were driving Porsche GT3 RS entries. This year, the GT class will feature what has become the customary fraught battles among BMW, Corvette, Ferrari and Porsche (in alphabetical order) plus entries from Ford (in the form of private GT-R’s), Jaguar, Lamborghini and Panoz, which will race the new and interesting Abruzzi for the first time. (You might say the Abruzzi is arresting, because it seeks to stop time by returning to the days when you could drive to the track, stick a number on the door, race, and then return home in the same vehicle.)
Given the battle at the head of the field by the world's most incredible full-bodied technical marvels from Audi, Peugeot, Aston Martin, Honda and Lola followed by these factory battles in GT, one has to conclude that this is an entry extraordinary by its numbers as well as content.
Alas, the total entry is pumped up by the amateur entries in what is known as the Challenge classes. A distant relative to the emperor who has no clothes, these are the LMP and GT entries for the physically challenged who are not as fast on the track but have been quick with income off it, enough to clothe themselves in interesting carbon fiber and sheet metal.
Give a tip of the cap to the ALMS for creating classes to capitalize on this long tradition in endurance racing of gentlemen racers to help keep car counts up during a challenging economy. (The Challenge classes, of course, confirm the notion that the rich always get richer in the down times. We're not supposed to say this because the gentlemen keep a lot of professional chauffeurs, i.e. co-drivers, employed, but there you have it.)
Scott Tucker, who has graduated from LMPC to the LMP2 category this year, may yet make these words seem hasty, for he has distinguished himself as one older guy who can buy speed and then cash in on it.
Speaking of cashing in, the officials at Le Mans have followed a similar path by creating the GTE category for Amateurs and a separate opportunity for the gentlemen to rub shoulders among the racing royalty, i.e. champions. This, too, helps keep the ILMC car counts up.
Other news? This year the fuel of choice will include diesel, ethanol blends and isobutanol, timely choices given the current unrest in the Middle East. Alas, the hybrids have yet to arrive.
Other comparisons of interest include the lone Ferrari 360 Modena entry at Sebring in 2002. The Italian manufacturer has since followed Porsche's lead by making customer race cars a profit center and will introduce the new Italia, making its ALMS debut at Sebring, to the Grand-Am Series later this year.
In general, one has to admire the ALMS's decision to go with a risky TV package at a time when its strength on the track for the series' biggest endurance races is self-evident. Whether you're talking NASCAR, sports cars or balloon races, the opinion here has always been the racing itself is what makes the difference, not necessarily the personalities or the promotion.
In other words, if people just gotta watch it, in person by some other means, they will.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.