Sebring: Risi Competizione race report

RISI COMPETIZIONE RACE TO AN HISTORIC WIN AT SEBRING Sebring, Florida - On Saturday night, March 17th, Jaime Melo, the driver for the Risi Competizione No. 62 Ferrari 430GT (Salo/Melo/Mowlem) delivered the most exciting last lap in the history...

RISI COMPETIZIONE RACE TO AN HISTORIC WIN AT SEBRING

Sebring, Florida - On Saturday night, March 17th, Jaime Melo, the driver for the Risi Competizione No. 62 Ferrari 430GT (Salo/Melo/Mowlem) delivered the most exciting last lap in the history of the 12 Hours of Sebring in the 55th running of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, when he took Risi Competizione car home to a .202 second GT2 class victory after 1,221 miles and twelve hours, three minutes and fourteen seconds of racing, over the No. 45 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR driven by Joerg Bergmeister for Flying Lizard Motorsports. A Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, No. 71, driven by the combination of Wolf Henzler, Robin Liddell, and Patrick Long, entered by Tafel Racing, took third place in GT2, three laps behind the leaders.

It was Risi Competizione's first win at the 12 Hours of Sebring; in 2006, the team took third after some pit stop incidents stalled the team just enough to evaporate their lead and cost them first place. The team thus ended up third on the podium in what was their debut outing with the 430GT.

The 2007 Sebring win continued a Risi Competizione/Ferrari winning streak that includes five victories in the last seven ALMS races. (Utah, Portland, Mosport, Laguna Seca, Sebring), two wins in a row stretching back to the final race of 2006 (Laguna, Sebring), and two wins in the last three races (Laguana Seca, Sebring). Another important statstic: It was also Risi Competizione's third "last-to-first" win in a year (the team also won come- from-behind victories last year at Utah and Portland). The two-tenths of a second lead, when crossing the finish line at Sebring, was also the closest margin of victory in the 55 year history of the race.

Melo, doing double time and a half (two and one-half stints) in the final hours of the race in the Ferrari 430GT held off a relentless, hard charging Joerg Bergmeister in a Porsche 911 GT3 RSR for the win in the GT2 class at Sebring.

The victory was Ferrari's first in twelve years at the brutal, demanding, and bumpy, Sebring International Raceway, a track where legends are made and reputations destroyed. Sebring is the most unforgiving of endurance racetracks, a speed obsessed mistress with a nasty streak and bad skin, which delights in breaking apart big name programs and small privateers alike. This old patchwork circuit of concrete and asphalt has seen it all, from the early days when Ferrari ruled, with drivers so famous (Hill, Gendebian, Collins, Scarfiotti, Andretti,) that they need no first name, through the eighties, nineties, and into the 21st Century. But on Saturday night, Sebring saw something it had never seen before and likely never will again, a once in a half-century race for glory and display of guts that has people in the racing world all over the planet nodding their heads in amazement.

After the race, Giuseppe Risi, Managing Director of the team, said that "I hope the fans liked it. They probably won't see another race like that for a long, long time. It was a great win for Risi Competizione and I am proud of what we did for our sponsors, for Michelin, for Ferrari, and our fans. Our drivers and team were terrific this week, under often difficult and very wet conditions. I also want to congratulate the Flying Lizard Motorsports team, and their drivers, Bergmeister, Lieb, and van Overbeek, for a great race. It could have gone either way at the end. Both teams put on a superior show of professionalism and speed this week. We have always said we race against the best competition in the world in the ALMS GT2 class, and now the rest of the world knows exactly how close it is in our class."

Team Manager Dave Sims echoed Risi's remarks, "If it's this competitive at the start of the season, imagine what it's going to be like for the rest of the year, because no one in this class stays still. It was just a brilliant race."

The win was typically hard fought. Jaime Melo put the No. 42 Ferrari on the pole, but before the race, the team elected to change tires from those used in qualifying, because of an on-course incident right at the end of the qualifying session. The tire change mandated a move to the rear of the grip, per ALMS/IMSA rules.

"We like our chances when coming from the back," Team Engineer Rick Mayer quipped. And with good reason; the team won two last-to-first races in a row in 2006. After a 10:00AM EST start, Melo, who started for the Rosso Corsa clad Risi Competizione team, wasted no time pushing the snarling 430GT to the front of the class, taking over the lead in class within one hour and one minute of the start of the race.

Double-stinting the drivers (Melo, Salo, Mowlem), the Risi Competizione Ferrari then maintained its lead until Hour Nine-stretching it out to one lap at times-when Marc Leib put the No. 45 Porsche GT3 RSR into first after some on course excitement from the Risi Competizione 430GT Ferrari.

Earlier in the day, five hours, into the race, a deadpan Rick Mayer, Team Engineer, said simply "the car is going quickly and smoothly. We have no issues. But the competition here today is the equal of any field in the world and we have to stick to our business. Any car in our class can win and the Porsches are going very well. We must just keep our heads down and run without incident."

Running without incident is never a given in any race, and in a twelve race like Sebring, it is almost impossible to do. Eight hours into the race, Mika Salo spun out on Turn 17, at a spot where some drivers had earlier reported sand on the track. The Ferrari's lead evaporated, Leib seized first, and Salo set off to get it back.

At Nine Hours and twenty-five minutes into the race, Salo had regained the lead and then pitted to turn the car over to Melo, who had been elected to finish the race.

Melo exited the pits, with approximately two hours and thirty minutes left to the checkered flag, not knowing that he was now on a countdown to destiny (the No. 45 Porsche had pitted at 9:25 in the race for fuel, tires, and driver change: Lieb out. Bergmeister in) and that he would not be out of the car again until the race was over. All day, Risi Competizione had asked the drivers to double stint. But it had one more request: could Melo do the unthinkable? Two and one-half stints?

The answer was to be found on the track.

Into Hour 10 the Rosso Corsa 430GT roared, still in first. The Risi Competizione pits was filling up with supporters, reporters, and fans from across borders. The scene had the feeling of a heavy-weight match. In this corner, Ferrari. In that corner, Porsche. The greatest names in sportscar racing going at it again, in yet another epic battle. At ten hours, 10 seconds into the race, Melo was 5.029 Seconds ahead of Bergmeister in the Porsche.

Into the night the Ferrari/Porsche tandem roared, grinding away at history and reputations with equal disdain. Jaime Melo was in the lead going into the 11th Hour, a mere 5.729 seconds ahead of Marc Lieb, who had stepped in for Bergmeister (and one last turn at the wheel). But at eleven hours, twenty-three minutes into the race, Porsche countered strong, the end of the race approximately a half-hour away.

Lieb blew into the Porsche pits for fuel, tires, and a driver change: Joerg Bergmeister, the best Porsche GT driver in the world would be sent out to do battle with Jaime Melo, the best Ferrari GT driver in the world. Mano a mano. Our guy vs. their guy. Our car vs. their car. Teutonic perfection vs. Latin passion. Winner take all.

Two minutes later, the Risi Competizione team had another drama, as Rick Meyer's comment about "running without incident" again proved prophetic. Melo, who had built up and was nursing a twenty-second plus lead, came into the pits for a splash and dash (fuel only), but was held in the pits for twenty agonizing seconds by an ALMS/IMSA official who penalized the team for "visor up during fuel refueling". So much for margin of comfort. There would be none in the final laps at Sebring.

Twenty very hard earned seconds were handed back to the relentless Porsche of Flying Lizard. Tension mounted as Melo lit the tires up leaving the pits and roared off into the darkness of an unforgiving racecourse and his inauguration into the much rarified atmosphere of racing legends. As Melo took the final stage, Team Engineer Rick Mayer knew what awaited him: Melo was going to have to do the last thirty minutes with fading brakes; the pads were wearing down quickly and there was a chance the pads were not going to last until the end of the race. The decision had been made to press on because the margin was too close. A brake pad change would doom the team to second or worse.

So Ferrari and Risi, true to tradition, go all in, and roll for the win.

The final thirty minutes of the 55th Annual Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring are legend now, a two-car highlight film of what happens when worlds, legends, will, tradition, cultures, and destiny collide at night on a racecourse.

Bergmeister, fresh and eager to carve a Ferrari notch into his Porsche gun, starts cutting into Melo's very slim lead. There is speculation in the pits that the Porsche factory engineers have pushed the 911 GT3 RSR's engine mapping into extreme territory, boosting power, because the car is moving faster than it has all day. Bergmeister trims and cuts, a half- second here, a tenth there, now maybe a second off, of Melo's lead. And while Bergmeister is moving up, time is moving on as the Twelve Hours of Sebring reaches for the final moments.

In the pits, the mathematically inclined are doing the calculations in their head: x laps times y seconds cut off the lead per lap z number of minutes required for the Porsche to take the lead from the Ferrari.

But Ferrari vs. Porsche races aren't won on the sidelines; they're taken on the track. With just two minutes left, Bergmeister has the Ferrari within sight of his onboard camera and starts flashing his lights at the 430GT to let Melo know he's closing in.

But Melo never looks back-why bother, the finish line is in front-and so the lights go unseen in the cockpit of the 430GT; Melo's entire focus is on the course in front of him and this one little problem that he knew was coming. The brakes. There are none. He's down to zero, nada, zilch, stopping power. Run without incident? Never.

And, of course, there is one last drama-this being Ferrari. The overall winning Audi is behind the Ferrari of Melo and the Porsche of Bergmeister and so when it crosses the finish line, Melo and Bergmeister have one more round on their Sebring dance card. By now, Bergmeister had taken the Ferrari's lead down to three tenths of a second and was gaining ground with enough velocity to overtake by the finish line.

Down the front straight they scream on the last lap, Burgmeister closing in on Melo as they approach the 1st turn, but losing him as they both exit because Melo-who has no brakes-is doing a very dangerous dance with momentum as he enters and exits corners at speeds that make engineers wince and grown men cheer.

Up comes the Porsche. Away goes the Ferrari. The Ferrari is on the very edge of traction as it holds the smallest of leads. Watching the television, viewers see the 430GT cross over the line-and then come back- of control again and again as Melo does the asphalt dance of racetrack traction.

Down the back straight, last lap, the Porsche pulls up alongside the Ferrari and Melo, with no place to go but fast, edges his nose back in front.

Into the start of turn 17 the cars fly, side by side, they touch, bounce off each other, upsetting the delicate balance of the 430GT, but Melo grabs it back in a microsecond and then does the one thing he does better perhaps than anyone else in GT racing in the world: position the car for the exit on Turn 17 and bury the throttle. No Give. No Take. No Mercy. He will not blink.

Melo holds his line as the cars brush one more time, but now it's the Porsche that looses stride, stunned, shaken, at the one final counterpunch. Bergmeister blinks, and then Melo is away, gone, in front, over the finish line, winning the 12 Hours of Sebring with a two-tenths of a second margin. The closest in history. The crowd screams. The cameras roll. The replays begin. The Ferrari pits scream with joy; the Porsche pits curse fate and Melo and Ferrari with equal enthusiasm. What fun.

A worldwide TV audience takes a deep breath and realizes they've just seen one for the ages. Maybe, at this track, THE ONE for the ages.

The finish was not a surprise to the followers of the Rosso Corsa No. 62 Ferrari. Risi Competizione had come tantalizingly close to winning in 2006 with the then brand-new 430GT, and for 2007, Managing Director Giuseppe Risi made all the right moves, bringing in former Ferrari F1 driver Mika Salo and Ferrari factory driver Jaime Melo, the 2006 FIA-GT champion, for the race (and season) and teaming them with veteran Johnny Mowlem who felt that a win at Sebring was the one thing missing in his racing portfolio. In 2006, Salo and Melo had consistently shown on the race track that they were the best team in the series but, unfortunately, prior commitments kept them from competing in all of the team's 10 races last year. Earlier in the week, Mowlem had said he felt his best chances for a win at Sebring would come with this year's Risi Competizione team.

For Salo, Melo, and Johnny Mowlem-they now have their names rightfully engraved on trophies that proclaim them as the Winner of the 12 Hours of Sebring. Giuseppe Risi and Risi Competizione now have a win at Sebring to go with their win at Le Mans in the 333SP. Ferrari is first on the podium at Sebring for the first time in 12 years.

Order is restored in the racing universe.

-credit: rc

Be part of something big

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series ALMS
Drivers Mika Salo , Robin Liddell , Jaime Melo , Patrick Long , Johnny Mowlem , Marc Lieb , Wolf Henzler
Teams Risi Competizione , Flying Lizard Motorsports