Sebring, Florida is a quite little town located in the centre of the state, just over an hour south of Orlando. It is home to a lake, and airport and an historic 3.5-mile road course built on an abandoned WWII airbase. For one weekend a year, it is the focal point of international motor-sport as the elite of world sports car racer gather for the annual 12-hour race. This year’s contest, scheduled for March 21st, will highlight new technology as well as renew old rivalries.
Before we review the players, it might be helpful to talk about what makes Sebring such an important date on the racing calendar. Sebring is a circuit built on an airfield and, although they have continued to update the surface, it is a very bumpy track. This means that, besides being the first opportunity for endurance race teams to compete this season, it is also considered to be a prerequisite test for aspiring Le Mans competitors to test their equipment. It is said that 12-hours of racing at Sebring is more punishing on cars and drivers than 24-hours at Le Mans.
Highlighting the 2009 race is the debut of Audi’s new LMP 1 (Le Mans Prototype Class 1) car, the R15 TDI. This is a new car designed to answer Peugoet’s recent speed dominance at Le Mans and in the European Le Mans Series. Audi have successfully defended their record at Le Mans, but only due to the lack of reliability of the Peugoet. This, Audi knows very well, will not continue. Peugoet will also be present with two 908 HDI race cars so Sebring will preview the battle for overall victory at Le Mans this June. These two diesel powered giants are, predictably, favoured to lead the field.
Also debuting at Sebring will be Acura’s new LMP 1 prototype, the ARX02a. This is an evolution of their current LMP 2 contender. Acura has chosen not to employ diesel power in this car; they have developed a 600+ hp 4-litre version of their gasoline fueled V8 race engine for this project. Acura is aware they will not have the torque or horsepower of the diesel cars so they have decided to try a different strategy to be competitive. The ARX02a will use the same size tires on the front and rear of the vehicle. They have worked hard to reduce the additional aerodynamic drag caused by the larger front tires and hope that the 7% increase in front traction will give them an advantage in braking and cornering. This may not work at Le Mans with it’s long, fast straights but, at Sebring, they might just throw a scare Audi and Peugoet’s way. The car debuted at the Sebring Winter Test last month and, although I don’t put much emphasis on lap times from test days, was a tenth of a second faster than the Sebring qualifying record set by Audi in 2007.
Since Acura will not contest Le Mans this summer, this will be the only time these three major auto manufacturers, Acura (Honda), Audi and Peugoet will compete on the same track this year.
Another interesting debut will be Zytek’s 07S Hybrid LMP 1 prototype. The American Le Mans Series (ALMS) and their sanctioning body, IMSA, is the only sports car series to allow this technology at this time. The Zytek 07S is an evolution of the British automotive engineering firm’s successful sports prototype and is powered by their V8 race engine and a direct-drive, 3-phase electric motor. The car uses a Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) developed by Zytek. This car was due to make it’s debut late last season but the KERS technology was not ready. Instead, the American team, Corsa Motorsports, ran the chassis with only V8 power for the last two events last season. The car appeared to be competitive in this configuration so it will be interesting to see how KERS affects their performance.
In LMP 2, the lighter and smaller displacement prototype class, Dyson Racing will debut their new Mazda powered Lola cars. The Lola chassis is a closed cockpit coupe powered by a turbocharged 2-litre Mazda MZR engine prepared by Advanced Auto Research (AER). This represents a major commitment by Mazda to the ALMS series. The Dyson team is one of North America’s most experienced and successful race organizations. They should supply much needed competition for Acura (Porsche will be absent from LMP 2 this season) in the LMP 2 category. Judging from the initial design images, decorated in BP livery, this will be a very pretty car.
In the GT 1 category, Corvette Racing will be preparing for their final appearance at Le Mans with the current GT 1 spec C6R. Rule changes for 2010 will combine the GT classes into one class for all production based vehicles. Corvette Racing will concentrate their efforts on developing the new car after Le Mans this year.
GT 2, currently the Porsche vs. Ferrari class, will see a new contender as BMW introduce their new M3 race car. The V8 powered machine, entered by racing legend Booby Rahal’s team (officially called BMW Rahal Letterman Racing) was at the Sebring Winter Test and will compete in the entire 2009 ALMS season. This may be a very competitive class this season. Ferrari has gained momentum over the last two seasons and Porsche has answered with an updated car for 2009. The BMW may not yet be developed enough at this early stage to challenge Porsche and Ferrari but they will have a top driver line-up and, over 12-hours of racing, anything can happen.
Well, there you have all of the new faces for this year’s race. The official entry list has not been published but, all of these competitors have publicly announced their participation in this, the first major endurance test of 2009. It should be an entertaining and historic weekend of racing.