On Friday, March 14, Sebring resident John Dean captured an emotional victory in front of family, friends and supporters in Round Two of the SCCA Pro Racing Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires as part of the lad up to the 62nd Annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida. Kenton Koch, of Glendora, Calif., finished second, followed by Dean Copeland, of Bowie, Md.
Dean bounced back to take the 0.542-second win over Koch, following a second place finish in Thursday’s Round One which was decided by 0.053-second. The race was slowed to an average of 73.438 mph around the 17-turn, 2.74-mile permanent airport course due to a four-lap caution period brought out when Johan Schwartz and Zach Lee collided in Turn Three on lap six. Both drivers were okay following the incident.
The 2014 victory marked Dean’s second win at the circuit in the Mazda MX-5 Cup, however this win was comparatively more comfortable than his first win in 2012. Driving the No. 16 Projections Research/PPG MX-5, Dean exerted his control on the race from the beginning by completing the opening 12 laps in the lead. On lap 13, Copeland took over the top spot, but that was short lived as Dean recaptured the position for the remaining two laps. En route to the win, Dean also lowered the race-lap record to 2:29.059 (89.360 mph).
“It’s so much fun to be able to win in front of my friends and family,” Dean said. “Yesterday was a bit of a bummer. I really wanted to win, but that just made me push harder today. I went back to the drawing board, talked to the BFGoodrich guys a bit, and was able to find a setting that was able to make the tire work today. This is my second win here, in Mazda MX-5 Cup, but I’ve also been on the podium in all six races that the series has been here. That’s really cool and I was really hoping to do that. I’ve got a lot of supporters behind me and the team, and it feels really good to bring home trophies.”
Driving the No. 12 Mazda Motorsports Development MX-5, Koch was in a position to repeat his win from Thursday. For all but two laps, Koch was lurking in second waiting to pounce if the opportunity arose. However, passing the determined Dean, while holding back the charging Copeland, proved to be unfeasible.
“The series is extremely competitive, and it seems more that way this year than any other," Koch said. "With all the teams getting their stuff together, and Atlanta Motorsports Group coming back, it will be intense.”
Copeland notched his first podium finish of the young season, at the controls of the No. 7 Copeland Motorsports/Sync Speed Inc. MX-5. The finish came on the heels of a strong race, in Round One, that ended early due to a broken transmission.
“We had a horrible start,” Copeland said. “We got off in some slippery dew from this morning, in Turn One. Sebastian [Landy] and I got wide and slid a little. We lost the top two there, and spent the first half of the race trying to reel them in."
Driving the No. 41 Excitations.com/Atlanta Motorsports Group MX-5, Sebastian Landy finished Friday’s race in the fourth position. The finish marks Landy’s second top-five result in as many races.
Finishing fifth was Palm Beach county native Andrew Charbonneau, who drove the No. 15 ALARA Racing MX-5. The finish was a marked improvement for the SCCA National Champion driver who qualified sixth. In Thursday’s race, Charbonneau also started sixth but was unable to hold the position resulting in a 13th-place finish.
Bryan Hixon, of San Antonio, Texas, took the class win in the Skip Barber MAZDASPEED Pro Challenge, while driving his No. 63 Blackmore Partners/xBorder Foods & Wine SBMX-5. His win from the class pole puts him in the lead of the season-long championship point battle.
Ben Albano, of Greenwich, Conn., took second place in class, followed by Drake Kemper, of Toluca Lake, Calif., in the No. 99 Royal Rugby SBMX-5.
Of course, the early morning race was only a warm-up for the big show on Saturday, where more than 60 cars entered in four classes are set to take the green flag at 10:15 a.m. in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida. During qualifying for the event, the pole for the Prototype class was won by French driver Sebastien Bourdais in the #5 Action Express Racing Corvette DP with a time of 1:51.917 at 120.303 mph.
“It was a great qualifying for us,” said Bourdais who, along with teammates Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa, is coming off the win of the 2014 Rolex 24 At Daytona. “We didn’t exactly know where we were going to be. This morning we couldn’t put a lap together. Traffic was a big difficulty in the exercise [of practice] because it’s difficult to get a read on the car since you can do three cars on the line. So it’s tough to know exactly what the balance of the car is and to get in the rhythm. It’s not like it is going to be any easier tomorrow, but at least we have a definite read on how the car is because you could string a couple of laps together and that really gives you a good feel for it.” Bourdais added that he was very happy for the Action Express Team. “After Daytona, hopefully we can keep that sort of pace through tomorrow. But, obviously qualifying doesn’t mean much on a 12 hour race.”
Portuguese drive Joao Barbosa, one of Bourdais’ co-drivers, spoke to the added attention coming into this race having won the Rolex 24 At Daytona just six weeks ago. “People ask if there is any pressure to win this race and be only the fifth team to win both the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in the same year. But the goal is always the same, to come out here and try to win the race. If we win and add to the record book, that would be a great achievement. I do think we have a great chance of doing that because we have a great team behind us. But it is a 12 hour race, and it is Sebring which is a very tough track which makes it difficult for the drivers as well as the mechanics.”
“This race is going to be super demanding, for the drivers especially, mentally, because of the traffic which will be a key component to this race finish,” continued Barbosa. “If we thought the Rolex 24 At Daytona was difficult, this race will be much more so. I guess we are lucky because it is only for 12 hours. The pace will be very close here and there aren’t the long straightaways we had at Daytona, so overtaking will be difficult. It’s going to take a lot of patience. We are going to have to go to 11 hours and 59 minutes with a clean nose in order to see the checkered flag. This is the most demanding track I have ever raced and I would say 12 hours here is as demanding on the cars as 24 hours are at Daytona.”
In Prototype Challenge (PC), Brazil’s Bruno Junqueria won pole with a time of 1:54.839 in the #09 RSR Racing ORECA FLM09. “The track is very slippery, but the car behaved very well and I was able to put a very good lap,” said Junqueria who acknowledged that pole was a big boost to morale for the team to be on the pole. “I know that the race is 12 hours and you have to be consistent. Now we have to try to change a little bit on the car to make sure we have a car that’s reliable. I’m very happy to race at Sebring. I love this track.”
In the GTD class, with a time of 2:04.258, Dane Cameron took pole at the wheel of the #94 Turner Motorsports BMW Z4. Denmark’s Michael Christensen, driving the #912 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR took pole in the GTLM class with a time of 1:58.933
“This is my first pole at Sebring and the first time for the team as well so obviously I am happy with that and I am happy that I have the tools to achieve this with,” said Christensen. “My first impression of Sebring is it is very bumpy and quite difficult.”
Stay tuned to this column for more updates leading up to the second endurance race on the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship calendar, as well as post race reviews, interviews, and more!
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