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The Twelve Hours of Sebring leaves bad taste in the mouths of drivers and fans

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On Saturday, March 15, sportscar enthusiasts from all over the world turned their attention to the 62nd Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida; the second race of 2014 TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and second round of the Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup (NAEC). To the sounds of bagpipes and the anthems of the 19 nations represented by the competitors, motorsports enthusiasts had the opportunity to rub shoulders with the stars of sportscar racing and at the same time get an up-close-and-personal look at the competing vehicles from 11 different manufacturers.

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With the official pronouncement “drivers, start your engines,” given by racing legend Vic Elford, Grand Marshal for the 62nd Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring and a 2014 inductee into the Sebring Motorsports Hall of Fame, the high speed chess game was underway at 10:15 a.m. Roughly half an hour into the race, there was already one casualty as the #33 Riley Motorsports SRT Viper GT3-R went up in flames and brought the race to a stop. There was a long break while the track was cleaned before racing resumed with the pack led by the #0 DeltaWing DWC13 with British driver Andy Meyrick at the wheel.

Meyrick shares driving duties with Columbian driver Gabby Chaves, and fellow Brit Katherine Legge, an accomplished open wheel and touring car racer. Legge, the first woman to receive BRDC’s “Rising Star” award and recipient of RACER magazine’s “Most Promising Road Racer of The Year” award, is an ideal pilot for the distinctive DeltaWing.

“This car is so unique because it is lighter than the other cars on the grid, it has less power and uses less fuel,” said Legge. “But it goes just as fast. It is a sports car that handles like a formula car and since I have raced in various open-wheel cars in the UK before coming to the USA and racing IndyCars, Champ Cars, Formula Atlantics, Indy Lights, DTM sports cars and Daytona Prototypes, I feel quite comfortable behind the wheel of this car. It brakes well; it turns really well and is really fast in a straight line. It is very stable and I am also impressed with the way it handles.”

Legge explained that she had done hundreds of laps on Sebring’s short course but never a race on the full circuit. “I joined the team after Sebring last year, so I’ve got some catching up to do. This race will be so different from Daytona because you really approach it like a cross between an endurance race and a long sprint race. I’ve done 10 hour races and 24 hour races, but not a 12 hour race. We learned so much at Daytona [where the car did not finish the race] so hopefully we’ll be running competitively at the finish here at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.”

At the race's halfway point, Extreme Speed Motorsports’ Ryan Dalziel, in the No. 1 Tequila Patrón HPD, lead the 62nd Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida, taking the race lead with 127 laps completed, 12 minutes shy of halfway.

Dalziel was able to reach the race lead following solid double stints by co-drivers Scott Sharp and David Brabham. Sharp started the race and ran in the top-five for the majority of his two-hour stint. A pit stop and several caution flags dropped Sharp in the field, but he was able to rebound before a scheduled driver change to Brabham. During his stint Brabham wheeled the Tequila Patrón-sponsored Honda Performance Development ARX-03b (HPD) to third place in class.

"“There’s a lot of cars going of the race track and getting the track dirty," Brabham added. "It takes a while for our cars to get the grip in the tires to really be able to hook it up where the DPs cars seems to have more an advantage to get that early."

The No. 2 Tequila Patrón HPD drivers were having a solid race as well. Johannes van Overbeek, Ed Brown and Simon Pagenaud completed double stints in the opening half of the race. Lead off driver van Overbeek reached a race-high of fourth position before a scheduled driver change. Brown logged a career-best stint by maintaining a top-10 position for his segment and was competitive with the prototype class. Upon completing his stint, Brown turned the car over to Pagenaud in the 10th place position. In less than two hours, Pagenaud slowly and steadily began to move up the leaderboard. At the halfway point of the race, Pagenaud was running in fifth.

"All the drivers are very comfortable in the cars. We’ve seen the track change already and it continues to change as the temperature does," commented Robin Hill, Director of Operations, ESM. "The track is rubbering up and also slick and greasy in the heat. We’re dialing the car in to match the track conditions. It has worked so far, but we still have half a race to go."

The event had it's share of ups and downs, and it's field of more than 60 entrants provided the near record crowd roughly 6 hours of good racing. You read that right, only six hours of good racing! The remainder of the twelve hour race was a caution filled mess resulting from a combination of poor driving, heavy traffic, and a looming full moon. The resulting melee lead to a near record amount of retirees from the endurance event, as well as numerous cars ending up several laps behind the leader, including the the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 458 Italia.

“The entire Scuderia Corsa team and drivers showed a lot of speed and a lot of competitiveness today in our first 12 Hours of Sebring,” said Giacomo Mattioli, team owner of Scuderia Corsa. “We were all very motivated to do well at Sebring, a track where Ferrari has enjoyed so much success and celebrated so many victories, and a track where we enjoyed the company of many of our friends and partners. But unfortunately for us, it wasn’t meant to be. I’m very proud of the effort that our drivers and crew put in to put a competitive car on the track.”

From the drop of the green flag, the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari, driven by Alessandro Balzan and teammates Jeff Westphal, Lorenzo Case, and Kyle Marcelli, was a contender in the GT-Daytona class. The car led the class on several occasions, and ran well within the top five throughout the pit stop cycles, staying out of trouble during a race marred with several caution periods and one red flag.

Just before the eight hour mark of the race, while running in fourth position, Case was forced to pit to allow the team to diagnose an electrical problem that had started during his stint. Further problems later in the race would cause the car to go many more laps down. The Scuderia Corsa crew was able to get the Ferrari back on track in the closing stages, and team newcomer Kyle Marcelli set the team’s fastest lap in the closing stages of the race.

“The team did a big job to give us a great car,” said Balzan “This weekend, things went really well, but at the end of the race we had some problems that took our car out of contention. The Ferrari was really good, very fast, easy to drive."

Not all teams in GT had a bad day, however. Team Falken Tire, driven by Bryan Sellers, finished fifth in class, an excellent finish in the class with a brand new car.

Mazda continued the development of the production-based SKYACTIV Technology Prototype in the second longest race in the U.S. The #70 car of Sylvain Tremblay, Tom Long, and Ben Devlin started 15th in class and had an trouble-free race to finish 11th. The efficiency of the SKYACTIV powertrain was such that the car made fewer pitstops than any other prototype in the race. The #07 car of Joel Miller, Tristan Nunez, and Tristan Vautier started 14th in class and ran trouble free for the first half of the race until a wheel nut backed off causing the car to lose the left rear wheel and tire. The resulting suspension damage caused the car to be retired from the race.

The weekend was a busy one for Mazda Motorsports.When it was all said and done, and the numbers were added up, Mazda had more cars, in more races, than any other car company at Sebring – 68 cars in four classes for 28.6% of all race cars competing. The weekend highlights included a 1-2 finish in the Friday afternoon Continental Tire Challenge ST race, a record field in the Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires, and the first finish for the new SKYACTIV Technology Prototype.

“Sebring often sets the tone for the season, and we had a great weekend at Sebring this year," noted John Doonan, Director of Motorsports for Mazda North American Operations. “It was a fantastic Mazda 1-2 finish in the Continental Tire Challenge ST race, a record grid in the MX-5 Cup, good racing in the IMSA Lites, and we continued to make progress with our Mazda SKYACTIV Technology Prototype which scored an 11th place finish in only our second race with the car. And to top it off, we had more cars than any of the 15 brands competing this weekend.”

In the run up to the Mobil1 Twelve Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh from Florida, the racetrack saw action from numerous other series. Earlier in the week, Mikhail Goikhberg completed a sweep of the first two rounds of the 2014 Cooper Tires Prototype Lites Powered by Mazda season to take a strong points lead.

In the Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires, 36 cars took the green flag during the second race at Sebring breaking the series record for the largest field. Race number 1 was won by series rookie Kenton Koch, while the second race was won by Sebring native John Dean II. Scoring wins in the Skip Barber MAZDASPEED Pro Challenge class were Drake Kemper and Bryan Hixon.

On Friday, March 14 in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, Mazda scored a 1-2 finish in the 2.5-hour race with drivers Randy Pobst and Andrew Carbonell in the winning No. 26 Mazda MX-5 prepared by Freedom Autosport.

“The most challenging and demanding part of my drive was the first ten laps,” said Pobst. “We had to pit under green and the Freedom Autosport team did a great job, they were quick, and Andrew got back out there and back into the lead. At this track, our advantage was in the handling, and we had great Continental Tires. John Doonan at Mazda Motorsorts told me he thought Andrew and I would get along well as teammates. Andrew knows these cars really well, and he has reminded me how to drive the MX-5, which is so close to a street car.”

They were followed across the line by the CJ Wilson Racing MX-5 of Stevan McAleer and Chad McCumbee who charged through the field from 33rd on the grid after their pole-setting time was disallowed. For Randy Pobst, it’s another footnote in Miata history. Randy was the first driver to win an SCCA National Runoff Championship in a Miata and now he wins during the 25th anniversary of the most popular roadster in history.

Steve Phillips and Rob Ecklin both made their debut at historic Sebring International Raceway on Friday, driving the No. 99 Automatic Racing/Invisible Glass Aston Martin Vantage GT4 in IMSA Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge. The 2.5-hour race was shaping up well until a cooling issue ended the team’s day early.

Phillips started strong in front of a huge Sebring crowd, gaining positions and turning consistently fast lap times around the 3.74-mile track. He pitted at the one-hour mark, and the Automatic Racing crew did a quick pit stop under green while Ecklin climbed behind the wheel.

“The car was great; everybody on the Automatic Racing crew did a fantastic job getting it ready. The car was perfect for us,” said Phillips. Getting to race at a track as renowned as Sebring was especially gratifying for him. “I’ve tried to get to all the historic tracks, and Sebring has been on my list. To be able to race here in a competitive car with a competitive team is great, and although we didn’t finish where we wanted to, we’ll be back!”

Ecklin went out and continued the charge in the Invisible Glass Aston Martin until a cooling issue manifested. The team made the difficult decision to retire early.

“It was a great race until our retirement! Every time we get out on the track, we’re a little better,” said Ecklin. “It’s fun to race at historic tracks like Sebring, and I enjoy the track more every time I go out on it. All of the bumps are a challenge, but it’s also a lot of fun.”

After this event, the schedule gets a bit more complex. The next race for the TUDOR Championship will be on the streets of Long Beach on Saturday, April 12, while the next race for the Continental teams, the GT-D class, and the MX-5 Cup teams is Saturday, May 3 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. If you're interested in IMSA Lites, their next event isn't until Saturday, June 7 at Kansas Speedway.

Stay tuned to this column for more coverage of the second endurance race on the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship calendar, as well as post race reviews, interviews, and more!

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