Sebring: Where it all began

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This week­end marks the 65th run­ning of the Twelve Hours of Sebring, one of the most impor­tant races on the US motor­sport cal­en­dar. Now part of the Weath­erTech Unit­ed Sports­car Cham­pi­onship, the race into the Flori­da night at Sebring has a his­to­ry of host­ing the world’s pre­miere sports­car series. It’s also where the FIA World Endurance Cham­pi­onship made a rather inaus­pi­cious start back in 2012. 

There’s an old adage that, com­pared to Le Mans, Sebring is half as long but twice as fast. Indeed, the 12 Hours of Sebring has long been con­sid­ered the ulti­mate car-break­er. First run back in 1950, the track has, in some places, bare­ly changed at all. The aged con­crete rat­tles com­peti­tors’ cars right down to the last nut and bolt, the bar­ri­ers and run-off unfor­giv­ing­ly close. Audi, Porsche and count­less Amer­i­can sports­car teams have used Sebring as test loca­tion, believ­ing that, if their cars could sur­vive the bruis­ing six-kilo­me­tre cir­cuit, they could take any­thing.

On 17 March 2012, the FIA World Endurance Cham­pi­onship made its debut on the inter­na­tion­al motor­sport scene in the 60th 12 Hours of Sebring, a race joint­ly organ­ised with the pre­cur­sor to the Weath­erTech Unit­ed Sports­car Cham­pi­onship, the Amer­i­can Le Mans Series. It marked a new era for glob­al pro­to­type rac­ing, the first time a world sports­car cham­pi­onship had vis­it­ed Sebring since 1961.

The advent of the FIA WEC promised much, but the depar­ture almost overnight of Peu­geot – the dri­ving force behind the intro­duc­tion of a world cham­pi­onship – had plunged the series into unknown ter­ri­to­ry before it had even begun. Audi arrived at Sebring in con­fi­dent mood look­ing to re-take the title after Peugeot’s two suc­ces­sive vic­to­ries in 2010 and 2011. How­ev­er, despite the good inten­tions of tak­ing the WEC to Sebring, the com­ing togeth­er of the ALMS and the WEC was per­haps too much for the track to take.

The mixed grid pro­duced a 64-car entry, or one car for every 93 metres of the Sebring Inter­na­tion­al Race­way – akin in terms of car-to-track den­si­ty to 146 cars run­ning at the Cir­cuit de la Sarthe. In truth, it was too many – and the WEC’s four class­es and the ALMS’s five made it extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to fol­low.

But the race did pro­vide plen­ty of action and sur­pris­es. The field of pri­va­teer LMP1s, includ­ing Rebel­lion Rac­ing, JRM, Strak­ka Rac­ing and Pescaro­lo Team, weren’t quick enough to catch the Audi R18 TDIs, with Allan McNish, Tom Kris­tensen and Din­do Capel­lo tak­ing the over­all vic­to­ry ahead of future world cham­pi­ons Timo Bern­hard and Romain Dumas and future Le Mans win­ner Loic Duval. Star­works Motor­sport, who would go on to take the LMP2 title that sea­son, fin­ished a sur­pris­ing third over­all. Andrea Bertoli­ni, Olivi­er Beretta and Mar­co Cio­ci took the AF Corse’s maid­en WEC vic­to­ry at the first time of ask­ing, albeit in third on the road behind the ALMS entries of BMW Team RLL and Corvette Rac­ing.

Sad­ly the WEC nev­er returned to Sebring, instead pre­fer­ring to focus on the Cir­cuit of the Amer­i­c­as for its US round. This year’s 12 Hours of Sebring will see the fac­to­ry-backed efforts from Cadil­lac, Maz­da and Nis­san go up against the likes of Rebel­lion Rac­ing for the hon­ours in the 65th run­ning of the famous race. Cov­er­age is avail­able free online in Europe via imsa.tv, with the race start­ing at 2:40pm (UK)/3:40pm (Europe).

Images © JEAN MICHEL LE MEUR / DPPI media