With the drama and excitement from the 54th running of Rolex 24 at Daytona now in the history books, the focus for the teams and drivers of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship now begins to shift from the longest race on the North American Endurance Cup, to the toughest and most demanding of the four-leg special series: the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring Fueled By Fresh From Florida. The former air force base turned rough and bumpy road course is always used as a test track for teams interested in battle testing their challengers for this and other big endurance events. So much so that even though LMP-1 cars from the FIA World Endurance Championship are not eligible to race at Sebring in March, Audi has already put its 2016 FIA WEC challenger through the ringer here and the layout could also be called upon by their rivals Porsche and Toyota in the run to the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans coming up in June. Speaking of Le Mans, a peek into what could be ahead is also on the cards for Friday morning.
As always is the case, the organizers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the FIA World Endurance Championship, and the European Le Mans Series like to excite new and returning fans looking forward to the new campaigns ahead and as they have done since 2001, the groups will convene in Paris on Friday afternoon (early Friday morning in the eastern United States) to reveal the entry lists for the FIA WEC and ELMS for 2016, as well as announcing the initial 58 invitees for the 2016 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, plus a list of up to five alternates should any of the invites be unable to take up their position on the grid.
Prior to 2001, an interested participant had to pre-qualify for the big event through a major two-day test session a month before the 24 Hours of Le Mans itself, in which only the fastest cars on the time charts in each division would make the field. Starting in 2001, a selection committee based on a number of factors, including prior performance and manufacturer support ties handed out invites from a large number of prospective entry requests, for which those hoping to race at Le Mans in 2016 had to file by the middle of last month.
Looking ahead to Friday, ten to eleven of the 58 places on the entry list have been made known to the public, mostly in the form champions of last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, series champions in the FIA WEC, ELMS, and Asian Le Mans Series, plus two special invites from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Those two American series invites, Scuderia Corsa and Michael Shank Racing have already announced in January that each will accept their invites and will be present at Circuit de la Sarthe in June.
The majority of the 58 starters will come from the FIA World Endurance Championship as the race itself awards points toward that particular series of races. So when the FIA WEC entry is announced, all of those are guaranteed places among the 58. Next on the docket are the automatic invites that were mentioned above, plus the Garage 56 entry, which is given to a team featuring an interesting or news-making asset and/or is introducing technology, which is unique to sports car racing. The Garage 56 entry for the 2016 race was awarded last summer to Frederic Sausset, a quadruple amputee who will compete in a modified Morgan LMP2 open top car in the 2016 event. In addition to being usable by Sausset, the car will also allow for his two able bodied co-drivers to operate it as well. Le Mans 24 Hours veteran Christophe Tinseau has been confirmed as one of those two drivers.
The remainder of the 58 spots will go to at-large entries, made up of a mixture of ELMS and IMSA runners, along with possible one-off entries in which teams that are not full time members with any sanctioning bodies may be given an opportunity to race at Le Mans only for 2016. Among those at-large bids could be a large contingent of American teams, many of whom competed in some form last weekend at Daytona and/or will be present at Sebring in March.
Among the many as fifteen teams that could get the call to compete in June from the Stars and Stripes, is Elton Julian’s DragonSpeed Racing squad. Julian, a former Formula One test driver and sports car racing veteran was hoping to be present last weekend at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, but after AMG-Mercedes elected not to join IMSA as an automotive partner as required to compete in the GT Daytona division for 2016, Julian was left on the sidelines. He will however, enter a car at Sebring that while yet to turn a wheel in an IMSA event, it certainly took the 24 Hours of Le Mans by storm last summer. The ORECA 05 coupe, paired with a Nissan V-8 engine dominated the LMP-2 division last year at Circuit de la Sarthe with KCMG taking the victory. The buzz around this car was so widespread in 2015 that even Troy Flis’ Visitflorida.com Racing team considered a switch to the LMP-2 eligible machine for 2016 in IMSA, before electing to stay with the Chevrolet Corvette DP.
As for the Sebring entry, Julian’s team will be represented by Nicolas Lapierre, Nicolas Minassian (who drove for SMP Racing in the Rolex 24), and Henrik Hedman. DragonSpeed, which made their debut in 2007 is no stranger to North American competition having competed in both the American Le Mans Series and the Pirelli World Challenge circuit. The team hopes to compete this year full time in the European Le Mans Series, where it will likely face off in LMP-2 action fellow American-based runner Krohn Racing, who are entering a Judd-powered Ligier coupe for the second consecutive year.
Looking ahead to Sebring further, another set of Balance of Performance changes are also expected to be revealed. The most likely car to be tagged by IMSA officials in advance of round two is the Lamborghini Huracan GT3, which dominated the early stages of the Rolex 24 and came within a few gallons of gasoline from winning the race through the efforts of Konrad Motorsport, who settled for a fifth place finish. The horsepower of the five liter, V-10 engine was clearly apparent on Saturday and Sunday, as the five-car contingent not only dusted the GTD competition on the Daytona International Speedway high banks, they even managed at times to hang with and even pull away from those running in the upper level GT Le Mans division as well.
Case in point for comparison purposes, the fastest GTLM race lap, posted by Antonio Garcia of Corvette Racing was a 1:44.0. By contrast the fastest GTD lap posted by Richard Antinucci in the O’Gara Motorsport Lamborghini was a 1:45.8, under two seconds off the best GTLM lap on the 3.56 mile layout in race conditions. Based on those numbers, it seems clear that either a reduction in maximum RPMs (like what was done to the Ferrari 458 prior to the Rolex 24) or a smaller air restrictor will likely be placed upon these entries prior to next month. It will also be interesting to see whether the overall race winning Ligier-Honda coupe combination, the Corvette Racing C7.Rs which went 1-2 in GTLM at Daytona, or the Audi R8 LMS which won GTD, will also face some form of extra handicap prior to Sebring or not.
Stay tuned to OnPitRoad.com for further developments on these stories on the run up to the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the remainder of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.