TUDOR United SportsCar

TUSCC: Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring Prototype Preview

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SEBRING, Fla.- Although numbers are once again down as opposed to last year in terms of the Prototype and Prototype Challenge divisions for this Saturday’s Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, as was the scenario two months ago for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship’s season opener at Daytona, it may actually be a good thing in terms of the action to come in play as well. Although the 2014 race outing at Sebring ended with nine cars on the overall lead lap, a higher than normal amount as opposed to the years Sebring ran under the American Le Mans Series banner, the race was plagued by a large number of full course caution flags, which nearly accounted for half of the timed distance.

The accidents among P and PC entries last year ranged from the heartbreaking to the humiliating. Heartbreaking relating to the collision at Sunset Bend (Turn 17), that eliminated then race leader Johannes van Overbeek and Extreme Speed Motorsports from victory contention after he and Paul Miller Racing’s Bryce Miller both went for the same spot on the circuit. The humiliating saw a regular spin entering the Ullman Straight by BAR 1 Motorsports’ Gaston Kearby, turn into an almost comical crash after Kearby spun a second time trying to recover, catching out RSR Racing’s Alex Tagliani in the process. Perhaps the smaller size entry list, while viewed by some fans as an armageddon moment in terms of sports car racing’s future, could actually lessen the number of these odd scenarios and center the focus toward the racing product and not the follow the safety car one.

While the jury is still out on what kind of race we may see on Saturday the prototype runners, some coupe and some open top, are entering the 3.- mile former Air Force Base turned famous race circuit with different agendas and targets in play. For instance in the Prototype division, Chip Ganassi Racing looks to repeat its success from Daytona, whilst also defending its triumph at Sebring from a year ago, its first overall victory using the then brand new Ford EcoBoost twin turbo V-6 engine.  Looking for redemption from Daytona is Wayne Taylor Racing, who was in contention for the overall victory, but would be relegated to a last place finish after the squad was penalized for exceeding the driving time limits with its lead driver Jordan Taylor. Sebring could also see the LMP-2 eligible cars challenge for overall victory. So far in the short history of the TUSCC, LMP-2s are 0 for five in terms of victories in the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup rounds. As mentioned previously, ESM had the best shot at victory here a season ago, however a few other camps could bolster that challenge further this weekend.

In a bizarre Prototype Challenge race at Daytona that saw essentially a survival of the fittest type battle exist throughout, PR1-Mathiasen Motorsports claimed the checkered flag, taking advantage of a crash that eliminated 2014 TUSCC champions CORE autosport during the final half hour. Both teams are likely to feature in the outcome as the title fight shifts to Sebring, as could a resurgence from BAR 1 Motorsports, who also are reeling from an exclusion from the results at Daytona due to post race penalties. One major change from Daytona to Sebring for PC of note, an upgraded six-liter Chevrolet V-8 will be run by all entrants, giving each car an extra 25 horsepower as opposed to Daytona. Whether that significantly draws them closer to the Prototypes and further away from the faster GT cars remains to be seen however.

With those teasers revealed, here’s how some of the favorites in Prototype and Prototype Challenge stand heading toward the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

PROTOTYPE

Chip Ganassi Racing; Their attack has been reduced from two cars to just one for the 2015 event, yet the defending champions should still be the pacesetters among the Daytona Prototype half of the P class. The best drivers from both entries at Daytona have been paired together for Sebring, as Verizon IndyCar Series veteran Scott Dixon joins TUSCC regulars Scott Pruett and Joey Hand in the single No. 01 Ford EcoBoost-Riley DP. Engine development is no longer the top priority for this team, although a two-front battle could be forming if rumors tying them to the potential return of the Ford GT program are true for 2016 and beyond. Nothing’s confirmed at this point however, so it should not be a distraction for them at this point of the campaign. This was not the fastest team at Daytona based on practice and qualifying performance, yet once the Rolex 24 got going this team surged to the front. I’m expecting a similar start to the proceedings here, however I think their task to repeat at Sebring will be tougher this time around.

Action Express Racing: Taking advantage of the WTR gaffe at the end of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, AXR jumped up to second in its defense of its 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona title, but the team was rarely a serious challenger for P1 throughout a majority of the distance. After dominating the horsepower battle in 2014, the 5.5 liter Chevrolet V-8 in the team’s Corvette DP seems to be a little off when compared to the Ganassi Ford and the LMP-2 Honda powered machines. The reliability factor should keep them close, but if the race becomes a speed duel, a win for Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi, and Sebastian Bourdais or the sister Whelen-sponsored car of Eric Curran, Dane Cameron, and Max Papis will be a tough task to achieve.

Wayne Taylor Racing; This team was the biggest threat from the bow-tie brigade at Daytona and was primed to challenge Chip Ganassi Racing for the overall win, prior to their realization of their mistake in terms of timing the final stint for Jordan Taylor. The non-points scoring run is clearly not the real deal for this team, as they won the final leg of the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup’s four race series last year at Road Atlanta. Jordan and Ricky Taylor, along with Max Angelelli will definitely play a key role in the final outcome, whether that is a winning one is the big question mark.

Michael Shank Racing: Pace was definitely not the issue for MSR’s newly acquired Ligier JS P2-Honda coupe at Daytona, keeping it together however, was another story. After the Ligier failed to finish last year at the Petit Le Mans endurance event at Road Atlanta, mechanical issues relegated MSR’s similar machine to a fifth place finish in the P class at Daytona, well behind the race win contenders. If the gremlins can be cured prior to race day in Sebring, either this entry or the Judd-powered Krohn Racing car can challenge for victory or the podium here. Minor changes in the driving department for MSR for the TUSCC’s second round as Oswaldo  Negri and John Pew will be joined by Justin Wilson for Sebring.

Extreme Speed Motorsports: After a potential laden debut at Daytona, ESM surprisingly elected to shelve its all-new Honda ARX-04b coupe for the rest of the 2015 season in favor of, for now at least, last year’s ARX-03b open top. Although the odds may be tilting toward the Daytona Prototypes and the LMP-2 coupes, the ARX-03b still showed some muscle last year at Sebring and in its overall victory at Laguna Seca.With the team at a crossroads in terms of its future direction, its performance with its two-car entry this weekend, could say a lot about how the team could fare starting next month in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

The Rest of the Field: Visitflorida.com Racing completed the overall podium at Daytona, yet like Action Express Racing really never posed a major challenge to Ganassi in terms of the race victory with their Corvette DP. More should be expected from a driving team, which features the likes of Mike Rockenfeller, Richard Westbrook, and Michael Valiente.

DeltaWing Racing showed a lot of pace in the first hour of the Rolex 24, but sadly that was the only hour the team’s DWC13 coupe ran as terminal problems ended their race early. If the team can revert to its reliability shown last year at Road Atlanta, the team has an outside chance at the podium on Saturday.

As mentioned earlier, Krohn Racing’s Judd-powered Ligier is also a potential podium buster, but that will depend on whether or not the V-8 power plant can last the distance or not.

SpeedSource’s Mazda SkyActiv-Diesel managed to lead its first lap ever in TUSCC competition at Daytona, however speed and durability are still well off what is required to get among its P class rivals on a regular basis.

PROTOTYPE CHALLENGE

PR1-Mathiasen Motorsports: Bobby Oergel’s squad deserves a lot of credit for not throwing in the towel after breaking down in the second hour of the Rolex 24 at Daytona. The team made an amazing comeback in the remaining hours of the event, ending up in the right place at the right time to take advantage of Colin Braun’s late crash to claim the win. For Sebring, the scenarios have changed a bit. Andrew Novich has taken a racing sabbatical to finish his college education, giving way to Britain’s Tom Kimber-Smith for the remainder of the 2015 season. Kimber-Smith had a terrific run in limited appearances last year in PC for 8Star Motorsports. Mike Guasch and Andrew Palmer round out the lineup for Saturday’s race. This is not the fastest team on the PC circuit, but they could be the safest and most reliable and that might be the winning difference.

CORE autosport: Despite their heartbreaking accident at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the Jon Bennett-run squad still managed to claim runner-up honors keeping them high up in the early points table. Daytona proved that this is still the fastest PC team in the TUSCC and why they should be tagged as the Sebring pre-race favorites. Minus the crash, Colin Braun is the best driver in the division, while team boss Bennett and James Gue provide solid support. If the luck factor goes in their favor, the squad could simply run away with the victory this weekend.

BAR 1 Motorsports: The 2013 PC multi-race winners looked to be on the verge of regaining their previous form at Daytona, claiming the PC class pole position and initially coming home in second at the finish. Unfortunately, a similar to WTR driving time penalty cost them their result and leaves them looking to bounce back from an early season hole. Martin Plowman and David Cheng lead the way in the driving department, however the team will need more from Mark Drumwright and Tomy Drissi to make a major challenge for the class win on Saturday.

Rest of the Field: JDC-Miller Motorsports drove a steady race to claim the final spot on the Daytona PC podium. Mikhail Goikhberg continues to greatly improve and will look to assert himself as the team leader at Sebring.

Brent O’Neill’s Performance Tech Motorsports team looks to avenge a savage crash which ended their Sebring race prematurely a year ago. An average driving trio could be bolstered by the appearance of Conor Daly, who returns to TUSCC action for the first time since last year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Starworks Motorsport should be a bigger factor here as opposed to Daytona, where like its effort went literally nowhere fast. An early did not finish suffered in round one, could be all that is needed to motivate Renger van der Zande toward producing a special effort at Sebring. Watch out for the Peter Baron-led PC team this weekend.

Despite looking at a move to the Pirelli World Challenge circuit, RSR Racing will be present at Sebring. Bruno Junqueira, Chris Cumming, and Gustavo Menezes could represent the strongest driving trio outside of either PR1 or CORE autosport.

Stay tuned to Rubbings Racing for Kimberly McFarland’s preview of the grand touring runners trying their luck at Sebring.

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About Matt Embury

Matt Embury is the Senior SportsCar Writer at Rubbings Racing and can be followed on Twitter (@MattEmbury) for the latest sports car news and opinions. A native of Mishawaka, Indiana, he has been following sports car racing for nearly 20 years.

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