Arriving as we did, late on Tuesday evening, courtesy of an hour’s delay on our Virgin Atlantic flight to Orlando, it wasn’t until Wednesday morning that we made our first visit to the famous Sebring International Raceway. It was mid-morning as we arrived at the circuit and already the circuit was warming up to a very pleasant 25 degrees centigrade. It was how each day was during race week; Blue skies, strong sunshine and temperatures reaching the high 20’s during the afternoons. Perfect really.
After collecting our passes we walked in to the paddock to see who was around. Unlike the Le Mans 24 Hours, your entrance ticket allows access to the paddock, so it is really easy to get up close and personal with the teams. Although Audi were here with an updated version of the R15+ they were still covering parts of the rear of the car with towels to hide them from view. Peugeot were equally cagey with their new 908 car, but others such as Highcroft and Oreca were happy for their cars to be on display, if in various levels of completion. There was certainly a lot of bodywork lying around. Further down the paddock, the Flying Lizard Porsche shop was doing good trade, and everyone was able to get a good look at the new Ferrari 458 alongside its predecessor the 430, which were both present in the new GTE Pro and GTE Am classifications for the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup.
You could have spent hours in the paddock alone, but after a quick glance over at the infield that was filling rapidly with RVs, trailers and tents, we left the circuit back to Sebring town to stock up on provisions at the local Walmart. This store sells everything from chocolate bars to semi-automatic weapons, but we stuck to the food as we are self-catering for the next few days. It is unlikely that we will do much cooking, but we do need to stock up on liquids as its going to be a hot one. Incidentally we purchased water as well as beer!
Our home, for the next few days, is the rather swanky condos at Majestic Cove. This is a brand new building, located next to the lake in downtown Sebring itself. The complex has plenty of parking, a pool and great views over the lake. The rooms are well furnished and include a fully stocked kitchen with dishwasher, microwave, oven, fridge (for the beer and water) and a freezer (for the ice). There was more than enough for my specialty breakfast of burnt toast and orange juice. As there are plenty of restaurants just off the Highway 27 in Sebring, it wasn’t necessary to eat in. The condo owners, Rush and Cheryl had organized a bbq for those in need anyway!
Thursday was practice at the track, so after another wander through the paddock, we took our first venture out on to the infield. Cross the iconic bridges at Sebring and you are transported to a different world dominated by RV motorhomes of all different shapes and sizes. It is a sea of RVs. The odd tent or van does break up huge numbers of these vehicles, but it is the sheer number of the RVs that I will remember. Otherwise we are in pure Le Mans 24 Hours territory here, with the smell of BBQ in the air at every corner, music turned up to 11, and a crate of beer on ice. OK, the weather is a lot better, but the scenes are familiar. For those taking notes, there are plenty of chemical toilets dotted around the campsites, and whilst the showers are less frequent they are of the brick built and serviced variety.
The morning had come and gone in the blink of an eye, and as we had been tipped off by Barry from the local radio station that there was a gathering of classic cars back in the centre of Sebring, we headed there for lunch. There were about 30 cars assembled in the centre of Sebring at the old “circle” that marks the centre of the historic town. Local people had set up stalls selling all sorts amongst the cars, which amongst the usual American brands, included 2 rather nice MGs that caught my eye. I can recommend “Dee’s Place” for lunch when you are here.
Thursday was night practice and really the first time that I realised just how close you can get to the cars. I narrowly missed being run over by one of the Corvettes on it’s way to the pit lane. You certainly have to keep your eyes and ears open at all time. Having said that, anyone that gets run over by the Panoz car, would have to be deaf and blind, as it really is an ugly looking thing and I am sure you can hear it start up in the next state!
Things got a lot more serious on the track on Friday with an hour’s qualifying session in the afternoon following another practice run in the morning. Back in the paddock, however, the party mood had spread to the drivers for the Autograph session at lunchtime. All the drivers from each team line up behind the table and are happy to sign anything (within reason!) that you put in front of them, as well as the usual cards, posters and regalia. Audi won the longest queue competition, closely followed by Peugeot and Corvette. You had to feel sorry for the lesser well known drivers in the smaller teams who often sat expectantly with nobody in line.
It was as straight shoot out in qualifying, with each class getting 10 minutes to set the best times. There was a an Audi/Peugeot sandwich in the top 5 places on the leaderboard with Stephan Sarrazin claiming pole for Peugeot in the new 908 with Oreca bringing last year’s Peugeot 908 Hdi-FAP in fifth. The Aston Martin Lola of the Muscle Milk team (familiar to ALMS fans) gained a credible 6th just ahead of the new HPD ARX of Highcroft Racing. Leading the GT classes was the Ferrari F430 of AF Corse, coming ahead of the much fancied Corvettes and BMWs as well as the newer Ferrari F458. I guess there just hasn’t been enough testing time done with the new cars yet. After such an interesting qualifying session we retired to the “Sunset Grille” just by the lake of Highway 27 for some good food and music and found ourselves in amongst the teams again as some of the support staff joined the swelling numbers. Another place to recommend!
At 9am on Saturday morning we found ourselves standing just over the pit wall on the track next to the Audis and Peugeots. It is Sebring tradition that before the race (which starts at 10:30am) all the cars are lined up along the grid and the public are allowed to wander amongst them and get up real close. Mechanics and support staff are present too, so you can ask questions and take all the photos that you want. I must warn you though, the grid walk is popular and getting from car to car can be difficult in such tightly packed crowds. However it is well worth it. If you didn’t feel part of the Sebring 12 hours before, you really do now. I am not really one to name drop, but as I walked along the pit wall taking photos, I quite literally, bumped into Dr. Ullrich, the head of Audi Motorsport. Of course I shook his hand, explained that I was from the UK and wished him the best of British Luck. He was very relaxed and enjoying the atmosphere on the Sebring circuit too, so was happy to chat about Audi’s hopes for the season. The new R18 car is being tested at Sebring after the race and will be more than ready for the next round of the ILMC at Spa apparently. Peugeot you have been warned.
Fifteen minutes before the start the grid was cleared and we took up are viewing positions for the race proper. Don’t worry I am not going to go into detail about what happened, when it happened and whose fault it was here. I will leave that for others to do. I can tell you though, over the course of the next 12 hours, we were able to walk to all corners of the circuit and usually the viewing is unhindered by large fences and other obstacles. Sebring has a great reputation as a circuit for race fans and I can understand why. We must have walked every inch of the 3.7 mile circuit (there are courtesy shuttles if you don’t want to walk) and taken decent photos of every car. My favourite section has to be from turn 6 right around to turn 13. A walkway, named “Sebring Boulevard” takes you between the campers and the track all around the area known as Green Park. Not only do you get unobstructed views of the race along this stretch, but you also get to see the best that the Sebring race fans can produce in the form of campsites and self made viewing platforms around the edge. Spectators around at turn 10 were treated to a row of intricate campsites set up over the last few days, including everything from 10 feet scaffold towers, to wild west style ranch complete with fish tank and chicken coop (?). Le Mans fans, the bar has been raised this year!
The temperatures remained high even after night had fallen for the last few hours of the race. Returning to the main straight in time for the finish at 10:30pm, we all agreed how quickly the day had gone. A fantastic day of racing and partying at Sebring. For those who are still making notes, it was a great race and it went down to the last few laps. The Oreca team showed that experience and consistency win endurance races by bringing their older Peugeot home in front. The petrol powered Highcroft car was close behind. BMW took the GT honours ahead of Corvette.
As we returned back to Orlando in our hire car we were able to reflect on what a great few days we had enjoyed. The 59th 12 hours of Sebring 2011 was a great start to the season. If they are all half as good as this one then we are in for an amazing season. We are looking for to the Le Mans 24 Hours as we always do, but now we are also looking forward to Sebring 2012. Hope to see you there.
If you would like to be at the 60th anniversary 12 hours of Sebring in March 2012 with the Radio Le Mans Travel Club, please register early to receive all details. Accommodation is strictly limited and demand is high. Call Travel Destinations now on 0844 873 0203 or email your details to firstname.lastname@example.org to be the first to receive more information on tickets, accommodation, car hire and flights.