The theme for the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts is survive the day, race the night. The No. 02 Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac team lived that philosophy and played it to near perfection. Other than a great stint by Earl Bamber in the middle of the race, the team of Bamber, Alex Lynn and Neel Jani — a last-minute substitution after Kevin Magnussen was called back to Haas F1 — wasn’t an obvious contender until the closing stages of the race.
Despite the clear strength they showed and the lead Alex Lynn had stretched out in his final stints, however, Bamber made sealing the victory quite difficult on himself.
Lynn had stretched out a lead in the race’s closing stages, and without a yellow – the last 4 hours and 35 minutes were caution-free — it looked like easy cruising to the checker. Not only had he been building a gap, he had done a good job saving fuel, so the team knew that when he came in to hand the car over to Bamber, it would be one stop to the finish.
Bamber, however, clipped an LMP3 car on his out lap and spun, handing the lead to Richard Westbrook in the No. 5 JDC-Miller Motorsports Cadillac he shared with Tristan Vautier and Loic Duval.
“I gave absolutely everything in the last two stints — probably a little bit too much on that first out lap,” said Bamber. “But that’s where you gain the time; it’s not on single-lap pace, it’s in the traffic, and you’ve got to take risk if you want to get to the front.”
Bamber would not only put that theory to the test again before the race was over, he would prove its veracity in the final move that earned the team the victory.
Bamber began chasing down Westbrook, but it was still anybody’s race. Bamber could use the fuel Lynn saved to close on Westbrook, and he did, taking the lead with just less than an hour left. But seconds later, while passing the 21 AF Corse Ferrari running second in GTD, The Cadillac and the Ferrari touched, Bamber spinning again and letting Westbrook back past. Bamber returned to his role as the chaser, with a six-second deficit which he set about erasing.
At the same time, Tristan Nunez turned up the wick, dropping into the 1m48s range to try to bring the No. 31 Action Express Racing Cadillac into contention.
With 45 minutes left and the final pit stops coming up, Westbrook was held up by a GT car, and Bamber, acting with decisiveness and using another GT car as a pick, once again took the lead.
“It’s probably some of the best driving I’ve done paired with some of the worst at the same time, all in one-and-a-half hours. I’m just really happy that we could recover and get back to the front. I think I gave Chip a heart attack three times there,” said Bamber with a laugh.
The No. 02 held the lead after the final stop, keeping a small gap to the No. 5 with Tristan Vautier now at the wheel. After the final round of stops, where all the contenders took fresh tires, the top five were covered by 25 seconds, and with the exception of the gap between first and second, most of the gaps were shrinking. Tom Blomqvist and Ricky Taylor battled for fourth in the final 25 minutes left, but that fight fell to Taylor in the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Acura, and the order was essentially set.
Vautier, Westbrook and Loic Duval finished second with a 6.471s gap to the CGR squad. Pipo Derani was another 8.145s back in the No. 31 Action Express Cadillac he shared with Nunez and Mike Conway. It was a Cadillac sweep of the podium in a race that saw a new distance record set for the DPi era, 351 laps of the 3.74-mile historic circuit, two more than the previous best.
The No. 31 AXR Cadillac looked strong throughout the race, and looked like it might be in the best position to fight for victory at the end, but ended up deeper in the field after pit stops cycled them into a position they couldn’t fight their way out of.
“Unfortunately, it was a matter of track position in a race that had no yellows anymore,” said Derani, a three-time winner of the Twelve Hours. “So the last few hours we ended up losing a couple spots for whatever reason, I maybe made a few mistakes, and then we didn’t have it to recover, to overtake on a normal green flag. So yeah, we came close again. The fourth win is going to have to wait a little longer, but we live to fight another day. And good points for the championship.”
The sister car to the eventual winner entered the race as the clear favorite. The No. 01 CGR Cadillac of Renger van Der Zande, Sebastien Bourdais and Ryan Hunter-Reay had been fast all weekend, and Bourdais put the car on the pole. But before the green even flew, the 01 was in the pits with a downshifting problem. It would make repeated trips to the pits for a variety of attempted fixes before it eventually went to the paddock for a gearbox change. The team finished 44 laps down.
The No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Acura led much of the late afternoon, but its chances disappeared when Will Stevens didn’t pass through the RFID detectors at the end of pit lane that keep track of tires, earning a drive-through penalty. The No. 48 Action Express Cadillac team, which was all Mike Rockenfeller until Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez finished the WEC 1000 Miles of Sebring on Friday, also showed flashes of brilliance, but would eventually be felled by a brake problem that necessitated swapping the front rotors and calipers, a process that put them five laps behind.