Post Race Debrief: Sebring 2011

Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”– Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society
On Thursday, March 4th, late in the afternoon, a Rosso Corso Ferrari 458 GT cleared customs at Houston’s George Bush International Airport. This particular car was destined for the 59th Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh From Florida , the opening race in the 2011 American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patron. All the sponsor endorsements now in—and a rather lengthy and healthy group it is, although I personally think Tequila Mixes better with Orange Juice than oil but that could be personal preference—the brand spanking new race car, which not 7 days previous was last seen circulating at Ferrari’s home test/race track, Fiorano, in the mystifyingly capable hands of Jaime Melo, the test driver/savant for Ferrari, S.p.A. of Maranello, Italy (and, no, I am not trying to top the amazing sentence length of James Joyce in Ulysses although, with enough loud music and the right mix, there is no doubt I could pull it off)–was rolled out of the customs shed and onto the waiting flatbed, driven by the ever-reliable Donnie, the extremely competent delivery/wrecker/pick it up/deliver it back driver for Ferrari of Houston.
In Donnie’s capable hands, the car was released from U.S. Customs (thank you) and taken directly to the Risi Competizione race workshop, which is located in the same compound as Ferrari of Houston, there to be unloaded and, without so much as a “wow, she looks great”, rolled into Race Workshop Bay No. 1, whereupon the Risi Comp technical tribe attacked with socket wrenches of all types and descriptions, lifts, air guns, screw drivers, pulls, power tools of every possible kind until at night fall, a once complete race car was now spread across the width and breadth of the Risi Comp workshop. No one went anaerobic or deep into oxygen debt during this initial encounter with Risi Comp’s first 458GT, but the pace was pretty blistering and one could work up a smoking good fever just watching.
As with all really great teams in any sport, when it comes to crunch time these was little discussion and lots of focused, professional activity. These guys know their stuff and their stuff was required to do one thing: prep a brand spanking new Ferrari 458GT race car, one of very few in the world at this particular point in time, for the world’s toughest endurance race—the 12 Hours of Sebring, a race contested on a track so rough, bumpy, uneven, and generally nasty, that it breaks cars, reputations ,and bank accounts with equal disdain– a mere 10 days away.
Mission impossible?
We shall see.
On through the night the team worked, taking things off, putting things on, and making note of what went where because—well, they were going to have do this a lot in the coming season. Just a day and change later, the car and a massive amount of support equipment(timing stand, tool boxes, air guns, spare wheels—new ones, from BBS, because the massive collection of old BBS wheels for the 430 don’t fit the new 458), uniforms, snacks, coolers, radio equipment, computers, flat screens, portable chairs, flooring, golf cars and ATVs and Vespa scooters and spares, but not a lot of them because this is a new car and spares are in very, very short supply, are pushed and shoved and packed and tucked away in the twin Risi Competizione transporters, powered by our big, reliable Volvo trucks and then driven by the team’s pro transport drivers direct from Houston to Sebring, Florida, where, waiting for them as the trucks pulled in, was the same crew that had packed the car and all the racing equipment, goodies, and gear.
Once at Sebring, the whole process is reversed, trucks are unloaded and, to cut it short, camp is made and the F458GT is rolled out yet again, for even more work and race prep (because race prep is never fully complete) and detailing and development because the very next day, which is the 12th of March, the car will take to the track for some serious testing, with Jaime Melo and Mika Salo and Toni Vilander at the wheel. The goal: a flash development—to Risi Comp standards—of the latest from Ferrari’s Corse Clienti division. It’s a new car on an old familiar track (we’ve won here three of the last four years) but it’s unproven and racing on the toughest track in motorsports and it has a tough act to follow, as the 430GT that Risi Comp raced since 2006 was so freaking fast out of the box (2006) that it finished third in its first race (Sebring ) and then went on to wipe the track with the competition for the next four years, winning 7 major endurance races and shutting out big factory teams from Porsche, BMW, and Corvette in the process. Ok, other teams won some short races. Good for them. Would you rather win the Masters or the Dry Cleaners Open in Charlotte, NC? We have a hunger for The Majors.
After the Saturday test session, which was long and brutal and educational, the team then spent Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday working well into the night on the car, sorting out the suspension, the gearbox, the electronics, radios and on and on and on because any detail—anyone of them—can take you down in a 12 Hour race at Sebring so best tend to them all.
On Thursday, March 17th, 2010, the race schedule got serious and at 10:10AM the Green Flag—the one we’ve all be waiting for—dropped for the first Official Practice at the 59th running of The 12(please see lead sentence for proper attribution of sponsors and presenters and promotors) and off the teams and cars and drivers went, in search of speed and destiny, but not necessarily in that order.
At the end of the session a surprise everyone was expecting: It was Jaime Melo in the No. 062 Risi Competizione Ferrari F458GT posting the top time (2:02.251), with a couple of factory BMWs trailing in positions two and three.
Before continuing with practice, we should note a few specifics about this running of The 12. There’s a field of 56 cars, spread across six classes (LMP1, LMP2, LMPC, GT, GTE-AM, and GTC…see previous post, “The Numbers Game” for detail). The 2011 race also included visiting contestants from the ACO’s new International Le Mans Cup, a European series that has some similarity in format to the ALMS but a much better television contract. Among the ILMC entrants was Krohn Racing, running in GTE-AM, the “gentleman racer” class; followers of Risi Comp will remember that Krohn Racing has raced with Risi for several years, to good result and we, of course, wished them well in their ILMC adventure. In 2011, nineteen (19) cars were entered in the GT class, with the usual suspects (Flying Lizard Porsche, Corvette Racing, BMW) well represented along with teams from Jaguar and Panoz. Also on hand for light entertainment were a Lamborghini , a Ford GT40. Plus of course Extreme Speed, with a pair of Ferrari 458s, Luxury Racing with a new 458 (Ortelli/Makowliecki/Deletraz), Falken Tire with a Porsche 911 GT3 RSR with the very formidable Wolf Henzler, Bryan Sellers, and Martin Ragginger in the saddle. All very good groups and, even if some are new to Sebring, factors to be dealt with. In all, a crowded and very professional field in GT-Pro and the other GT classes. The big question for all the pro teams at Sebring was how much trouble the amateur classes (LMPC, GTE-AM, and GTC) were going to create.
At 3:05PM, same day, the Green Flag is once again brought out of hiding and waved at the pack of racers, who commence circulation efforts aimed at showing who’s who on the Dark Princess that is Sebring International Raceway.
A red flag here(Gunnar Jeanette) and there (Sebastian Bleekemolen punts his Porsche Cup car into the tire barriers at Turn 17) and the teams carry on.
At the end of the second practice session, the No. 062 Risi Comp Ferrari 458GT( it is No. 062 for this race and also for this fall’s Petit Le Mans because a competing car from ILMC will be borrowing No. 62 for this race and the Petit Le Mans; after Sebring, Risi Comp’s No. 062 will turn, again, into the No. 62 we all know and follow) is third in class, behind a Corvette (No. 3, with Olivier Beretta pushing down on the thrust peddle) and P. Long in one of the Lizard 911 GT3 RSRs. Both have been here before—a statement which will assume amazing importance once the race starts.
Up next, the obligatory and often-fun Night Practice, teeing off at 7:50PM, EDT.
Night practice at big endurance races is THE PRACTICE. Fast at night usually translates into blistering during the day. The sight plane at night is different and there is woe awaiting the driver who misjudges his braking points at night. At 7:50PM, the Green Flag is dropped and the cars roar off into the cooling Florida night, daylight behind them and hopes of fame and glory in front. By 8:00PM, the Lamborghini had shed a wheel and the Red Flag is wheeled out, making contestants and pit crews alike grumpy and edgy. Another Red Flag comes out (the Krohn Racing Ferrari hits the boonies) then at 8:34PM, all is forgiven and the Green Flag comes down and the hammers drop and the noise level rises and the adrenalin flows and at 9:35PM the checkered flag comes down and the night’s practice is done, the brakes are cooled on the cool down lap and it’s time to pull in for the night and turn the car over to the techs, who are facing yet another long night of repair and prep.
Keeping score, we note that our boy, Toni Vilander, new to Risi Comp at Sebring has posted at 2:02.715 at night, good enough for third in the GT class in the practice session. Best in class goes to Scott Sharp in the Extreme Speed 458 Ferrari and Jan Magnussen is sandwiched in at second in GT with a 2:02.678 in his Big Yellow Dog Corvette. Respectable numbers all but that’s only tonight’s glory.
Friday, March 18th, and the screws tighten as we approach race time. A little less levity in Pit Lane as game faces go on and, in the rest of the world, the NCAA Division 1 basketball tournament is in full throttle mode. This IS a full competition weekend. Love it.
At 10:40AM, the GF drops again but the No. 044 GT Porsche re-arranges the tire barriers, bringing out the Red Flag and raising blood pressure throughout Sebringland.
At 10:50AM, the GF is out once more and the pursuit of speed resumes. When the spectacle is declared finished at 11:40AM, the top three in the GT Class are Makowieki in the No. 59 Ferrari 458GT; Bruni in the No. 51 Ferrari 430GT, and Werner in the No. 55 BMW. Nice show. Let’s qualify.
Right at 3:00PM, the qualifying Green Flag drops and the assembled competitors then make the run for bragging rights. When the session is checkered closed at 3:15PM, it’s Bruni (Ferrari 430GT) in first; Gavin (Corvette) in second and Werner (BMW) in third. The Risi Competizione No. 062 Ferrari posts a 2:02.290 for 5th position on the grid.
Qualifying spots are not as important for races likes The 12 or The 24 as they are for short sprints on city streets like at Los Angeles and (new this year ) Baltimore.
Word from the Risi Comp compound is this: the car is doing very well in the run up to its first big international endurance event. In other words: stay tuned.
Next up: The Running of The 12.
We will bypass results of the morning warmup which as a 25 minute session are really irrelevant in a 12 hour race, and I would say that if we were 1st or 15th. It’s warmup. I don’t judge Dennis Rodman’s career by how he looked on the bicycle he used to peddle while waiting to get into an NBA game, but on how he did in the game snagging rebounds. About 8 years ago, I had lunch with Rodman and it was fun and highly enjoyable and while his media persona may be that of a wild man, he is an absolute blast and surprisingly low key one-on-one. But, back to our sport, racing.
Warmup in the books, last minute prep is busy at Risi Comp, as with all the teams, but the horrible truth is this: if you are not ready by now, you are in deep trouble.
At 10:30AM, the Green Flag dropped on the field for the 59th running of The 12 and, despite my own personal visions of an absolute crashfest in the opening laps, the guys in every class did a great job and stayed on the track and out of trouble.
At approximately one hour and 15 minutes into the race, the top Three in GT were the No. 40 FordGT/Elan, with Boris Said driving in first, Bergmeister in the Flying Lizard No. 45 GT second and Jaime Melo in the Risi Comp 062 Ferrari F459GT in third. Not bad for an “out of the box” racecar.
Fast forward to one hour and 23 minutes and Melo has snagged 1st with the usual tactic—driving a hell of a lot faster than his competition—with Gavin (Corvette) and Werner in the heavily-performance-waivered BMW M3 in third. A milestone is reached as Melo puts the Risi Competizione F458GT into first place—its’ first lead in a major international endurance race.
But…it’s a very long race and this is a very new race car.
The next big event in the GT class occurs when around the three hour and thirty minute mark, Porsche driver P. Long looses it in the bumps and takes out the No. 04 Ferrari 458GT.
That incident put the Porsche well down in the standings and removed one 458GT from the race.
At approximately four and one half hours into the race (4:32 to be precise), the top three in GT are Farlus (No. 55 BMW); Priaulx(No. 56 BMW), and Bruni (No. 51 Ferrari 430GT).
Fast forward to 8 hours in and the top three are Hand (No. 56 BMW), Bruni (No. 51 F430GT) and Auberlan (No. 55 BMW). The Risi Competizione No. 062 Ferrari is lying in wait and at 7:00PM, with Mika Salo turning the wheel and pressing the throttle, it pops into first, at 8 hours and thirty minutes into The 12. Hmmmmm.
Seventeen minutes later, Salo surrenders the lead when he pits (tires, fuel, driver change, with Vilander in/Salo out) and Priaulx in the No. 56 BMW takes first. When Priaulx comes in for fuel, tires and a driver change (Mueller), Risi Comp’s 062 Ferrari moves back into first. The race is now 9 hours and 36 mintues old and the brand new F458GT is leading again. Can it hold?
When Vilander pits at 9:40 into the race, Mr. Racing Luck appears at the Risi Comp pits. The car will not start and a new battery is installed, with many laps lost (as close as this race was, any lap lost is many laps lost). Mueller in the No. 56 BMW takes the lead.
Then it starts to unravel for Risi Comp. Salo gets hit with a Stop and Go penalty for speeding (Speeding? At a race? The nerve.) in Pit Lane at 10 hours, 17 minutes into The 12. More time lost at the wrong time to lose time.
Salo’s back 8 minutes later for a new battery. This is now a Real Serious Problem. Lights are required to race at high speed at night and the Risi Comp Ferrari is struggling to keep it’s electrical head above water. At 10:33, Salo, is back in the pits with another electrical issue. He gets out of the car—never a good sign on a non-scheduled stop—and jumps over the pit wall, an even worse sign. A few minutes later, Dave Sims, Risi Competizione Team Manager, gives the final word for this running of The 12: “We’ve having electrical problems which ,at this stage of the game, mean it’s too dangerous to go on. We don’t need to crash the car at this point. We don’t know what the cause of the problem is, but it cuts the main electrical source out, which means no headlights or power steering. We have tried three types of repair but it’s too dangerous to continue”
And that was that. C’est fini for this edition of The 12.
For the record, BMWs took spots 1&2 in GT and Corvettes took 3&4, but you know that already. Congrats to the drivers and teams. Well done.
Unrealistic expectations would have wanted a podium to be delivered on the first outing of the new 458GT but it was just not to be.
Here’s what we learned: it’s going to be a great car but it’s a new car. It can compete against and lead the big factory teams but development time is necessary. That means lots of testing and constant upgrades.
New car, first race, great start.
But no Red Auerbach victory cigar.

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