Two of the most certain and welcome signs of Spring are the arrival of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring race and the start of the NCAA basketball tournament.
One element common to winners in both is the ability to adjust, adapt and execute a winning strategy.
A few months after Magic Johnson led the Michigan State Spartans to the NCAA title in 1979, coach “Jud” Heathcote was introduced at a big media luncheon. Heathcote playfully shared “the secret” to MSU winning the national championship and his being named NCAA coach of the year.
“The secret to our success all comes down to five words,” said Heathcote. “Those five words were: ‘Pass the ball to Magic!’”
Many top race teams have their own mantras.
Penske Racing, overall race winners at Sebring in 2008 with the Porsche RS Spyder, has long followed Roger Penske’s “effort equals results.”
The 2015 Sebring race winners at Action Express follow Gary Nelson’s directive, “expect to win.”
With its powerful factory and factory linked teams, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GTLM class is always fiercely competitive, a point strongly reinforced by noting that BMW Team RLL (2011, 2012), Porsche GT Team (2014), Corvette Racing (2013, 2015, 2016) and Risi Competizione Ferrari (2009, 2010) have all won at Sebring in recent years.
Since the launch of the merged WeatherTech Championship in 2014, Corvette Racing’s Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia lead all GTLM driver pairs with seven wins, including Sebring in 2015.
Crew Chief Dan Binks says their plan is, “Jan and Antonio get everything the car has every time.”
Corvette Racing has an astonishing ten wins at Sebring, including GTLM honors in 2016 and 2013 for Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner, the 2016 WeatherTech Champions in GTLM take a similar approach.
Taking Some Gambles
As author David Phillips details in his book, “A Big Ask”, developing a new car from scratch does not mean waiting long for success. At Chip Ganassi Racing, the five magic words appear to be, “put our car out front.”
Having taken an overall win at Sebring in 2014 with the Ford EcoBoost-powered Riley DP, the CGR team is anxious to add to its big race success with the Ford GT supercars.
As they enter just their 14th race, the Indianapolis-based team has already claimed a big class win at Le Mans last year together with three IMSA wins, and most recently a win the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Recent comments from a trio of the Ford GT drivers reflect their confidence as the program evolves.
“It’s a major difference from last year,” said Richard Westbrook. “The biggest difference is that we now have a year under our belts. We are more confident. We have the experience and the performance to know how to make the car work. We didn’t have that at the start of last year.”
Dirk Muller, who withstood a tremendous late charge from Porsche’s Patrick Pilet to take Ford’s recent victory at Daytona said, “We keep digging. The CGR team has so many trophies in the hallway that you know that the team knows what it takes to win.”
And while having a fast car is essential, Ryan Briscoe adds: “What I think is a great indicator of the strength of the team is that we won one race, Watkins Glen, on pure performance. We were really fast there. We won Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on a fuel strategy and we won at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park on a race and tire strategy.
“The team took gambles to get the wins and it makes it extra special for the whole team when you win a race where you weren’t the fastest car.”
Flawless Performances and a Determination to Succeed
Where the big endurance races were once won on the basis of consistency and staying trouble free, the GTLM competition is now so intense that even a fast and flawless performance may not win.
“What years ago might have been a victory today [at Daytona] is now good enough for third place,” said Risi Competizione driver Toni Vilander.
The Risi team has turned in flawless performances in each of the last three major endurance races; finishing a strong second at Le Mans, winning the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta last fall and finishing third at Daytona.
“Our little team has shown it can battle against the factories with a well-prepared car, excellent crew and drivers, and the determination to succeed in endurance races,” said Giuseppe Risi, whose team has three wins at Le Mans.
Overcoming All Obstacles
Endurance races are filled with obstacles and challenges to be overcome. In a long race, often with many caution periods, the ability to fight back can be rewarded.
Porsche nearly pulled off a comeback win at Daytona thanks to that approach.
As CGR reminds its drivers and crews, “it’s all in the recovery.”