Sebring is one of the crown jewels on the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge schedule. It’s a racetrack with incredible history and is known for being brutal on cars and drivers. It’s a place that can leave you scratching your head and dejected after showing strong only to have a mechanical failure or on-track incident. It’s a place where everyone wants to win – to be able to count it as one of their “important” accomplishments.
After starting off the season with a podium in Daytona, Matt Bell and I came into this event with a lot of confidence. We had a solid two-day test a few weeks before the race with our Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R and felt good about our setup and the changes we were going to try. Our engineer, Chris “Crumpets” Mander, had a plan of attack, and we were ready to go.
This is a tricky place to understand due to the constant change in conditions throughout the day. The track can be as much as two seconds faster in the morning, so it’s very important to understand the grip levels. Knowing it would be hot and greasy for the race, we focused most of our time on old-tire runs.
There is a fine line in setting up for old tires as you can “trick” yourself into focusing too much time on the setup at that point. This can sometimes lead to massive understeer (or oversteer) when you slap on new tires. Saying that, we felt good about our Camaro Z/28.R heading into the first official practice. We ended up leading both practice sessions and “Crumpets” had our hotrod working very well on new and old tires.
Matt put together a mega lap in qualifying to take P1; our teammate Andrew Davis (who drives with Robin Liddell) was a close P2. That’s a big confidence booster for the team when you can lock out the front row.
An old engineer once said to me, “If you can’t go sixth gear flat out around the entire track, then no matter how good the car is you need to continue to work on it.” Those words always resonate in my mind even when I have a fast car. You can never think you’ve done enough; there are always things to learn and try. That’s the beauty of racecar engineering; we continued to make small adjustments heading into the race and were ready for battle.
After leading the field to the green flag, Matt got a great start and kept the lead for the first stint. We decided to pit during a caution about 35 minutes in, so that meant he would be doing a double-stint as the drive time requirement is 45 minutes per driver. He continued to lead during his second stint and had a good cushion over our teammates in P2. Things were looking pretty good.
Our teammates had an issue with their cool suit, so the team decided that getting the No. 6 Camaro into the pits as soon as possible for the second stop and driver change would alleviate any concern for Andrew. Bringing them in a lap earlier than us, unfortunately for Matt and me, proved to be the difference. The new Continental Tires can give you an immediate gain in grip and the ability to pick up some time.
As Robin exited the pits, he had an advantage and the ability to make up some ground. A lap later, Matt came into the pits and after the driver change we were in a race against time to get back on track. As I exited the pits, I could see Robin heading into Turn One. That was the race. We ended up sliding in right behind him and had a good run to the end to finish second.
As you can imagine, Matt, “Crumpets” and I were a bit disappointed. However, you can’t be too unhappy about a podium! The bigger picture was a 1-2 finish for the Stevenson Motorsports team and important manufacturer points for Chevrolet. That, is a huge accomplishment and something that teams and manufacturers dream of on any given race weekend. We were proud to finish on the podium and give the team their first 1-2 finish in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.
To be able to start the year with four podium finishes between two cars shows all the hard work and dedication of the team. Hats off to the guys…they deserved this one!
On to Laguna Seca!