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TAYLOR: Sebring’s Test on Man and Machine

Ricky Taylor files his latest Sportscar365 column following the Twelve Hours of Sebring…

Photo: Jake Galstad/IMSA

The Twelve Hours of Sebring is one of the most iconic and unique events in the world. It is without a doubt the most grueling event on the drivers and teams, but mostly on the cars.

It’s no surprise that Sebring is used as the test track for all of the top teams not only in America but also from around the world.

That’s why Acura Team Penske chose Sebring as the place to do the heaviest portion of the testing program, we did around 10-15 days of testing there over the past five months!

So, if there was ever a team that was fully prepared to tackle this event on the first try, it was us.

The team had a very-structured test plan leading up to qualifying and the race.

Even with all of the testing we had done, the engineering group had still found quite a few areas to explore and test through practice.

We had faced nearly every track condition known to man throughout our testing program, but the one thing that is most unique about Sebring is the infinite number of different track conditions you can face.

We showed up with the best starting setup we felt for the conditions and for some reason the track just felt very greasy and slippery.

We hadn’t really seen that throughout testing, so we continued to fine tune the car to the track through practice trying to anticipate where the track would go during qualifying and the different times in the race so we could give ourselves a race winning car when it was time to really push in the last six hours.

Qualifying came and we had led every session up until that point so the pressure was on.

We were anticipating a strong session. The only question, as always, is that we don’t know what everyone else’s plan was and if everyone was showing all of their speed in practice.

When the session started it was a game of finding a gap and getting your lap in the first three timed laps while the tires were at their peak.

On my first attempt, I knew we’d only get a few opportunities so I was trying to make the most of it. I got to Turn 10 right on our fastest lap of the weekend and when I tried to brake very late, I lost the rear of the car and spun.

Fortunately, it was a quick spin and the tires didn’t get too damaged, so we were able to continue on and post a solid time on the following lap before the tires really dropped off.

It was good enough for third on the grid. I was a bit disappointed with my mistake but still very optimistic that we had a solid car for the race.

Race day came and the name of the game was “make it to the night.”

My teammates Helio Castroneves and Graham Rahal were super excited about race day and we all had that feeling that we had a shot at the win.

All of the preparation by the team through the offseason and the amount of pace we showed through practice meant it was only down to execution and not making mistakes.

Once the race started, the pace was very aggressive and people were taking a ton of risks, especially the 90 car. So we all kept reminding each other to stay clear of the 90.

During the first pit stop of the race the Penske pit crew showed what they can do as our boys got us into the lead and really set the tone for the race, that’s always a great morale and momentum booster.

We maintained our position in the top two for the majority of the first few hours. Graham and Helio each had their share of the lead with solid stints and not putting a wheel wrong anywhere on the rough track. Everything was going to plan.

During these first few hours the car was really a handful to drive in the greasy track conditions but we knew that once night fell, we had some good tools to give us the balance we needed to go race for the win.

After 2.5 stints from Helio to round out the first rotation of drivers, it was time to get into the second half of the race and start working back to the front to position ourselves for the finish.

During that next stint our car was starting to feel better and better but while running second after our next restart we had an oil pressure alarm on the dash followed by a sudden loss of power. Unfortunately we had to retire the car.

That perfectly sums up how racing is an accumulation of preparation, development and hard world over a very long period of time, but as long as it takes to build that momentum and anticipation it can all be gone in a matter of seconds.

Then it’s about switching your mind off of that event and looking forward to how you can win the next one.

So far, I have been having the time of my life at Acura Team Penske. The team is so inspiring to drive for.

Everyone pushes each other and works together to be better. That has been the power of Penske for me, the teamwork, not only all six drivers, but every team member sharing every bit of information they have to help the next guy be better.

Following the cars’ retirement, the team got together for a post-event debrief as they do every time. And instead of everybody talking about what could’ve been, the debrief was over an hour of feedback from every aspect of the event about working towards winning next year’s 12 hour.

Long Beach is up next.

Ricky Taylor (@RickyTaylorRace) is the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype champion, driving for Acura Team Penske.

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