While heading in with a new car, a gentleman driver who’s new to prototype racing and with mostly all-new crew, many people wouldn’t put odds on DragonSpeed being among the favorites for top honors in this weekend’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.
But with many of the key ingredients in place, and a history of upset victories in the Florida endurance classic, team boss Elton Julian believes they may just have what it takes to deliver what could be the underdog story of the year.
The South Florida-based team, which has successfully campaigned GT3 machinery over the last three years, switches focus to prototype racing for 2016, with a full-season campaign in the European Le Mans Series with an Oreca 05 Nissan.
But before the green flies at Silverstone next month, the team is on home soil this weekend, giving the French prototype its IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship debut.
It’s with what Julian calls a very restructured team, following seasons in Pirelli World Challenge and its Blancpain GT Series debut last year.
“I think there’s only one or two guys carrying over from our GT3 campaign,” Julian told Sportscar365. “It’s very much a prototype-driven group.”
Longtime DragonSpeed driver Henrik Hedman is the driving force behind its new prototype program, with the Florida-bases Swede being joined for the full season by ex-Toyota LMP1 factory driver Nicolas Lapierre.
Fellow Frenchman Nic Minassian — a longtime friend of Julian’s — completes the lineup for Sebring, in what’s arguably one of the strongest P2 driving squads in this year’s race.
Julian has also brought in some new talent on the crew side, with Steve Noakes, his former lead mechanic in F3 who went on to success in Formula One, serving as crew chief and Leon Gutfreund being promoted to lead engineer.
“I understood right away when I took this on what I needed to do,” Julian said.
“I know what the teams in the WEC are doing; I know what the team that just won the [ELMS] championship is like. The last team I drove for was Greaves [Motorsport].
“There’s more margin with a GT3 car that there will ever be with a prototype. A prototype will expose you as a team.
“Whatever mistake, the car doesn’t budge. So you have to a good job and a more precise job.”
The team took delivery of the car in November and has completed a total of seven test days since, including runs at Paul Ricard, Circuit of The Americas and Sebring.
It was at last month’s IMSA-sanctioned test at Sebring where Lapierre surprised many by putting the Evel Knievel-inspired liveried car second overall on the time sheets, ahead of many of IMSA’s most seasoned veteran prototype teams.
“It’s been a case of getting the car dialed in on Contis [for IMSA], learning the car on Dunlops [for ELMS] and then of course getting Henrik up to speed was a huge task,” Julian said.
“It’s been a very nice progression that all three things have come along at the same rate and it culminated at Sebring with a very, very good test.”
Julian had planned to contest the Sebring race from the program’s onset, largely to give the Bronze-rated Hedman valuable prototype race experience prior to the start of the ELMS season.
However, as the team’s performance has increased, so has their expectations.
“It’s massive,” Julian said. “It means the difference in taking Henrik to Silverstone, never having done it, to taking Henrik to Silverstone having just done one of the biggest ones.
“The way we begin our ELMS campaign is a completely different program because of it. It accelerates our expectations of the team, of Henrik, who has raised his own bar.
“Expectations have gone up a lot. It’s not always a good thing but I think we earned it within ourselves.”
While a recent Balance of Performance adjustment has forced DragonSpeed’s Nissan powerplant to utilize ELMS/WEC power levels, Julian is still optimistic about their chances on Saturday.
“We basically have a race of two halves: We want to get through the first half and cycle Henrik [through],” he said.
“If he gets out and has a clean run, now I’m looking at the possibility of challenging for a win from there to the end.”
And five years on from ORECA’s upset victory at Sebring with its Peugeot 908, which Lapierre was also a part of, could DragonSpeed be the next fairytale story?
“We’re at the foot of our biggest break as far as achieving our biggest result,” Julian said.
“If people weren’t sandbagging [at the Sebring test], then we have a chance and I find myself with my very young team full of very experienced people with a chance to challenge for what I believe to be the number one endurance race in America and only number two to Le Mans.
“There’s a few times in my lifetime that once upon a time an underdog team won it overall.
“You arrive with a P2 program. We know we’re not a factory Chevy DP but guess what… kudos to IMSA because we kind of feel like we have a chance.
“There is a bit of a positive note because it is a big event, here I come with my P2 car and I feel like we have a chance to win it.”