By Jeff Olson
Little more than an hour into the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts, Helio Castroneves looked at his wounded race car and tried to remain positive.
“Anything is possible,” he said.
Boy, was he right in the end. A stubborn effort by the No. 7 Acura Team Penske Acura DPi co-driven by Castroneves, Ricky Taylor and Alexander Rossi outlasted mechanical issues to finish eighth in the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class, seven laps behind the race winner but one point ahead of its closest competitor in the final IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings in the driver, team and manufacturer categories.
The runner-up in the championships — the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac DPi co-driven by Renger van der Zande, Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon — also was beset by problems and finished seventh in the race.
The race started with a penalty against van der Zande, who was summoned to serve a drive-through penalty after he was determined to have changed his lane before reaching the flagstand at the start of the race.
Van der Zande moved the No. 10 Cadillac left behind Taylor‘s pole-winning No. 7 Acura as the field approached the start. Changing lanes before reaching the start-finish line is a violation.
Penske‘s No. 7 car then encountered mechanical issues and the championship seemed out of reach. Forty minutes into the race, the left intercooler malfunctioned on the car. A 25-minute repair left the car far behind the field and in desperate need of a miracle.
“We‘re going to fight until the end,” Castroneves said while the work was underway. “Anything is possible. We‘re going to keep fighting. We‘re going to come back and keep going. It wasn‘t meant to be, but it ain‘t over. I don‘t want to lose hope right now. I know it sounds difficult. It is.”
In perhaps the most critical moment in the championship battle, a collision between Oliver Jarvis in the No. 77 Mazda Motorsports Mazda DPi and Dixon in the No. 10 Cadillac, forced Dixon to limp to the pits with a flat right rear and led to an extensive repair.
“I think there was no way he was going to make the corner,” Dixon said. “I kind of saw him coming and tried to give him enough without wrecking myself. I got off track a little bit in the hairpin and got dirty tires.”
As was the case throughout the race, unusual circumstances helped and hurt drivers. With 2 hours, 27 minutes left, Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Action Express Racing Cadillac DPi and Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 6 Acura Team Penske Acura ARX-05 DPi collided in Turn 5, taking Montoya out of the lead and moving Olivier Pla and the No. 77 Mazda closer to the front.
Pla quickly caught and passed Derani, who then was penalized for the contact with Montoya. And then, just after serving the penalty, the No. 31 also slowed on course with a problem on the right front.
The damage was extensive for the No. 31, but the No. 6 rallied back to finish second — ahead of the four Cadillacs in the race. That allowed Acura to add the manufacturer title to the team and driver championships.
After claiming a season championship for the first time in his 23-year professional career in the United States, Castroneves reflected, “In racing, anything is possible,” he said. “We started the season with no points on the board and all of a sudden we‘re battling for the championship. Unfortunately, in this situation, it was completely outside of our hands. We literally were waiting for things to happen, and they did.”
“It was destiny,” Castroneves continued. “I always say if it‘s meant to be it will be, and I‘m so glad it was our turn. You never give up. … We never gave up.”
With 27 minutes left, Jarvis‘ left-rear tire went flat on the No. 77 Mazda and sent him off course, bringing out a full-course caution. That gave the lead to their sister car, the No. 55 Mazda with Harry Tincknell behind the wheel. Tincknell retained the lead and went on to celebrate the win with co-drivers Jonathan Bomarito and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
“I said to myself, ‘This is what you dream of,‘” Tincknell said. “Twenty minutes to go, leading one of the biggest races in the world. You just have to go for it, give it everything you have. No regrets. I just pushed like crazy.”
The No. 77 shared by Pla, Jarvis and Tristan Nunez finished third in the race.
While all that was happening during the course of 12 hours and 348 laps around Sebring‘s famed 17-turn, 3.74-mile circuit, the No. 52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA LMP2 co-driven by Patrick Kelly, Simon Trummer and Scott Huffaker claimed the race win in the Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) class after already claiming the team and driver championships Nov. 1 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
The most important element to the team‘s success? Its drivers get along.
“We all have fun together,” Kelly said. “We all enjoy each other‘s company. We all have relatively similar driving styles. We all kind of agree on the setup, which I think is always really nice. The really wonderful thing is we win or lose as friends and as a team. We don‘t look at each other like, ‘I wish you had done this,‘ or ‘I wish you had done that.‘”