By Mark Robinson
What a way to go out!
The Porsche GT Team closed its successful GT Le Mans (GTLM) program with an unexpected 1-2 finish Saturday at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts, wrapping up the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season with three straight class victories.
The No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR-19 driven by Nick Tandy, Fred Makowiecki and Earl Bamber crossed the finish line 9.025 seconds ahead of its No. 912 stablemate piloted by Bamber, Laurens Vanthoor and Neel Jani. It was the first 1-2 finish for the team since the cars finished in the same order last year at VIRginia International Raceway and was the third consecutive Twelve Hours of Sebring triumph for Tandy and Makowiecki.
“To finish this season with three wins in a row in the last three races is pretty unbelievable,” Tandy said. “It goes to show that all the people that have been here over the last three races have put in an unbelievable effort. To win three in a row and to win this one at Sebring with a 1-2, it‘s like a fairytale ending.”
Tandy, Makowiecki and Matt Campbell kicked off the three-race winning streak to end the season last month in the Motul Petit Le Mans. Bamber and Vanthoor put the No. 912 in victory lane two weeks ago in the Hyundai Monterey Sports Car Championship at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
The storybook ending for Porsche‘s GTLM program that began in 2014 didn‘t look like it had much chance of happening until less than 18 minutes remained in the race. The No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW M8 GTE appeared in control until an incident on the final race restart collected Connor De Phillippi in the No. 25 and GT Daytona (GTD) class leader Jeff Westphal in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3.
The two Porsches avoided the incident precipitated when Lawson Aschenbach‘s No. 74 Riley Motorsport Mercedes-AMG GT3 ran into the back of the No. 25, which was then turned into the No. 63.
“We were trying to chase down the No. 25 and we probably didn‘t have the pace on them on a long run,” Tandy admitted, “but we were obviously trying to keep pressure on them. … I watched when he (De Phillippi) went off into the grass, went up the inside and said, ‘Ooh, we‘re in the lead!‘ It was good for us. We were happy with it.”
Bamber said he couldn‘t think of a better way to earn his first Twelve Hours of Sebring win and sent out the Porsche GTLM project on the highest of notes.
“It‘s awesome to finally get that first win at Sebring; been trying quite a few times,” he said. “I think it‘s a super fitting way to finish the program. The last race is always what you‘re remembered by and a 1-2 is the perfect way to go out for this program.”
Corvette Racing had a rare off day, its cars finishing fifth and sixth in class after both dealt with rear suspension issues necessitating lengthy repairs in the paddock. It couldn‘t spoil the fact that No. 3 Corvette C8.R drivers Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor had already clinched the GTLM driver and team championships. And by starting the race, Chevrolet sewed up the manufacturer crown as well.
The No. 24 BMW team and drivers clinched the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup that awards points at different segments of each series endurance race. The No. 24 totaled 50 Michelin Endurance Cup points to 43 for the No. 911. BMW also won the Michelin Endurance Cup manufacturer‘s title.
No. 16 Wright Motorsports Porsche Wins GTD Race, No. 86 Meyer Shank Acura Nets Championship
It took the entire 2020 season to get a victory, and it may have been a bit of a gift, but the No. 16 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3R drivers and crew eagerly accepted their GT Daytona (GTD) spoils of victory in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts.
Meanwhile, the No. 86 Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian Acura NSX GT3 drivers played the patient game and brought home the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GTD team and driver championships for the second straight year.
The No. 16 was the beneficiary on the final restart when the cars that were running 1-2 in GTD — the No. 63 Ferrari and No. 74 Riley Mercedes-AMG — were involved in the three-car incident in Turn 3. It opened the path for Patrick Long to zoom into the lead in the No. 16 and drive on to his fourth Twelve Hours of Sebring victory and the first WeatherTech Championship win of any kind for co-drivers Ryan Hardwick and Jan Heylen.
“I never thought my first win would come here,” Hardwick said. “I just feel really fortunate to be in this position and with this team. We knew we had to win this race to have any shot at the championship and that‘s all we talked about these last few weeks. This one is special for me.”
The No. 16 drivers battled a malfunctioning left rear shock most of the race that hindered its handling. But when it counted most on the final restart, Long maneuvered past the crash ahead and held off Roman De Angelis in the No. 23 Heart of Racing Team Aston Martin Vantage GT3 by 3.27 seconds.
“It was a spectacle in itself as we came out of Turn 1,” Long said. “It seemed like Lawson and the Merc had a tremendous pace, and it seemed like he was going to go through come hell or high water. Unfortunately, he took a car with him and it opened the door for us.
“It feels like the monkey off the back to finally get a victory at the biggest race of the year, at least in my opinion.”
Despite the win, the No. 16 and Long and Hardwick finished two points shy of catching the No. 86. Needing only a fifth-place finish to clinch the GTD championship repeat, the No. 86 took third with drivers Mario Farnbacher, Matt McMurry and Shinya Michimi.
Farnbacher was also the 2019 GTD driving champion with Trent Hindman in the No. 86, while McMurry took home the 2019 title in Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) competition. In addition to repeating as the team champion, the No. 86 helped Acura secure the manufacturer crown this year as well.
“It means a lot,” Farnbacher said. “This year was just amazing sharing the car with these two amazing gentlemen and also with Jules Gounon at the Rolex 24 (in January). It was a crazy ride this year with COVID and all the compression of the race schedule. Ultimately, to end the Meyer Shank program with the NSX means a lot to finish it and thank them with the constructor title, the team title and the driver championship as well. I‘m really privileged and thankful for that.”
McMurry agreed. “It means a ton,” he said. “It was a really challenging year, a really tough field. A new car to learn how to drive but I had the best team and co-driver to do it with. I‘m really proud of the team and the co-drivers and myself to do what we did. I don‘t think a lot of people have gone from a prototype to a GTD championship and back-to-back. And it‘s been my first two full seasons of IMSA, too. All in all it‘s pretty great.”
The No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 and its trio of drivers — Bryan Sellers, Madison Snow and Corey Lewis — clinched the Michelin Endurance Cup GTD title and Lamborghini claimed its first Michelin Endurance Cup manufacturer title.