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Sebring 2014 may take some getting used to with new changes

Mar 10, 2014, 10:06 AM EDT

2014 Rolex 24 At Daytona Getty Images

This weekend marks three major international motorsport events. Formula One kicks off its 2014 campaign with the Australian Grand Prix; NASCAR gets its first short-track racing on at Bristol Motor Speedway.

And in the former airfield of Sebring, Florida, the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship will run its second race of its 2014 season, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

This one’s going to be a weird one, because it will mark the first “former American Le Mans Series” race in the merged championship. Daytona was all well and good overall, but it was a past GRAND-AM affair, and what was good in the past was taken and amplified by the ALMS additions.

Sebring may well be the opposite. Gone, for the first time in 15 years, are the majestic marvels of technology – the LMP1 cars.

Although the full-season LMP1 grid in North America was less than subscribed over the last four to five years of the ALMS run, Sebring always featured a full LMP1 grid count.

Audi and Peugeot waged some epic bouts over a five-year span; the relative underdog Acura and Rebellion teams could always pull a surprise; and the Muscle Milk and Dyson teams had their chance to go against the world’s best, which for a handful of years included a bumper crop of extras from Europe (either of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup or FIA World Endurance Championship).

There was fan footage captured of the new-for-2014 LMP1-H prototypes from Audi and Porsche testing at Sebring last week. Yet for the first time in 15 years, the German manufacturers won’t be sticking around a couple weeks later to grind it out on the notoriously punishing circuit over 12 hours. Well, not with an LMP1 anyway; there’s plenty of representation in the GT classes.

That’s going to be something we’ll miss.

There’s also the lack of official practice for the TUDOR Championship until Thursday, although some teams have participated in private tests over the weekend. In recent years, ALMS on-track activity ran from Monday through Wednesday before official festivities kicked off Thursday. Now, not.

What Sebring does have going for it this year is a back to almost full field, with 66 cars projected to race on Saturday. The 2009, 2010 and 2013 editions of the race were down years, owing to the lack of a secondary major championship to produce a full field. But the 2011 and 2012 races, with an ILMC, then WEC presence, were something to behold.

The 2011 race saw the Hughes de Chaunac-led ORECA Peugeot team score the overall upset, ahead of Highcroft Racing in a one-off start of an HPD ARX-01e (the only time a new-for-2011 HPD LMP1 car raced). In 2012, a colossal scrap between Joey Hand’s BMW and Olivier Beretta’s Ferrari ended in favor of the American for top GT honors.

The potential for a surprise overall winner does exist, which is something that has, as mentioned above, only happened a couple of times in the past. The ORECA Peugeot’s 2011 triumph and the Penske LMP2 class Porsche RS Spyder overall win in 2008 were the only non-factory Audi or factory Peugeot wins at Sebring since 2000.

Live TV coverage is limited to just the first three hours, although the balance will be live streamed on IMSA.com. A mixed bag for sure, considering the race’s prestige, history and place within the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup.

But for the first time in nearly 20 years, Sebring will follow Daytona on the same schedule, and that just feels right.

In total, really, this year’s Sebring will be a radical departure from recent years past, but should offer much of the same good action we’ve been accustomed to in years past.

Just with different cars fighting for the overall win, and a different way of watching if you’re not at the track.

  1. convincedofthehex - Mar 10, 2014 at 11:09 AM

    I’ve been to every Sebring race but one in the last 18 years. I’m just not feeling it this year. I went to Daytona and it was a good time, but not having the LMP1s bombing around the track at Sebring is going to be a huge let down. If I go, it’s going to be a spur of the moment thing, but that race deserves the best prototypes in the world.

  2. testover6370 - Mar 10, 2014 at 1:01 PM

    There’s really no good option for having P1s at Sebring for the time being. If the ALMS was still around, I can’t imagine there would be much more than the Dyson and Pickett cars. Maybe Rebellion, but otherwise the interest for one-offs from the WEC just seemed to fall off, and no one else runs P1s. If it was a WEC event, you would have a field half the size of what it is now, and no Corvette or Viper unless they opened it to non-full season entries, but the WEC seems pretty set on sticking to the same full-season entries and 6 hour formats for all events outside of Le Mans. Doing a dual event with WEC and ALMS running simultaneously but technically separate races was just way too confusing and led to some really unfortunate instances of people messing up races they didn’t have a stake in.

    For me, the real litmus test is going to be what happens with the officiating. If we see more safety-car periods than green flag racing, another scripted, contrived Green-white-wrecker finish, or bogus penalty just for the sake of adding “drama” to appeal to NASCAR fans, like what we had for Daytona, I’m going to lose a lot of interest in this series. Sebring is IMSA’s chance to show they haven’t ruined sports car racing in America.

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