The Sebring 12 Hours might be the most gruelling sports car race of all. We asked Mazda’s team-mates how to prevail.
he Le Mans 24 Hours is twice the length and many times more famous, but there’s a strong case to be made that the Sebring 12 Hours is the toughest endurance sports car race in the world. To find out why, Autocar spoke to a pair of drivers and an engineer, all of whom have won the epic race in Florida, which takes place for the 69th time on Saturday as a key round of the IMSA sports car series. Sebring is one of the ‘big three’ annual endurance events, alongside Le Mans and the Daytona 24 Hours, and for those who have raced there, once around the clock is more than enough given the race’s reputation as an intensely fought car breaker.
Last November, Harry Tincknell scored his first Sebring victory in a race delayed from its traditional March slot because of the pandemic, driving Multimatic’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-powered Mazda RT24-P DPi racer. This year, Mazda downscaled to a single entry in IMSA, then announced its withdrawal from the series at the end of this season. Tincknell now shares the #55 car with fellow Brit Oliver Jarvis, plus American Jonathan Bomarito, while on the pit stand, Leena Gade calls the shots as engineer. Both Jarvis and Gade are veterans of Audi’s ultra-successful LMP1 endurance racing programme and won the Sebring 12 Hours together in 2013. Gade also has three Le Mans victories to her name and, together with Tincknell, Jarvis and the whole Multimatic crew, is determined that Mazda will leave Florida this week with a second straight win in its farewell season.
What does the Sebring 12 Hours mean to you?
Leena Gade: “It’s one of the hardest. My first was in 2008 with Audi Sport, and we stopped halfway through to change brakes, which was a wake-up call. I’ve only won it once, in 2013, when Olly was in the car. Our race became difficult early on because of car damage. At the end, it looked like a shark had eaten the front of the floor…”
Oliver Jarvis: “Some of the biggest highs and lows of my career have been at Sebring. In 2013, I joined Marcel [Fässler] and Benoît [Tréluyer], but I wasn’t their regular team-mate at the time. Audi wanted to give me more experience, so they threw me in at the deep end. I hadn’t driven the hybrid car before and I had almost zero experience of Sebring. I have to say I went in under-prepared and was struggling halfway through. Then Marcel, through Leena, came on the radio and said: ‘Just tell him to get on the power and use the hybrid to turn the car.’ I was struggling with understeer, and it was like a switch for me. From one lap to the next, I was a second a lap quicker. We went on to win and, as Leena mentioned, one of our team-mates hit a kerb on an in-lap and took out the floor. For about 10 hours, the car was hanging on in there. But we won.
“I couldn’t wait to win it a few more times… Last year was the most difficult one to lose. We were leading with 28 minutes to go with a 20-second lead. But nothing is won until you cross the finish line.” [His #77 car picked up a puncture, leaving Tincknell’s #55 entry to win.]
What’s special about this 3.6-mile circuit?
OJ “The track and the race itself is, for me, everything that motorsport is about. It pushes the car and the driver to the absolute limit. It’s only 12 hours but physically and mentally what you go through at Sebring is comparable to 24 at any other track.”
Harry, what did it mean to win last year?
Harry Tincknell: “It was a great feeling, because it’s a major race. We were back there for a test at the start of this year, and to see your name up on the board as a winner beside the likes of Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio is incredible.
“And so are the bumps! It’s amazing how you get used to them. When you first get there, it feels like you’re about to take off every single lap. You’re doing around 160mph on entry at Turn 1, and at the exit, when you’re still doing 140-150mph, if you hit a bump, you can land three or four metres to the right of where you were.
“The last corner, Turn 17, is another one: massively bumpy and it goes on forever, like a wall of death to the exit and with no run-off. There are about six or seven different lines depending on the type of car you are driving. It’s different every single lap, and it’s particularly scary on a qualifying lap. You come out of Turn 16 down the back straight and you see on the dash you’re up on lap time, so you’ve really got to send it into 17 to finish the lap off. As you turn and brake from 160-170mph, all you can see is the tyre wall in the distance, and you just pray the car will grip up and you won’t catch a bump.”
Leena, what do you need from a car at Sebring?
LG “It’s one of the hardest braking tracks on the calendar, and that’s critical to lap time and stint performance. If you don’t get that right, you’ll just be slow. It varies in temperature, especially once the sun goes down, and quite a bit of the race is run at night – certainly the fastest part, when everyone is sprinting to the finish. That shifts the performance and balance. Added to that are the bumps. I don’t know how they do it. Maybe they’ve had enough knocked out from up here [pointing to her head] that it doesn’t matter any more…
“Turns 1 and 17 are very aero-driven corners, and if you’re out of the required window of stability, you’re just scrubbing tyres and taking grip away from yourself. Brake locking is a big one, too. Turn 7 is quite slow, but the way the camber drops away towards the kerb means you can get severe inside-wheel locking, and that’s a big penalty if it’s not under control.”
Oliver, the infield is nicknamed The Zoo when fans are allowed in. What’s it like driving out there at night? Are you aware of that crazy crowd?
OJ “Like at the Nürburgring 24 Hours, the only time I’m aware of them is when you see the bonfires and the burning sofas and smell the barbecues! That infield section is so tight and twisty, and as a driver, you really have to be committed and fully focused, especially in traffic.”
You’ve experienced the height of LMP1 and this DPi era. How does it contrast?
OJ “In terms of cornering speed, there’s not a huge amount of difference. The lap time in the LMP1 was quicker, but the majority of that came purely from the hybrid: the acceleration out of the slow corners – for example, onto the back straight. We did a lot of fuel saving and energy management back then. We do fuel-save in the DPi too, but we’re controlling it very much ourselves by foot, whereas by the end, before Audi left [in 2016], you would stay flat and the computer would take care of everything. When I moved into LMP2 cars, I enjoyed just driving flat out again.”
So is this the toughest sports car race in the world?
OJ “It’s as tough as anywhere on the car, but being 12 hours, for a driver it’s more mentally draining to get up at 4am and switch on. In a 24-hour race, the sleep deprivation builds up. But after 12 hours of Sebring, I’m as bruised and battered as I am anywhere.”
HT “I feel like a 70-year-old man the morning after Sebring. It’s pretty brutal.”
What do you say, Leena?
LG “It’s funny that Olly mentions sleep deprivation: that’s part and parcel of any race weekend for an engineer! I actually think it’s very tough from the pit stand. The lap time is just long enough that you can think too hard about what decision you need to make, so you can easily get it wrong.
“From a strategy point of view, you can start playing the game from the very beginning, which you don’t tend to do in a 24-hour race, where you try to cruise for a certain amount of time. You can’t get away with that at Sebring. Where we sit in the pit lane as well, you’re very much entrenched in the race, because you’re so close to where the cars are going past on the straight. There’s constant noise, activity and a buzz around you. At Le Mans, it’s a much longer lap time, so you fall asleep through the lap…
“That’s World Endurance Championship rules, too. [IMSA has a ‘wave-around’ rule on safety cars that allows lapped cars to gain laps back.] You go a few laps down and you can come back from that. That’s the beauty of IMSA. You feel much more a part of the race. If you go a lap down at Le Mans now, you’re not going to get it back. I’m always completely floored by Sebring; afterwards, I just want to be left alone, because I want to get my head back into a calm place.”
There is something special about Sebring. It’s hardly changed since the 1950s, has it?
OJ “When you look at the concrete – it’s not Tarmac – the gaps and holes are amazing. There are some you could put your phone in. I love the fact it has not been sanitised by run-off. If you make a mistake at Turn 1, you’re in the wall, or at Turn 17, 10 or 13. That’s the challenge. There are very few occasions you go 100% at Turn 17, because the risk and reward doesn’t make sense. It’s one of those tracks where if you take a risk, you gain lap time at almost every corner. A driver can make a difference at Sebring.”