All Aston Martin Racing runners feel the pain of Sebring

Saturday, March 16, 2019

We predicted an epic battle within the two GTE classes of the World Endurance Championship as its first race of 2019 kicked off yesterday around the iconic but thoroughly demanding Sebring Raceway in Florida.

Not having raced together for over four months, the eight hours or 1000miles of Sebring was always going to offer both the teams and the fans something different on their American leg of this transitional Super-Season beyond what the Champions previous race venue in Texas could ever offer - and we certainly weren't disappointed by the spectacle of what was to be produced on track.

Problems in Qualifying left both factory entered GTE Pro cars at the back of their class with the #97 of Maxime Martin and Lynn suffering technical issues that would see them having to take the start from behind most of the GTE Am cars down in P31. The sister #95 car of Marco Sorensen, Nicki Thiim and the returning third driver placement of Darren Turner fared slightly better in P23 to be just ahead of the GTE Am cars such is the closeness of racing these days between the two classes. The two AMR GTE-Am cars of Paul Dalla-Lana, Mathias Lauda and Pedro Lamy (#98) would start from P26 and directly ahead of the #90 TF Sport entry of Salih Yoluc, Charlie Eastwood and Jonny Adam in P28 but over two hundred laps waited ahead of the thirty one car grid and anything was about to happen - even a NASA rocket launch to boot!!

High track temperatures at the start of the race would mean that cars needed to manage their tyre stock around the bumpy concrete/tarmac constructed track of the former wartime military airbase with an early expectation of some rain thrown in just to confuse! Both GTE Pro cars with Lynn and Thiim at the wheels soon set about counting off the cars ahead to be running line astern to one another by the end of the first hour and whilst a charging Lauda in the #98 soon took the Am class lead from the Project 1 Porsche. Cycling through the early pit stops Thiim found himself leading the Pro class at one point before cars levelled back out for them to be running 8th and 9th in class as each marque took their turn at the front.

Both AMR and TF Sport elected to run their Gentleman drivers for longer periods in the dry and light of the afternoon but the abilities of both Dalla Lana and Yoluc were no match for aspiring young drivers in the Porsche development programme who appeared to be running away with things in the opening stages.

Rain was being predicted to hit parts of the circuit by about the two hour mark but attentions soon turned to a more fluid race strategy approach as an LMP1 car crashed out into the tyre wall at T1 to bring about the first Full Course Yellow of the race and when that progressed to a Safety Car prior to the restart, at least all early track advantages from those cars ahead of the four AMR's in each class were annulled.

Soon after the race went back to green the two Pro cars had elevated themselves up to P5 and P6 in class whilst the #98 had dropped to P4 but the #90 had stayed constant at P6. Things were looking certainly steady if not promising at this stage.

With the GTE Am Class Championship leader Porsche of Project 1 suffering a car destroying fire in last weekends private test, it was important for both the #98 and #90 cars to run well in Sebring in order to mitigate the differences in points between them to the Porsche and when the #56 Porsche was spun into the tyre wall at T1 by the chasing Spirit of Race Ferrari, again all looked slightly better for the AMR cars but for the fact the #56 car would not lie down and give into adversity again - certainly not without another fight.

Incredibly, the #56 drove away without any obvious damage and a subsequent FCY for debris on track allowed them to recompose themselves, and as the Spirit of Race Ferrari served its drive through penalty for that contact that at least allowed the #98 to return to the top of the Am class!

As the race approached its half way point and the ambient light was really starting to fall, the situation of track for the Aston Martin runners was looking quite good. The new iteration Vantage GTE has shown more than once that it could hold onto and then pass any of its rival entries as Thiim moved back up to P2 and Lynn up to P6 whilst in Am, Dalla Lana was heading that class and Eastwood and the TF Sport guys, who couldn't really get their V8 to match the performance of the #98 were at least consistent.

The trouble for our Aston Martin teams was that by the time the race clock passed the four hours complete and the day had turned into full night was where things started to go a little wrong for them - not necessarily at fault of their own but enough to upset what had been until then a reliable pendulum of performance.

In his first race back in the #95 Dane Train car since Le Mans last year, Turner looked to be enjoying himself back out on track in the WEC, building on the platforms that co drivers Sorensen and Thiim had handed over to him to be running in P3. With the #92 factory Porsche behind, their over exuberance to challenge Turner for position lead to heavy rear quarter contact going into T10 that spun Turner off the track but fortunately not into the barrier. Although initially fortunate to be able to drive away from the scene (having already lost three positions on track) further salt would be added to their wounds when repairs would be needed at their next planned stop which effectively dropped them out of contention. A Stop and Go penalty for the #92 seemed a weak punishment for an act that effectively ended the #95 AMR cars challenge.

The #97 car was then blighted by a door illumination panel issue that forced them to pit before Lauda suffered a puncture out on track that lead to debris winding itself around the driveshaft for their car loosing them time in the pits and sending them down to the last of the runners.

With the three factory supported cars now effectively out of contention, all still running at a decent pace but not consistently enough to make amends for their earlier woes, it was down to the TF Sport guys to produce the goods on track. AMR driver Jonny Adam didn't step into the #90 car until it was dark and at post stint interview the extent of his efforts within the car were obvious for all to see.

As the trackside fireworks lit up the circuit at a point in time when most WEC rounds would be coming to an end (at the six hour mark) there was still plenty of racing left to do. With the Gulf Porsche of Ben Barker is hot pursuit, the #90 car held its P4 position for lap after lap to the Porsches and Ferrari ahead until just half an hour remained.

Out of sight to the cameras, a rare mistake from Adam apparently saw his car spin off the circuit to hit something hard which in turn split the car's rear defuser. Battling on as he would, the teams hand was forced by Race Control instructing the car to pit with a black and orange flag for a new defuser and tyres (wets) with little more than 26 minutes remaining.

Also at this point came more rain - proper rain this time which saw all cars having to pit for wets as the concrete race track became an ice rink. Unfortunately for TF Sport, that didn't give them enough time for them to benefit from the heavily cut tyres over those who elected to stay out a few more laps just in case the rain stopped and it all later became irrelevant as an LMP2 car planted themselves into the tyre wall with just 12minutes remaining.

The race would finish behind the Safety Car.

For what started to be another 'challenging' weekend for the four AMR cars turned into something very entertaining and enthralling to watch as each car took their races to the opposition under wholly differing strategy calls. With no changes in BoP for anybody since Shanghai, that at least allowed all the GTE cars to race their own races to create the spectacle that is the WEC - unfortunately for us, prior accident and incident for our two GTE Pro and two GTE Am cars lost each of them time on track from which they could never recover with the #97 and #95 finishing P9 and P10 and the #90 and #98 finishing P6 and P8 all respectively in classes.

Worse for the Am class Championship was that the Project 1 Porsche phoenix again rose from the ashes of last week to finish P3 in class and, what with the additional points available for finishing at Sebring, extend their lead over the chasing pack with the two AMR cars also each losing a position in the table to the Spirit of Race Ferrari and with the points penalised Dempsey Proton Porsches back in hot pursuit just behind them - but we suppose that that is just motor racing!!

Next race is at Spa Francorchamps in May.

Photo credits - AMR / TF Sport

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