Thursday March 30th, 2023 5:17PM

Derani, Sims, Aitken win in wild Sebring 12 Hours finish

By IMSA Wire Service
  Contact Editor

The pole-sitting No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac V-Series.R won Saturday’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring at the historic Sebring International Raceway – the team’s first victory in IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class era.

But this win was hardly so straightforward.

An action-packed thrill show, the famed IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race featured intrigue and drama from the time Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Cadillac took the opening green flag to the time his teammate Jack Aitken took the closing checkered.

A dramatic three-car accident eliminated the top-three running cars with only 19 minutes remaining in the 12-hour race, but the No. 31 Cadillac was able to navigate through the wreck and go on to a 2.940-second win over Nick Yelloly in the No. 25 BMW M Team RLL BMW M Hybrid V8 following a final restart.

“Obviously it was quite tricky at the end,’’ said Aitken, who conceded he and his team – including co-drivers Derani and Alexander Sims – were essentially trying to count cars to see where they were in the race order after Aitken avoided the accident.

“There was a lot going on,’’ Aitken said smiling. “To be honest, we were struggling a lot with the tires at the end. It’s not really how you want to win the race, but we were there when we needed to be and kept it clean. It’s a great reward for the Whelen Engineering guys, they did a massive job this week. Thank you to them.’’

Victory lane at the 3.54-mile, 17-turn Sebring circuit was a mixture of joy and even surprise considering the dramatic ending. The BMW team had a rough start to the weekend – its two cars qualifying sixth and eighth in the eight-car GTP class – after a rough start to the season with finishes of sixth and ninth in the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona.

Saturday’s Sebring runner-up effort marks the first podium for all three BMW drivers this year – Yelloly, Connor De Phillippi and Sheldon van der Linde.

The race-defining accident involved the three frontrunning cars. Filipe Albuquerque in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura ARX-06 fielded by Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Autosport pulled up alongside Mathieu Jaminet in the leading No. 6 Porsche Penske Motorsport Porsche 963 hoping to overtake at Turn 3 as they came upon slower GT cars.

Instead, Albuquerque went wide to avoid the Porsche that was trying to avoid another car and the No. 10 ran off course. When Albuquerque’s Acura came back across the track, it hit Jaminet’s race-leading Porsche. They also collected the third-place No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsport Porsche 963 driven by Felipe Nasr in the melee. None of the drivers were injured, but the near miss still hurt.

“It’s kind of standard Sebring at the end of the race,” said Jaminet’s co-driver, Dane Cameron. “It gets pretty rowdy in the night, the restarts in the dark and you come up on GTs. Obviously, it’s disappointing to end this way, but I must say I’m very, very proud of Mathieu.

“He was flying and doing a fantastic job and put us in position to win. It’s unfortunate it ended the way that it did but I’m very proud of all the boys and girls on the team. It’s been very difficult and many, many, many hours preparing. It’s shame but I understand what Mathieu was doing there and it’s just unfortunate.”

For Derani, it marks a fourth Twelve Hours of Sebring victory and his 12th all-time win in the series. It was Sims’ sixth IMSA win and first at Sebring, and Aitken’s first IMSA victory.

“You have to be lucky in motorsport and we were still there at the end,” said Derani, who shared that this was his first victory as a father – his daughter born just three months ago.

Saturday’s endurance event often showed the heart and the beat of a sprint race.

Television cameras captured team owner Wayne Taylor’s face as he watched his car collected in the crash with only minutes remaining. As his team loaded the damaged car into his team trailer, Taylor was philosophic.

“All we can do is prepare for the next one,” Taylor said. “What can you do? It happens.

“This one was one of the craziest (races) I’ve seen, really,” he added. “And I’ve seen a lot.”

The No. 6 Porsche Penske was officially scored third in GTP with Taylor’s No. 10 Acura fourth and the No. 7 Porsche Penske fifth. The season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona-winning No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing with Curb Agajanian Acura was scored sixth in the GTP class. And the No. 24 BMW M Team RLL car finished eighth in GTP and 51st overall after an early retirement.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Cadillac Racing entry also suffered an early exit, having to suddenly pit from the lead – with smoke trailing from the car. Driver Sebastien Bourdais climbed out quickly and safely, and the No. 01 Cadillac was scored seventh in class.

After examining the car, Cadillac Racing issued a statement explaining the car “experienced a fuel distribution system issue,” noting it was the first time the team had encountered the problem at the track despite preseason and regular-season testing at Sebring.

“Cadillac Racing will figure out the root cause and prepare for the next race,” the statement read.

The car, which started on the outside of the front row, led a race-high 119 of the opening 240 laps and had finished on the podium – in third place – at the season-opening Rolex 24 in January.

“The guys did such a great job,” Bourdais said. “It’s heartbreaking.

“It was very competitive, obviously,” he added. “We definitely could keep up with the Acuras for sure. … We’ll just keep at it.”

The Sebring victory was enough to propel the No. 31 Cadillac into the GTP championship lead, by 10 points over the No. 10 Acura and 70 ahead of the No. 01 Cadillac. The GTP class returns to action April 14-15 at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Tower Recovers To Capture LMP2 Victory

The key to Tower Motorsports’ victory in the Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) class was patience. Twelve hours of it, to be exact.

Scott McLaughlin took the class lead under caution late in the race in the team’s No. 8 ORECA LMP2 07, then held off a fierce challenge from Mikkel Jensen during the final four minutes to win the eight-car class in a wild finish.

McLaughlin, the IndyCar Series regular and three-time Australian Supercars champion, won for the first time in just his second WeatherTech Championship race. He shared the victory with teammates John Farano (the team owner) and Kyffin Simpson.

An incident midway through the race involving Simpson sent the car to the pits for repairs, but the trio rallied to get the No. 8 back in front for the finish. The victory made up for a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Rolex 24 At Daytona.

“It’s not just me, it’s the bounce-back from the whole team,” McLaughlin said. “Daytona was a tough one, as we all know, but Kyffin drove well today, as well as John. They really put us on the right path.”

Simpson’s spin happened in turn 1, but the crew was able to quickly repair the damage and get the Tower car back on pace without losing a lap.

“Pushed a little too hard there and got crossed up at T1,” Simpson tweeted after the incident. “Thankfully the damage was just cosmetic and the team did an incredible job fixing the car up. We literally lost a few seconds and 1 place. Insane.”

McLaughlin, who won three IndyCar races last season for Team Penske, joked with Simpson in victory lane.

“Our guys got the car back together after our little guy’s misdemeanor,” McLaughlin said. “We’ll let him off the hook now.”

McLaughlin had the lead on a restart with 32 minutes left, initially holding off a challenge from Paul-Loup Chatin in the No. 52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA he shared with Ben Keating and Alex Quinn. On the final restart with four minutes remaining, though, McLaughlin faced a different challenger – Jensen in the No. 11 TDS Racing ORECA that he co-drive with Scott Huffaker and Steven Thomas.

McLaughlin crossed the line in third place overall in the 53-car field, 0.834 seconds ahead of Jensen.

“I’m really proud of everyone on the team,” McLaughlin said. “The strategy at the end was just incredible. Glad I could hold them off for them.”

Fraga Pushes No. 74 Riley Ligier To LMP3 Triumph

It was an earlier chaotic scene – and the luck of the bounce – that determined the outcome of the Le Mans Prototype 3 (LMP3) class, which saw the No. 74 Riley Ligier JS P320 trio of Gar Robinson, Josh Burdon and Felipe Fraga take the victory.

The No. 30 Jr III Racing Ligier built nearly a full-lap lead on the LMP3 field entering the final two hours, but a full-course caution allowed Fraga in the No. 74 to close up behind Garett Grist, the finishing driver of the No. 30, for a restart with 78 minutes to go. Encouraged by new tires put on the No. 74 during a pit stop under the yellow, the Brazilian made the pass for the lead on the first lap following the restart, then dodged a tire that came loose from the No. 51 Rick Ware Racing ORECA LMP2 07.

“The team made a good call before that restart,” Fraga said. “We decided to come in and put stickers on and not scrubs. I was like going crazy on the restart to try and win, you have like one chance. I tried to pass Garett and it worked out with the new tires.”

“Then we got so lucky as well. There was a wheel bouncing in turn 1 (off the No. 51). The wheel was coming straight to me. It was unbelievable, and the wheel just bounced in front of me and hit him. I’m so sorry for Garett but very happy for us.”

Grist wasn’t as lucky. The tire smashed the left front of the Jr III Ligier, eliminating it from the race and allowing Fraga to cruise home a lap ahead of Matthew Bell in the No. 13 AWA Duqueine D08. Tijmen van der Helm brought the No. 85 JDC Miller MotorSports Duqueine home in third.

It marked the 10th WeatherTech Championship LMP3 victory for Robinson, the eighth for Fraga and second for Burdon. It is the first Twelve Hours of Sebring win for all three, though Robinson and Fraga have shared wins at the other three IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup events.

“This is one of the most taxing races in the world and anything can happen here,” Robinson said. “We definitely had to make sure we were in position if someone else had a failure or a problem or a mistake, that we were able to capitalize on it. Fortunately for us, that happened.”

Since Sebring is the first points-paying race of 2023 for the LMP3 class, the No. 74 leads with 380 points, followed by the No. 13 AWA Duqueine with 344.

Pfaff Porsche, Paul Miller BMW Good To The Last Drop En Route To Sebring Wins

As has so often been the case over its 70 prior editions, the 2023 Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring came down to a risk/reward scenario for the leaders in the Grand Touring classes of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. A series of full-course cautions in the final hour of Saturday’s grueling endurance contest made fuel strategy the critical factor.

Patrick Pilet and Pfaff Motorsports timed it to perfection, completing a remarkable comeback for the distinctive plaid No. 9 Porsche 911 GT3 R (992) after a crash by Klaus Bachler in qualifying the day before required 11 hours to repair and forced the team to start deep in the field.

Pilet ran the last 41 laps of the race without stopping for fuel and tires – a duration of one hour, 52 minutes – to lead the GTD PRO field through the final 19 laps after darkness fell upon Sebring International Raceway. He finished 2.706 seconds ahead of Jack Hawksworth (with co-drivers Ben Barnicoat and Kyle Kirkwood) in the No. 14 Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 at the checkered flag, with the No. 79 WeatherTech Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 shared by Rolex 24 At Daytona winners Daniel Juncadella, Jules Gounon and Maro Engel 4.326 seconds back in third.

“Just amazing, this group of people on the team that worked until 1 a.m. to repair the after qualifying yesterday,” said Pilet, who claimed his third win at Sebring and 14th in IMSA competition. “Then they rocked so much in the race, with the strategy and all the pit stops. Sometimes you get bad luck with the yellows, but we never gave up and we stayed focused. They call me the fuel-saving expert; that can be a big advantage and today it paid off.”

There were four full-course cautions in the final two hours, most significantly when the overall leaders of the race – three Grand Touring Prototypes (two Porsche and one Acura) – crashed in turn 3 with 19 minutes remaining. That gave the Pfaff Porsche the fuel cushion it needed to make it to the checkered flag.

“Sebring is always madness the last two hours,” said Laurens Vanthoor, Pfaff’s IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup driver and a two-time winner at Sebring. “I remember my first time here, I was shocked. We really needed those yellows. We were on a different strategy. We needed one more yellow to be safe on fuel, and unfortunately our Porsche colleagues were involved. But that gave us the upper hand on strategy.”

The GT Daytona (GTD) class was also resolved by a gamble on late yellows to stretch fuel mileage. Madison Snow’s 40-lap final stint in the No. 1 Paul Miller Racing BMW M4 GT3 secured the victory for himself and co-drivers Bryan Sellers and Corey Lewis.

As in GTD PRO, track position was king as no one was able to mount a charge on Snow in the limited number of green-flag laps down the stretch. Robby Foley came closest, as he completed a 1-2 finish for BMW in the No. 96 Turner Motorsport M4 GT3 with co-drivers Patrick Gallagher and Michael Dinan.

Snow was humble in victory, deflecting credit to the engineers making mileage calculations on the pit stand after his 10th IMSA race win. It was the second Sebring victory for all three drivers.

“In the car they don’t really tell you a whole lot,” he said. “You’re doing what they tell you, and you hope they’re telling you right. So, I’d say it was the team and the drivers for 10 and a half hours, and it was definitely the engineer the last hour and a half.”

But Sellers, a 15-time IMSA winner, was full of praise for Snow – and for the intra-manufacturer competition with BMW stalwart Turner Motorsport.

“We’ve had some great battles with them over the last year and a half or so,” Sellers remarked. “I think the teams are at a high level, and today we executed well.

“Madison at the end got the job done,” he added. “He credited the engineer, but he’s the one who held the ball and took the last shot.”

The No. 79 WeatherTech Mercedes team maintained the lead in the GTD PRO points standings, by 26 over the No. 14 Lexus and 49 ahead of the No. 9 Porsche.

In GTD, the No. 1 BMW group moved within a single point of the class leader, the No. 70 Inception Racing McLaren 720S GT3 piloted by Brendan Iribe, Frederik Schandorff and Ollie Millroy, the fourth-place finishers at Sebring.

The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship resumes April 14-15 at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

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