The 2010 season of American LeMans has kicked off two weeks ago with the 12 Hour race at Sebring. Despite a disappointing qualification session, BMW Rahal Letterman Racing Team has scored a promising 2nd and 3rd place.
Just a few weeks prior to the race, our own Andrew Murphy joined the BMW Rahal Letterman team for the winter testing session.
Today, our friends over at SkiddMark are taking us behind the scenes of 12 Hour Sebring race.
It seemed like a good plan. Pick up a Le Mans Blue, DCT-equipped M3 coupe, courtesy of BMW North America, find a scenic route from Miami to Sebring, get some pictures, then hook up with the BMW Rahal Letterman team as they start their 2010 GT2 campaign in the American Le Mans Series.
Not being a Florida regular I sought advice on scenic routes, posting the question on a well known US-based BMW web forum. Scenic routes from Miami to Sebring? Oh, how they laughed.
Plan B stumbled into action. Take the M3 down to the Florida Keys, because that will be scenic, for sure. So, I head south from Miami, thinking “It can’t be that far, then I’ll just turn round and head north to Sebring”.
It is that far, actually. This then, of course, means that the journey north to Sebring is that far, plus quite a lot.
Fortunately, the M3 is a surprisingly relaxing companion for the cruise south. Comfortable, very quiet, effortlessly quick, soothing. DCT removes a large chunk of the stress of driving on the wrong side of the car/road, and I just slot it into D and let it get on with the job.
But, be in no doubt, getting all the way to Key West for a symbolic shot of the last naturally aspirated M-car (as it almost certainly will be) takes a long time, thanks to the distance involved and the interminable speed limits and road works.
So long a time, that once I do finally get to the very end of Highway 1, the most southerly point of the USA, I barely have time to take some shots and then hit the road back north to Sebring.
The views are superb in places, with some impressively long bridges, separating the Caribbean on one side from the Gulf of Mexico on the other side. The pelicans do alarmingly good impersonations of low flying aircraft, causing me to duck several times in anticipation of a major strike. But most of the time all I see is commercialised USA.
The usual brands you see everywhere, spread along a narrow ribbon of land on each side of the road. It looks good on Google Earth, though.
So, it is well over 400 miles now, to get to Sebring. Time to start exercising those 420 Bavarian horses. The run back north (back to Miami, in fact, such was the quality of Plan B) is pretty mundane, but once to the north of the city, the interstate all of a sudden gets very, very quiet, as the sun sets over my left shoulder. And very straight. I take advantage of the circumstances and distances seem to shrink as the M3 plays the GT to perfection.
Mile after mile of almost completely deserted interstate, with just an occasional big truck to blast past. And not a sign of a police car. Until a 50 limit in a small town, and someone else decides to overtake on the right, narrowly missing me as I slow down behind a slow, law abiding citizen. And all of a sudden there is the cop car, flashing lights go on and the other guy – not me – gets pulled over.
Lucky, lucky…this time, anyway….
Sebring or bust
My luck holds and the last 100 miles disappear in short time as I finally trundle in to Sebring at 9:30pm, having left Key West just over 7 hours earlier. The E92 M3 destroys distances. But my 25mpg average to Key West has turned into a rather smaller number now. A pizza later, and I am out like a light.
Next day, Friday, and it is time for the great American sporting event. I have attended some before (American football) so, in my ignorance I reckoned that I knew what to expect.….but that was before my first experience of the 12 Hours of Sebring, the 2010 opener for the American Le Mans Series. That was before I got hooked.
For most people outside the US, the ALMS is a bit of an unknown, and with little TV exposure it might almost get overlooked by the rest of the world. That would be a serious mistake, as the rest of the world needs to wake up to what could well be the most diverse, competitive and entertaining branch of motorsport around at present.
Forget the over-hyped, over-exposed and over-paid F1 procession. ALMS is where real racing happens, and in cars which do actually have some sort of connection with the real world.
Sebring, right bang in the middle of Florida, has become the focus of a real racing event phenomenon, something which has built up over the years since the 1950s, and which now attracts crowds upwards of 100,000 people. And if you want to watch it properly, as I now discover, you need that quintessential piece of American kit – the RV. Preferably a big one.
In fact without it, you are going to miss out on both the view of the track, and that other bit of the experience – the eating and drinking part. And given that the best viewing spots are hunted down early, with the real enthusiasts getting into line 3 weeks before the gates open (Wimbledon queuing – Nah, that’s nothing by comparison) in order that they get to their favourite turns for the near week long event, an RV is pretty much essential to get the real Sebring experience.
Hotels/motels are booked months in advance, and if you are lucky enough to get a room it will probably cost you $250 – $300 per night – with a minimum of 5 nights being demanded. So an RV starts to become the sensible, practical, essential and economic choice. That’s why I can see literally hundreds of them all around the circuit, parked side by side, with just enough room to get between them. If you are conventional, you have 2, 3, maybe 4 garden chairs on the roof, and then you’re sorted.
For the more imaginative, garden chairs are just the starting point. Sebring is about way more than just the race, as a tour of The Zoo – sorry Green Park in-field spectator area – uncovers entertainment delights.
Check out the old school bus, converted to a bar and pole-dancing establishment, by a team of owners who first started coming here in the 1970s. Since then, the school bus has been supplemented, with another bar/diner facility, which also incorporates – surprise – a race viewing area. For the daylight hours, at least.
I am traveling with the BMW Rahal-Letterman team, and that gets immediate attention from the race fans, attention especially for the race suited young lady, who is acting as my guide as we seek out the “flavor” of Sebring.
It is a hot and sunny day, and the alcohol-fueled chat-up lines always seem to be around what items of clothing – if any – she wears under the suit. But American good manners are still evident – some of the chat-ups are at least preceded by an inquiry as to whether I am her husband.
The invitations to return to the party after the sun has gone down are numerous. Some of them even include me. “What happens in Sebring, stays in Sebring”, is a frequently heard expression….
There is a lot of flamboyant vehicular cruising going on, with massive tired, jacked up 4×4s trundling around, laden with Stars and Stripes, big sounds and high mounted seats, occupied by happy and friendly kids, just having a good time. Smile and wave for the camera. Ok, that’s enough. Move along, now. Next please. We could be here some time.
Parties have clearly been going on for some days, with many areas looking like an explosion in a beer can factory. Live music – actually pretty good live music – is pounding out near Turn 7, but even the Janis Joplin tribute band cannot compete with the decibels from the track.
This noise really is the unmistakable signature, the defining characteristic of ALMS. Mix in the high-tech, high revving LMP cars, some of them diesels, with the screaming V8s of the BMWs, the flat 6s of the Porsches and that absolutely unmistakably charismatic sound of American racing machinery – the Corvettes – as they blast along the start/finish straight. To any petrol-head, this is spine-tingling stuff.
All this, and a proper race to watch, too.
And racing it is – not just a pole position, first corner-determined procession. The diversity of cars competing in ALMS means that competition is fierce, intense and extended throughout the 12 hours. Overtaking is not something that has to be engineered through incessant rule-tinkering, it is a constant and influential challenge to all the drivers.
BMW are competing M3s in the GT2 class. They are here because GT endurance racing sells cars, and the US is their biggest market. With the demise of their F1 team, GT racing will now take center stage, and ALMS is big in the US. Other endurance races are also on BMW’s calendar – Nurburgring and Spa 24 hours, and of course, the big one, the real Le Mans 24 hour race in June.
Each of these 24 hour races has significant, but short-term exposure. ALMS is a season-long series, starting now in March, and running through to October, so this is a big deal for the BMW team and factory support of the Bobby Rahal, David Letterman sponsored operation is high profile.
Running two cars here, Number 90, driven by Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Andy Priaulx (his first appearance at Sebring) and Number 92, driven by Sebring veteran Bill Auberlen, Tommy Milner and Dirk Werner.
The BMW M3 Race Version…
The cars, whose numbers allude to BMW 3-series model designations, are based upon the V-8 M3 coupe, leveraging the “Race on Sunday, sell on Monday” maxim, with perceived links between race and road cars far more apparent here, than in F1.
Pumped up wheel arches and mega rear spoilers provide significant external visual differences between these racers and the cars that we can buy, but they are still recognizably E92 M3 coupes.
Under the skin, differences are more significant of course, but the 4 liter V8 is much closer to road car spec than you might imagine, producing horsepower in the high 400s, when fitted with mandatory intake restrictors. Ah, yes, the restrictors….more on them later.
The most significant conceptual difference between the M3 GT2 and the road car is the use of a rear transaxle, in order to optimize weight distribution. Carbon fiber trunking feeds cooling air to the transaxle from the front of the car and dominates the interior of the shell.
So much of the enhancements to the car are about airflow management – front splitter, vents to feed air to and from brakes, and of course feed and cool the engine. And – fortunately for the drivers in this Florida heat – the interior of each car is air-conditioned, a mandatory requirement.
In amongst all the serious race activity, it is very noticeable how spectators get a whole load more access to the teams than seems the case in other classes of racing. On the day before the race, an hour or so before the final qualification session, all drivers are required to attend autograph sessions, and the teams welcome visitors into the car preparation areas. Posters, lanyards, pictures are all getting the autograph treatment.
A young lad, carrying a model Corvette gets in line for autographs at the BMW trailer, a little optimistically. He wants the BMW drivers to autograph his Corvette…..I am not sure that is going to happen, no matter how accommodating the team usually are.
The BMW Car Club of America are welcomed into the BMW RLR car preparation tent, even getting anniversary cake, before taking part in procession laps of the circuit. This is in celebration of the 35th anniversary of BMW’s first ever victory in North America, coincidentally also at Sebring, in 1975.
I manage to sneak into line for the cake (excellent sugar overload) and also quietly get into the laps (fun but not that fast) in my M3. The laps prove one thing beyond doubt – this circuit is most definitely very bumpy, not just on the concrete sections, and with plenty of off-camber turns…