SkiddMark joins Team BMW Rahal Letterman at the Sebring 12Hrs

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.

End of the Road - is this the last naturally aspirated M car?

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.

RVs provide the best view for the true racing enthusiast

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 travelling 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 “flavour” of Sebring.

It is a hot and sunny day, and the alcohol-fuelled 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 enquiry 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….

Let them eat cake - just imagine this scene in Formula 1: On the left the engineers work on Car 92, whilst just a few metres away the team entertain guests with a slice of cake. Joy indeed.

There is a lot of flamboyant vehicular cruising going on, with massive tyred, jacked up 4x4s 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.

ALMS: one of the world’s most varied race series…

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.

Racing is close in the production based GT Class - 450-500 horsepower and a minimum weight of 1,145 kilograms - featuring the BMW M3, Corvette C6.R, Ferrari F430 GT, Ford GT-R, Jaguar XKRS, Panoz Abruzzi and Porsche 911 GT3 RSR.

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 centre 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.

Left to right: Tom Milner, Bill Auberlen, Andy Priaulx, Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller, 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 recognisably E92 M3 coupes.

Under the skin, differences are more significant of course, but the 4 litre 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.

Besides an additional 70 bhp, many of the differences between road car and the race version are down to airflow management

The most significant conceptual difference between the M3 GT2 and the road car is the use of a rear transaxle, in order to optimise weight distribution. Carbon fibre 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…

Qualification…

Qualification goes very well for the BMW team, with Dirk Mueller in Car 90 posting a superb, record qualifying lap of 2:00.782 to secure pole position in GT2 ahead of the primary competition from the Ferrari and Corvette teams. Talking with the drivers they believe that the BMWs have the highest cornering speeds in GT2, but they still need to make something up in straight-line speed.

Joey Hand cites the 80+mph, 180 degree right Turn 17 (at the beginning of the start/finish straight) and the 110+mph, 90 degree left Turn 1 (at the end of the straight) as being key to a strong lap, with the M3s sustaining more than 2G cornering force.

It was Car 90, driven by Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Andy Priaulx that achieved GT2 pole position, however failure of the mandatory stall test left them starting from the pit lane

The challenge of each of these turns is that the concrete surface, a legacy of its airfield roots, is very rough, causing 4.6G spikes which stress driver, car and tyres. A fast exit to the left hander T1 then sets up the left/right/left combination of Turns 3/4/5 where the BMW’s handling balance and agility is so important.

The 3.7 mile circuit is an intriguing mixture of concrete slabs and often rippled tarmac, with 4 significantly long straights to favour the more powerful cars. In the wet it must be a nightmare of varying grip levels and the soothsayers in the Dunlop tyre team are suggesting that race Saturday will indeed be wet.

The smiles and excitement of Dirk Mueller achieving GT2 pole position are fairly short lived, however, as Car 90 fails the mandatory stall test in scrutineering. The restrictors are there in an attempt to even out the power differentials between engines of very different sizes in GT2 and when blocked during scrutineering, the engine should stall. Car 90 didn’t, with an air leak probably due to faulty assembly of the air box. That could be worth 10 horsepower. So Mueller must start from the pit lane.

Friday night is pizza night, Mexican style, overlooking Lake Jackson.

Race day…

Saturday, Race Day, dawns with immaculate blue skies appearing through the mist as the sun rises. It is going to be a hot and dry Florida day, the rain anticipated by BMW’s Dunlop tyre technicians looks like it will be absent.

All around the in-field spectator areas, sleepy eyed – and probably sore headed – people are stumbling into action. Barbeques are smoking away. Coffee brews. Beer is being broken out. These people have stamina. A long day, and night awaits them, with the 12 Hours starting at 10:30am.

The BMW Rahal Letterman team are a combination of teutonic efficiency matched with down-to-earth racing enthusiasm

I am definitely seeing the benefits of the RV life here. Track visibility, with facilities, and somewhere to collapse when necessary. And they probably know their neighbours, here, as well as their neighbours at home, with friendships established over years, or even decades of Sebring attendance. The spectators who only venture into the stands do not know what they are missing.

It is possibly a cliché to think of US motorsport fans always being from the right of the political spectrum, but there certainly are plenty of reminders of Sarah Palin – and gun clubs – amongst the bumper stickers.

Those more from the left (OK – we are in the US, so maybe that should be less from the right) might actually find something they approve of here, with the green message – Global Leader in Green Racing – being very prominent in ALMS this year. There are prizes for going furthest/fastest with least environmental impact – just don’t ask me to explain how the winner is chosen. You can even find hybrids here – one of the breakdown recovery trucks proudly displaying its green capabilities.

Green is the big message of ALMS in 2010, in fact, with references everywhere. Window-dressing? Maybe, but the fact that the message is present is a pretty powerful indicator, as this would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

Wandering through the parking areas and RVs you can find numerous automotive gems. A race-prepped Ford Anglia here, a Batmobile BMW CSL in 70s livery there, more Mark 1 Corvettes than you can count, Ford GT40s, AC Cobras (replicas or genuine – I don’t know), sundry Porsche 917s, Alfa GTVs and Spiders.

Many of these ageing heroes have competed in the historic races in the days before the 12 Hours finale of Sebring week. Some are just there because they belong in a place, an event like this.

Close Competition in GT2…

With all this going on outside the track – and the night-time partying hasn’t got started yet – the race might risk being a side show. But when it starts, the “Days of Thunder” soundtrack makes sure that no-one is in any doubt about what is going on. You need ear-plugs here, and not to counter the music.

Getting in close to the action in the pit-lane with the BMW Rahal Letterman team, even with foam ear-plugs the sound of the M3s exiting the pit is up at pain threshold levels. I need some of those cool ear defender/intercom things.

Each car can run for around an hour before having to pit for fuel. The circuit’s bumps are punishing on tyres, so each pit stop is generally also a tyre and driver change. The tyres degrade noticeably around the inside edges, due to BMW’s aggressive suspension settings and the speed being carried through the corners.

The pit team seems to be extremely well organised, with the pit stops I timed completed in around 30 seconds, compared with a neighbouring Ferrari team who take 40. This pace is accompanied by an amazing sense of calm.

Pit stops for the BMW Rahal Letterman cars are quick and unflustered

Driver change-over and re-fuelling happening simultaneously in near silence, with the tyre change team poised ready for their part. As soon as the fuelling nozzle is pulled from the tank inlet the on-board pneumatic jacks lift the bodyshell, raising all four wheels from the ground and the wheels are off, replaced and back down on the ground again, inside 12 seconds. The only noise coming from the pneumatic hub spinners. No words, no drama, no panic.

The team believe they have at least a 5 second advantage over their GT2 competition, at every pit stop. That works out to at least 60 seconds per race, without any un-scheduled stops.

I am right in the thick of it, at the suggestion of my hosts, but I worry that I could be getting in the way of important business. I say to one of the suited and helmeted technicians “If I am in the way, just shout”. His calm response “No problem at all, bud, you’re just fine”.

This relaxed air seems to extend to the drivers, too, as they are happy to chat, sharing their insights into the circuit, the race, the cars, the tyres. Joey Hand talks me through the critical high speed, jack-hammer rough turns (1 and 17) and then enthusiastically re-lives his way through the 3/4/5 combo, with its subtle weight transfers.

Twelve hours pass like clockwork – almost…

This aura of calmness and efficiency was not evident at the neighbouring Corvette Racing team pit, supposedly one of the best drilled in the championship, when their 2 cars manage to collide in the pits during the fourth hour. Both cars sustain significant damage in the collision causing them to lose time, from which they never really recover.

The BMWs are looking very comfortable, turning in consistently fast laps and frequently reeling in Porsches and Ferraris, on the longer straights even though they believe that they are at a power disadvantage. The on-board video feed, relayed to the pit-lane provides a constant, rhythmic, almost hypnotic source of interest through the day, and into the evening as the sun sinks and darkness takes over.

Joey Hand posts a GT2 class race record lap in Car 90, at 2:00.985, more than half a second quicker than the most competitive Ferrari 430GT.

I can see a charge developing here, but the vagaries of yellow flags and pace cars hit the BMWs badly, more than once, causing them to lose the best part of a lap, each time, on their main competition just as they appear to be reeling them in. But the race is far from over.

In the pit lane, the resting drivers are just as engrossed as me, sitting on the pit lane wall, watching the on-board video, as an in-house battle develops between Car 90 and Car 92, with the gap between them gradually reducing to a handful of seconds.

The team's view of the race as it unfolds - perfect for keeping track of their superfast BMW M3 GT2 cars

Every 2 minutes we look away from the screens, to watch the pair of cars screaming past in the floodlights, along the straight, and then plunging into the darkness, their tail lights jinking right and then left as they disappear around T1. I begin to worry that enthusiasm for this battle could lead to disaster. I would hate to see them take one another out in the heat of their own race, with less than an hour of the 12 remaining.

In the end, this almost happens, as Dirk Mueller loses his brakes on the very last bend, spins and lets Dirk Werner through to take 2nd place in GT2. Fortunately, Mueller does not hit anything solid and has enough of a cushion to recover and take 3rd ahead of the Porsche 911RSR of Bergmeister/Long/Lieb.

Much handshaking, hugging and backslapping then follows, because this is a good result – and could so easily have been even better, with just a little pace car/yellow flag luck. The cars have been totally reliable and quick, as have the drivers, and, equally important, the pit-lane team.

Before the race I asked Mario Theissen, BMW’s Director of Motorsport, what he was hoping for. A podium position, was his response. And now he has two. Could this turn into BMW’s Season of Joy? I have a feeling it could well do so.

Both cars finished on the podium, recording 2nd and 3rd in the GT Class

After the somewhat extended podium celebrations – many sponsors, many prizes, lots of hat throwing, too much champagne spraying – I return to the BMW RLR transporter, where one lonely soul has, over the last 3 or 4 hours, done a fantastic job breaking everything down, whilst the rest of the team have been enjoying the fun, racing stuff. It is important that I get back here as there is more of the fine, sugary cake to enjoy. I know my duty, and bravely fulfil it.

The Florida night is getting chilly now, and I have more than 500 miles to cover in “my” M3 in the morning, with an appointment at the BMW Performance Driving School, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, first thing on Monday. I need to get some sleep. I steel myself for the inevitable big, slow, frustrating queues out of the circuit, but find that there aren’t any. I am out in just a few minutes, into the darkness, leaving the bright lights and music behind me.

Then I think about it. Why would there be any queues? The Sebring party is just getting into gear, most people have no thought about leaving here yet.

What happens in Sebring, stays in Sebring, as they say….

With thanks: This feature would not have been possible without the patience, generosity and sheer hospitality of BMW North America Motorsport including Martin Birkmann, Matt Russell, Bill Cobb and Kathy, the BMW Rahal Letterman team including Bobby Rahal, Tom Milner, Bill Auberlen, Andy Priaulx, Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller, Dirk Werner and of course Dr Mario Theissen, Director of BMW Motorsport.

Images courtesy of: BMW North America and Tony Braybon.