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From the Cockpit: The 61st 12 Hours of Sebring

From the Cockpit: The 61st 12 Hours of Sebring
It's 10:30 A.M. on Saturday morning when 42 of the world's most technologically-advanced race cars roar across the stripe to take the green flag for the 61st running of the 12 Hours of Sebring. Racing into turn one is like being in the middle of a stampede with cars fanned out five wide and debris flying everywhere. You're just praying to make it through turn one safely and not lose any positions.

The 12 Hours of Sebring is one of the most demanding races in the world – physically, mentally and also on the equipment. The track is also built on a WW2 airport strip, which means it's extremely bumpy!

Choosing the inside line, I have a great start and move up two positions by the completion of lap one. 'Two minutes down, and only 11 hours and 58 minutes remaining,' I remember thinking. Then, on lap three, my display that gives me all kinds of key information I need during the race, including water temp, oil pressure, engine speed, gear position, lap time, etc., suddenly goes blank! Typically, I rely on this information and glance at it every few laps. However, I soon find myself counting the gears... 6..5..4, 3..4..5..6..5, 4, 3, 2... Well, you get the picture.

After starting in P5, we're now running in P3. Although I've lost all instrumentation, the pace is good and I'm keeping up with the leaders. Around the one-hour mark, the team strategist comes on the radio and tells me it's time for our first pit stop. After hearing the “pit now” command, I dive into pit lane coming out of turn 17, hit the pit speed limiter and pull into our stall. Due to the fact I have no information on my display, I can't read the fuel level, thus the engineers are forced to guess. I use this stop to recycle the main power switch. 'Please work, please work... Yes!' With our display back and fueling complete, the crew chief orders me out of the pits and back into the race.

Another hour passes and another solid stint behind the wheel is nearly complete. Now running in P2. I'm told the next stop will be a full service - as in fuel, tires and driver change. I race into pit lane, hit the speed limiter, loosen the belts, unplug the radio, stop in the stall and jump out of the car. The BAR1 crew executes a perfect stop and, less than 45-seconds later, my co-driver Chris Cumming is in the car and we're back running.

After completing the first double stint, we are still only two hours into a 12-hour race. And, as my adrenaline slows, I notice a pain in my back and begin to have a serious muscle spasm on my lower right side. This is not good! Luckily, my teammate and reality TV celebrity Chapman Ducote has hired a masseuse to take care of us drivers between stints. Of course, I'm all over this, and head back over to BAR1 Motorsports trailer where the lady is waiting for me. After a quick introduction, I'm face-down with a beautiful message therapist treating my muscle pain. Now this is living!

I'm feeling much better after the deep tissue message. Knowing that Chris was on a double stint and our third driver Stefan Johansson would follow him with his own double stint, I use the break I have to rehydrate and get good nutrition into my system. My wife and I head over to Marion's Hospitality - she's a real sweetheart, definitely like a mom to all of us racers at the track - but before I know it, I'm back in the race car for another double stint.
 
We need to be 30 seconds or less during a driver change. This is typically the time it takes to add a full tank of fuel. However, this stop we were taking new tires as well, so we had an additional 15 seconds to make sure I was belted in properly. It's a good thing we had the additional time on this stop as the right lap belt got pinched under my butt. In a hurry, our driver assistant got it sorted and I was back in the fast lane.

I arrive at the end of pit lane, release the pit speed limiter and it's game on! I race into turn three but notice in my mirror that one of the Audi LMP1 cars are coming hot out of turn one and closing quickly. This takes my focus away for just a split-second and causes me to miss my brake point, and with cold tires I run a bit wide of the apex. The Audi slips by and I quickly get back on line without incident. It's so important at these speeds to remain focused though. Losing concentration for even the smallest amount of time can have big consequences.

After starting P5, we have continued to work our way to the front and are now leading the race! My co-drivers Chris and Stefan have driven great stints and the BAR1 Motorsports team has been on the ball with strategy and pit stops all day. Things are looking good at the half-way point in the race; I'm back in the car for another double stint and pushing hard to stretch out our lead. Our team strategist is giving me valuable information about the cars in front, cars behind, split times to second place and so on. Slower traffic in the GTC and GT classes can play a big role in the outcome of any endurance race, so it is crucial to get past these cars as quickly and safely as possible. The GTC class cars are usually quite easy to pass, however, the factory GT cars can be more difficult. Keep in mind, they are having their own battles for position, so time lost from allowing a faster prototype by is just as valuable to them as the time we can lose by getting stuck behind a slower GT car.

I'm moving through traffic as smart and fast as possible. At one point, I had just finished passing a couple of GTC cars between turns 7 and 10 when I come up on a quick Ferrari. I go to pass up the inside in to turn 13 but, WOW, he closes the door and I'm forced to check up. Maybe he didn't see me, but I've lost all momentum. I'm stuck behind him until the exit of turn 16 where I use my weight advantage and some draft to beat him down the straight and into turn 17.

After putting in another double stint, I'm back in the pits for another full-service stop. Chris and Stefan will each run a single stint, so I have roughly an hour-and-a-half before I am to get back in for the final stretch of the race. It's now 7:00 P.M. The sun is setting, but the action on track is getting hotter than ever. I use my break for another message, hydrate, food and rest. Before I know I'm back up to bat.

I change from a dark visor to a clear one on my Bell HP3, and add some tear-offs so I'm ready to rumble with approximately two hours and 20 minutes remaining. The dark of night has set in by the time I'm back in the cockpit. We have been battling in the top-three all day; and now I'm pushing in excess of 110% to the finish.

I've got four new Continental tires on the car, but the track temperature is now quite cold. I peel out of the pits and spin the tires to scrub off the slippery top layer before re-entering the race. Racing into turn three, however, I realize I can't see anything! It turns out that three of the four headlights on our nighttime nose had gone out during Chris' stint, so the crew had to put on our daytime nose. IMSA rules state that it's mandatory to have a minimum of two headlights working otherwise a penalty will be issued. I complete my out lap, exit turn 17 and go down the front straight for the first time. I get up to sixth gear and 274 km/h (170 mph) before downshifting to five for turn one, get to the apex, back to power and... I can't see the track! I make it to the exit, dropping the right side wheels in the dirt in the process. This sends me into a quick tank slapper before I regain control and enter the brake zone for turn three. I radio to my crew chief to advise of the problem, but I already know there's nothing we can do. It's time to man up, learn to drive around the problem and race as fast as possible. After a handful of laps, I subconsciously begin to feel where I need to point the car by the apex to ensure I have enough road on exit.

Shortly thereafter, I lose all radio communication with the team. This is not good at all! When driving at speeds in excess of 250 km/h at night you rely on the crew chief to advise of quicker LMP2 or LMP1 cars coming up over the radio. All you can see are white lights and it's difficult to judge the closing speeds. You have to be careful not to turn in on a quicker car and risk crashing, but also you don't want to leave the door open if the car behind is a competitor.

I was on my own to make these judgments.

A few laps go by and I notice a neon yellow pit board waving frantically as I'm racing by down the front straight. Sure enough it's my team trying to give me information. Honestly, when you're doing 270 km/h at night with your head vibrating in every direction due to the bumps, it is almost impossible to read that sign! Finally, after two or three laps by, I could make it out: 'P1, +7 seconds.' I was back in the lead and maintaining the gap over second place. This is good.

I continue to push lap after lap, but it's not long before I realize we have another problem. I cannot communicate a fuel reading to the team. Of course, BAR1 Motorsports is already ahead of me; I see the pit board again, this time reading: 'Pit 8, then Pit 7.'

At this point in the race, I've probably lost close to five pounds of water weight; my knees and elbows are bruised far worse than an apple that's been rolling around a kid's plastic lunchbox for a few days. Visibility is difficult and I could certainly go for another massage right about now, but as a team we continue to push hard with the one goal of being victorious.

With about 40 minutes remaining, I'm in pit lane for the final splash of fuel. However, with no communication the engineer is again forced to guess on calculation of how much fuel to add. At this stage in the race, time is precious; adding too much fuel will lose us position and adding too little fuel will not get us to the end of the race. My tires are worn but the additional time lost in pit lane would be too great, so the team decides to only add fuel.

I leave pit lane for the last time, complete my out lap and notice the pit board again. This time it reads 'P2, +5 seconds.' I continue to try and find more speed, but I unfortunately catch slower GT traffic two laps in a row in a bad section. Of course, after 11 hours and 30 minutes, the race comes down to seconds! You can imagine what is going through my mind. I glance at the giant Rolex clock at the start finish line and can see that time is running out. A few laps later and the white flag is being waved to mark the final lap. I'm sure the team is anxious and glued to the race monitor; I continue to get everything I can from the car, hoping the leader catches traffic or makes a mistake. However, at this level of competition that's rare.

Alas, time has run out. I exit turn 17 for the final time, cross the stripe and take the checkered flag in P2. The crew is hanging over the wall and fireworks are going off in celebration. To complete the 12 Hours of Sebring is definitely rewarding, but for us competitors it's always about winning, so it's certainly bittersweet to have been so close to victory and come home with second.

Nonetheless, having battled up front all day racing for the top spot made for a very exciting race for us. I owe big thanks and congratulations to my BAR1 Motorsports team, my co-drivers Chris Cumming and Stefan Johansson and our sponsors Evident Capital, MBRP Performance Exhaust and Merchant Services Ltd. Overall, it was a pretty good day at the office, but I'm already looking forward to round two and racing on the downtown streets of Long Beach, California.

Stay tuned for my next blog “From the Cockpit”!

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