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The 47th Sebring 12 Hours - 1999

Ahead of the 61st Sebring 12 Hours, John Brooks looks back at the 1999 race. In a sense it was the start of a new era, but it also doesn’t seem that long ago…

Re-birth of the Cool

The 1999 edition of the 12 Hours of Sebring did not seem to be particularly auspicious or historic, at least in anticipation. Sure, the first edition of Petit Le Mans the previous October had been a success, attracting a quality field and bringing some of the pizzazz back to long distance racing, but was this a real revival or just another false dawn?

Endurance motorsport had largely limped through the 90’s after the glory days of IMSA and Group C, both championships a victim of wild overspending by rival manufacturers. In the case of Group C, there is also an argument that it was the victim of outright malice of certain elements within the FIA. The flames had been extinguished but a faint pilot light was maintained by a few parties - in Europe, the ACO, Stephane Ratel, Jürgen Barth, Patrick Peter and John Mangoletsi were the heroes. In North America, the France family and the much maligned Andy Evans kept the faith and in 1997 a new name arrived on the scene, Don Panoz. The Don, as he became affectionately known, built the Panoz GT1 and acquired three famous North American tracks: Mosport, Road Atlanta and Sebring. A divergence of opinion on the direction and regulations with USRRC in 1998 encouraged Panoz to look east across the Atlantic towards the city of Le Mans for inspiration. The first step, Petit Le Mans, was an unqualified success and that encouraged the establishment of the American Le Mans Series. Sebring would be the start of the legend.

The ALMS attracted a good entry for Sebring - the usual suspects from the North American scene were joined by factory teams from Audi, BMW and Corvette along with a handful of top line privateers. There were three classes; Prototypes heading the field, supported by GTS and GT. Two of the latest BMWs were the headline act, designed and built by Williams Grand Prix. After a conservative effort in 1998 BMW/Williams agreed on the radical V12 LMR, with a single roll hoop configuration imitating a single seater racer, rather than the rule makers’ intention of two seats and a full roll hoop. That interpretation of the regulations was the basis for the other German debutant’s car, the Audi R8R. Both squads had real talent in their driver line-ups, with JJ Lehto, Tom Kristensen and Jörg Müller in the number 42 BMW and Jo Winkelhock, Pierluigi Martini and Yannick Dalmas in number 43. Audi had Michele Alboreto, Stefan Johansson and Dindo Capello in R8 number 77 and Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and Perry McCarthy in number 78. The only negative from Germany was that Wendelin Wiedeking, Porsche’s CEO, had cancelled their prototype programme at short notice.

The local opposition to the German factory teams was expected to come from Panoz Motorsport’s pair of Panoz GTR-1s, two Dyson Racing Riley & Scott-Fords, Champion Racing’s Porsche 911 GT1 and a brace of Ferraris 333SPs, one each from Doyle-Risi Racing and Doran Enterprises. Other native talent that might also challenge for honours would be another 333SP from Dollahite Racing, and Riley and Scotts from Robinson Racing, TRV, Kopf Precision, Whittington Brothers, Genesis Racing, Intersport, Transatlantic Racing and Hybrid R&D. Jim Downing brought two versions of his Mazda-powered Kudzus and there were two new Lola B98/10 chassis in the field, one entered by Intersport and the other, in a spectacular livery, from Team Cascadia.

The foreign privateer prototype element was strong, led by Team Rafanelli’s modified Riley & Scott MKlll  with the latest GV-4 Judd V10. Lead driver Eric van de Poele, described it as “the best I have ever driven”. The 1998 BMW V12 LM was present entered by Price & Bscher, Franz Konrad brought his Lola B98/10 and Le Mans legend Yojiro Terada had his AutoExe (a renamed Riley & Scott) as well. This was a seriously good prototype grid and with the rumours flying around that Mercedes-Benz was going to arrive after Le Mans with their dramatic CLR coupés, the prospects for the fledgling series looked promising.

The GTS field was headed by two works Chevrolet Corvettes run by Pratt & Miller, which had made their debut earlier in the the year at the Rolex 24. Up against them were Porsche 911 GT2 entries from Konrad Motorsport, Freisinger Motorsport, DM Motorsport, Schumacher Racing, Johnson Autosport, Chiefie Motorsport, CJ Motorsport and Martin Snow Racing. The only interloper into the ’Vette/911 battle was a Saleen Mustang SR but that was not expected to disturb the sharp end of the leader board. It was anticipated that the American cars would have a comfortable speed advantage; the doubt was whether they be totally reliable, as it was certain that at least one of the 8 Porsches would get a troublefree run.

As with the GTS, the GT class was dominated by Porsches with 14 entries, some more modern than others. The pick of the bunch were from Alex Job Racing, who faced 4 BMW M3s with the Prototype Technologies pair also being strongly fancied.

Two days of Practice and Qualifying threw up the expected results with BMW, Corvette and AJR Porsche heading their classes. Less expected was the performance of the Rafanelli Riley & Scott which grabbed second place on the grid, relegating the number 42 BMW from the front row. When the green flag waved on Saturday morning, Eric van de Poele jumped into an immediate lead in front of the 57 other starters. The field had been reduced by two after the Cascadia Lola and the RWS Porsche had withdrawn but it was a very respectable field for the opening round of a new championship.

The race settled down after JJ Lehto disposed of the interloper, swiftly followed by Yannick Dalmas in the other BMW. They proceeded to pull away from the field, while the Rafanelli R&S headed for the pits with a misfire. Although the car was eventually retired it did get the honour of setting the fastest lap of the race in the hands of Tomes Enge. At this point in the proceedings Sebring then did what it always does: it shattered the dreams of some of those who compete in this cruel race. The first retirement was surprisingly the number 11 Risi Ferrari which succumbed to engine maladies - this was the first of many which would go behind the wall for repairs. The next major contender to strike trouble was David Brabham in the number 1 Panoz  which caught fire after a fuel line ruptured.

Even the BMWs were subject to the curse of Sebring, with JJ Lehto getting a stop and go penalty for passing the Pace Car under a yellow flag. He managed to compound this penalty by speeding in the pit lane while taking his punishment, resulting in a repeat visit. He admitted later that it was a rookie’s mistake. The Pace Car saw action again just before the five-hour mark when Steve Soper comprehensively trashed the BMW V12 LM at Turn 17, the scene of many huge accidents before and since. The exchange over the radio with Team Principal, David Price has passed into legend.

“Steve, Steve, be careful! There’s been a big shunt.”

“Yeah Dave, I know. It was me...........”

Just after the re-start BMW’s day took yet another turn for the worse, when Dalmas speared off at Turn One and the #43 BMW was out on the spot. These indiscretions meant that the race was now tipping the way of the #20 Dyson Racing Riley & Scott. Of course having such experienced campaigners as Butch Leitzinger, Elliot Forbes-Robinson and the irrepressible James Weaver behind the wheel helped as did having a crew chief of the stature of Pat Smith. There is a good reason why over the past 30 years the Dyson outfit has always been hard to beat.

The pace at the front was too hot for the Audis which did not like the bumpy ex-bomber training base. During Qualifying they really struggled but come the race they found it easier. Audi Sport boss, Dr. Ullrich explained “It is so bumpy here that we had to raise the ride height by 15mm. Otherwise we destroy front splitters every 12 to 13 laps. We have never tried the car with the ride height this high before, it’s uncharted territory.”  Of course this change to the set-up would have drastically reduced downforce and aerodynamic efficiency. The pragmatic approach to racing that underpins all of Audi’s competition programmes clicked into place and the ambitions of the outfit were reduced accordingly. Dr. Ullrich summed this up. “I don’t know what BMW’s target was this weekend. I don’t know how much they learned by being quick just for Sebring. This was just a test for us.”

Nevertheless both R8Rs were still in the running though the number 78 stopped early on to change the clutch. Audi was definitely on a steep learning curve.

The Champion Porsche was also running at the back of the leading pack but the 1997 spec GT1 racer was outpaced by the newer cars and unless more catastrophes struck the leading trio, it was unlikely to add to the tally of Porsche victories at Sebring.

In GTS the Sebring 3 Hours was dominated by the pair of Corvettes but thereafter the gremlins got on top of the Pratt & Miller duo. The number 4 car was halted out on track with ignition problems. It did get going again only to hit the wall, this time it was retired. The number 3 stopped in the pits mid-race to change the differential and then a cooling pump - the time lost plunging it down the order. So up to the plate stepped the 911 GT2 of Martin and Melanie Snow, the husband and wife team joined by Porsche SuperCup star Patrick Huisman. The trio grabbed a lead in the class that they would take to the finish. Huisman commented after a hard win. “I was hoping the Corvettes would hit problems, like they did at Daytona. We were in the right place at the right time to take advantage of that when it happened.”

The GT category actually ran according to plan, at least if you were in the Alex Job Racing camp. The #23 911 RSR led from pole and had a relatively troublefree run to a class win, 11th in the overall standings. In contrast, both PTG BMWs retired. The victory would launch Cort Wagner to the 1999 ALMS GT title; with team mates Kelly Collins and Darryl Havens the Alex Job Porsche 911 was dominant.

After nightfall the race seesawed as BMW and Dyson played the tyre, fuel and yellow flag strategies. Two canny operators - Charley Lamm and Pat Smith - were on the pit wall;  and two aces - Tom Kristensen and James Weaver - at the wheel, respectively, of the BMW and Riley & Scott. As the clocked ticked down it was too close to call. A full course caution period with under half-an-hour of the race to run bunched up the field, giving Weaver a chance to pull off a famous victory. Master James needed no second invitation and he wrung the neck of the Dyson machine. “It was like Piccadilly Circus out there, it took me about four laps after I came out of the pits to make a bit of elbow room, so I could challenge Tom”, James reflected after the race. TK however was equal to the challenge. “It was unbelievably difficult out there. I could see the Dyson car pushing in my rear view mirror and the last four laps were made even harder when another prototype went off in front of me kicking sand on to the racing line.”

Hard as James pushed, the Dane had just enough in hand. As the chequered flag waved to indicate the end of the contest, the margin was just 9.202 seconds, the closest in the history of the race up to that point. The Audi pair finished third and fifth, sandwiching the Champion Porsche. It had been a helluva race.

BMW had won the 1999 Sebring 12 Hours, a fantastic achievement at a fantastic event, the American Le Mans Series had been launched in the best possible way, and almost everyone went home happy.

John Brooks