Teams and drivers typically encounter many bumps in the road, both literally and metaphorically, at Sebring and an unfortunate throttle issue forced Oliver Gavin to retire the #4 Chevrolet Corvette Racing C7.R during the final two hours of the 63rd Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida (Saturday 21 March).
The Rolex 24-winning Corvette Racing team took hold of the top two spots in the GTLM class during a stop-start night practice session on Thursday evening (18 March), with Ryan Briscoe’s #3 Corvette C7.R leading the #4 car driven by Tommy Milner at the end of the 90 minutes.
However, both Team RLL BMW Z4 GTEs and the #911 Porsche North America entry all featured at the top of the timing screens in free practice, suggesting that pole position was far from guaranteed and it was all to play for in qualifying (Friday 20 March).
The top three were separated by thousandths of a second, with only four tenths covering the majority of the GTLM field in practice, and this fierce battle carried over to qualifying, the competitive order shifting drastically as drivers used every inch of the demanding and bumpy Sebring track in search of lap time.
After Gavin sealed a sensational pole for the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January, it was “Tommy time”, as Milner was elected to qualify the #4 C7.R, the American racer achieving seventh with a time that was merely half a second off pole.
There was nothing to choose between the bright Velocity Yellow cars in terms of race pace and, aware that strategy and durability are the keys to conquering Sebring, spirits were high in the Corvette Racing camp during the build-up to the main event.
“Qualifying was tough,” said Gavin. “It was hot out there all weekend, the circuit was difficult and changeable and the setup worked for one car and not the other, but our hopes were high for the race. We knew we just needed the car to be right, particularly for the last two hours of the race when it gets dark. That’s the most critical time when you need to get the job done, so that’s what we aimed for.”
Conditions remained hot and humid and temperatures crept above 90 degrees Fahrenheit as the famous “drivers, start your engines” order was given, and Milner spent the opening minutes of the race engaged in a red-hot battle with the BMW of five-time 12 Hours of Sebring winner, Lucas Luhr.
The pack remained tightly bunched as the the first round of stops took place and Milner came alive to snatch three positions following the first caution period before handing the reins to Simon Pagenaud.
Gavin took to the 3.74mile, 17-turn Sebring circuit during the fourth hour of the once-around-the-clock enduro and dragged the #4 Corvette Racing C7.R as high as fourth in class, directly behind the sister car driven by Jan Magnussen.
The brutality of the 12 Hours of Sebring became evident as the race reached the halfway mark, the rate of attrition notably higher as drivers faltered and mechanical gremlins set in.
Nevertheless, Corvette Racing’s push for reliability in testing appeared to be paying dividends as the New Hudson-based team continued plugging away unhindered, with both cars on identical strategies and getting well within the fight for the GTLM podium.
However, a ‘belt and braces’ approach wouldn’t have prevented a critical time loss, caused when an equipment malfunction brought Milner to a stop midway through his second stint in the #4 Corvette.
Now seventh in class, Pagenaud maintained position during an uneventful spell behind the wheel, but Gavin was elected to complete the final third of the 12-hour race.
While rear tyre management was an issue for the #4 machine, the British ace made gains as the sun set and the temperatures dropped at the Sebring circuit until a recurring sticking throttle halted his progress and eventually forced Gavin to retire with just over two hours on the clock.
“It was an unfortunate end to our race with the equipment malfunction,” said Gavin. “We showed throughout that our Corvette C7.R had good pace. I was able to challenge and post solid lap times in both stints, and I felt like we had a car that could certainly challenge for the podium. Sebring is tough on drivers and the cars, as we saw again today.”