17 – 20 March
Sebring International Raceway
IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship
Wayne Taylor Racing
Sebring is known by its track. It’s a mythical track, well-known for its bumps. There is actually a social media hashtag #respectthebumps. Every driver drives less than in Daytona because this track is really demanding and it is also harder to overtake here. In Europe, the FIA rules demand an 8-meter width track, there is room for everyone, the run-outs are great. In the US the run-outs are not big enough to avoid incidents. It makes racing very different, the way we approach each race, the decisions each driver takes. They are very beautiful and old school races that people love to watch. If drivers make mistakes they will pay for them. There is risk, there are incidents.
Sebring had a big audience. The US were already more advanced regarding the Covid-19 vaccination and I got into a restaurant where no one was wearing a mask, just me. Sebring is also known for having the craziest fan base of the season. A lot of people were camping on the inside of the track, which was nice to see; see them carrying the long year tradition. Someone put a couch 6-10 feet high just to be able to watch the race, only there you’ll see crazy things like that. Turn 10/11 is the area where you’ll feel this more extreme atmosphere from the fans. When drivers go by that turn around 8pm at night, they can smell the barbecue. All the rookies think it’s mechanical failure.
I stayed at an amazing motorhome and was well settled but that detail doesn’t change the result, nor does it take me further. In this race I was also able to sleep well between stints. The mindset is always the same: eat, sleep, race. I don’t get less tired because it’s a 12h (as opposed to a 24h) race; it’s like a runner who can either do 1mi, 10mi or 20mi and end up equally tired if he knows how to manage the effort for each of the distances.
Ricky Taylor was the one who qualified and he did it very well, I dare say. He was very close to pulling off the pole-position. The rules say who qualifies must start the race. The start went smooth: Ricky let Renger Van der Zande attack Pipo Derani and he just watched it all from the 3rd place. After the first 2 hours we were leading the race but most importantly we were among the leading pack.
When I came in, I was relaxed and focused on avoiding the typical race pitfalls. It turned out to be a good decision since I almost had an accident in the first stint: an LMP2 spun right in front of me, I nearly hit it, so close in fact I even scraped my front wing. It is important to not always flat-out and have safety margins for these moments, so even if I have 30 or 40 seconds of a head start, when a yellow flag comes up, it all goes away in a blink of an eye.
Alex (Alexander Rossi) caught a drive through due to a problem that we had during the pit stop. With that penalty he became last, 30 seconds away from everyone. Once again it wasn’t the time to panic because the race was long and Alex recovered the whole distance and did 3 really great stints. Ricky came in smoothly and I entered in a phase where we were getting ready to place ourselves for the final part of the race.
I was fighting the first place and things didn’t pan out for me when leaving the box. I tried attacking the leader, with cold tires, while defending myself from a Cadillac that came in hot. In the middle of the three of us there was a GTD whom I bumped a little, damaging our car. I went down to last, all of this because I wanted to be first and stay at the right place for the end of the race. It didn’t go well, it was a race situation, looking retrospectively it could seem like an unnecessary incident, but that wasn’t the time to be conservative. At the end of the race I replayed the critical moments and I think we were all to blame for that incident. I took it as a learning experience, I always learn something from these situations and that is why I got so far. If that GT driver didn’t learn that he has to look at the mirrors, then that incident will happen again, it may not happen with me again, but with someone else.
I pulled into the box to fix the wing, we were many seconds behind the first place: I tried pushing but we were very slow and I couldn’t figure out why. After a few laps my engineer asked me what I needed to go faster and I told him the car was great but I did notice that we were lacking engine power at the end of each turn. With the help of the engineering team we realized that we were having engine cooling problems and later we were told that it was caused by the bump with the GT.
Later on, after identifying the issue, the safety-car came in and because I had stopped a few laps ago, I was the only one that didn’t pull over at the box, kept going and found myself first, leading, exactly like I wanted, but the engine wasn’t right, we didn’t have all our strengths to pull it off. From that moment on we did the best we could, the goal was to get us through the finish line.
The Ganassi overtook me right before the finish line and I also let the #60, an Acura, pass me by, so I wouldn’t block his chance to fight for the victory. I held my place third for a long time. Initially Ricky was supposed to be the one finishing the race but then the engineer decided that Rossi should do it. He was driving at a good pace. It’s a luxury to be part of a team with such three talented drivers because we all know what we have to do.
Alex did what he could, we finished the race in 5th simply because of our lack of pace in these runways. We knew that #48 had a penalty for exceeding the maximum driving time by a driver and we ended up 4th with mixed feelings: we didn’t win the race and the incident compromised our pace, but every car had their own problems and #5 won, even after two massive accidents and a broken tail. That was another great example of Sebring’s unpredictability. So many things can happen throughout these races, everything can change and nothing can be taken for granted. We had to be happy for achieving a 4th place with a car that just wasn’t at its best. Now we need to see what could have been done better and get ready for the next one.
I know that incidents will happen to those who are fast and leading the race but I’ll only be able to manage my frustration regarding this race when I do the next one and win. Nothing is guaranteed, nothing is settled, I have to go back to that level that people think it’s easy to be in. It’s easy to think I’ll be in the car and I’ll be first but everyone else is really good too, it’s never easy. I have to face this result naturally, the same way when I win because afterwards comes the constant quest to be fast. I never quit.
Truth is that IMSA races are very competitive: we have the 5 first cars in the leading lap only 2 seconds apart; that doesn’t happen in Formula 1 nor any other sprint race. It shows the level of competitiveness of this championship and the difficulty around winning these races.
Back in Portugal, on March 25th, 2021, I received the Vote of Congratulation from the Assembleia da República, a very special moment and a great honor to see the people that run the future of my country, doing a standing ovation and congratulating me for my career.