Round 2 of the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge (CTSC) took place on a gorgeous day at Sebring International Raceway. The Visit Sebring 120 would prove to be an exciting race and usher in the new era of 2 hour races (down from 2:30).
The ST field would consist of 18 cars this round. All the teams had an early start to the day as the third practice session took place at 8:00 AM. It was immediately followed by qualifying in which Derek Jones put in a great lap time of 2:22.972 to give the 73 car a starting position of 5th. Mike Lamarra and Jared Salinsky would qualify 12th and 17th respectively.
With the cars all lined up and coming toward the green the 73 experienced an issue. Jones had to drop to the back of the field before he was able to get everything situated. After such a strong qualifying effort this was a disappointment as he would have to fight his way through the entire field.
Jones didn’t waste any time making his move toward the front. Fifteen minutes into the event he had already fought his way up to 8th place followed by Lamarra in 9th and the 52 was in 13th.
Lamarra seemed to be holding his own until the 37 developed electrical issues. Lamarra had to stop the car on track and struggled to get the car going and operating normal again. Needless to say that caused the 37 to fall back far in the field. Luckily Lamarra was able to stay on the lead lap.
With an hour and twenty minutes remaining the 59 Mustang stopped on the track after having an issue with steering and shut the car off. He was unable to get it re-started which led to a full course caution.
Drivers are required to complete 45 minutes of drive time in order for them to earn points. With the caution coming out after 40 minutes there was some concern that it would ruin the strategy for many teams. And while this proved to be an issue for the GS class the pits didn’t open for the ST class until after 45 minutes had elapsed.
All three MINIs entered the pits for service and driver changes. The 73 struggled a bit to get going at the end of their service which trapped the other two MINIs behind them for a moment.
After 20 minutes of racing things weren’t looking much better for the team. The 73 had fallen back to 8th and the 52 had dropped back to 15th. Only Vance had improved his position as he made his way to 11th.
With 30 minutes to go Mat Pombo had found his groove. He fought fiercely with the 31 Porsche and 2 Mazdas. They traded positions 6 thru 9 lap after lap, one driver getting the better of the other each time around.
With 25 minutes left another full course caution came out. The four car battle the 73 was in was quite a ways back from the top 5 cars leading the class. This looked like an excellent opportunity for the 73 to get caught back up to the leaders.
The overall leader of the race happened to be in between Mat Pombo and the 5 leading ST cars, meaning they were separated when the safety car picked up the field. With one to go until the green came out IMSA finally allowed the the group of ST cars in the middle of the GS class to get the wave around.
Pombo and company mashed the gas, doing their best to get caught up the leading ST cars before the green came out. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time and Pombo would restart 25 seconds behind the leaders.
With such a large gap to the leaders there was nothing Pombo could do to catch up to them with only about 15 minutes left in the event. He did well to keep a firm grasp on the 6th position.
With the race winding down some luck fell MINI’s way. Two of the top five leaders ran low on fuel and this allowed Pombo to move up the 4th place where he would finish the race.
The 37 and 52 struggled to advance in the closing stages and would finish in 11th and 13th.
It was a tough race weekend at times for the MINI JCW Team. On Wednesday the 37 would blow an engine in testing, leaving the team to scramble to get a new one in before the next mornings practice sessions. The 52 with new sponsor Fuse Lenses and driver Jared Salinsky never quite got the car where it needed to be to contend in the race. Though the livery sure was something to look at.
In the end a 4th place finish was a success based upon comments made by Derek Jones earlier in the week.
Sebring is tough for the MINI. The tight transition corners and the low adhesion are difficult to overcome with our powerplant and dynamic stability control.
The finish coupled with the win at Daytona leaves the 73 at a good place in the championship standings. The 37 and 52 still have some work to do to catch up to the consistent finishes of the 73.
The next race on the schedule will be the 2 hour event at the Circuit of the Americas on May 5th. This event comes much earlier this season and could be good news for the team. All three MINIs finished in the top 10 at last years event and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to do it again.