SEBRING, Fla. – On Monday morning, the weather forecast for Sebring, Fla., included rain later in the week, and a lot of it.
A few hours later, as the predicted track of Tropical Storm Eta moved dramatically to the west, what had been expected to be torrential rain was reduced to possible drizzle.
By Wednesday, the storm turned eastward again, upgraded to a Category 1 hurricane. It battered Tampa-St. Petersburg, forcing the closure of Tampa International Airport, while its outer bands brought rain and wind to Sebring.
The latest forecast had Eta quickly leaving the area Thursday, but still dropping rain on practice sessions, with possible showers forecast for Saturday’s race.
In other words, it could be dry. Or a little wet. Or a combination of both.
Welcome to Florida’s unpredictable weather, a longtime nemesis of drivers and teams preparing for Saturday’s 68th annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts.
Imagine trying to prepare a race car contending for a championship in uncertain weather conditions. Imagine trying to prepare it for race conditions that have yet to come into focus.
That’s what’s facing Felipe Nasr, Pipo Derani, Gabby Chaves and their team as they get ready for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship finale at Sebring Int’l Raceway – the former airfield turned racetrack in Central Florida.
“When it rains at Sebring, it can make it pretty difficult for everyone,” Derani said. “It’s a very flat track, and it’s not an easy place when the rain comes. Nevertheless, it’s also very fun to drive, even if it’s super, super wet. If there is rain, I hope it’s not that much, so we can run.”
Running is the key for Nasr, Derani and Chaves. They’re third in team standings in the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi, nine points behind the leading No. 7 Acura Team Penske Acura ARX-05 DPi shared by Ricky Taylor, Helio Castroneves and Alexander Rossi.
Renger van der Zande, Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon are second in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R, two points behind the No. 7 Acura.
Derani is third in the DPi driver standings, while Nasr, who missed a race earlier this season after testing positive for COVID-19, is in eighth place.
Championships will be longshots for Nasr, Derani and Chaves when Saturday’s race begins at 10:10 a.m. ET. Rain or shine, though, they like their chances.
“Whether it’s rain or dry, I think we have a great car,” Nasr said. “Hopefully, the conditions are drivable. At the end of the day, you want to make sure all the cars can run. That way we can put on a show. I love that place, man. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or dry.”
Weather isn’t all the team is trying to sort out as it tries to chase down championships. It’s also dealing with a dramatic change in light from what drivers usually experience in the 12 Hours of Sebring.
Saturday’s race, moved from its usual spring date because of the pandemic, will provide approximately two more hours of darkness than it would have in March. That means cooler track temperatures for the final four to five hours of the race, along with reduced visibility.
The key, then, is making the most of the dark.
“We’re going to have to maximize what we have at the end of the race,” Derani said. “But I think that’s something that every team and every driver thinks about. It’s better to suffer during the whole day to have a good car at night than the other way around.”
One advantage the No. 31 Cadillac and its drivers have is recent success at Sebring. The team won the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours last year, then followed it with a victory July 18 in the Cadillac Grand Prix at Sebring that was two hours, 40 minutes long.
“It’s no secret,” Nasr said. “I just feel like (the No. 31 engineers) have an edge there to set up the car better, especially over the bumps. … Sebring is a unique place. The tarmac changes a lot. In some parts of the track you feel the car reacting one way, and then it might change over the weekend. I enjoy it a lot. We should use this in our favor.”
About the only chance for championships Saturday for the No. 31 team involves a victory coupled with subpar performances by the cars ahead in points. If the No. 31 wins, the No. 7 must finish sixth or worse and the No. 10 fifth or lower.
“The only thing we can do is win,” Derani said. “If we don’t win, then it won’t change anything for us. … We might be a little bit more aggressive this time around. All we can do is take another Sebring win home, which would be fantastic no matter where we finish the championship.”
After all, it’s Sebring, where the only thing you always know is that you never know what to expect.
“This time around it’s going to be different,” Derani said. “We’re not going to race in March or July. For sure, the weather is going to have an influence in performance. Nevertheless, I think we’re going to have a good car. It couldn’t be any better to go to the last race having Sebring to finish the championship.”