In only its second race with its latest new car, the BMW M8 GTE, BMW Team RLL has secured the top spot in GT Le Mans class qualifying for Saturday’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, Round 2 of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

Connor De Phillippi took the No. 25 BMW M8 to a best time of 1:55.839 around the 3.74-mile Sebring International Raceway circuit.

This is a considerably impressive effort because it’s a new chassis, after the team had an incident during the February test here which required repairs.

“We’ve been on it since Daytona. The guys have poured their hearts into this project. Obviously at the Sebring test we had a slight hiccup, and the team had to build a new car. I think this performance today really goes to them. It shows what they’ve done since then over the last couple weeks. All the long hours,” he said.

De Phillippi led Friday morning’s practice session, which was held in significantly cooler conditions than the afternoon qualifying session. Per Michelin engineers, the temperatures rose from 48 degrees ambient and 53 on track up to 80 ambient and 100 on track for qualifying.

“That was a question mark for all of us,” De Phillippi said of the changing temperatures. “This was our first time to get comfortable in the car. We overshot it compared to yesterday, balance wise. We tried to find the balance in the middle. I was super happy with the car. It’s just a testament to what they’ve put in the last couple weeks.”

The young American, named to the BMW Team RLL factory team this year after a successful GT3 career, shares the No. 25 car with Alexander Sims and Bill Auberlen. Auberlen is in his 25th Sebring race, and does so in the same number car.

Risi Competizione slotted into second with the class-lone No. 62 Ferrari 488 GTE, qualified by James Calado. The Englishman was just 0.058 off the pace. These two cars were under last year’s pole lap, a 1:55.939 by Ryan Briscoe in the No. 67 Ford GT.

Jesse Krohn was third in the second BMW, the No. 24 car.

The remaining two cars from Ford, Porsche and Corvette complete the nine-car class, with the pair of Fords in fourth and fifth, the Porsches split in sixth and eighth and the two Corvettes split in seventh and ninth.

Corvette Racing seeks its fourth consecutive victory at Sebring this weekend, while Ford Chip Ganassi Racing is looking to complete a “36 Hours of Florida” sweep of both Sebring and January’s Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Tristan Vautier (1:47.732, P and overall) and Daniel Serra (1:58.710, GTD) scored the other two class pole positions. Vautier will roll off in the No. 90 Spirit of Daytona Racing Cadillac DPi.V-R and Serra in the No. 51 Spirit of Race Ferrari 488 GT3.

Television coverage begins Saturday at 10:30 a.m. ET on FS1, with coverage spread across the FOX Sports Networks. IMSA Radio has live flag-to-flag radio coverage.

This year’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring boasts “tremendous” potential, featuring several new components as part of the weekend slate.

Sebring International Raceway track president Wayne Estes noted the momentum the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is gathering along with a couple other Sebring-specific events.

Beyond the on-track activity, Estes highlighted the Michelin Pilot Experience On Track event and Craig Morgan country music concert, both held on Friday evening, as key items fans, observers and onlookers should pay attention to this year.

“First and foremost, the IMSA WeatherTech series has more new cars and new teams this year than for a long time in memory,” Estes said. “Seeing drivers like Montoya, Castroneves, Pagenaud, etc. being added, there are so many Indy 500 winners competing in this event.

“At Sebring Raceway you can’t impact those things. You have to put on a different show. We are constantly trying to do new things. We’ll have a Craig Morgan concert on Friday night, so 12 hours before the 12 hours. He’s a country artist that appeals to the crowd that comes here, and that’ll be something new and different for us.”

Michelin is the Official Tire of Sebring International Raceway. Estes said Friday night’s on-track event along with the track’s activation plans will be fun to watch.

“The Michelin product introduction here will be tremendous and something people will notice,” Estes said. “We’ve had a lot of fun with Michelin the last couple years, with the graffiti artists (see right, from 2017) who have been here and made their mark on the property in different places.

“I think we’ll try something new this year that fans will no doubt take notice of. We’ll put it right in their face!”

Estes was drawn into last year’s race, and wound up watching portions of it as a fan from Sebring’s fabled and notorious “Green Park.”

“I’m a firm believer that the real race fans here, are in Green Park,” he said.

“This race track is divided into three or four sections, really. The midway is mostly vendors and displays. The paddock side is competitors. The fans are in Green Park. So I always want to get out there and mix it up with those people; I want to see what they see, and find out their interests.

“I got on the fence in Turn 10 and I couldn’t tear myself away… Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche, Ford and BMW were all over each other at 3 p.m. in the afternoon! They were racing as if it was a 20-minute sprint race. These guys were killing it! It’s such a tremendous class.”

Bill Auberlen is “all about 25” at this weekend’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

Auberlen will be making his 25th start at Sebring, and does so in the No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW M8 GTE. This will slot him up to second on Sebring’s all-time starts list.

Auberlen will share the No. 25 car with full-season drivers Connor De Phillippi and Alexander Sims. BMW has built a new chassis this weekend following an incident at Turn 17 here in the February test.

A bullish Auberlen is keen on the BMW’s improvements from Daytona this week.

“I believe we are all – drivers and engineers – getting to know and understand the BMW M8 GTE,” he said. “We are getting closer to a set-up, the car is proving to be reliable, and I am really looking forward to my 25th start at Sebring. I am betting on the number 25.

“BMW’s first endurance racing victory in North America came at Sebring in 1975 with BMW 3.0 CSL number 25. This year is my 25th Sebring and I’m driving number 25. 25 – all the way.”

Drivers and team members from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship preview this weekend’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

Oliver Gavin, No. 4 Corvette C7.R: “Sebring for so many years was the start of our racing season. Now we have the Rolex 24 At Daytona, but physically Sebring is much harder. The physicality of the track, speed of the circuit and how the race unfolds is a big challenge.

“It’s the night, the lights, the bumps into Turn 17 and Turn One, braking for Turn Three, seeing where the sand comes on the track at turns Five and Seven… Turn 17 is one of the craziest and hardest corners on any track in the U.S. It’s a wide ride and that really sums up the Sebring circuit. You feel like you are on a bucking bronco the whole time and are trying at times to hang on a bit.”

Jens Marquardt, BMW Motorsport Director: “(At Daytona) the car couldn’t show its true potential yet. That’s why BMW and IMSA will continue their productive and open talks and have agreed to find an appropriate BoP assessment for the upcoming events starting with Sebring, allowing the BMW M8 GTE to show its true performance for the benefit of the series, BMW and all of our fans.”

Rick Mayer, race engineer, No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari F488 GTE: “Based on last years ‘true’ performance potential and the BoP changes to this year, you’d have to favor the Corvettes followed closely by the Porsche’s, Ford’s and finally the Ferrari. The BMWs could mix this up once their true pace is shown.

“The weather could alter this ranking as the tire choices offered don’t suit every car the same; some cars run more relatively competitive in the hot and other on a cool track. We might not know the true performance until night falls in the closing stages of the race.”

Ryan Briscoe, No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT: “We’re only one race into the season, so there’s a lot of work ahead of us. The competition is going to be tough. I think Sebring as always is going to be a true test. It’s one of the toughest tracks on the circuit for a lot of reasons.

“The racing is hard; it’s a long race. I hope we’ll be prepared enough to compete well, but I have no expectations it’s going to be easy.”

Earl Bamber, No. 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR: “Since our memorable 50-hour test with the 911 RSR [prior to the 2017 season], I know every curb at Sebring. I’m really looking forward to this cool race with masses of fans and its great atmosphere.

“After Daytona, we’re obviously under a bit more pressure. However, we can’t afford to let that make us crazy. One decent result at Sebring and everyone will quickly forget about the not-so-convincing start of the season.”

Experts claim that more than 90 percent of a driver’s sensory input comes through the eyes. It is principally for this reason that modern high-fidelity vehicle simulators are so successful in driver preparation and race car set-up. That standard is put to an extreme test at Sebring International Raceway as drivers’ pound around the fast, but notoriously bumpy 3.74-mile former airport circuit where Michelin tires play a key role in delivering a consistent, fast and well-balanced ride.

“Drivers can’t see the track edge, their braking points, or the read the bumps if the car is bouncing around. Gyrating eyeballs are not happy eyeballs,” said Chris Baker, director of motorsport, Michelin North America.

That is especially true in the darkness for the final three hours of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, on Saturday March 17, (FOX Sports 1 and 2) the second stop on the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Balancing the bounces

“Our Michelin GT Le Mans (GTLM) class partners, the factory linked teams from BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Ford, and Porsche, try to manage the bumps in two ways; first by controlling the balance between compression damping over the bumps and the rebound damping,” said Baker.

Teams want their cars to be fast, consistent and to withstand the rigors of the circuit, which strains suspension pieces, gearboxes, drivetrains, tires and drivers to the limits. Michelin plays an important role in finding that balance as the tires take the initial impact or compression when the car hits the bumps. Almost instantaneously thereafter, the cars’ suspensions, which have much lower vertical spring rates than do the tires, begin to move.  The greater the level of compression, the greater the forces to be managed on the rebound.

“We have designed our Michelin racing tires to be robust in dealing with those potentially-dampening impacts, which in turn enables the teams to focus on controlling suspension deflection through carefully matching the choice of springs with shock absorber tuning,” said Baker.

“A stable car is not only quicker and more consistent, it will provide a better visual platform for the driver to attack or defend positions. It is really simple; a driver has to be able to see in order to go fast.”

Getting and keeping a grip

While managing the Sebring bumps is essential, the grip levels of the circuit change throughout the race, making the selection of the Michelin cool, medium, or hot temperature tires equally important.

The majority of the circuit is asphalt, but about a third of the circuit is concrete, so the grip level changes from surface to surface several times each lap. There are also a significant temperature differences between the two surfaces, they can vary by as much as 10-15 degrees (F) during the day, and the concrete sections cool more quickly after sunset (7:35pm).

As Rick Mayer, race engineer for the famed Risi Competizione Ferrari GTLM team notes, “The track changes so much as it gets hot, as it rubbers in during the race, and then again at the end when it gets cold at the end of the race. You will run a different compound mix at the race start, the heat of the day, and at night.”

Michelin embeds a race tire engineer with each of its GTLM teams to help monitor tire performance and selection of the appropriate Michelin tire options and pressures. Staying on top of the rapidly-changing conditions is a particular challenge at Sebring and is why both Michelin’s engineers and the teams they support are often as (or more) exhausted at the end of 12 hours of racing at Sebring than they are after 24 hours of racing at Daytona or at Le Mans.