Did you know that the legendary track in Sebring was founded by the Russian emigrant? It was him who brought the idea of the Le Mans marathon to the USA.SMP Racing team is preparing for the next rounds of the 2018/2019 WEC super season. The winter break has come to an end quickly and important races are to be run: Sebring, Spa and Le Mans. The start of the 1000 miles of Sebring race will be given on March 15 and the cars will hit the track, which is very popular among motorsport fans, although few know about the Russian contribution to its construction.
Who is Alec Ulmann?The famous race track Sebring, like the Silverstone Circuit in England, initially was built on the site of Hendricks Army Airfield. During the Second World War it served as a training base for the US Air Force, and later it was used by the civil aviation. Probably, Sebring airfield would have just remained a regional aerodrome if it wasn’t the idea of the Russian immigrant Alec Ulmann.
Alec Ulmann was born in the beginning of the twentieth century in St. Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire. His father was a big fan of cars and passed it down to the son. It was in Russia where Alec became very interested in racing, watching competitions along the route St. Petersburg-Moscow in 1908. By the time he was ten, he got a driving license and easily drove family’s Benz, the brand without the prefix Mercedes back then.
When the revolution in Russia broke out, Ulmans had to leave the country. At first, they stayed for a while in Switzerland and later moved to the USA. There Alexander changed his name for a shorter version Alec, got a degree in the field of aviation technology, graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In addition, he got a pilot license.
He also did not forget about his passion for racing. At the end of the Second World War, he became one of the founding members of the American Sports Car Club (SCCA), the organizer of various motorsport competitions in the United States. The first competitions under the aegis of the SCCA were held in Watkins Glen in 1948.
After a visit to Le Mans, Ulman came up with the idea of organizing a marathon race in the United States, which in time would gain the same fame and prestige. And he chose an airfield in Sebring, which, he, as an engineer, knew very well.
It didn't work out with Formula 1, but endurance racing was a perfect match.
The first competition in Sebring, lasting six hours, took place on the eve of 1950, and two years later, on March 15, 1952, the debut race “12 hours of Sebring” was organized, which later was ranked equally with the legendary daily marathons in Le Mans, Spa and Daytona.
And in 1959, Sebring track had the honor of hosting the first US Grand Prix in the history of the Formula 1 World Championship (not taking into an account the Indy 500 world championship). In that race, the fate of the title was decided between Jack Brabham from Australia and two drivers Tony Brooks and Stirling Moss from the UK. Two British drivers could not reach the finish line, and the fourth place of the Australian was enough for him to become a champion. The winner of the race was the New Zealander Bruce McLaren, Brabham’s teammate in Cooper, who for more than half a century had the title of the youngest winner of the F1 Grand Prix.
But to the disappointment of Ulman, who was the main promoter of the first US Grand Prize in history, there were not that many people, who were interested in watching the fight of not so well-known drivers in America. Therefore, the next year the American F1 round moved to the Riverside International Raceway and Formula 1 has never returned to Sebring.
But, like the French Le Mans, where the was also only one F1 race, Sebring became widely known for its endurance race. After the debut marathon in 1952, "12 hours of Sebring" did not take place only in 1974 because of the energy crisis. The race starts in the light of day and finishes at night.
The history of "American Le Mans"
During its history, the 12-hour marathon at Sebring was included in the tests of various championships. The second race at the former military airfield in Florida was already included in the World Championship of sports cars (the predecessor of the modern WEC series). Since 1973, marathon was a part of the North American championships - IMSA, ALMS, USCC. In 1981 and 2012, at the same time as the American national series it was included in the calendar of the World Endurance Championships.
"12 hours of Sebring" has always been considered a good testing ground for participation in the daily marathon at Le Mans. In 2006, it was in Sebring that Audi won a historic victory with its new R10 car - this was the first success of a prototype with a diesel engine.
However, the champion of Sebring among car brands is Porsche (the Stuttgart company was the strongest in the 12-hour race 18 times). Danish driver Tom Kristensen won the Florida marathon six times, which made him an absolute leader there.
This year a new chapter will be written in the history of races in Sebring. There will be the 67th time of IMSA's traditional Sebring 12-hour race on March 16. Before it, there will be a separate 1000 miles of Sebring race, the sixth round of the FIA WEC Super Season 2018/2019.
At first, there was an idea to make two races last for 12 hours - separately for the World Cup and the American IMSA series. However, it was decided that the American round of the WEC will have a length of 1000 miles (the time limit is eight hours). The race will take place on Friday, March 15th.
The current configuration of the track has a length of just over six kilometers with 17 turns, several long straight lines (the main one is named after the founder Alec Ulman, who passed away in 1986) and technically very difficult slow sections. The track has asphalt and concrete bumpy surface that makes it a real endurance test for both drivers and cars.
The SMP Racing team is planning to maximize its potential and fight for the podium with the new prototype BR1 in the LMP1 class, that had a success at the end of last year. Brandon Hartley, the two-time world champion in endurance racing, the winner of Le Mans marathon and the former F1 driver, joins the Russian team for the race in Sebring. He will drive the car#11 alongside Vitaly Petrov and Mikhail Aleshin, who (together with Jenson Button) were on the podium of the previous WEC round in Shanghai.
SMP Racing driver Mikhail Aleshin unlike his teammates has already competed at Sebring, though in the American IndyCar series. He shared his opinion about the track: “Sebring itself is a very old track. Previously, it was a military airfield. It seems to me that since then there has not been much changed, especially in terms of surface. The main feature is that the surface is very old with a lot of bumps, so there will be a large load on the suspension of the car and us, the drivers. Sebring is used as a permanent Indycar race track. I drove there for many times, but along a different configuration of the track. At this race we will drive a long version of it. I think that the surface is going to be quite rough, so this will be a special, interesting race. It will definitely be a lot of fun.”
SMP Racing drivers Egor Orudzhev and Stephan Sarrazin welcome Sergey Sirtokin to their car#17. The reserve Renault F1 driver will drive with them in the two upcoming races of the FIA WEC super season 2018/2019. It will be his debut race in the LMP1 class in Florida.
Sergey Bednaruk for SMP Racing