SEBRING, FLORIDA – Summer like temperatures across all four days of International GT Sebring Round 1 were an unexpected and sharp contrast from a year ago as a 35 car field took on the bumps of Sebring.
In Q1 and Q2 Juan Lopez-Santini topped the time charts in the #74 Porsche 997 GT3-R. Rob Blake landed P3 for the Sprint Race Grid on Saturday morning, placing the #24 Porsche 991 GT3-R right behind Lopez-Santini at the race start. P2 was secured by the #76 Audi R8 Ultra driven by Alex Welch.
Saturday morning’s Sprint Race was incident free and the top 3 finished just as they qualified. Lopez-Santini, Welch and Blake quickly separated from the rest of the field and maintained a fairly uniform gap between each other until Lopez-Santini stretched his lead a bit more halfway through the race. Blake gained momentum late in the race, closing the gap between his 991-R and the P2 Audi to 0.87 seconds with one lap to go until a mistake in T5 cost some time and any chance to challenge Welch was gone.
“After the first few laps (Alex) and I were pretty much maintaining the same gap so I had to try something different to knock it down…and it worked. My crew was telling me the spread between us each lap so I was digging to make it close at least at the end. The last lap I knew I had to get a really good launch out of T5 but I pushed too hard (Blake laughing)…I’m pretty sure Alex looked in his rear view and saw me drifting thru T5 and that was it. No catching him after that, but boy it was fun having Alex and his R8 here.”
Juan Lopez-Santini enjoyed a comfortable 6 second gap and cruised to victory overall, and in class, proving the 997 GT3-R is still a very competitive platform.
The grid for Sprint 2 changed due to the lap times from Sprint 1. Blake edged Welch by a tenth putting the #24 P2 at the Start. Blake’s co driver for the event, Elliott Skeer, is no stranger to motorsport competition and was slated to run the second race solo for additional seat time and not scored in the official results. Skeer is the 2015 Porsche GT3 Cup IMSA Champion who was supported by Wright Motorsports.
Official scoring for Sprint 2 put Lopez-Santini P1 again, followed by Welch, Mark Greenberg in the #421 Porsche 991.2 Cup, Tom Pank piloting the #42 Porshce 997.2 Cup and Matt Joffee in his newly acquired #99 Porsche 991 GT3 Cup MR making up the Top 5.
When the Green flag waved things got interesting very quickly as Blake glued himself to the bumper of Lopez-Santini through T1 moving him to P2, while the co driver of the #99 Porsche 991 GT3-Cup MR Lonnie Pechnik made a signature move on the outside thru T1 to quickly pick up three positions with Welch next in line.
For the opening 2-3 laps, Lopez-Santini, Blake, Pechnik , and Welch were virtually connected nose to tail. The leaders then began to separate as Lopez-Santini, Pechnik and Welch found their groove and Blake ducked in the pits early to get one of the two required 5 minute pit stops out of the way.
The field shuffled as a FCY on Lap 8 occurred and the #24 of Blake/Skeer found themselves being able to complete both required 5 minute pit stops in the first 16 minutes of the race. Full of fuel and Skeer now at the wheel, sights were on the overall win.
Skeer worked through traffic at a blazing clip; setting the fastest time of the weekend at 2:02.1 ET. It was only on the last lap that an Audi LMP1 was able to pass Skeer and take the overall race win. A gap of only 2.8 secs separated the Porsche and Audi, but the effort secured an overall P1 for Blake/Skeer in the IGT race.
Lopez-Santini would finish P2, followed by Matt Joffe / Lonnie Pechnik in P3 to round out the Top 3 of the International GT Sebring Enduro.
“Growing up in the mid 2000’s and watching Audi R8s, Astons…and to actually be on track with them…this is unreal. This is some of the most fun I’ve ever had in racing,” Skeer remarked as he and Blake accepted the first place Enduro trophy on the Podium.
As the #74 Porsche 997 GT3-R heads into a maintenance cycle, Blake and Lopez-Santini will rejoin in a single car entry for the #24 991 GT3-R at IGT Round 3 / Road America May 16-19, 2019.