The team’s endurance race third driver Heylen took pole by a stunning 0.7sec, and in his opening race stint in the Porsche 911 GT3R was able to pull 20sec clear of the opposition, although this was reduced to virtually nothing during a caution period.
However, after taking the wheel for the first time, Bronze-rated Wright Motorsports full-timer Ryan Hardwick would eventually find himself struggling to get the car to turn through right-handers due to excess vibration at the left-rear of the rear-engined car. Subsequently, he fell down the order, even before becoming the victim of the #4 Corvette spewing water on the track on the run down to Turn 17, a situation that also caused the two Lexus RC Fs to crash and the Hardpoint Racing Audi R8 to skid straight on.
Hardwick recovered from the spin but still suffered through the car’s inherent mechanical issue at the rear end.
“I drove the car for three hours and I was like 'Guys, it’s really bad'. I'm not the best at diagnosing the problems… like – “It goes left really good but I can't get through [Turn] 17 to save my life! And Pat gets in it finally after I struggle, and in 10 minutes he's like, 'Fellas, we have a shock going down'.”
Asked when the shock absorber failed, Long replied: “Just after Ryan did a tremendous triple stint, I jumped in, assessed it, thought I knew what it was. On the next yellow [the team] pulled the left rear wheel off and inspected it and understood what the implications would be for a shock change and decided we had enough pace even with that so we went for it.
“It wasn't easy. The car would start to porpoisem especially in the high speed right hand corners and you never really knew where it was going to end, especially at the end of Turn 17. So Jan and I basically tag teamed. There were a lot of different strategies out there, a lot of pace from all different cars, just difficult to fight because you really didn't know where the car was going to land and we didn't want to take anybody out. So it was a tricky day for sure.
“Basically the car was very difficult in left to rights, there was a lot of cross weight, locking of front wheels, and just tremendous migraine headache from bouncing my head off the roll bar! It’s a testament to the car because literally everything on the left rear was compressed and shaken to bits. These cars are built tough. I love the Porsche people who said, 'Oh yeah, you'll be fine!'
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“The axles were taking a beating, there was a lot of wheel spin because the car would start bouncing and the rear wheels would lose contact with the road.”
After a brave pass around the outside of Mario Farnbacher in the Acura NSX of GTD champions Meyer Shank Racing, Long was running third at the final restart when Lawson Aschenbach in the Riley Motorsports Mercedes-Benz AMG GT3 made a rare mistake that saw him run into the GTLM class-leading BMW M8 of Connor de Phillippi that sent the BMW onto the grass and collecting the GTD-leading Ferrari 488 of Scuderia Corsa. The impact also damaged the Mercedes’ front end, allowing the Wright Porsche to duck through into the lead, although Long then had to fight off a challenge from Roman de Angelis in the Heart of Racing Aston Martin Vantage.
“He had actually passed me on the back straightaway through a kind
of a check up after that incident on that restart lap,” said Long, for whom this was a fourth Sebring win. “I was able to cut underneath him in Turn 17. Once I got into clean air, I just set sail and put absolute qualifying laps in. The way that all these cars make their pace is different and for us it’s about being in clean air and making the braking zones count. We don't really have the straight line speed, so in the end it was just about digging in.”
The result lifted Long and Hardwick from fourth to second in the GTD championship, just two points behind Farnbacher and Matt McMurry, having scored three other podium finishes, three more top fives and never having finished lower than ninth.
Former Champ Car racer Heylen commented: "Sebring's never easy. It sure was a tough race for us tonight. We had good pace despite the shock issue we had, which set up for a tough race for all of us.
“Every stint was a battle, which Sebring always is, and that's why we all come here and love it.
“Great win for the team, for these guys next to me and I'm just happy to be a part of it.”
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