It was a long day for Nissan Signatech racing, and a longer one for Lucas Ordoñez, the "digital kid" who won Nissan's first GT Academy. The team's inaugural 12 Hours of Sebring culminated in a nail-biter of a second-place finish. [UPDATE]
Ordoñez scored a seat in Nissan's first American sports-car-racing effort since 1994, after playing the crap out of GT5 Prologue, besting contenders in a bona-fide race car in the Academy's high-profile contest at the UK's Silverstone circuit and then performing for real in European GT4 competition.
During the first hours of the Sebring 12 (officially, the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring), Signatech Nissan dominated the LMP2 class, at one point leading by 10 laps. Ordoñez was the second man up, taking the controls ahead of the race's third hour. The 25-year-old Spaniard struggled to find his rhythm, turning in lap times seconds slower than those of his teammates, the 40-year-old open-wheel and sports car veteran Soheil Ayari and 25-year-old F3 and Le Mans Series racer Franck Mailleux. Two spinouts later, Ordoñez needed some good luck.
It wasn't to be, initially. By lap 78, during Ordoñez's first session, a gearbox-related software problem sent the team's only car into the pits, dropping it down the short LMP2 standings list by 15 laps to the bottom of the LMP2 rankings — good news for rivals Level 5 Motorsports and Oak Racing. Ironic that the digital kid's team was being plagued by algorithmic snags.
By the sixth hour, rival Christophe Bouchut was leading the LMP2 field in Level 5 Motorsports' Lola-Honda coupe, five laps ahead of Level 5's second car driven by Luis Diaz. Diaz brought out the sixth full-course caution of the race when he lost power at turn two.
But Mailleux and Ayari fought back and by the seventh hour the team was back on top. By the eighth hour, Ordoñez was hitting his stride, turning in consistent, sub-two-minute lap times to fend off advances by Level 5. Ordoñez and Signatech Nissan were still running 22 laps off the overall lead, but ahead of the team's closest LMP2 competitor — Florida native Ryan Hunter-Reay in the Lola Honda — by five laps.
Then, nearly halfway through the ninth hour, and just after race officials imposed a 60-second penalty on the team for a crew member's failing to wear goggles during refueling at the driver change, the same gearbox software issues again flummoxed Signatech Nissan technicians. As before, the delay allowed Level 5 to quickly catch up, with Hunter-Reay again assuming the LMP2 lead.
Rules changes for 2011 mandated LMP2 teams use production-based engines, which Nissan officials acknowledge gave the company an efficient path to supporting a Le Mans prototype race car. Teaming up with France's Signature Racing, Nissan supplied a Nismo-Zytec version of its 4.5-liter VK45DE, based on the V8 engine family that powers the Nissan Titan, Armada and Pathfinder. Nissan's history at Sebring is worth noting; the company dominated at the 12-hour endurance race during the early 1990s, with four overall wins — in 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1994.
Here at Sebring, Signatech Nissan's biggest rival, Wisconsin-based Level 5, is fielding a Lola-built chassis powered by a version of Honda's global 2.8-liter HR28TT V6, twin-turbocharged and tweaked by Honda Performance Development.
With just two hours left, Ordoñez and the team remained off pace, the reoccurring software issues holding it to 10 laps behind Level 5's Hunter-Reay at the checkered flag. Still, a solid effort from a team that displayed good chemistry among the three drivers at a press conference on Friday afternoon. Neither of the race veterans displayed animosity over their teammate's rise from couch to racing seat.
Alas, in the end, digital giveth, and digital taketh away.