Sebring International Raceway is a place where legends are born and careers are benchmarked. The 6.02-km circuit is revered as one of the most difficult for drivers of any caliber; the mix of asphalt into concrete back into asphalt at full speed is enough to throw you across the width of the track and into the grass. If you’re on the final turn going toward the finish, you hit the wall.
Even with the latest technology, aerodynamics and tire compounds, the World War II-era surface quickly reminds drivers this is a place to respect. Every so often, the ones that do are heavily rewarded.
This spring, the Florida raceway opened to the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) in its 15th and final year before the merger with Grand-Am and the new United SportsCar Racing series takes effect. This year also marked the last full field of Le Mans-classed racers to take the track for the foreseeable future. And, so passed the 61st running of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.
With the top-tier represented by the likes of Audi Sport Team Joest and its R18 e-Tron, Rebellion Racing’s Lola Toyota, there was little doubt heading into the race that the Audis would be dominant at the track, barring any unforeseen faults or failures. The 24 Hours of Le Mans winners finished one-two ahead of the 2012 World Endurance Privateer Champions Rebellions. The Level 5 Honda prototypes won the P2 class, Corvette finished just ahead of Ferrari on the final lap in GT and the Alex Job Porsche 911 GT3 Cup finished tops in the GTC class.
The cars from Audi, Aston-Martin, BMW’s new Z4, Ferrari and the newly-revamped DeltaWing created a fantastic spectacle for the fans, but the real story was in the Prototype Challenge Class, where two young Canadians came to Sebring with the hope of winning one of the world’s most prestigious races.
A native of Barrie, Ontario, Kyle Marcelli is a seasoned veteran of the ALMS. He won the USF2000 Championship in 2008 with nine podium finishes, followed by the Cooper Tires Prototype Lights Championship in 2009, which landed him a spot with Primetime Race Group and its Oreca FLM09 ALMS car in 2010. At just 19-years-old, Marcelli placed fifth in the PC standings that year and has been on the move ever since. In 2011, he finished third in the standings and added a win and third place finish in his only two races in the European Le Mans Series, earning him Michelin’s prestigious ‘Driver of the Year’ award. Last season, Marcelli put another feather in his cap after earning six wins and seven podiums in the IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge Canada series to go along with his two ALMS podiums for Merchant Services (BAR1). This season he returns to ALMS with BAR1, and will race race in the Porsche Carrera Cup Deutschland with the Molitor Racing Systems team, doubling his full-time duties for 2013.Torontonian David Ostella, meanwhile, comes from a considerably different racing background, although the two drivers know each other quite well. A year apart, they used to race karts on the same team in the 80 cc shifter class before the older Marcelli moved up and Ostella went to direct-drive karts. From there the two went in opposite directions, with Ostella opting to try his luck in open wheel racing.
He made his professional debut in 2008 as part of the Formula BMW American series, then to the major junior ranks of Star Mazda with AIM Autosport in 2009, claiming one podium finish and ending the season 13th in the standings. He improved a position the following season before taking a big leap in 2011 to the Firestone Indy Lights Series as a member of Toronto-based team Jensen MotorSport. Finishing fourth in his first race with the team, Ostella was unable to best that mark, but still finished in the top 10 in points. In a pattern of sorts, he finished one place better in 2012 for eighth in the standings after narrowly missing out on his first ever win in the final round at Fontana.
Ostella’s energy is evident on first meeting and, undoubtedly, his determination precedes him. Not achieving the results he hoped for in the open wheel series and experiencing greater pressure to find sponsors, the 21-year-old and his parents set out to explore alternative options to take racing more seriously.
“It was only last year in Indy Lights that we started looking towards sports cars; we always knew they were there, but never really looked into it or the Le Mans series or Grand-Am,” Ostella says. “But last year my dad and I went to my first sports car race at Road America. My manager Ruthie and her partner Gene are involved in IMSA, so they introduced us to some teams and showed us around a little bit.
“The atmosphere is completely different and there’s so much more opportunity. There are double the seats because you need two drivers per car, which also cuts costs and you have manufacturer support as well. So that was the main thing.”
In his hunt to find an open seat, Ostella was invited for a test with PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports, a team rich in racing history with 45 championships in various series, three ALMS wins and a victory in the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. In 2012, the team finished second in the class behind Core Autosport by just a single lap. For 2013, they want to ensure a victory, and Ostella impresses them enough to give him the opportunity to do just that.
“It was literally the fact he did a really good job in testing,” says team owner Bobby Oergel. “We thought he fit the program pretty well, and knew he could definitely go a lot faster with more time in the car.”
It might seem like a gamble to let a relatively unproven driver go into a race like Sebring, but Oergel sees a familiarity and comfort in Ostella when he gets behind the wheel.
“I think the PC is more like a forward sidestep, versus a sedan car where it was a downward step toward the right side. David rose to the occasion every time we asked, so it looked like a very good fit,” Oergel says.
Signing on for a single race deal and the biggest of his career, Ostella qualifies his No. 52 PC third in class and 15th overall behind seasoned professionals Colin Braun, Bruno Junqueira and Pierre Kaffer. Their experience almost automatically gives them the upper hand for the weekend, but Ostella is able to hold his own, qualifying only 0.408 seconds behind Braun and less than a half-second behind Kaffer. Starting immediately behind him is Marcelli, just 0.240 off his pace.
Prior to the race, the PC teams were dealt a wildcard by series officials, who required the Daytona Prototype Continental tire in place of the familiar Michelins. With teams left scrambling, it’s clear strategy would play a key role in the race.
As the cars roll to the start, the flag drops and the Audis speed off. Ostella gets his first taste of Sebring racing, but quickly realizes how quickly the track can bite you. On his first lap, he goes over-aggressive on Junqueira, hits the curb and spins.
“That was all my fault,” Ostella admits. “I kind of bit myself a little bit there. My engineer John and Bobby (Oergel) even said, ‘Take it easy, it’s not open-wheel racing!’ I was in full-on, sprint racing mode and it kind of backfired.”
Two laps in, Marcelli is up to third in the PCs, but his entire heads-up display goes blank, gearshift indicators included. He continues unphased, counting his shifts as he goes.
Ostella puts in some quick laps and, before he knows it, he’s being triple stinted in his first sports car race.
“I’ve never done a race more than an hour, and Bobby kept asking me if I could do another stint. So, I definitely tried to do all I could. Every time I brought it in (to pit lane) I was in the lead, which was pretty awesome,” he recalls.
After Ostella continues to put in quick lap times, it’s clear Oergel’s objective of cutting down last year’s time is working.“The positioning with four hours to go is really what our strategy came down to,” Oergel reveals. “It was figuring out where we needed to be. Our strategy was largely affected by tire wear. Last year the tire was much more durable and it wasn’t as big of an equation, so that was an added challenge.”
Leading Ostella, Marcelli is on the hunt for his first long-distance endurance race, matching Ostella lap for lap in a car that has been plagued with electrical issues throughout the race. Racing without indicator lights, then losing radio communication with his team, Marcelli is driving a limp car at super car speeds. With 40 minutes remaining, he pulls the No. 8 car into the pits for a quick fuel-up, but decides not to change tires. In the PR1 camp, Ostella does the opposite, coming in for tires only.
The strategy seems to work well for Marcelli, who retains his lead by five seconds going into the final pit stop. This time, Marcelli took extra time for tires, while Ostella took on a splash of fuel.
“With 30 minutes left, we’re sitting P2 – that’s when I was pushing 110%,” Ostella remembers. “I knew it was Kyle in the car ahead, so every few laps I asked for the gap. It was nine seconds, then six seconds; he was catching traffic, I was catching traffic, but I was staying as calm as possible. When I could actually see him I said, ‘Okay, here we go. Don’t worry about him, just focus on what you have to do and you’ll catch him!’ Then, once I caught him going through turn 14, 15 and 16, I pulled out passed him in 17 and never looked back. I don’t think I flashed anybody that hard in my life with my high beams, but I just wanted a clear path. It’s unbelievable!”
To win at Sebring is an amazing thing. To have your first sports car win at Sebring is even better. But to race your entire life in open wheel cars, not win a single race, then do it at Sebring in a prototype against some of the world’s best? That’s something to be proud of. Although it was a one-off race for Ostella, Oergel is hoping for a return to the Oreca sometime in the future.
In the meantime, Ostella will race full time in the GT3 Cup Challenge Canada series, following in Marcelli’s footsteps toward the pinnacle of sports car racing.
Not to be outdone, Marcelli’s second place finish in a crippled car continues to show the immense talent he possesses. That will only continue to grow as he completes a 19-race schedule between the ALMS and Carrera Cup.
IndyCar team owner Brian Steward once said, “I ran Paul Tracy and Scott Maxwell, Gualter Salles, Cristiano da Matta – all those guys. All of them were great drivers, but I think Kyle could be better than any of them.”
And if their performances are any indication of the future of Canadian racing, then we are in for one heck of a ride.
Story by Jordan Lenssen | Photography by Gerry Marentette