The Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts always will have a special place in the hearts of No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3 co-drivers Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen.
It was at this race last year when those two drivers and then-co-driver Mario Farnbacher broke through to win the GT Daytona (GTD) class, the first victory for Mercedes-AMG in just its second IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship start. It was an especially sweet victory for Keating, as it was his first at Sebring and helped to erase the memories of the race two years earlier, when an almost certain victory fell by the wayside due to a mechanical issue within mere minutes of the checkered flag.
“Last year’s win at Sebring was huge for us in many ways,” Keating said. “It was the first Mercedes-AMG sports car win in IMSA and the first in the 12-hour race for a Mercedes in 60 years. As a team, we had been so close in previous years only to fall short each time, so it was extremely nice to finally claim a victory at Sebring. The 12-hour race has such a great history, and it means so much to me personally to say that I’ve won the race.”
He and the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports program, which includes Bleekemolen and new co-driver Luca Stolz, will get a chance to defend that victory in this year’s 66th running of he Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on Saturday.
While last year’s win was Keating’s first at Sebring, it was win No. 2 in the Twelve Hours for Bleekemolen. He also won in 2013 in the American Le Mans Series GTC class with another current GTD competitor — No. 63 Ferrari driver Cooper MacNeil — and Dion von Moltke. But it was last year’s win that is freshest in the Dutchman’s mind.
“I have such good memories of our win last year,” Bleekemolen said. “The race went perfect, we led most of it and then right at the end we dropped down to third because of an unlucky yellow. I made a pass for the lead at turn 17 and stayed out at front afterwards. Sebring is one of the biggest endurance races in the world, so to win it for Mercedes-AMG was really cool.”
Bleekemolen believes the conditions may be ripe for another Mercedes-AMG victory this year.
“The competition is going to be very hard as we look to repeat this year,” he said. “Our car will be very heavy, which means tire degradation will be higher too. But I know with a perfect race we can do really well. Sebring is probably the best track on the calendar for our Mercedes-AMG. So even with a lot of weight I expect we can fight for it, and that’s what we are going to do.”
Keating agrees with his longtime co-driver’s assessment. In his opinion, the tough 3.74-mile Sebring International Raceway layout is just what the doctor ordered for the No. 33 team.
“I expect the Mercedes-AMG GT3 to be strong at Sebring because this track suits our car more than most tracks,” Keating said. “It handles the bumps well, it handles the high-speed turns well and it brakes well. The Mercedes-AMG GT3 likes Sebring but the field of competitors has become much better than last year.
“I expect the race to be closer this year than last. The GTD cars seem very closely balanced, but I still think the bumps at Sebring favor the Mercedes-AMG GT3. Many of the competitors run their cars so stiff that the bumps hurt traction.
“I love this race and the place. The history, the fans, the craziness and the history of the crazy fans. The uniqueness of the track makes it interesting. The fact that there is nothing else like it makes it interesting, and I really love the long races. This is the second longest race we do, so I love the 12 hours of racing.”