THE BRI­TONS MAK­ING DREAM DE­BUTS AT DAY­TONA

Bri­tish GT man Seb Mor­ris won a seat in Amer­ica, and showed he earned it.

Motor Sport News - - Headline News - By Gary Watkins

You might have thought it was a pinch-your­self mo­ment for a young driver. You are 15 laps into your maiden Day­tona 24 Hours – your first in­ter­na­tional sportscar event of any kind, let alone your first 24-hour race – and you find your­self in sec­ond place be­hind NASCAR leg­end Jeff Gor­don and ahead of Chris­tian Fit­ti­paldi in the safety car croc­o­dile. It wasn’t for 21-year-old Seb Mor­ris.

The lat­est win­ner of the Sunoco Whe­len Chal­lenge was far from over­awed when he climbed aboard his mount for the first time in the race at Day­tona late last month. And a restart in such ex­alted com­pany was all in a day’s work for a driver who had won a prime seat at the IMSA Sportscar Cham­pi­onship opener in the Ac­tion Ex­press Rac­ing Cadil­lac DPI-V.R en­tered un­der Whe­len En­gi­neer­ing.

Mor­ris calmly moved his Cadil­lac past Gor­don’s Wayne Tay­lor Rac­ing Caddy when the race went green and then pulled a gap on Fit­ti­paldi in the sis­ter Ac­tion Ex­press en­try, which had fol­lowed him through into sec­ond place. And he knew ex­actly who he was rac­ing against.

“The spot­ters let me know who was driv­ing, so I knew I had Gor­don ahead of me and Fit­ti­paldi be­hind, and to be hon­est I wasn’t fazed,” said the Bri­ton, who is en­ter­ing his sec­ond sea­son in sportscar rac­ing af­ter switch­ing from sin­gle-seaters to the Bri­tish GT Cham­pi­onship last year. “I don’t feel pres­sure be­cause it’s not some­thing wired into my brain, but I did fully un­der­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of where I was and what I was do­ing. I’d never done a restart like that, but I in­stinc­tively spot­ted the gaps.”

By the time Mor­ris got out of the car af­ter a triple stint, he was more than 20 sec­onds up the road from the ex-for­mula 1 driver and two-time IMSA champ Fit­ti­paldi, though part of that ad­van­tage was gained in the pits. Not a bad start to a young driver’s in­ter­na­tional sportscar ca­reer.

“I re­ally didn’t feel that I was push­ing that hard,” says Mor­ris, a Mclaren Au­tosport BRDC Award fi­nal­ist in 2013 and 2014. “I felt com­fort­able in the car and just got into a nice rhythm re­ally. Tak­ing the lead and ex­tend­ing our ad­van­tage will go down as one of the big­gest mo­ments, if not the big­gest, in my ca­reer to date.”

That might have been that for Mor­ris. He was in the en­try that had won last year’s IMSA ti­tle with Dane Cameron and Eric Cur­ran – the #31 car had been a Corvette DP last year – who have been joined this year for the IMSA en­duros by Toy­ota World En­durance Cham­pi­onship driver Mike Con­way. Prize win­ner Mor­ris was very much the fourth driver in the car, so it wasn’t ini­tially planned that he’d do more than the min­i­mum two hours re­quired of a sil­ver-rated driver.

But Mor­ris got the chance to climb be­hind the wheel of the Cadil­lac Day­tona Pro­to­type In­ter­na­tional once more. The way the full-course yel­low pe­ri­ods had fallen meant that his was a ‘short’ triple. Not hav­ing com­pleted his two hours, the team put him back in the ro­ta­tion on Sun­day morn­ing, long af­ter the car had fallen out of con­tention for the win af­ter a com­po­nent broke.

This time the con­di­tions were foul. The track was wet and tem­per­a­tures low, but Mor­ris was quick again. Very quick ac­tu­ally.

“There were times when he was two or even four sec­onds faster than ev­ery­one else on the track,” ex­plains Si­mon Dow­son, who en­gi­neered the Whe­len Ac­tion Ex­press en­try. “Be­fore he got in the car, he told us he was bet­ter in the wet than he was in the dry. I was a bit wor­ried when he said that, but to be fair, he spanked ev­ery­one. A lot of driv­ers were far too hes­i­tant in the con­di­tions and had trou­ble get­ting the tyres up to tem­per­a­ture. Seb just jumped in and got on with it. He stayed calm and took on board what­ever we were say­ing on the ra­dio when we had to rein him back a bit.”

Get­ting tem­per­a­tures into the spec Con­ti­nen­tal tyres, on which cars in the IMSA Pro­to­type class run, was cru­cial in the con­di­tions. More than one big-name driver fell foul of the com­bi­na­tion of a wet track and low tem­per­a­tures on an out-lap.

“I had a play with the roll­bars and the brake bias, and it re­ally paid off,” ex­plains Mor­ris. “I got the tyres into a bril­liant win­dow.”

That pace brought Mor­ris onto the tail of the other two Cadil­lacs, which bat­tled it out at the front of the field right through the 24 hours. The novice then asked for in­struc­tions on what to do next from his pit.

“Seb came up to Joao [Bar­bosa], who let him past, and that put him be­hind the WTR car,” re­calls Dow­son. “He asked what should he do? I told him to just go for it and try not to influence the race in any way.”

The Whe­len car moved past the Caddy that would go on to win the race to claw back one of its lost laps.

There was no fairy tale re­sult for Mor­ris and his team-mates in the Whe­len en­try. The clash with a Pro­to­type Chal­lenge car on Satur­day evening re­sulted in a bro­ken steer­ing arm that meant a trip back to the pad­dock – that’s go­ing ‘be­hind the wall’ in US rac­ing par­lance – for re­pairs. Gear­box is­sues on Sun­day re­sulted in the loss of more time and a 14th-place fin­ish, ex­actly 20 laps down on the win­ners.

Mor­ris had im­pressed from his first run in the new Cadil­lac in an of­fi­cial IMSA test at Day­tona back in De­cem­ber. It was im­por­tant that he did. The Sunoco Chal­lenge may be spon­sored by Whe­len, but there was no guar­an­tee that the win­ner would get his bum in its DPI for the 24 Hours.

“It wasn’t a given that our win­ner would be in the Whe­len car,” ex­plains chal­lenge prime mover An­ders Hildebrand, boss of An­glo Amer­i­can Oil, the Euro­pean im­porter of Sunoco race fu­els. “The team has the right of re­fusal and then it would be our job to find the win­ner an­other seat.”

The team ad­mit­ted that it had con­cerns about Mor­ris ahead of his first run in the car. Af­ter all, his im­me­di­ate suc­ces­sors as win­ners of the chal­lenge, Jonny Adam and Phil Keen, were each much more of a known quan­tity when they headed State­side to be­gin test­ing at the wheel

Mor­ris swapped Bent­ley for Cadil­lac L-r: Hildebrand, Mor­ris and Jim France

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