THE BRITONS MAKING DREAM DEBUTS AT DAYTONA
British GT man Seb Morris won a seat in America, and showed he earned it.
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