SEBRING, Florida – The sun’s just barely breached the horizon, but the dank fog enveloping the paddock hides a whirl of bustling activity.
Silencing the impact tools’ staccato chatter is the guttural “rump-rump-rump” of waking V8s, and the shrill, obnoxious bellow of a flat-six clearing its lungs. In a couple of hours, the lime green Porsche 911 sitting on jack stands under the Mark Motors canopy will be heading out onto the grid for the season opener of the IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge here at historic Sebring International Raceway in Florida.
For the first time, Canadian competitors from the Ultra 94 cup series would be on track at the same time as the Americans in the GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama. The single-make series will run Thursday and Friday in two support races prior to the Mobil 12 Hours of Sebring.
The young man loping toward us, squinting at the first intense rays of Florida sun, has the lean, clean-cut good looks of an athlete – and indeed at one time, Zach Robichon was channelling all his energy towards a future on the Canadian Olympic Ski Team. The Ottawa native, who began skiing at three, had considerable success with podiums across Canada – until that fateful day in 2005 when he first jumped into a go-kart.
By the end of his first week in a kart, Robichon had come third in the Coupe de Montréal, and by 2008, he was named Quebec Rookie of the Year. For a while, he tried juggling both passions, but eventually his love for racing won out over the slopes.
From ski racing to kart racing
“When I was like 16, 17, skiing was starting to feel like a job,” said Robichon, prior to suiting up for the first practice of the morning. “You know, they’re both expensive sports. At the end of my best year skiing, I’d won a couple of North American Championship races – but I was more excited about talking about car racing than ski racing. And I said, “You know what? Maybe it’s time.”
Robichon went on to win several Rotax karting championships, earned a spot on Team Canada for the Rotax World Championships in Portugal, and was the winner of Indy Car diver James Hinchcliffe’s “Hinchtown.ca Canadian Karting Shootout” driving a Formula 2000 open-wheel car. In 2013, Robichon was selected as a Team Canada member for the Formula Ford Festival in England, qualifying third.
After a couple of years landing several F1600 and F2000 podiums, he’d established a reputation for smoothness and consistency – which Robichon, who also holds a Master’s degree in International Economics and Finance, attributes to respect for his tires when he was racing on a budget.
In 2016, Robichon said he “went knocking on the door of Mark Motors Racing,” asking if they “needed a driver,” and thus began his career in sportscar racing. It was a fortuitous move – now in his third year with the team, Robichon was last year’s runner-up in the GT3 Cup Challenge Canada, running close on the heels of Champion Scott Hargrove. He’s also facing tough competition from teammate and fellow Canadian Roman De Angelis. The 17-year-old driver, whom Robichon had previously coached in F1600, is a dual entry in the Cup Challenge, competing in both the Canadian and US classes simultaneously. He’s entered for Mark Motors Canada, and Kelly-Moss Racing in the US class – but can obviously be in only one car at a time and will be driving the #1 Kelly-Moss Porsche.
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A field of Platinum at the 2018 Porsche GT3 Cup opener
The GT3 Cup Challenge Canada is a one-make series, sanctioned by the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA). One of 20 global Porsche GT3 Cup championships, it held its inaugural race in 2011. The season opener at Sebring marks a brand-new venue for the Canadians, who’ll race Thursday and Friday here before continuing their season in Ontario and Quebec. The highly competitive support series grooms semi-professional drivers for possible careers in the WeatherTech Sports Car Championship (created by the merger of American Le Mans and Rolex Sports Car series), the apex of GT competition. The races are divided into two classes: Platinum Cup, which features the new 2017 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup Car based on the current road-going street car; and Gold Cup, featuring the previous generation, 2014–2016 GT3 race car.
The powerful, technically advanced Platinum cars are proving more competitive – and more durable than the previous iteration, and competitors are quickly adopting the newer cars. While some privateers and local teams will still be competing in the Gold class on Canadian turf, the cars racing today at this legendary circuit are all Platinum.
Canadian Roman De Angelis in the #1 Kelly-Moss car led the first half of Thursday’s 45-minute race one, until the US’s Trenton Estep, in the #3 JDX Racing car finally edged up beside him in turn 10 and began a side-by-side battle that ended with Estep pulling out ahead by turn 13. De Angelis continued to lead the Canadian division for the remainder of the race, until the final lap when Robichon, in the #98 Mark Motors car, came up beside him on the inside of turn 16 – a move De Angelis admitted took him by surprise. “I saw the front bumper of his car (in the mirror) when I turned in, so I didn’t think he was going to lunge, but he went for the pass.”
While the overall win went to Estep, Robichon took first place in the Canadian class – his fifth win in the Cup Series.
Although they’re teammates and “good friends”, Robichon used what he knew about De Angelis – “remember, I taught him” – and noticing him struggling, made his move. “He left the door open a bit on turn 16, so I got up alongside him. It was an aggressive move, but I was happy with the way it turned out.”
As well he should be. It was his first time on what many veterans call a tougher 12-hour circuit than 24 Hours of Le Mans. For Porsche, who’ve had 18 overall victories and 70 class wins in the 12 hours alone, Sebring is the ultimate endurance test, and a testament to the durability of the cars that such a legacy helps promote.
Comparing GT3s with the Prototypes
Robichon faced an even tougher challenge on Friday. In addition to race two of the Cup Series, he also shared driving duties in the Prototype Challenge – with ANSA Motorsports who swept the inaugural Mazda Prototype Challenge here last year. He literally climbed from an unfamiliar car after a gruelling race, directly into the cockpit of his GT3 Cup Car.
It was Robichon’s first time in a prototype and though dissatisfied with his performance, he managed to move the car up to 16th place after his co-driver had spun off the track. Although he relished the experience, Robichon said he’d rather stick with sports cars. “I prefer cars like this,” he said, gesturing at the Porsche. “I just did my first prototype race, and it’s fun, but I enjoy this more. You gotta work harder for this. The car moves around, it doesn’t do some things as good as the other car, but it makes it fun. There’s more driver involvement.”
Race two played out very much like the first day’s, with Roman De Angelis and overall winner Trenton Estep continually swapping places over the course of the 45-minute race. Robichon had remained consistently in the top five for the duration up until the final lap, when De Angelis and Estep made contact in turn 17 while heading for home. The two cars spun, creating an opening for Robichon who, in a thrilling last-minute move, swept in and captured the flag.
“You never want to see the race end like that with two leaders spinning out like that – but I kind of saw it coming for a lap, I knew it was going to happen. With such quick, aggressive young drivers you never know what’s going to happen, so you just put yourself in a good position. Yesterday we won fair and square – today we had a little bit of luck.”
“It was really interesting, going from one car to the other. I’m not going to lie, the first two laps I felt like a fish out of water.”
“But it was really special – pretty much everyone racing had been here before and this week was my very first time. So to win the Canada race and overall on day two was really special. Respect the bumps, so they say, and I have a new appreciation. I think my kidneys do too.” Nevertheless, Robichon had quipped that morning that those who were complaining about Sebring’s notoriously rough surface had obviously “never driven in Toronto.”
The next date for the Ultra 94 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Race is May 19–20 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, Ontario.