Christina Nielsen broke through with her first career International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) WeatherTech SportsCar Championship victory in dramatic style Saturday, March 19 in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida.
Scuderia Corsa teammate Alessandro Balzan took the lead with nine minutes remaining in the legendary 12-hour race and drove to the GT Daytona (GTD) class victory in the maiden race for their No. 63 Ferrari 488 GT3. Balzan pulled away to a 2.280-second gap at the finish, taking over the car in the last stint after capable, controlled drives by Nielsen and fellow teammate Jeff Segal throughout the thrilling race, which took place in varying weather and track conditions.
Danish driver Nielsen earned her first WeatherTech Championship victory in her second season in North America’s most prestigious sports car racing championship. She also became the first woman to win at Sebring since 2006, when Liz Halliday was part of the winning LMP2 team.
“It feels absolutely amazing, and I can’t believe we made it to this point,” Nielsen said. “We definitely had a few challenges. I actually feared we were going to have a DNF (non-finish) because of the size of them and the seriousness of them. But every one of us drivers kept pushing. The team kept pushing. Everyone put into a great effort.”
The race featured mixed weather that included several short, intense downpours, and a thunderstorm that forced a two-hour, 15-minute red-flag stoppage shortly before the three-hour mark.
Nielsen deftly managed the changing conditions during her early stint behind the wheel of the No. 63 Ferrari 488 GT3, using her driving skill to stay on slick tires during rain longer than most of her rivals.
“I decided to stay out there longer than most drivers when it started to rain earlier today, and I felt like it was the right decision,” Nielsen said. “The car still handled fine. It’s not easy, especially a track like Sebring because you have so many different surfaces. The asphalt changes all the time.”
The victory was a case study in persistence and grit for Nielsen and Scuderia Corsa. Segal started the Ferrari 488 from pole after a track-record lap Friday in qualifying, but various mechanical issues, caution periods and mixed team strategies due to the weather caused the No. 63 to run anywhere from second to 10th in the GTD class from Hour 3 to Hour 11 of the race.
Still the team continued to fight, which inspired Nielsen in the driver’s seat and in the pits.
“We managed the challenges the best way we could,” Nielsen said. “Everyone pulled through, and it really gave me strength and made me believe in the team 100 percent even more in their potential after what I saw today.
“We aimed for a podium finish, so it’s absolutely amazing to win it. That’s a bonus I couldn’t imagine. It’s my first win in the WeatherTech Championship, so I’m really happy with that. I was the driver with the most podiums last year, but we never had a win. To finally take that win feels great.
“I can’t thank Scuderia Corsa enough, my teammates and my dad (24 Hours of Le Mans veteran Lars-Erik Nielsen). I’m really happy he was here and able to experience this.”
The victory came on the 60th anniversary year of Ferrari’s first win in the iconic 12-hour race. This was the first race in North America for the new Ferrari 488 car.
“I’m extremely happy, and I really appreciate the chance to drive the newest car,” Nielsen said. “I’ve been really, really happy with everything so far. The support we have received is great. I can’t wait to get more out of it during the year.”
Nielsen, Segal and Balzan are unofficially in second in the WeatherTech Championship GTD standings and third in the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup championship, which is comprised of the four long-distance endurance events at Daytona International Speedway, Sebring, Watkins Glen International and Road Atlanta.
“The competition level out there is really high,” Nielsen said. “We were running three or four cars out there back to back. That’s IMSA; that’s the WeatherTech Championship.”
Round 3 of the WeatherTech Championship for the GTD class will take place April 29-May 1 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California.
Christina Nielsen Press Release