Derani Attacking Fifth Sebring Victory as if It’s His First

By Jeff Olson

IMSA Wire Service

One of the first things you notice when entering Sebring International Raceway is the Wall of Champions, which lists the overall winner of each of the track’s famous 12-hour races since 1950.

The wall contains some of the most famous names in sports car history. Tom Kristensen. Olivier Gendebien. Allen McNish. Phil Hill. Hans-Joachim Stuck.

Pipo Derani sees his name on the list and acknowledges it only briefly before turning to the immediate task – adding his name to the list one more time.

The 30-year-old Brazilian racer has placed himself among racing royalty in an astoundingly brief period of time: In just eight years, he has won the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Cadillac four times.

That run of success has placed him alongside those names of lore. His victory last year with co-drivers Jack Aitken and Alexander Sims pushed Derani into a tie for third on the race’s list of all-time winners, trailing only Kristensen, who won it six times, and Rinaldo Capello, who won it five times.

“It’s pretty nice to be able to walk into the track and see your name there or to walk into the Hall of Fame and see how many great drivers have won Sebring,” said Derani, who will return Saturday to try for a fifth win in the historic race. “To think you’ve done something nice in this very iconic and special race is nice, but I don’t look at it the same way as I probably will once I retire. At the moment, I am constantly trying to win more as if I hadn’t won it.”

His first win at Sebring in 2016 was part of Derani’s introduction to American racing and American race fans. Then 22, he opened the season with a win in the Rolex 24 At Daytona. He followed that a few weeks later with a come-from-behind anchor leg to help Tequila Patron ESM win at Sebring.

He’d spent the previous seven years climbing the ladder of junior racing in South America and Europe, eventually reaching the FIA World Endurance Championship in 2015. In 2016, he moved to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and began racing in the U.S., where he won his first two races.

“It was a life-changing and career-changing moment,” Derani said. “Up until that point, I was nobody. … Those were my first two races In America. It had been in a moment where I had just turned pro. I went from someone who had a dream of being a professional to then becoming a professional. Immediately when that happened, I managed to win two of the most prestigious races in the world, straight away. That helped to cement my name and push me toward where I am now.”

The Rolex 24 win in 2016 was somewhat expected, given the strength of the Tequila Patron ESM’s Honda-powered Ligier. Sebring, however, wasn’t as straightforward. Derani passed Dane Cameron in Sebring’s famed hairpin for the lead in the final moments and celebrated the victory with co-drivers Scott Sharp, Johannes van Overbeek and Ed Brown.

“We weren’t leading with 30 minutes left,” Derani recalled. “I was able to overtake those guys and win in a very nice way. Some people said with a bit of truth that we won Daytona only because the car was so good. You have to say that’s fair because you don’t get to win such a big race without a good car. But to be able to confirm in a more selfish way that we also won Sebring because I did such a strong job at the end, then I believe that was what cemented myself as a new, young, up-and-coming start to the sport to many people.”

Eight years later, he’s among the most successful drivers in the long and storied history of Sebring. He’ll go for a fifth win Saturday in the No. 31 Whelen Cadillac Racing Cadillac V-Series.R with co-drivers Tom Blomqvist and Aitken. Try as he might not to think about his legacy, Derani admits it’s rather astonishing.

“Never in my best dreams would I have thought that by the age of 30 I would have won Sebring four times,” he said. “When you look back over the years, it was only on the Audi dominance was somebody able to win as much as what I was as lucky to win over the last few years. It wouldn’t happen without a great team and great people behind me.”

On the wall of an elevator leading to suites at Sebring is a large list of the track’s Hall of Fame members. It faces the paddock, easily visible to racers and fans. The names resonate excellence. Mario Andretti. Juan Manuel Fangio. Dan Gurney.

Perhaps Derani knows his name will be there someday, but he puts aside the thought in favor of the goal directly ahead of him.

“Come race week, you don’t allow yourself to think about that very much,” he said. “What happened is in the past. What you’ve won is already in the past. You want to do it all over again. You want to get there as if it was your first win, as if you had never won before.

“When I retire, I will look back and will be prouder than I am now of some of my achievements. Sebring will be definitely up there with the best things I’ve achieved.”

WeatherTech Championship action at Sebring begins Thursday with practice. Qualifying is set for 12:20 p.m. ET Friday (livestream on Peacock in the U.S. and globally). The 12-hour race streams live on Peacock beginning at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, with USA Network joining coverage at 4 p.m. through the finish.