SEBRING, Fla.—The 59th running of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring lived up to not only the hype of the promoters but to the wildest expectations of the fans. With the largest field in the race’s recent history taking the green flag on a breezy mid-80s Florida Saturday on a track packed with spectators, even a dull runaway race would have been exciting.
The race was no runaway; the final three finishers fought it out until the last few minutes when it finally became clear that factory giants Audi and Peugeot would not rule the day; instead privateer Oreca Matmut’s year-old Peugeot 908 Hdi-FAP took top honors followed by Highcroft Racing’s untested HPD-ARX01e. Peugeot managed to capture third and eighth with its 2011-spec 908, Audi’s updated 2010 R15++s finished fourth and fifth.
“It was a perfect job from the team and these three drivers,” Oreca Matmut owner Hughes de Chaunac said after the race. “We won because we did not make any mistakes. We won this, not because everyone else failed, but because we earned this victory.”
The Audis had bad luck from the start; Mike Rockenfeller suffered two left rear punctures in the first hour, both of which tore up the rear bodywork. The car spent time in the paddock while the team tried to figure out the problem.
The #2 car continued to carry the Audi banner into battle until the 4:22 mark, when Marc Gene in the #7 Peugeot tried a risky dive inside at the entrance to Turn 17. Gene and Audi driver Dindo Capello collided, rebounded and collided again. The resulting damage sent both cars to the paddock.
At this point the #8 Peugeot led the race, with the Highcroft HPD and the Matmut Peugeot right behind. While Peugeot’s Pedro Lamy was listening to the details of his teammate’s wreck on the radio, Highcroft’s Simon Pagenaud trapped the Peugeot behind a slower car coming through Turn 10 and took the overall lead—quite a feat in a car that hadn’t started its engine seven days earlier.
The three leaders swapped off during pit stops, trying to keep each other in sight, but the Peugeot was the fastest. Unfortunately Pedro Lamy spun on cold tires after an evening driver change, losing precious time to the other two—time he would never regain.
The Oreca Matmut Peugeot, an older car with a 5.5-liter V10 as opposed to the new Peugeots’ 3.7-liter V6s, set a safe, quick pace and avoided incidents. “If no one has problems, everything will play out in the last hour. We’ll have to go to war,” driver Nicolas Lapiere explained to ALMS.com after his last stint. “For the moment, we must stay patient in traffic. We will take risks a little later.”
Decisive Final Hour
The final hour was a battle of pit strategy. Team owner Duncan Dayton decided his #01 Highcroft, with Simon Pagenaud at the wheel, could finish the race with one stop, gambling that the faster but thirstier diesels would lose ground with a second stop. “We’re thinking the car can go on one more stop,” Dayton told ALMS.com after sending out his driver. “It’s tight. Simon’s pretty good. If anyone can do it, he can.”
The diesels did need two stops, but they had the speed, too. Oreca Matmut team owner Hughes de Chaunac sent first-place driver Loic Duval charging out of the pits, ordering him to open a big gap quickly. Once the big diesel was far enough in front, de Chaunac called the car back in for a splash.
The timing was perfect; the car got just enough fuel to finish the race, quickly enough not to lose the lead. Had de Chaunac waited, the tires might have gone off, or a caution might have erased his lead, or even trapped the car on the circuit with too little fuel. The canny Frenchman made the prefect call; it would earn him the win.
Peugeot had called in the #8 jsut moments before the matmut pitted. The Peugeot had more laps on its tires than the Matmut, but certainly could have finished on the set. Nonetheless, Peugeot opted to put on four new tires, to give its car the maximum advantage in the final laps.
Unfortunately the crew struggled with the right front tire, dropped the car and had to jack it up again, and lost even more time to the Matmut and Highcroft cars.
The win was now out of reach, but Franck Montagny pushed the #8 Peugeot hard to catch Pagenaud in the Highcroft. The gap between them shrank to ten seconds, as Pagenaud tried to stretch his fuel, but got no smaller; Pagenaud balanced economy and performance perfectly to keep just ahead of the Peugeot.
Nineteen cars retired from the 56-car field: Three LMP1s, nine GTs, three GTE-AMs (out of a field of five,) three LMPCs, and one GTC.
Both LMP1 Oak Pescarolos retired; the #15 managed 222 laps, the #24, half that.
The Muscle Milk Aston Martin also retired; after struggling with battery problems, the car got hit from behind while under yellow, causing irreparable gearbox damage. After rebuilding after Thursday’s fire, the team was happy to do as well as they did.
Team owner/driver Greg Pickett told ALMS.com, “We were looking pretty good and running very competitive times that matched the big factory teams, so that bodes well for our competitiveness in the future.”
The next American Le Mans Series race will be the Tequila Patron American Le Mans Series at Long Beach, where the series will share the weekend with IndyCar’s Long Beach Grand Prix. ALMS will run on April 16; the race will be streamed live on ESPN3 and broadcast on ESPN2 at 5 p.m. on April 17.
This event is a great racing value. Tickets are available online through the Long Beach Grand Prix website.