SEBRING, Fla.—To help Sebring International Raceway celebrate the 60th running of the Sebring 12 Hours, Audi Motorsports sent three of its Le Mans-winning R18s; two claimed the first two podium positions in Audi’s 10th victory of this historic sports car race.
To make the race more significant—and the victory sweeter—the race combined the American Le Mans Series season opener with the first race of the new World Endurance Championship governed jointly by Auto club de l’Ouest (ACO) and the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA.) Sebring hosted the first FIA World Championship race for sports cars in 1953, the year after the first Sebring 12 Hours, so it was fitting that the new global sports car series debut here.
It was equally fitting that Audi, which has won more races here than any other marque, should triumph on the race’s 60th anniversary. Audi has been a dominant force in sports car racing and is the team to beat; after a rough season in 2011, the factory has announced its return to its winning ways.
Drivers Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen, and Dindo Capello piloted the winning No. 2 Audi R18 to victory by a margin of four laps over their teammates Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas, and Lôic Duval. The No. 2 R18 had no problems, while its two sister cars had minor problems—the No. 1 car had gearbox problems and the No. 3 car suffered a minor collision.
McNish, Kristensen and Capello had no problems, which would be expected from this team of Sebring veterans; Kristensen has six wins here, Capello five, and McNish four.
“It’s a fantastic result for Tom, Dindo, and I,” McNish said as he climbed out of the car. “We had a bit of a tough year last year but we certainly rebounded in this race, and to start off the world championship with a victory was superb.”
“Most of the time the whole focus is trying to get consistent exits speeds from corners—that’s what it is all about with our small restrictors,” Tom Kristensen added in the post-race press conference.
“Keeping a good rhythm in the corners, and of course through the traffic, that was the combination. That is really the key to this race: to be clean. In traffic with so many cars with, visibility, and all these things which make racing very challenging.”
McNish explained the performance changes the new smaller restrictors on the diesels made: There wasn’t much speed differential on the straights, and that was quite tough. You would come out of say, Turn 17, and you’d be 80 meters behind a GT car but you wouldn’t be able to overtake it into Turn 1, just because of the straight-line speed being so close now. But the cornering speed, we are maybe 50, 60 miles an hour quicker through Turn 1.”
He went on to say that the drivers have to be very precise in traffic, and make sure that they make decisive maneuvers, so they aren’t taking any excess risk. “Also, when you get behind these cars you lose all aerodynamic grip, so you’re hanging on at times,” McNish said.
Starworks: P2 Novice on the Podium
In a totally unexpected turn of events, third place went to a P2 car, the brand-new 44 Starworks HPD ARX-03b. The Starworks team took possession of their car just nine days before the race, and had only driven 18 test laps before the green flag fell.
Despite this, the car ran perfectly and the team functioned flawlessly, beating the best P2 teams in the world, and more notably, beating several powerful P1 teams, despite having less power and smaller tires. In endurance racing, speed, precision, and toughness are equally important, and Starworks had enough toughness and precision to overcome the lack of speed.
Drivers Ryan Dalziel, Enzo Potolicchio, and former Peugeot driver Stéphane Sarrazin combined to defeat many more powerful opponents; the win surely bodes well for their chances through the rest of the WEC schedule.
The hardest-fought battle of the race was in GTE, where Porsche, Ferrari, Corvette and BMW battled—ultimately physically—for the class win. Corvette fought off Ferrari through the first half of the race, while BMW was hindered by a penalty and some unidentifiable electrical problems. The BMW crew persevered, making many short pit stops to keep the car on the lead lap, and when the problems finally went away—they were never fully identified—BMW moved to the front.
For the final hours the defending champion No. 56 BMW driven by Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller, and Jonathan Summerton, battled with the No. 71 AF Corse Ferrari. Ferrari driver Olivier Beretta made a very strong passing attempt with about 15 minutes left, but braked too hard, letting Hand in the BMW retake the lead. The Ferrari fell back, recovered and restarted its chase of the leading BMW.
After this things got confusing. On the second-to-last lap, Gianni Bruni in the No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari, 110 laps down, made a bold pass on Hand’s BMW in Turn 16. Hand, thinking this was Beretta in the No. 71, made a huge effort to get back, and retook the lead in Turn 1 of the final lap. Bruni then made another crazy attempt in Turn 3, knocking Hand off the track.
Hand, thinking he was racing for the win, forced his way past Bruni in the final turn, winning Sebring for the second straight year.
Hand, Mueller, and Summerton crossed the line as winners for the second year running.
Worse news for Beretta in the No. 71 AF Corse Ferrari: he spun trying to avoid the spinning BMW, and got passed by Jan Magnussen in the No. 03 Corvette for second.
After the race, neither Beretta nor Hand knew what had happened; in the dark, the two AF Corse Ferraris looked identical.
AF Corse won the WEC GTE-Pro category as a consolation.
Dyson Lucks Into ALMS P1 Win
Dyson Racing champions won the 2011 ALMS P1 class after rival Muscle Milk Pickett Racing suffered fuel system failure with 30 minutes left in the race. The Muscle Milk Car had been fast all day, running as high as third overall, but it lost its lead while the mechanics sorted out the problem.
Chris Dyson, Guy Smith, and Steven Kane were perfectly willing to take the victory that was handed them. They had had their new car only 12 days, and had not yet sorted it out fully. Winning Sebring gave Dyson Racing the points lead it needed to win the championship in 2011; the team is off to a great start to defend its title in 2012.
Felbermayr-Proton’s No.88 Porsche RSR to the GTE-Am win by a lap over the two Larbre Competition Corvettes; by a lap over No. 70 and nine laps over the No. 50.
Core Autosport took the LMPC win with its new driver lineup of Burt Frisselle, E.J. Viso, and Alex Popow.
In GTC, the No. 23 Alex Job Racing Porsche driven by Bill Sweedler, Townsend Bell, and Dion von Moltke won the class with their battered sister car, the No. 22, second on the podium.
ALMS continues its schedule with the Long Beach Grand Prix on April 14. Tickets are available through the Grand Prix of Long Beach website. The next WEC race is the Six Hours of Spa, May 5. Tickets can be purchased through the Six Hours of Spa website.