SEBRING, Fla.—Audi’s three turbodiesel R18 TDIs were the fastest cars on the track when it came to qualifying for the 60th Anniversary Sebring 12 Hours.
André Lotterer put the #1 Audi on the pole with a lap of 1:45.820; Tom Kristensen and Romain Dumas followed in the #2 and #3 cars. Audi seemed destined to return to Victory Lane at Sebring; the only question is, how many of its cars can the team get to the end of the race? If 2012 is anything like last season (or practice this week,) bet on fewer rather than more.
Sebring will be the final race for the R18; the new hybrid and Ultra models will replace the current 2011-spec car for the next race at Spa in May. Lotterer said having a new each year was normal for Audi, but the drivers and team were a little attached to this one.
“It is nothing new for the team but for us drivers, it is very emotional—we won Le Mans in that car so it’s nice to come to a legendary race like Sebring to compete once more with it.
“We know the car very well, the team has done a great deal with it, and hopefully it will end up very nicely tomorrow.
Lotterer chuckled as he described the only stressful moment in qualifying: when he got penalized for speeding on pit lane because the pit lane rev limiter wasn’t switched on. “We are just so used to that the pit limiter is on when we step into the car, and it was just not on. It was my mistake, but it didn’t really affect my lap. The lap went well, the car ran great, and I am really satisfied.
“It is really nice for the staff, for the guys—for us drivers it really doesn’t mean too much because we know we are all fast, and tomorrow is another day with so many cars on track, but it is a nice reward for the mechanics who work hard for us.”
Lotterer also said that one of Audi’s strengths was that the three teams of drivers, although they were all competitors, still worked together for the good of the team. “We are all aware of the difficulty of this race, so we should not get caught up in the game. The guys have a lot of experience so we will keep all that in control. The most important thing is that Audi is in front.”
Lotterer said with so many cars on track, he planned to do most of his racing in the final hours. “If we are in a position ot attack and give everything that’s what we’ll do if not we’ll just have to live with what we have. At the beginning we just have to survive. So many cars out there, and if you try to win it in the first two or three hours I think you might get in trouble very quickly.”
Fourth on the grid, fastest of the ALMS cars and the gasoline-powered P1’s was Klaus Graf in the new #6 Muscle Milk HPD ARX-03a, 1.72 seconds behind the leader and only .6 behind Dumas’ Audi.
When asked how the team was adapting to the new Honda, Graf replied, “Obviously pretty good. A new car is always a lot of work. This is the first time muscle Milk Pickett Racing got a brand-new car so it is obviously a bit of a challenge. Everyone involved such as Wirth Research, HPD and the Muscle Milk Pickett Racing have put a lot of effort into it for this event. It was a big effort to first get the car going, then testing, figuring out what to do and how to set up.
“This is a reward for us, for the team, for everybody involved. It is just a small piece of a 12-hour race but it helps to bring the motivation back to the guys. Some of the guys have worked 100 hours since we got here on Sunday, so it is very rewarding for the guys.”
P2 WEC went to Olivier Pla in the #24 Oak Racing Morgan-Judd with a lap at 1.50.823.
Pla’s car had been badly wrecked in testing Monday; his team worked hard to rebuild it in time for the race.
Fastest ALMS P2 was Christophe Bouchut in the # 055 Level 5 HPD ARX-03b at 1:52.129, well off the pace of Pla.
Christophe Bouchut wrecked the #55 Level HPD-ARX-03b with five minutes left in the session. He had the fastest ALMSD P2 lap, and a lot of damaged parts. Team manager David Stone said he couldn’t be 100 percent sure the car would make the grid, but the crew was working hard and he felt good about the team’s chances.
GTE-Pro also had dual “pole” winners: Gianmaria Bruni turned a lap of 1:58.427 in the #51 AF Corse Ferrari 458, while Jan Magnussen finished third in class but first among the ALMS GTs with a lap of 1:58.996, .569 back. GT will be a fierce fight; the top five cars qualified within a second.
Bruni’s fast lap came late in the session after a scary near-wreck on his second lap. Bruni explained that AF Corse had chosen different tires than the competition, and the tires needed more time to get up to temperature. After nearly hitting the wall at Turn 17, he needed another lap to warm up his tires; then he went out for a fast lap, and won the pole.
GT was the toughest class in either series in 2012, Bruno said, much as it had been in the year prior. “The level is getting higher and higher,” he said, “and we are working hard.”
Winning the pole wasn’t that big a deal. “It’s a nice starting point for Ferrari,” he said, “but the race is tomorrow. We haven’t done anything yet.
“Hopefully we can until the last hours, and then we can make some great maneuvers so the fans can enjoy the racing.”
Describing his near accident, he said, “It was lap two and I lost the car completely and went sideways. The corner went right and the car went left. At the last moment I chose first gear, and at the last moment the car turned; I was able to get around, missing the wall by maybe ten centimeters.
“On the radio they said, ‘What happened? What happened,’ but for two laps I couldn’t speak—I was thinking how lucky I was.”
Jan Magnussen responded to a question about the differences between the old and new Corvettes: “”For sure there is a lot of difference; 2.5 seconds difference. It is a big step forward for the category, but I think it is evenly matched.”
Magnussen wasn’t thrilled by the team’s performance in qualifying: “I don’t think we made the best of it at the time, but we made the best of it at the end. It is super competitive and we have to be 100 percent every time we go out.
“Qualifying is the first time for everyone to really show what they can. Just the last hour will count tomorrow, but I think it will be 12 hours of really hard racing.”
“I expect the Ferraris to be as strong as they have just shown now in qualifying but I expect strong opposition from everybody.
“Qualifying is one thing, but the 12 Hours of Sebring is completely different thing. I am sure everyone will approach it just like every other race—you’ve got to push on when you can—but Sebring is different. You’ve got to be there at the end.
“The WEC and ALMS are both here and I know there is going to be points for bopth, but there wil only be one winner—one proper winner.”
GTE-Am was an all-WEC affair (the class doesn’t exist in ALMS.) Dominik Farnbacher of Luxury Racing brought his Ferrari 458 in at the head of this pack with a lap of 2:00.184.
Farnbacher is his team’s pro driver in this Pro-Am class. He said that won the pole despite having to accommodate the different drivers.
“We didn’t have a lot of time to make a good setup because the main focus was preparing my amateur drivers for that race and find a good setup for them” he explained. “We finally found a good setup that suits us all so it was quite a good run and I drove as good as I could and it worked out well.
Sebring was my first race ever in the United States, in 2004. I really enjoyed the race, and it really impressed me, because in Europe we don’t have such bumpy racetracks. The first year after I did it, I really felt it in my back after the race, and I still do, every year after I race here.”
This is really something special. It is going to be one for the history books. It is the biggest field ever and it’s going to be a tough one to beat.”
One reporter pointed out that Farnbacher had scored the first points in the WEC series; another mentioned that Farnbacher was thus leading the championship. “I didn’t know that,” he replied, laughing. “It feels really good.”
LMPC was an all-ALMS class, and here an old team in a new class took the pole on its first outing. Bruno Junqueira, driving for RocketSports Racing, which traded in its GT Jaguars for an Oreca FLM09, qualified at the head of a very deep field with a lap of 1:54.510.
Junqueira said winning the pole was very good for team morale, especially after the tough season they had in 2011 with the Jaguars. “I know it is a long race and the pole doesn’t mean much but it shows the team did a really good job.”
Finally, GTC was another ALMS-only grid. Here Sean Edwards put his Porsche 911 GT3 Cup, lapping in 2:06.674.
NGT missed qualifying in 2011, the team’s—and Edwards’—first 12 Hours, but Edwards did set fastest race lap. This year he had the chance to show his stuff in qualifying, and took the pole.
“Last year, unfortunately, we didn’t qualify because the car was crashed right before qualifying, but this year we’ve come back and put it on the pole which is a great place to start and hopefully we’ll be there at the end also.
Edwards explained that he had raced a lot of the GTC driver sin Europe in Porsche Supercup, so they all knew each others’ tricks. “I guess you’re going to see quite a battle out there,” he predicted.
“Traffic, with 60-odd cars, is really tough. You’ve got to keep your nose clean, stay out of trouble for the first ten hours, then see where you are, stay on the lead lap and for the last two hours, push on and try to win the race. It is going to be difficult but we know from last year what we need to do.”
The 60th Anniversary Sebring 12 Hours starts at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, march 17. Tickets are still available through the Sebring Raceway website.