Using the well developed Peugeot 908 HDi FAP LM P1 contender, Team Oreca won the hotly contested Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring
Photo: Anne ProffitThe Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring may not be the longest race on the calendar of events for sports car racing but it's acknowledged to be amongst the toughest anywhere. Held on a 3.7-mile former Army Air Corps air base that is bumpy and filled wit pavement changes, the Sebring race challenges the best race engineers, teams and drivers to overcome its natural deficiencies.
That is why most of the major European players have used Sebring's endurance contest as a tune-up for June's 24 Heures du Mans at The Sarthe circuit in France. It's a grand way to work bugs out before that major race - the most prestigious of the year for manufacturers. This year, with the new Intercontinental Le Mans Cup (ILMC) opener at Sebring, anyone who wanted to be part of the seven race ILMC series had to be in central Florida for the once-around-the-clock American Le Mans Series (ALMS) starter.
Perennial Le Mans contenders Audi and Peugeot (who won in 2010 while Audi sat on the sidelines) brought their wares to this race, albeit Peugeot with a new 908 coupe and Audi using their older R15 Plus Plus. The latter team intended to test the new R18 following the Sebring 12-Hour but hoped to give the R15 ++ a grand sendoff.
There were plenty of other LM P1 cars on the grid because of the ILMC/ALMS affiliation. Those included P1 cars from Oreca, Oak Racing, Level 5 and Highcroft Racing, amongst others. The LM P2 had new and old competitors and the always strong GT contingent featured manufacturer battles between BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche and Jaguar. There was even a new Lamborghini Gallardo and Panoz Racing's Abruzzi to spice things up.
By the end of an eventful sunny and hot half-day of racing, the vaunted factory teams weren't atop the scoring pylon; rather, it was the Oreca team owned by Hughes de Chaunac that grabbed victory using the well-developed Peugeot 908 HDi FAP to beat both Peugeot and Audi factory squads to the checkered flags.
Thanks to a consistent setup and avoidance of carnage that dotted the proceedings (there were nine, long full-course cautions), the Oreca/Peugeot completed 332 laps and finished nearly 32 seconds ahead of Highcroft Racing's brand new HPD ARX-01e prototype that hadn't even run until the Saturday prior to this race! The pole-sitting Peugeot 908 came third, another 44.5 seconds back and those three were the sole cars on the lead lap.
The first eight finishers were all part of the LM P1 contingent, while the spec racer LM PC Genoa Racing Oreca FLM09 finished ninth and first in class. In the ferociously competitive LM GT classification, it was 2010 ALMS manufacturers champ BMW Motorsport, running under the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing banner that beat all comers, with Joey Hand - who won the Rolex 24 at Daytona Grand-Am contest driving for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates - as part of a triumvirate taking the checkered flags.
The LM P2 class saw victory for the Level 5 Motorsports Lola/HPD entry with its production-based 2.7-liter six-cylinder engine that meets the new Automobile Club de l'Oest rules. It completed 300 laps and finished 20th overall, after being challenged throughout the race by the Nissan/Oreca and Judd/Pescarolo entries. The first finishing GTC Porsche 911 GT3 Cup was 2010 class champion Black Swan Racing, which came back from a Thursday crash to prevail.
The factory Peugeot cause was helped by its cars taking third and eighth in their pursuit of a Le Mans win in June; this race was the first for the 908 operating under new ACO rules. The cause for the No. 7 Peugeot was hurt when the car collided with the No. 2 Audi at the end of a caution in the fifth hour. The team had to change the front left half-axle and clutch, losing around 20 laps in the process.
That left the No. 8 to battle consistently with the Oreca Peugeot and Highcroft's HPD to the checkered flags. The standings changed each time the cars pitted and during the many, long safety car periods. A broken louver on the No. 8 kept it from challenging the Oreca and HPD cars as rules dictate all louvers must be in place.
The Audi R15 wasn't immune to problems; the No. 1 car had two punctures within the first hour, destroying their hopes for victory when bodywork and the rear wing were damaged, needing eight laps of repairs. The No. 2 car led several times yet, at the start of the fifth hour a collision with the Peugeot killed the right rear suspension, forcing a lengthy repair that put the car seven laps down.
The two Audis eventually made their way back to the front and finished fourth and fifth when the race was done. The Audi R15 TDI won on debut in 2009 at this race and had hoped to make its farewell appearance a similar victory, but the racing gods denied Audi that opportunity.
In GT, the big story were skirmishes between Porsche, Ferrari and Corvette. The bumpiness of the circuit led the No. 45 Flying Lizard Porsche 911 RSR to catapult into the No. 4 Corvette, also taking out the brand new No. 01 Ferrari F458 Italia in the process as there were no spares to put it back together again. The No. 62 Risi Ferrari F458 Italia ran toward the front of the GT field and challenged until electrical gremlins forced the team to retire.
The BMW's success story - they finished first and second - had a lot to do with revisions to the rear suspension, which was the Achilles heel of the car last year. The car's outright speed helped it vanquish the pair of Corvettes that finished third and fourth in class, the No. 03 leading the No. 4 by a lap. In the new GTE-AM class that had only five entrants, Krohn Racing took the top trophy, adding to the team's successful run in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in February. The GTE-Am class requires at least one dedicated amateur driver.
While many of the ILMC contestants are headed back to the European theater for their next race, the ALMS contingent remain stateside for their sprint race on the streets of Long Beach, Calif, scheduled for the weekend of April 15-16.
© 2011 Anne Proffit