With this weekend’s 12 Hours of Sebring marking the opening round of both the American Le Mans Series and the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, an even larger than usual contingent of European teams turned up for a 56 car starting field. For some years now, the bumpy Sebring track has attracted the European factory squads from Peugeot, Audi and Aston Martin as a high-speed test session for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This was also the first race run to the new 2011 rules package with downsized engines for the top LMP1 class.
Only three all-new P1 cars on the track to compete at Sebring were the factory Peugeot 908s and the Highcroft HPD ARX-01e. While Audi had been testing its all new 3.7-liter V6 diesel powered at Sebring in the weeks leading up to the race, the Germans opted to race with an updated version of last year’s Le Mans winning R15+ with smaller intake restrictors and fuel tank. The rest of the P1 field consisted of “grandfathered” old 2010 P1 and P2 machines including the biobutanol powered Dyson Racing Lola-Mazda and the ex-factory Aston Martin-Lola being run by the Cytosport Muscle Milk team. The French Oreca Matmut team that ran an ex-factory Peugeot in Europe (including Le Mans) in 2010 is entered in the ILMC with its V12 diesel machine so they were also running in Florida.
The lighter, lower cost P2 machines are now required to use production based engines and only four of them were ready for the season opener including a pair of Honda powered Lolas fielded by last year’s LMP Challenge winners, Level 5 Motorsports. Interestingly, Level 5 ran one car as a closed-top coupe while the other was in open-top configuration.
A full field of 24 GT cars took part including the debuts of the all-new Ferrari 458 Italia and the Panoz Abruzzi. Three of the older Ferrari F430 GTs were also on hand to prove that they were still in contention. Among the Ferrari squads, Houston based Risi Competizione arrived in Florida with absolutely no running time on their new 458 after the car was held up in customs for an extra week and then the crew had scramble just to prepare it for the race. The factory Corvette C6.Rs were making their first run with the new paddle-shift gearbox. The JaguarRSR XKR and Robertson Racing Ford GT squads both expanded to two car efforts.
Through most of the practice and qualifying sessions from Wednesday to Friday the P1 cars were all running fairly close together with no one really dominating. That all changed when Stephan Sarrazin went out for a hot lap in the #8 Peugeot and put in a blistering lap 1.109 seconds faster than the #1 Audi which took the #2 spot. The Peugeots and Audis alternated for the first five slots on the grid. Among the P2 cars, the new Signatech Oreca-Nissan ran nearly 3.5 seconds a lap quicker than the first of the Level 5 Lola-HPD which happened to be the open-top version.
Among the GT machines, things were a lot tighter with less than eight-tenths of a second covering the first six cars. Gimmi Bruni in the AF Corsa F430 went out and demonstrated that the older Ferrari still had some life left in it by grabbing the GT pole ahead of the 04 Corvette, the two BMWs, the Risi Ferrari and the #045 Flying Lizard Porsche.
Once the green flag fell on Saturday morning, Frank Montagny kept the lead and Alex Wurz slipped past Mike Rockenfeller’s Audi where they stayed for the next several laps with the Audis following close behind. In GT Oliver Gavin got the jump on Bruni’s Ferrari and quickly started to pull out a lead of several seconds over the first few laps. Eventually the grip on the Ferrari’s tires improved and the gap vanished and Bruni got back out in front while the Corvette lost grip any time it picked up some dust.
At the front of the pack, the four factory prototypes from Germany and France continued their mighty battle trading places and paint as they regularly rubbed fenders. However, several caution periods in the early hours prevented a breakaway and bunched up the field. Ultimately neither team was likely to be dominant anyway as the Audis seemed to have more straightline speed and the Puegeots had the advantage in corners.
Following a restart less than two hours in, the 04 Corvette came in contact with Patrick Long’s Porsche and they both spun in Turn 17. As the back end of the Corvette came around it struck the rear of the ExtremeSpeed Ferrari 458 of Johannes van Overbeek causing it spin backwards into the tirewall causing heavy damage and ending its day. Jan Magnussen got the Corvette back to the pits for some quick repairs that cost six minutes and ultimately a shot at victory at the end of the day.
In that same hour, Mike Rockenfeller pitted the #1 Audi on two consecutive laps for a punctured left rear tire that also damaged body work. After the second stop, the car went back to the garage for more extensive repairs that cost it eight laps. Teammate Dindo Capello had coming together with Peugeot driver Marc Gene in hour five that resulted in rear suspension damage to the Audi which cost seven laps in the pits.
All of the new Ferraris ran well at various times but ultimately succumbed to various maladies that dropped them well down or out of the competition. The last 458 with a chance was the fresh out of the box Risi car which led the GT field on several occasions. Unfortunately as the sun set on Florida, an alternator problem kicked in when the night driving lights were switched on and the battery rapidly drained. The team tried running with just the regular headlights but it was simply too dangerous and the car was parked with about 90 minutes left.
By this time, the 2010 Puegeot being campaigned by Hughes de Chaunac’s Oreca Matmut team had moved into the lead followed by the Highcroft HPD ARX-01e and the #8 factory 908 all on the lead lap. The Muscle Milk Aston Martin had retired midway after damage caused by a collision with one of the GT cars and the Audi were five and six laps down in fourth and fifth.
In GT the fight between the top six stayed on the same lap for much of the day and only late in the race did the two BMW M3s of the Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan squad get a firm hold on the top two spots.
However, the real battle remained at the front where the older Peugeot had the speed advantage on the HPD car, while the latter had an efficiency advantage. The question was whether the French machine could build up enough of a cushion to retain the lead while it made and extra stop for fuel in the final hour. The Connecticut based Highcroft team opted to run lean and preserve fuel as the Peugeot slowly pulled away. In the final hour, the Oreca car dashed in for a splash of fuel that was just enough to allow to get to the finish and still exit the pits ahead of the Highcroft car. Meanwhile Frank Montagny in the factory 908 was unable to close a 20-25 second gap to Simon Pagenaud in the ARX-01e, especially after he got stuck behind Alan McNish in the #2 Audi. Just after 10:30pm, the Oreca car took the checkered flag in the team’s first visit to Florida since 2000 when it was running the factory Dodge Viper GT effort. The HPD and #8 Peugeot filled out the podium, all on the lead lap.
In GT, the 56 and 55 BMW’s led the way with the Corvettes right behind. The open-top Level 5 Lola-Honda recovered from early problems and overcame the pole sitting Signatech Oreca-Nissan for the LMP2 victory. In LMP Challenge, the Genoa Racing team took top honors while defending GT Challenge champs, Black Swan Racing continued their winning ways.
The teams with fresh cars now have four weeks to get things sorted out before getting back in action at Long Beach on April 16.