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American Le Mans 2009 – 12 HOURS OF SEBRING



12 Hours of Sebring Post-Race Notebook

The Audi Steamroller

For all the right reasons, the 57th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring lived up to its expectations, with the much-hyped Audi and Peugeot battle going down to the wire and ending in the favor of the sparkling new R15 TDI. While the German manufacturer continued its record of debut victories in North America’s toughest endurance race, Audi also gained an enormous amount of data from the trouble-free runs of its second-generation diesel-powered prototypes.

Considering the fact that the R15 TDIs had not run in 60-degree Fahrenheit or above temperatures until showing up at Sebring last Saturday makes their feat even more remarkable. Much of the car’s winter testing came in the wet, leaving drivers with little to no dry testing time. In fact, Dindo Capello commented his double stints in the race was his longest continuous driving time in the car thus far.

Sebring indeed was a true test for Audi’s new machinery, also in the aspect of tire strategy. Peugeot double stinted its Michelins throughout the race, but the winning Audi didn’t even do it once. It initially appeared to turn into a clear advantage for the French Lions. But the Audis made up considerable ground during the Peugeot’s second stint on old rubber. It was a case of losing time in the pits but gaining it back on the racetrack for the Silver Rings.

“Peugeot did it quite often and that was a different in tactics, and that’s what also made it very special,” Allan McNish said. “That’s one of the things because we haven’t done much dry weather running that we were a little bit concerned about [double stinting].”

Heading into the race, even McNish called Peugeot out as favorites, due to its proven third-year 908 HDi-FAP prototype and a maturing, yet still very motivated, driving squad. But in the back of his mind, the rapid Scotsman may have had concerns his own car’s reliability, especially considering that even the fully developed R10 TDI had problems of its own at the bumpy and demanding airfield circuit last year.

“The reliability that we had over the course of the race was very, very good, better than I expected, I have to say,” McNish said. “This place is hard, very, very hard on the car. It’s not that we had dramas in our testing; we certainly didn’t. You’ve got to prove yourself, and the only way to prove yourself is to come to a race. You always have a little bit of anticipation going into this one, because we were quite clear that we had a strong car last year, but ultimately we didn’t have the reliability we wanted.”

Whether Audi shows its face again this season in the American Le Mans Series remains to be seen, but we were at least treated to another magical performance by the German manufacturer. Roll on Le Mans!

Sebring 2009: A Record Breaker

Records were shattered across the board on Saturday, thanks to clean racing and only a handful of on-track incidents. In fact, only three full-course cautions slowed the field for a total of 13 laps – something unheard of not only in round-the-clock enduros but also for many two-hour and 45-minute “sprint” races.

The race-winning No. 2 Audi achieved a new distance record of 1,417 miles (383 laps), as well as an all-time average speed of 117.986 mph. But the distance covered also brought a near-record amount of retirements. Out of the 26 race starters, only 14 finished, breaking an all-time low set in the race’s inaugural event in 1952.

BMW’s return race to the ALMS ended early, while the Acura ARX-02a making its LMP1 debuts showed promise before retiring with mechanical issues. All four Lolas (two Dyson Racing Mazda coupes and the Intersport and Autocon open-top cars) failed to reach the checkered flag, as did the LG Motorsports Riley Corvette C6 and Drayson Racing’s Aston Martin Vantage GT2. Gearbox trouble even struck the No. 07 Peugeot, which had led overall in the early stages.

By the race’s midpoint, the pit lane became quite a lonesome place, as the remaining teams were stretched out from pit-in to pit-out. Of course the slender starting field didn’t help either, but attrition certainly took its toll over the grueling twelve hours.

Podium Success for PTG

One of the feel-good stories of the race came from Panoz Team PTG, which finished a fine third in GT2. The Dominik Farnbacher and Ian James-driven Panoz Esperante enjoyed a near flawless race, aside from one hair-raising moment late in the running.

It came in the tenth hour when James found himself coming under attack from the hard-charging Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche of Marc Lieb, which had lost six laps earlier due to a collision with another GT2 car, and was working its way back up the leaderboard.

“We’ve been fighting for ten laps in a row and [Marc] got a good run on to the inside,” James explained. “The car rolled down while I was still halfway besides him and I was going to get him back into Turn 1, but I guess he didn’t realize I was still there, and he turned to the left to block that route off and just turned on the front of my car and hit the wall.”

Lieb’s Porsche slammed the outside wall on the front straight, damaging the front-end, and after repairs, dropped him a further three laps down. But the Panoz walked away unscathed and held on to the final podium position, much to the delight of the small, but dedicated Tom Milner-led crew.

“Not bad for a five-year-old car?” Milner said of the aging Panoz Esperante. “I’m pretty happy. We worked hard all winter for this. The rules helped a little bit because of the increase in weight that everybody has [in GT2]. It’s very satisfying for the whole team.”

During the off-season, the Virginia-based team continued development work on the front-engined beast, which is by far the oldest GT2 car on the Series grid. Advances in the Yokohama tires and a heavily revised aerodynamic package introduced last year helped PTG make inroads on the competition. It paid off with a podium finish at Laguna Seca last year, and that momentum certainly seems to have carried into 2009.

“There’s a lot of energy in the team,” James said. “Dominik is a great driver and we jelled really well. It’s good to be back with PTG. There’s excitement here and we’ll do everything we can to stay up there for the whole year.”

While Farnbacher has been signed to drive the Panoz for the full season, James is hopeful of joining the team for additional races, but is already firming up plans to compete in the next two rounds at St. Petersburg and Long Beach.

Fernandez Flies the Flag for Acura

Despite the hype surrounding the debut of the all-new Acura ARX-02a LMP1 cars, it was Lowe’s Fernandez Racing with its tried and trusted Acura P2 machine that stole the thunder on Saturday. Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz scored their first American Le Mans Series class victory, and was the sole Acura finisher in the process.

Both the de Ferran Motorsports and Patron Highcroft Racing machines had solid early runs, with the pole-sitting Acura staying on the lead lap for quite some time. However, Gil de Ferran called it quits after eight hours due to a fuel leak and suspension problems. The Highcroft entry lasted another two hours before succumbing to gearbox failure.

These retirements, along with the late-race troubles for the No. 07 Peugeot, elevated the Fernandez Acura to fourth overall at the end. After coming up short so many times, the Tom Anderson-led team finally celebrated a class victory.

Dyson Racing, the only other competitors in P2, had both of its Mazda-powered Lolas drop with mechanical gremlins by the fifth hour, effectively awarding the win to the Tom Anderson-led crew as long as the car completed 70 percent of the race laps.

“We were trying to keep a good pace without being too conservative,” Fernandez said. “After eight and a half hours, I was starting to push it just because I knew were already declared the winners. I was just making sure we were learning more from the car. We were doing good lap times.”

With its double retirement, Dyson failed to score points in both the drivers’ and teams’ championships, which doesn’t bode for them well heading into the season-long stretch, where every point could make a difference.

“It was a perfect race on paper for us,” Diaz said. “We scored full points, so that will give us some air for the next few races. But I think our goal is to win every single race this year. That’s going to be our pressure for ourselves. What we want to prove is that this team is very strong and professional, and no matter how many cars are on the track, we want to perform as best as possible.”

As for the new P1 Acuras, there appears to be no real concern at this point. Both cars showed a massive amount of potential, even in the race. As with the case of any (or most) new cars, it takes time to work out all the bugs. Acura didn’t have as much pre-season testing as it had originally hoped for, and now has the season to continue development at its own pace. Hopefully, Audi and/or Peugeot will return for the season-ending events and there could be a genuine three-way dogfight in P1.