The 57th edition of a classic
The annual Sebring 12 Hours race is one of the few classic endurance races remaining. Despite lasting only half as long, 'Sebring' is considered to be as tough or even tougher on men and machine than the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This is largely due to the very bumpy nature of the track, courtesy of the many concrete sections that once formed the east-to-west runways of the adjacent airfield. Since 1999, the 12 hour race has served as the season opener of the American Le Mans Series (ALMS). This year's edition not only marked the 10th anniversary of the ALMS but was also the 100th race in the ALMS' history. Neither of these occasions, however, were the reason why the 2009 Sebring 12 Hours was so highly anticipated. That was due to the prospect of seeing three highly successful manufacturers go head-to-head for overall victory. Multiple winner Audi was already challenged by Peugeot in 2008 and now Acura moved up from the LMP2 class to 'P1' with a brand new car.
In addition to the six contenders for the outright win another 20 cars lined up for the race, spread over a total of four classes. An entry of 26 cars is by no means large and clearly shows the effects of the tough economic conditions on racing. What the field lacked in size, it definitely made up on in quality. With manufacturers like Porsche, Ferrari, BMW and Audi present as well as star drivers like Le Mans legend Tom Kristensen, Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti and current Formula 1 star Sebastien Bourdais involved, there is little reason to complain.
New cars, new chances
If the race itself was not difficult enough, the fact that it is held so early in the year makes it harder. Most teams debuted revised or even brand new cars. Included in the latter category were the Audi R15 TDI, Acura ARX-02a and the BMW M3 GTR. Of these the Audi grabbed the most headlines as it is quite a departure from Audi's previous designs and all other successful prototype racers. Conventional cars are designed to cut through the air as efficiently as possible. The new R15 TDI, on the other hand, utilizes the air flow in a slightly different way. The blunt nose seems inefficient but creates more downforce, allowing the car to run with less 'diveplanes' than the competition. The rest of the car is extremely tightly packaged to create a better balanced machine than the outgoing R10 TDI was. Another obvious change is the switch to a V10 engine, which also helps shift more weight forward.
Developed for Acura by Wirth Research in England, the ARX-02a is a different beast altogether. Using a much simpler and lighter 4-litre V8, the new Acura is a very minimalistic racing car. To make up for the torque deficit compared to the diesels, much effort was put in getting the highest cornering speeds. One of the solutions was to fit rear tires on the front, increasing the contact patch by 7%. One of the two teams that entered the new Acura ARX-02a, Patron Highcroft Racing also launched a campaign to support the fight against malaria; Miles to End Malaria. The team and sponsor will donate $10 each for every mile covered in the season, which is the equivalent of one mosquito net.
The third new car, the BMW M3 GTR, was announced over a year ago at the Chicago Auto Show. Since then, the GT2 racer has been carefully developed and extensively tested to be ready for a full season two-car entry by the Rahal Letterman Racing team. BMW's head of motorsport Mario Theissen was in Sebring to witness the machine's competitive debut. He explained that the new car was designed to be more user friendly than the previous M3 GTR. This means that it can be used by customer teams with minimal Works support. Rahal Letterman does have a strong backing from BMW North America.
To make life a little easier for the teams, the Sebring Raceway hosted two days of testing immediately prior to the first official session on Wednesday.
Testing, practice and qualifying
Not all teams ventured out during the test sessions on Monday and Tuesday. Dyson Racing only fielded one of their new Lola-Mazdas as their brand new chassis was still under assembly in the paddock. All the other new cars did get plenty of tracktime. Audi immediately set the pace at the head of the field. Surprisingly, it was Peugeot that suffered serious problems. On Tuesday Bourdais crashed the #08 car heavily and later in the day mechanics discovered damage to the tub of the #07 car. The #08 was quickly repaired but doubts arose about the participation of the other Peugeot in the remainder of the event. With the help from a local racing shop the chassis was eventually repaired but it did not re-appear on track until the final practice session before the qualifying. With Dyson concentrating on getting their new Lolas ready for the race, the seasoned Lowes-Fernandez Acura set the pace in the LMP2. Compared to last year, the difference between the two prototype classes was considerably bigger.
Corvette Racing added some colour to the GT1 class by painting one of their two cars black but in the penultimate outing of the C6.R, the team remained unchallenged. In GT2, the latest version of the Porsche 997 GT3 RSR showed great promise. The Farnbacher-Loles and Flying Lizard entered examples were quicker than the fastest Ferrari of Risi Competizione. There was no sign of the two Vici entered Porsches in any of the practice sessions on Wednesday and Thursday.
As always qualifying was split in two 25-minute sessions; the first for the GT cars and the second for the prototypes. Oliver Gavin clinched the pole in GT1 in the black Corvette ahead of his team-mate Jan Magnussen in the yellow example. The GT2 class saw the first appearance of one of the Vici cars, which set the 10th fastest time class. It was later withdrawn due to a lack of preparation. At the head of the field the pattern of the practice sessions continued with Porsches filling the first two positions ahead of the fastest Ferraris. There were notable performances by the Doran prepared Ford GT (5th) and the PTG Panoz (6th). The BMWs could not impress and the same could be said of the Drayson Racing Aston Martin V8 Vantage.
While all eyes were on the Peugeots and Audis, Scott Dixon set the fastest time in the new Acura ARX-02a entered by de Ferran Competition. The four diesels followed very closely in his wake and especially the Peugeot drivers did not seem to care too much about the pole. The same set of tires would have to be used in the race, so preserving them made sense. While putting in over twice as much laps, the Dyson Lola Mazdas could not come close to the time set by Adrian Fernandez in his P2 Acura, which was good for 7th overall.
Sebring; more than 'just' one race
The Sebring 12 Hours is so much more than just a race. Held during the annual 'Spring Break', the event attracts many spectators who set up camp inside the perimeter of the track. Many sections of the track are lined by big RVs, which also serve as grandstands. On several locations, like on the inside of turn 10, the same group of people get together every year to enjoy the race and a wide variety of beverages. They also proved very hospitable for passing journalists, for which we thank them.
The tens of thousands of spectators were treated to a variety of support races that took to the track from Wednesday to Friday. These included various Mazda powered single seater classes, the Speed World Challenge, the Porsche Cup and two historic races. The absolute highlight of the support program was the outing of David Brabham in the Cooper used by his father, Sir Jack Brabham, in the 1959 Formula 1 season. It marked the 50th anniversary of the Sebring Grand Prix where Sir Jack became World Champion by pushing the stricken Cooper across the finish line. David Brabham drove a few laps around the track on Tuesday and later in the week reenacted the legendary 'push'.
The Sebring 12 Hours
There was more drama on race morning for the Peugeot team as the #08 suffered from power steering problems. The repairs were completed too late and the car was forced to start from the pit lane. The BMWs also did not have a trouble free build up to the race; the #90 car refused to start on the grid and was pushed back into the pit. It would eventually join the race but in the end only completed 27 laps.
At exactly 10:30 in the morning the field was let loose. Allan McNish in the #2 Audi used the torque advantage of his diesel V10 to his benefit and rushed past Gilles de Ferran in the pole sitting Acura. The other Audi and the #07 Peugeot needed more time to get by and after one lap the Scotsman had built up an impressive lead. In the background the Doran Ford GT and one of the Flying Lizard Porsches held an elbow rubbing contest. The Porsche proved to be no match for the American iron and was forced to visit the pit for repairs. The sister car followed shortly after, leaving just the Farnbacher-Loles car to defend the Porsche honours. They did so admirably, leading the GT2 pack for many laps until mechanical problems also threw them back down the order. The lead was inherited by the #62 Risi Competizione Ferrari, which for a change did not suffer from the bad luck that dogged them throughout the 2008 season.
Starting from the pits only proved a small hurdle for the #08 Peugeot; it joined the other three diesel cars at the head of the field in a very short time. During the first pit-stops, the reason for Peugeot's short qualifying run became clear. The French team were going to double-stint their tires. Interestingly the Audis were not able to do so, allowing the #07 Peugeot to grab the lead during the pit stops. It was the start of an highly intense battle for the lead of the race that would last the full twelve hours. Rarely were leaders more than a couple of seconds apart. Peugeot's efforts received a big blow as the #07 lost several laps due to an air-conditioner failure. Audi used one of the three caution periods to make subtle adjustments to their cars. One received a new nose, while the other was fitted with a different rear wing. As the evening fell, the #1 Audi experimented with double stinting the tires but that had far from the desired results.
A 'slow' puncture threw the #08 Peugeot back. With less than two hours to go the #2 Audi was in the lead, followed at a considerable distance by the Peugeot that had started from the pits. An interesting twist was that the Audi needed two more fuel stops to reach the finish, while the Peugeot only need to visit the pits once. McNish was back in the #2 car and showed why he is considered one of the best sports car racers of the moment. He recorded a series of incredibly fast laps, to which Franck Montagny in the Peugeot had no answer. After his final stop, McNish emerged with a 20 second lead over Montagny. After a memorable fight, the Audi R15 TDI clinched a highly impressive debut victory. The two LMP1 Acuras never were a threat to the diesels and eventually both had to retire with mechanical problems.
The two-horse race in GT1 was settled in favour of the yellow #3 Corvette of Magnussen, O'Connel and Garcia. After just a few hours, LMP2 was reduced to a one-horse race with just the Lowe's Fernandez car still in it. That was no reason for them to slow down and the silver and blue Acura eventually finished a strong fourth overall. The closest battle in the dying seconds of the race was for third in GT2. The PTG Panoz was challenged after a strong comeback from the #45 Flying Lizard Porsche. Marc Lieb dove up the inside of the Ian James in the Panoz in the final corner and looked a very strong candidate to secure the final podium position in class. For reasons unknown he suddenly moved over and clipped the nose of the Panoz, sending the young German driver head-on into the wall. The Panoz escaped with little damage. The damage repairs cost the Flying Lizard car three laps and it had to settle in fourth, ahead of its team-mate.
Audi clearly came out of this Sebring 12 Hours as the winner but Peugeot put up a very strong fight. For the first time the French team had the edge in the pit lane. If Audi will not be able to double stint the tires at Le Mans, they will be in serious trouble as in the 24 Hour race, the team will only be able to use one 'wheelgun' instead of two. Unfortunately for the ALMS, neither of the top runners will compete in the following rounds, leaving a very marginal field for the remainder of the championship. Hopefully the first race of the 2009 ALMS will not be the last great one of the year. A complete pictorial report of the 2009 Sebring 12 Hours can be found in our exclusive 160-shot gallery