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SEBRING, Fl — It was as if there were two races going on at the 12 hours of Sebring last weekend — the race between the two Audis and everyone else.
The Performance by the team from Ingolstadt, Germany was so dominant that the third place finisher, a Lola-Toyota was five laps behind the No.1 winning Audi R-18 e-tron Quattro, in its first official race in the states (the e-tron cars were not ready for Sebring last year).
The No. 1 Audi, that took game, set, and match at the storied Sebring track, is also the two-time defending Le Mans champ, driven by Marcel Fässler (CH), Benoît Tréluyer (F) plus Sebring newcomer Oliver Jarvis (GB) (Jarvis is filling in for Andre Lotterer) had the top qualifying time, won the race, and was also the Michelin Green-X Challenge winner.
The second place car of Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen (DK) and Lucas di Grassi (BR) (who is replacing the retired Dindo Capelli) were less than eight seconds off the pace of the winners and but for a 60 second stop-and-go penalty for what was really incidental contact between McNish and a slower car, the results could have been reversed just as easily between the two.
Audi chose to come to Sebring on what it is calling its “Farewell Tour” not just to give American fans a last glimpse of the LMP1 cars (with the merger of the ALMS and the Grand National series the LMP1 class will not included in next year’s combined series), but also to give the team a demanding test to kick off the World Endurance Championship (WEC) that opens at Silverstone next month in the UK.
To be sure the race track at Sebring is all of that if not more. About half the length of Le Mans, the track, a former WWII airfield, not only requires both strong top end and handling, but it tests both car and driver in its requirement for toughness. One only has to watch cars “chatter” through the first turn as they decelerate from near 200 mph to negotiate the left hand bender to realize the kind of torture that cars are subjected to for 12 hours. Surviving and winning at Sebring gives a team a great boost for the coming endurance racing season.
Qualifying gave some idea of the closeness of the two Audi with only .006 of a second separating the two cars and in the race fans were treated to a fierce, no holds barred duel between the two teams in the race. At one point the two cars even “rubbed” a little paint as they battled for supremacy in one of the turns. In total, the lead between the two R18 cars changed 20 times.
You have to give Audi, and head of Audi Motorsport, Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, credit for letting the two teams go at it tooth and nail. While there is certainly risk in that strategy — there is also great reward. And it was the fans at Sebring who were the recipients of the reward, as much as the Audi team.
But Audi knows that when they get to Silverstone in a short month, that the game will change. They will be facing what they expect to be a stiff challenge from their Toyota counterpart, who at the end of the season last year was their equal, if not their better. Racing in the shorter WEC events (of four hours duration, rather than the 12 hours of Sebring or 24 Hours of Le Mans) the Toyota won three of the final six events outright and gave the Audi something to “chew on” in the off season.
For that reason Audi remained at Sebring after the race for additional testing for the R18 e-tron quattro. Although Audi won the initial running of the WEC series last year — it knows that the Japanese Tiger is waiting to strike and that its R18 etron quattro will need to find every additional tenth of a second around the race track to be successful.
And yes, there were other classes competing at Sebring — and it was again the GT class where you could basically throw a blanket over the first seven or eight cars. Tommy Milner passed Matteo Malucelli Ferrari) for the GT lead and eventual class win as Corvette Racing won at Sebring for the first time since 2009. Milner, who drove the No. 4 Corvette C6 ZR1 with Oliver Gavin and Richard Westbrook, overtook Malucelli – who went off twice in the span of a lap – in Risi Competizione’s Ferrari F458 Italia with 13 minutes left.
It was a roller-coaster day for the No. 4 car. It lost two laps with electrical problems early and received a one-minute penalty for avoidable contact that was a debatable call at the very best and brought a strong response from Westbrook.
In 14 races at Sebring with Le Mans prototypes, the 61st running of Sebring marked Audi’s eleventh overall victory. Eight times the brand with the four rings celebrated one-two results. The premium manufacturer’s tally reflects 24 podium places. Ten times an Audi started from the pole position – more often than any other manufacturer in the history of the race that has been held since 1952. The Audi R8, the R10 TDI and the R15 TDI each celebrated victorious debuts at Sebring. With the first victory of a diesel sports car in 2006 and now the first triumph of a hybrid race car Audi achieved two historic victories. Audi took the first podium and the first win at a sports car race at Sebring as well.
Now the challenge, some 60 years later, is can the Audi taken this Sebring win to the next level — another win at LeMans and a second ERC title. Time will tell.