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The world awaits the 90th anniversary of the 24 hours of Le Mans

LE MANS, FRANCE — History awaits the winner of the 90th anniversary of the first running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The questions are many and like a Shakespearean play that is written in real time on the historic  circuit du la Sarthe each year, in 2013 fans of endurance car racing will wonder how the fickle hand of the poet of racing will write the ending of this race.
While cars go through scrutineering on Monday and Tuesday, most pundits have pretty much written Audi and its vaunted diesel hybrid team into the winner’s circle. The Ingolstadt crew is more than up to the challenge as it is the defending the champion and to date has won everything that the team has entered, including a final adieu at Sebring and the first two rounds of World Endurance Championship (WEC) at Silverstone and Spa. Its only competition has come from the upstart Toyota team that is again getting a late start to the season, running last year’s car Silverstone and one of the 2013 chassis at Spa. Audi has seemingly had an answer for the Toyota at every stop along the way, winning handily in each of the first two venues and testing its “long-tail” version of its r18 e-tron quattro at Spa.

The Long-tail was the fast qualifier at test day at a soggy Le Mans (on June 8) as it was obvious that the Toyota Team was still sorting out the new car. Last year the Toyota gave the Audi a run for its money for a short period of time at Le Mans before a shunt and mechanical issues put both cars out of the race. However, in subsequent WEC events the Toyotas showed that they were a force to be reckoned with, winning three of the last five races and sending a message to the vaunted Audi team. Team Audi was listening and returned to the racing wars fully prepared to defend its title.

After Spa, in fact Toyota officials said that the Audis were just too fast and that the Automobile Club de l’Ouest and the FIA  should make changes in the rules if it wanted to have a competitive race. Pascal Vasselon, Toyota Motorsport GmbH technical director said that the “balance of performance” heavily favored Audi’s turbo diesel over the normally aspirated gasoline engine of the Toyota. Vasselon indicated that he thought that the Audi’s have a 70 to 80 horsepower advantage over his Toyotas. Vasselon thinks that a mistake was made over the winter when the air-restrictor rules were rewritten, reducing the air restrictor by three percent but not changing the fuel allocation. Vasselon contends that the Audis are making more power whereas the Toyotas are looking at an increase in fuel consumption of 20 percent (in order to keep up with the Audis).

Wolfgang Ulrich the Audi Sport Director did not mince words regarding the challenge from Toyota on the specs. It is his perspective that the Toyotas have come to the first two races of the season somewhat unprepared since they ran last year’s car at Silverstone and only had one of the new car’s at Spa, where it failed to finish. “How can they ask for a change in the BoP with such little data. The new Toyota, which was doing its first race, was at least comparable to our Le Mans car.”

Vasselon was not satisfied and added,”We looked better in the race, but it was entirely related to the engine setting of the Audi.”

Indeed at the test day at Le Mans, even in the sloppy weather,  Toyota was still off the pace — even the pace set by the second and third Audis. Thew fastest Toyota (fourth fastest) was nearly two seconds off the pace of the third fastest Audi.

At this writing this has just been a war of words and neither the ACO nor the FIA have indicated that they are looking to make changes in the rules at this late date.

But remember there are 56 cars running at Le Mans and while the prototypes get most of the press the GTs provide some of the best racing. This year features the return of the Dodge Viper after a decade hiatus and certainly the return of “Dr.McDreamy” — Patrick Dempsey of the Grey’s Anatomy series adds a little extra interest to the race this year. Dempsey will racing a Porsche and is team with Porsche factory driver Patrick Long.

As they say in the states, “it’s not over ’til the fat lady sings” and at Le Mans the fat lady never sings until she is ready.

Does Audi’s Sebring win mean big things are in store for the team this year?

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.



Audi tops test day at Sebring

SEBRING, FL — Alan McNish and the No. 2 Audi R-18 Hybrid went from the outhouse to the penthouse in the course of eight hours of work Thursday at the storied Sebring track where Audi has brought a team of two cars as a part of the USA Farewell Tour.

McNish, out in the morning session, had a shunt on cold tires before completing even a single lap. Apparently the cold tires spun when he was going through turn 10, putting the car into the wall. While there was a goodly amount of body dammage to the car, the tub survived as did McNish and the No. 2 Audi R18 e-tron quattro with teammate Tom Kristensen at the wheel toured the circuit at 1:46.660 (126.233 mph) for top time in the evening session.

The time was just 0.026 seconds faster than the No. 1 car with Benoit Treluyer at the wheel. Third place in the P1 category went to Lucas Luhr in the Muscle Milk Honda HPD ARX 03c. Luhr was about three-quarters of a second behind the fastest Audi. Based on the times posted by all of the Audi drivers, it would appear that both teams are ready for qualifying and the race.

This is the last time that the vaunted Audi P1 Team will visit the Sebring Track, where they have had dominate performances over the last decade. With the merging of the ALMS and Grand-AM series, there will no longer be a class for the Audi. Although the team will visit the World Endurance Championship (WEC) round in Austin, TX in September, this indeed may be the last time the Audi P1 cars turn a race lap at Sebring.

The Sebring race also gives the Audi Team a tune-up for the start of the WEC season that kicks off at Silverstone in the UK the weekend of April 12-14. Sebring will give the Audi team a good test (as it has already) with a very serious challenge coming from the Toyota team that was the equal of the Audis in the latter half of the WEC season in 2012.

In the GT class, there was less than a half a second between the top three with American Muscle showing the way as two Corvettes C6 ZR1s posted the top two times.

There is one test session Friday morning with qualifying Friday afternoon. The race kicks off Saturday morning at 10:30 am Eastern Daylight Savings Time.

Prototype 2 (P2) Top 3
• Ryan Briscoe – No. 551 Level 5 Motorsports HPD ARX-03b – 1:52.138 (120.066 mph)
• Ryan Hunter-Reay – No. 552 Level 5 Motorsports HPD ARX-03b – 1:52.735 (119.431 mph)
• David Brabham – No. 01 Extreme Speed Motorsports HPD ARX-03b – 153.133 (119.010 mph)

Grand Touring (GT) Top 3
• Oliver Gavin – No. 4 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C6 ZR1 – 2:00.282 (111.937 mph)
• Jordan Taylor – No. 3 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C6 ZR1 – 2:00.406 (111.822 mph)
• Matteo Malucelli – No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 458 Italia – 2:00.736 (111.516 mph)

Prototype Challenge presented by Continental Tire (PC) Top 3
• David Ostella – No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA FLM09 – 1:55.662 (116.408 mph)
• Pierre Kaffer – No. 81 Dragon Speed Mishumotors ORECA FLM09 – 1:56.467 (115.604mph)
• Colin Braun – No. 05 Composite Resources CORE autosport ORECA FLM09 – 1:56.656 (115.416 mph)

GT Challenge (GTC) Tire Top 3
• Spencer Pumpelly – No. 45 Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 Cup – 2:06.376 (106.539 mph)
• Andy Lally – No. 27 Dempsey Del Piero Racing Porsche 911 GT3 Cup – 2:06.570 (106.376 mph)
• Jeroen Bleekemolen – No. 22 Alex Job Racing Porsche 911 GT3 Cup – 2:06.721 (106.249 mph)

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