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Sebring, 19 March 2011

The 59th Annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh from Florida, saw the revival of the Audi – Peugeot battle for the overall LMP1 race honours, the former giving the R15+ its swansong outing, whilst the latter had a pair of new 2011 908s with which to do battle, backed up by the earlier 908HDi-FAP of the Oreca Team Matmut. The race also marked the debut of the Ferrari 458 Italia GT, with four examples running in the GT category, together with three examples of the model it replaces, the F430 GT, one running in the same class, and the other two in the newly inaugurated GTE-AM class, where only one professional paid driver is allowed in each driver line-up. The race was also the inaugural one in the 2011 Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, a series of seven races, five within the ALMS and LMS series, plus the Le Mans 24 Hour Race and a season finale in China.

During the course of the four practice sessions, there were four different cars heading the practice times, not unnaturally from the Audi and Peugeot diesel entries. The # 1 Audi of Bernhard / Dumas / Rockenfeller headed the first session times, with team mates Capello / Kristensen / McNish topping the table in session 2. Then it was the turn of the Peugeots, with the # 7 example of Wurz / Gené / Davidson taking the quickest time in the third session, and then surprisingly the older # 10 Team Oreca Matmut example of Lapierre / Duval / Panis quickest in the fourth session, with a lap of 1min 48.704secs, the quickest of all four sessions. Come the qualifying session on Friday afternoon, and it was the # 8 Peugeot 908 of Montagny / Sarrazin / Lamy that grabbed pole position for the race, making it five different cars fastest in each session on the track. This was followed by the # 1 Audi R15+, the # 7 Peugeot, the # 2 Audi and the # 10 Peugeot, so the balance seemed pretty even between the main contenders for race honours, with a fraction under 2secs covering the top five qualifiers. The quickest of the petrol engine cars was Muscle Milk Lola Aston Martin B08 62 of Pickett / Graf / Luhr, just over 3secs off the pole position time. The LMP2 class qualifying honours went to the Signatech Nissan Team Oreca 03 Nissan of Mailleux / Ordonez / Ayari, with the LMPC class quickest time being set by the Genoa Racing Oreca FLM09 of Peterson / Cameron / Guasch. In the GT categories, the main GT class pole position went to the # 51 AF Corse Ferrari F430 GTC of Fisichella / Bruni / Kaffer, with the Lietz / Roda / Ried Proton Competition Porsche 911 RSR taking the GTE-AM class pole, and the Alex Job Racing Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car of Sweedler / Keen / Reid posting the quickest time in the GTC class.

The race started under clear blue skies at 10.30 on the Saturday morning, and immediately it was the #8 Peugeot in the lead from pole position but being chased hard by the pair of Audis and the sister # 7 car, with the # 10 Peugeot following closely. It didn’t take long for the action to get a little too hot, with the first of nine safety car periods starting on lap 12, when the Pastorelli / Schwager Lamborghini Gallardo went off the track. The numerous safety car periods during the first two thirds of the race, kept bunching the field up, and thus advantages ebbed and flowed between each safety car period.

It wasn’t long before the front runners started to experience problems, the first victim being the # 1 Audi of Bernhard / Dumas / Rockenfeller, which picked up a front tyre puncture at the end of the first hour, and then on the out lap after having that replaced, picked up a left rear puncture which damaged the bodywork necessitating replacement of the whole rear section. It’s progress was further hindered by two drive through penalties later in the race, but still managed to finish 5th a lap down on the # 2 sister car of Capello / Kristensen / McNish in 4th place, which had its own problems, after what was considered a no fault (of the Audi driven by Dindo Capello) collision with the # 7 Peugeot of Wurz / Gené / Davidson, damaged the suspension and bodywork, dropping it seven laps off the lead. The collision also damaged the Peugeot, further compounded by Marc Gené burning out the clutch as he tried to get going again, which also dropped this car out of the running for a race win, to finish an eventual 8th overall. The sister # 8 car was still in contention for the win until the 10th hour, but broken louvres on the front wing, caused by debris being thrown up, necessitated the replacement of the nose section in accordance with the regulations, and then Pedro Lamy spun on the out lap after this work, which dropped the car off the lead lap. He eventually worked his way back on the lead lap, but too much time had been lost, and the best he could do was to take the final spot on the podium. Thus victory went to the “old” Team Oreca Matmut Peugeot 908 HDi-FAP of Lapierre / Duval / Panis, which finished just over 30secs ahead of the Highcroft Racing HPD ARX- 01e of Brabham / Franchitti / Pagenaud, a great result for the car’s maiden outing.

The LMP2 class win went to the # 055 Level 5 Motorsports Lola Honda of Tucker / Hunter-Reay / Diaz, with the LMPC class win going to the # 006 Core Autosport Oreca LM009 of Jeanette / Gonzalez / Junco. The main GT group was the source of virtually a race long battle between the works BMW M3s, the works Corvettes, the Flying Lizard Porsches and the pole sitting AF Corse Ferrari plus the debuting Risi Competizione Ferrari 458 Italia GT. All the teams had problems to one degree or another, but at the end of the day, the two quickest Ferraris retired, the AF Corse car of Fisichella / Bruni / Kaffer with an overheated gearbox, after a cooling duct came adrift, and the Risi car of Bruni / Melo / Salo withelectrical problems in the closing stages of the race. This gave the pair of BMWs a bit of breathing space, and they went on to seal a 1 - 2 class win, with the # 56 car of Priaulx/Mueller/Hand leading home the # 55 example of Farfus / Auberlen / Werner, with the Beretta / Milner / Garcia # 03 Corvette taking the final podium spot. There was a small consolation for Ferrari, as the # 57 Krohn Racing F430 GTC of Krohn / Jonsson / Rugolo won the GTE-AM class, whilst the GTC class win went to the # 054 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car of Pappas / Faulkner / Bleekmolen.

Keith Bluemel