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Sebring, 17 March 2012

The 60th anniversary of the legendary 12 Hours of Sebring was celebrated in fine style at the central Florida circuit, with a packed grid of 63 cars (from the 64 who practiced) for the running of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fuelled by Fresh from Florida, on Saturday 17 March. The activity started on the Wednesday preceding the race, with practice for the support races. There were eleven of these in total, which along with their qualifying sessions, plus parade laps, the practice and qualifying sessions for the 12 Hour Race, made for a full three days of track action in the lead up to the main event. A bonus, maybe not for the drivers in their race suits, was the predominantly sunny weather, with high ambient temperatures, throughout the programme. The race was the first round of the ALMS (American Le Mans Series), and also the first round of the newly inaugurated FIA WEC (World Endurance Championship). Each had their own classes, so unless you knew who was in which group, and in which class, things could be a little confusing as to overall and class positions.

The entry list featured some of the most prestigious names in the sports and GT car world, including Aston Martin, BMW, Chevrolet, Ferrari, Porsche, HPD (Honda) and Nissan. Let’s not forget Audi, who have a magnificent record at the Sebring track since the start of the new millennium, winning every year between 2000 and 2007, then again in 2009, and with a three car entry for the 2012 edition were odds on favourites to continue their winning ways.

Certainly from the practice and qualifying sessions, their diesel powered R18 TDIs, making their final appearance before the new R18 e-tron and R18 ultra models make their race debut, were the dominant force. Andre Lotterer put the # 1 Audi on pole position with a lap in 1min 45.82secs, a full 0.751sec faster than the 2011 pole position time, with their # 2 and # 3 cars, qualified by Tom Kristensen and Romain Dumas respectively, close behind in that order. This was Audi’s tenth pole position at the 12 Hours of Sebring, and the time was even more impressive in that it was his only flying lap, and the power of the Audi R18 TDI had been further restricted by the regulations from the start of the 2012 season. The quickest of the petrol engine runners was the Muscle Milk entered HPD ARX-03a driven by Klaus Graf, followed by the similar models driven by David Brabham and Jonny Kane. In the LMP2 category the quickest qualifying time was posted by Olivier Pla in the Oak Racing entered Morgan-Judd, whilst the fastest of the GT Pro entries was the # 51 AF Corse entered Ferrari 458 Italia GT2 driven by Gianmaria Bruni, which he shared with Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander. In the GT Am class the quickest qualifier was the # 58 Luxury Racing Ferrari 458 Italia GT2 driven by Dominik Farnbacher, with the PC group times headed by the # 9 RSR Racing Oreca FLM09 driven by Bruno Junqueira, and the GTC pole position going to the # 30 NGT Motorsport Porsche 911 GT3 Cup driven y Sean Edwards.

The build up on race day started with a 25 minutes warm up session at 8.00am, followed by various parade laps, line up of the cars along the pit wall on the main straight, introduction of the pole sitting teams, the grid walk, the bagpipers and colour guard, introduction of dignitaries, the national anthem, Para-Commandos jump and fly past. Then Jean Todt, the President of the FIA, gave the order “Drivers Start Your Engines”, after which the cars completed two warm up laps behind the pace car At precisely 10.31am the pace car peeled off, the green flag was waved by Dr Don Panoz and Jean-Claude Plassart, President of the ACO. This unleashed the 63 starters from the rolling start, actually there were only 62 by this time, as the # 58 GT Am pole winning Luxury Racing Ferrari driven by Dominik Farnbacher was hit by the # 65 Porsche of Jorg Bergmeister, and although he managed to get it back to the pits, the damage was to severe to continue. The Porsche also had to pit, but was able to rejoin the race after lengthy repairs. As expected the Audi trio dominated the front of the field, chased hard by the valiant HPD ARX-03a of Klaus Graf.

The first of eleven full course yellows happened only 13 minutes into the race, when the # 61 Ferrari driven by Rui Aguas stopped at Turn 10, it was towed back to the pits, and went “behind the wall” for repairs, at Sebring this means back to the team’s garage in the paddock, as there are no pit garages. It was thought to be a fuel pump problem, which continued to afflict its progress for a while, but it did reach the chequered flag. As can be judged by the number of full course yellows, averaging out to almost one per hour, it was a race full of incidents, fortunately none serious. It was not a good day for the Luxury Racing Ferrari team, having lost their GT Am entry before the start, at just about quarter distance their # 59 GT Pro entry was in the wars, coming together with the # 23 Oreca 03 – Nissan at turn 13, both hitting the tyre wall hard, putting both cars into retirement, and causing another full course yellow while they were recovered. The Oreca had tried to hobble round minus its left front wheel, but it was eventually parked up after spreading fluid along the track. Meanwhile, at the head of the field the Audi trio swapped the lead regularly through the pit stops, with the # 6 HPD ARX-03a occasionally putting its nose in front in the early stages, during the Audi pit stops.

The first and only real chink in the Audi armour came in the fifth hour, when the # 1 car of Lotterer / Treluyer / Faessler, had gear selection problems, which sent it behind the wall to effect repairs. At the half distance mark, the # 3 Audi of Bernhard/Dumas/Duval led the sister # 2 car of McNish / Kristensen / Capello by a scant 1.562secs, with the # 6 Muscle Milk HPD ARX-03a of Luhr / Graf / Pagenaud a lap down in 3rd place. In the GT classes, the Ferraris which had shown well in the early stages had dropped out of the top positions due to a variety of niggling problems, which seemed to mainly electrical issues. Thus the top GT runner was the # 4 Corvette C6-ZR1of Gavin / Milner / Westbrook, with the GT Am class being led by the similar # 50 example of Bornhauser / Canal / Lamy. In the LMP2 class, it was the # 055 HPD ARX-03b, driven by Tucker / Bouchut / Barbosa, that led the field by a lap from the similar # 44 example of Potolicchio / Dalziel / Sarrazin.

With the problems on the pole sitting # 1 Audi dropping it out of contention for overall honours, it was left to the sister # 2 and # 3 examples to uphold the company honour, and there was little to choose between them on lap times, as they continued to swap places through the pit stops. It was only in the closing stages that a gap of more than a few seconds opened between them, and that was due to contact damage that the # 3 car received lapping a slower car in the dark, which left it four laps down on the # 1 example.

Thus the # 1 car of McNish / Kristensen / Capello took the “Lord of the Rings” tenth overall win in the 12 Hours of Sebring, matching the number of pole positions that they had achieved at this venue, a nice retirement present for the R18 TDI. Despite the time lost for repairs the # 3 car of Bernhard / Dumas / Duval still hung on to 2nd place, making at an Audi 1-2, with # 44 LMP2 class HPD ARX-03b of Potolicchio / Dalziel / Sarrazin, taking the final overall podium slot, and the LMP2 class victory, two laps down on the # 3 Audi.

In the overall GT standings victory went to the # 56 BMW E92 M3 of Hand / Muller / Summerton, followed by the # 03 Corvette C6- ZR1 of Magnussen / Garcia / Taylor, with the least troubled of the Ferrari 458 Italias, the # 71 example of Bertolini / Beretta / Cioci taking the 3rd place, and the win in the FIA WEC Pro Class. In the FIA WEC Am class, victory went to the Porsche 911 GT3 RSR of Reid / Roda / Ruberto, followed by a pair of Larbre Competition entered Corvette C6-ZR1s, the Bourret / Gibon / Belloc ahead of the Bornhauser / Canal / Lamy example.
Overall Results

Pos Make/Model Race # Drivers
1st  Audi R18 TDI (LMP1) 2 D. Capello / T. Kristensen / A. McNish
2nd  Audi R18 TDI (LMP1) 3 T. Bernhard / R. Dumas / O. Duval 3rd  (1st Cl.) HPD ARX 03b - Honda (LMP2) 44 V. Potolicchio / R. Dalziel / S. Sarrazin
4th  (2nd Cl.) HPD ARX 03b - Honda (LMP2) 055 S. Tucker / C. Bouchut / J. Barbosa
5th  (3rd Cl.) Morgan-Judd (LMP2) 24 J. Nicolet / M. Lahaye / O. Pla
6th  (3rd Cl.) Pescarolo-Judd (LMP1) 16 E. Collard / J-C. Boullion / J. Jousse
7th  Oreca 03 – Nissan (LMP2) 49 L. Perez-Companc / P. Kaffer / S. Ayari
8th  Lola B12/60 - Mazda (LMP1) 016 C. Dyson / G. Smith / S. Kane
9th  Zytek Z11SN - Nissan(LMP2) 41 C. Zugel / R. Gonzalez / E. Julian
10th  HPD ARX 03a - Honda (LMP1) 22 N. Leventis / D. Watts / J. Kane

Overall GT Result
1st  BMW E92 M3 56 J. Hand / D. Muller / J. Summerton
2nd  Chevrolet Corvette C6-ZR1 03 J. Magnussen / A. Garcia / J. Taylor
3rd Ferrari 458 Italia GT2 71 A. Bertolini / O. Beretta / M. Cioci

FIA WEC Pro Class
1st Ferrari 458 Italia GT2 71 A. Bertolini / O. Beretta / M. Cioci 2nd Porsche 911 GT3 RSR 77 R. Lietz / M. Lieb / P. Pilet
3rd Aston Martin Vantage 97 S. Mucke / A. Fernandez / D. Turner

FIA WEC Am Class
1st Porsche 911 GT3 RSR 88 C. Reid / G. Roda / P. Ruberti
2nd Chevrolet Corvette C6-ZR1 70 C. Bourret / P. Gibon / J-P. Belloc
3rd Chevrolet Corvette C6-ZR1 50 P. Bornhauser / J. Canal / P. Lamy

1st BMW E92 M3 56 J. Hand / D. Muller / J. Summerton
2nd Chevrolet Corvette C6-ZR1 03 J. Magnussen / A. Garcia / J. Taylor
3rd Chevrolet Corvette C6-ZR1 4 O. Gavin / T. Milner / R. Westbrook

1st Porsche 911 GT3 Cup 023 B. Sweedler / T. Bell / D. von Moltke
2nd Porsche 911 GT3 Cup 022 L. Keen / L.P. Dumoulin / C. Macneil
3rd Porsche 911 GT3 Cup 34 P. LeSaffre / D. Faulkner / S. Bleekmolen

1st Oreca FLM09 06 E.J. Viso / A. Papow / B. Friselle
2nd Oreca FLM09 52 B. Leitzinger / K. Dobson / R. Junco
3rd Oreca FLM09 05 J. Bennett / C. Braun / E. Lux

Keith Bluemel