The Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Fresh From Florida celebrates its 60th running this year, with Sebring International Raceway's tooth-loosening concrete runways hosting the opening round of the new-for-2012 FIA World Endurance Championship. This week, as we count down to that milestone race on March 14-17, we're taking a look back at the ongoing success story that's the American Le Mans Series at Sebring.
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After the World Sportscar Championship and IMSA eras, the third – and still going strong – iteration of the 12 Hours of Sebring came with the dissolving of IMSA in its previous guise. The replacement was a series emphasizing a direct link to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and one that would well serve the French enduro classic's interest in America. Don Panoz had both the vision and the financial backing to launch the new American Le Mans Series, which enjoyed its official kickoff at the 1999 running of the 12 Hours.
Panoz had envisioned a scenario where the top European manufacturers once again brought their prototypes and GT cars over to Sebring to ready themselves for battle at Le Mans, but also have the appealing option of running in a major U.S.-based series for the rest of the year. He also wanted to foster an environment where more American teams could have the opportunity to get to Le Mans via automatic invites for winning prestigious events. The 1998 Petit Le Mans was the appetizer as the first race run under Automobile Club de l'Ouest rules, and the following year's 12 Hours of Sebring the first of the entrees.
Sebring's track itself underwent a substantial upgrade, as a new pit tower, media center and imposing hotel, the Chateau Elan, were constructed at the facility. The hotel was constructed across from the redesigned hairpin.
On track, 58 cars from three different classes (prototypes, GTS and GT) took the start for the inaugural running. A mix of factory prototypes and offshoots from the prior World Sports Car class made up a bulk of the primary category, with the GTs split into GTS for highly modified production-cars turned racecars, and GT for cars that were closer to production roots.
The ending more than lived up to the billing of a “world-class” race, as one of the Schnitzer-run BMW Motorsport V12 LMRs edged American top team and WSC holdovers Dyson Racing for the overall triumph by just 9.207sec, easily the closest finish in history. Sharing the driving duties in the winning LMR (ABOVE) with Jorg Muller and JJ Lehto was one Tom Kristensen, earning the first of his record-breaking five Sebring wins on his debut at the Florida track.
Come 2000, one of sports car racing's most successful manufacturers premiered its first world-beater. Audi's R8 was the successor to two iterations produced in '99, the R8R Spyder and R8C coupe. A more refined version of the Spyder, the R8 was a 3.6-liter V8 machine with more than 600hp and a better aerodynamic package than the R8R, and it would set the Sebring benchmark for years to come. On its stunning debut at the 12 Hours, the R8 recorded a 1-2 finish (the only two cars on the lead lap), with Kristensen again in the winning car (ABOVE RIGHT), this time sharing with Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro.
Others, including Panoz's own LMP1 roadster powered by a Elan Ford V8 and Cadillac's new Northstar LMP project, gamely tried to end the Audi supremacy, but that 2000 win would be the first of six consecutive for iterations of the R8.
In the GTS ranks, Dodge's Viper GTS-R and Chevy's Corvette C5-R were firmly entrenched at the head of the class for the first time. The two manufacturers had battled for the overall win at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2000 but, at Sebring, only had class honors to contend for. The Vipers routed the Corvettes, with a podium sweep and the best Corvette only fifth in class.