The P2 crescendo came in 2008, when the No. 7 Penske Porsche (ABOVE) not only scored the class win, but the overall triumph to finally end Audi's eight-year win streak. Porsche finished 1-2, with Dyson's car second again – as it was in the last non-Audi victory of 1999. A third place for the No. 1 Audi still won the P1 class, but was as hollow a victory as could have been achieved. It also marked the last start of the R10 at Sebring, as development of the diesel generation cars accelerated thanks to new rival Peugeot. The French marque had built its 908 HDi FAP in '06, launched it in '07 from Le Mans onward, and took it to Sebring for the first time in '08.
In 2009, Sebring faced the same economic reality check as the rest of the world. The field, which hit a max of 59 cars in 2002, was down to just 26. Audi opted against running a full ALMS schedule while developing its new second-gen diesel, the R15 TDI, but made sure Sebring was still on its to-do list. Post-Sebring, that meant Acura's new P1-spec ARX-02a, the first car to run with rear tires at the front as well as the back, essentially ran unopposed for the rest of the season.
The all-conquering Porsche RS Spyder was gone, too, as Penske pulled out of the series and Dyson switched to a Lola-Mazda coupe. Acura then split between P1 and P2, with Highcroft and de Ferran moving up and Fernandez running the single P2 car.
The GT classes were also in flux. Corvette, now running unopposed in GT1, was developing a new GT2-spec car to debut later in the year. BMW re-entered with an M3 after a several-year hiatus, but the car was uncompetitive on debut. Still, by late 2009, GT2 would have Porsche, Ferrari, BMW and Corvette all fielding factory or factory-supported efforts, with the promise of more to come.
Audi prevailed over Peugeot, ensuring its R15 kept the streak alive of first-time out wins for the manufacturer's new car at Sebring. The McNish/Capello/Kristensen car (ABOVE LEFT) won, with Kristensen stretching his record tally of Sebring wins to five.
The 2010 race had an increased overall car count of 33, thanks to ALMS's introduction of the two single-spec “Challenge” classes – LMPC and GTC – alongside the P1, P2 and GT2 classes. GT1 was eliminated. That said, the race wasn't entirely complete because Audi, which was heavily revising its R15 to its new R15 “Plus” status, opted against running at Sebring. Peugeot was left to take a relatively untroubled win (ABOVE RIGHT), save for the occasional dice from a screaming Prodrive-run Aston Martin V12-powered Lola coupe and a hard-charging effort from Emanuele Pirro in the Lord Paul Drayson-entered Lola-Judd coupe.
Last year's running saw a substantial car count increase, up to 56, with the race taking on a dual significance. Though not technically a world championship, the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup ensured a larger batch of international entries alongside the ALMS's battle-hardened regulars and, once again, a change in class structure. Six classes saw LMP1 and LMP2 combine entries from the ILMC and ALMS, with GT cars all categorized under one class (although ILMC GT cars were termed GTE Pro and Am for that championship), and the two Challenge classes.
It also saw another unexpected result. The factory Audis and Peugeots were the class of the field, but each hit more problems than normal with their R15 “Plus Plus” TDI and newest 908, respectively. Between spins, accidents, and trips to the paddock, neither works effort was in contention for the win. That honor fell to ORECA with a semi-works, 2010-spec Peugeot 908 HDi FAP driven by Olivier Panis, Nicolas Lapierre and Loic Duval. Of that trio, only Duval is back to defend his 2011 win, and in a new car – an Audi R18, albeit the 2011-spec car.
The other big surprise in last year's race came via Highcroft Racing, which assembled its new P1-spec HPD ARX-01e within a week and showed the most impressive pace for a non-diesel entry, finishing second overall. Brabham and Simon Pagenaud are back for 2012, in a pair of HPDs, but not for Highcroft this time.
For 2012, with more than 60 cars entered, Audi's R18 in its first Sebring appearance, and the prospect of some genuine upsets in the first round of the all-new FIA World Endurance Championship, there's no telling what story will be written from this year's 60th anniversary race. But one thing remains certain: The winning entry won't just have to beat its rivals, it will have to conquer one of the toughest tracks and challenges in motorsports.
The 60th Annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida takes place at Sebring International Raceway, Fla., March 14-17. This year, adding even more luster to this classic event, the race is once again the opening round of a world championship – the 2012 FIA World Endurance Championship.
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