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.
The next year, 2001, saw a brief change in the regulations as the prototypes were split into two classes – LMP900 and LMP675, the latter class for lighter, smaller-displacement cars. In time, through various regulation changes mirroring the ones at Le Mans, these essentially became the current P1 and P2 classes. Not missing a beat, Audi had its most successful singular race at Sebring – a 1-2-3-4 sweep of the top positions, with the two factory Joest R8s heading privately run entries from Champion Racing and Johansson/Arena Motorsport.
Sadly, the weekend will be remembered for the tragic loss of sports car racing legend Bob Wollek, who died after being struck by a van while riding his bicycle from the track the day before the race. Adding more poignancy, Audi's victory was the last for Michele Alboreto, who co-drove with Rinaldo Capello and Laurent Aiello. Alboreto was killed just weeks later in a testing accident at the Lausitzring in Germany.
The 2002 12 Hours of Sebring served as the 50th anniversary, complete with the Sebring Hall of Fame opening. But the result didn't change, with Audi winning again, this time with Capello, Christian Pescatori and Johnny Herbert. Corvette avenged its losses the last two years with its first GTS class win, ahead of the winning Saleen from 2001 and the Vipers, which were now in the hands of privateers rather than the semi-works ORECA squad.
In 2003, a new contender arrived to challenge the R8s in the form of an Audi-owned brand with a historic name, Bentley. The sleek Bentley Speed 8 coupes (LEFT), loosely based on the unsuccessful Audi R8C coupe, were technically classified as a P900/GTP entry. They stormed into Sebring with their classic British Racing Green livery and a six-pack of drivers that included three ex-Formula 1 drivers. Audi drivers Kristensen and Capello joined Guy Smith in the No. 7 car, with Herbert, Mark Blundell and David Brabham in the sister No. 8.
In their one and only visit to Sebring, though, the Speed 8s couldn't conquer the almighty R8, which recorded its fourth straight Sebring win with the Joest team and drivers Biela, Marco Werner and Philipp Peter. Again, the Champion Audi came second, only 13.493sec in arrears, and the two Bentleys were third and fourth after starting from the rear of the grid. As some small consolation, Bentley did manage to end Audi's win streak at Le Mans that summer....
Audi's 2004 assault was carried out entirely by semi-works teams, not the factory Joest squad. But with no realistic challengers outside of the three R8s – two from the British Veloqx Motorsport and one from Champion – Audi captured its fifth straight Sebring win. The winning Veloqx trio included Allan McNish, Biela, and young Pierre Kaffer.
Behind them, Corvette had its most impressive overall showing, with a fourth-place finish in the overall standings behind the trio of Audis. Its GTS class win was by a full 22 laps over Ferrari's 575 GTC.
The action and focus was more on the GT classes come 2005, because it was a recurring story at the front the following March – another grueling 12 hours of car vs. track combat, another win by an Audi R8. The Lehto/Werner/Kristensen (his third) triumph not only concluded the incredible run of six successive victories in six Sebring starts for the R8, but also completed a string of 1-2 – or better – finishes for Audi!
The GT classes were renamed to GT1 and GT2, and Corvette had a fight on its hands from class newcomers Aston Martin, plus holdover privateers from Saleen and Dodge. The Prodrive-run Aston DB9s showed up on debut and promptly ended Corvette's three-year win streak, with drivers Brabham, Stephane Ortelli and Darren Turner. Corvette had to settle for second and third with its new C6.R.
In 2006, Audi again set a new record, and launched a revolution that has swept sports car racing to this day – diesel engines powering the top prototypes. Part of the reason the factory Joest squad left the running of R8s to privateers the previous two years was so the factory could develop this new standard-setter. The R10 TDI premiered at Sebring and, perhaps unsurprisingly, took the victory (RIGHT) with Kristensen, Capello and McNish. Kristensen's fourth Sebring win set a record at the time.
Of Audi's string of Sebring wins, this was one that could have slipped away had the fledgling R10 had any serious mechanical or reliability issues. A P2-class Lola AER fielded by Intersport Racing and driven by the father and son duo of Jon and Clint Field plus Liz Halliday, finished second overall trailing by only four laps. The Intersport Lola was up against another car that debuted in 2006 – a car that revolutionized the second-tier prototype category, the Porsche RS Spyder. Corvette, meanwhile, beat Aston Martin for the GT1 win and, in the GT2 class, Panoz's Esperante scored a class win with Brabham (again), Scott Maxwell and Sebastien Bourdais.
The 2007 race was the start of a boom time for P2. Audi still won overall, which wasn't a huge surprise, but its closest contenders were not from its sister P1 entries, but instead from the increased field of lighter P2 cars on their debuts. Acura entered two of its new ARX-01a chassis and had an engine in a third car, while the Porsche Spyders were out in full force with four cars, two apiece entered by Roger Penske and Rob Dyson. The Andretti Green Acura came second overall, driven by open-wheel stars Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta, ahead of the Fernandez Lola-Acura with just Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz at the wheel.
GT1 began to see a drop off in its car count, as Aston's factory squad had pulled out, leaving the privateer Modena squad to run the cars. Corvette finished 1-2. At the same time, the GT2 class really began to come into its own in terms of entrants and interest. Entries from Ferrari, Porsche, Panoz and Spyker comprised half the field, with 18 cars, and notoriety for the class came in a door-banging final lap. Jaime Melo, driving a Risi Competizione Ferrari 430 GT, edged past Jorg Bergmeister in a Flying Lizard Porsche 911 for the class triumph.
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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