The Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Fresh From Florida celebrates its 60th running this weekend, with Sebring International Raceway's tooth-loosening concrete runways hosting the opening round of the new-for-2012 FIA World Endurance Championship. This week, in our final story counting down to that milestone race, five-time winner Tom Kristensen looks back on his record-breaking Sebring victory tally – and ahead to potentially adding a sixth on Saturday, March 17.
The master of endurance
Tom Kristensen has earned the nickname of “Mr. Le Mans” for his record eight wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But the French classic isn't the Dane's only record-setting race, as he also has the most overall wins at Sebring, with five in central Florida's grueling, 12-hour test of endurance.
Impressively, of those five, four have come with brand-new cars whose first serious test out of the factory was Sebring – talk about in at the deep end... The BMW V12 LMR kicked it off in 1999, and then three generations of Audis followed, with wins in the R8 in '00 (BELOW), the R10 TDI in '06 and R15 in '09. Sequentially, his third win capped the venerable R8's Sebring career in '05.
“The race has an enormous importance because you are coming into a new season,” Kristensen says. “Of my five victories, all but one came with cars that had only been tested, not raced – and actually racing a car is a totally different challenge to just putting on miles in testing. Twelve hours is a long way on a track like Sebring, especially with a new car. This race lays down the fundamentals of the season and let's you know if you got it right…or didn't.
“The importance of the race has grown with the success of the ALMS, there is no doubt about that,” he adds, noting that all five of his triumphs have come in the American Le Mans Series era at Sebring, now supplemented by the all-new FIA World Endurance Championship's season opener this year. “It was already a classic race, but with the ALMS it has a strong series behind it. There's no doubt it will grow again now it is a round of the world championship. Of course, I am very happy that it is part of the world championship.”
Picking a favorite victory of the five, it turns out, is easier for Kristensen than merely answering with the default “every one was special” line.
“They are all good, but the first one is special because (BMW factory team) Schnitzer had to push hard to be there,” he says of the 1999 win (RIGHT). “We'd had a lot of problems with the differential in testing, and at one point it looked like we might not go to Sebring, but we made it. I took the checkers after a nice fight [with Dyson Racing].
“The other favorite moment was in 2005 (BELOW), when we had our inter-Champion Racing fight for the whole race, and it was me and Allan [McNish] for the last couple of hours. I asked [technical director] Brad Kettler if he wanted a photo finish. He said, 'No, no, keep the hammer down.' They are my favorites because I was in the car for the finish at the end and we had close fights both times.”
One time when he came second, in 2001, had an added poignancy as it was the last win for his Audi teammate Michele Alboreto, who died a month after the race in a testing accident in Germany. Alboreto co-drove with Kristensen's longtime co-driver Rinaldo Capello and Laurent Aiello.
“I had a nice fight with Capello,” Kristensen recalls. “That was the time I got the penalty [for speeding in the pits]. This is also one of my favorites, but as the years go on you remember the victories more. I got done on pit-entry speed for the final stop. Thinking back, I think it was probably right. And, on the other hand, it is nice that Michele [Alboreto] won his last race.”
As with most Sebring competitors, and winners, Kristensen understands the challenge of the track and mastering what essentially is a throwback circuit in the modern era.
“The circuit really is a step back in time,” he says. “It's not so different to when Stirling Moss and Mario Andretti were driving around it. It's just been optimized. The bumps are as bad as everyone says. The big ones are on the concrete surface at T1 and T17.
“The track needs to keep its character, but it needs to be modernized in some ways. We know because we were there in December. The pit lane had been extended, so you can't go out wide, which means T1 will be slower.”
Although Kristensen's Audi for this year's Sebring is the 2011-spec R18 TDI, not the manufacturer's new hybrid version set to premiere when the WEC returns to Europe, the data acquired and race mileage from Sebring is always good preparation for the other classic on the WEC calendar, Le Mans.
“The race is always at the beginning of your program leading up to Le Mans,” he explains. “You can't run your complete Le Mans car but, for the mechanical side of the car, the engine and the gearbox, it gives the basics a damn good test because of the temperatures and the loads you get over the bumps.”
The five-time winner is certainly a master of the track, and he seeks his sixth win in the 60th anniversary running with Capello and McNish in the No. 2 Audi R18 TDI. Others may covet glory, but to achieve it they need to overcome two huge challenges – the race track itself, plus that guy Kristensen.
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.
Find out more at www.sebringraceway.com
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