0

Peugeot Breeze To Victory in Quiet Sebring

In an era when diesel powered cars have annexed the vanguard of endurance racing, and in a race where only Peugeot represented the technology the French team took a predictable, yet dominant 1-2 result at the 12 Hours of Sebring.

After starting from the front row the only time the pair of 908s appeared to be challenged was in the opening hour, with Emanuele Pirro in the Drayson Racing Lola hounding the French cars, eventually moving up into second place in a dramatic move at the hairpin. Following Nicolas Minassian in the no.08 Peugeot Pirro sliced through the leading GT2 Porsches and Ferraris to the corner's apex, leaving Minassian comparatively floundering in the traffic.

However, Drayson, starting their first full season fielding a prototype were soon to hit problems, having to replace and alternator less than a third of the way into the race, before overheating problems slowed the car further in the darkness at the end of the race.

With the Drayson threat nullified the Peugeot's were barely challenged, the works Aston Martin entry always at a safe distance from the lead pair, despite the car, shared by Adrian Fernandez, Stefan Mucke and Harold Primat running commendably trouble free. The only minor scare for the Peugeots late in the race was, again the Drayson car, when the no.08 hit the British Racing Green Lola at the hairpin, forcing it and a slower GT Challenge class Porsche wide onto the grass.

It was a move that maybe, on another day, may have drawn a penalty but the diesel was able to continue, the no.08 eventually finishing second behind its team-car, a fate almost certainly sealed when Sebastien Bourdais spun the car on fresh tyres just after exciting the pits. The official margin of victory was just 13.8 seconds. The Aston Martin finished third overall, three laps behind.

“Finishing first and second is a perfect result for Peugeot,” said Alex Wurz, who added Sebring victory to his Le Mans title. “The outcome was only really settled after the last round of pit-stops and we pushed hard throughout the race.”

Maybe because of the absence of a true battle at the head of field, but the race never had the same excitement as many of the recent editions, any drama being confined to isolated incidents.

Another reason may have been lack of close battles through the pack. Interest in LMP2 class was dealt an early blow after the Dyson Racing Lola-Mazda stopped for more than hour in the early stages, dropping them far off the pace. That left the HPD car of Patron Highcroft Racing and the Porsche RS Spyder of Cytosport.

The pair were metronomic, though the speed of Highcroft, moving back to P2 after a championship winning year in P1, saw the car laps ahead, seemingly destined to start 2010 with another win. However, the car was forced to pit with an electrical problem, the car smoking as wires in the car effectively welded themselves together. The stop and repair had the Connecticut based team stopped for 20 minutes, enough for the Porsche to make up the deficit and breeze by into the lead en route to taking a win – the car's first for any customer team.

Another disappointment was the GT2 battle, though it could be argued that nothing on track could justify the build-up before the race, not helped by potential challengers falling foul before the climactic hours.

The no.3 car of Jan Magnussen, Johnny O'Connell and Antonio Garcia was the first to encounter problems, going behind the pit wall with power steering problems, and though the delay was brief – only costing eight laps – it was enough to drop the car out of contention. The no.4 car was now the sole Corvette at the front, battling in the top three.

That was to change in the course of two pitstops, one for each car.

Magnussen, having completed his stop was pulling away, just as Emmanuel Collard was coming in. Heavy contact followed, Collard's taking the car behind the wall for further repairs while Magnussen smoked round for a lap, front-left damage ripping the tyre to shreds, before returning to the pits for the team to work on repairs.

That left the more familiar GT2 names fighting for the win – Risi Competizione, Flying Lizard and BMW, but nothing more than bad luck was to claim the challenge of the Porsche squad as they happened across a loose, bouncing wheel from erstwhile class leaders Team Falken Tire. The wheel clipped the left-rear wheel arch of the Lizard's car, puncturing the tyre, which came apart on the back straight before driver Jorg Bergmeister could recover back to the pits.

That was only the start of the problems. The pace car failed to pick up the leader as the full course yellow was put out because of the incident, the field completing four laps before the pits were declared open, allowing the team to start working on repairs.

The next team to suffer misfortune were Ferrari debutants Extreme Speed Motorsports. Having benefitted from the Flying Lizard misfortune, the no.01 car of team owner Scott Sharp came into the pits, the Tequila Patron sponsored team looking over the brakes before sending him back out with a little over two hours left in the race. However, the car soon turned onto the back straight, a ball of flame in the back of the car lighting up the Florida night.

Sharp drove the entire length of the straight, the Ferrari leaving a trail of smouldering debris before parking at the entrance to the final turn at a gap in the wall, the driver figuring someone with a fire extinguisher would be nearby.

He was right, but not before there was a nervous moment; through the darkness and smoke flames were visible in the cockpit before Sharp had bailed from the car. Thankfully he appeared, immediately showing more concern for his rapidly incinerating car, perhaps betraying his position as the owner as well as driver.

The closing hours saw none of the close racing that has become a hallmark of the GT2, Risi holding a lead of over a minute on the pair of Rahal-Letterman run BMW M3s, a lead that would never be made up, allowing the Risi team to continue their astounding “Risi Slam” run of victories in endurance races, stretching back to Petit Le Mans in 2008. There was yet more drama behind Dirk Muller spinning the no.90 BMW into the tyres at the final turn of the final lap, handing second place to their teammates.

The two Challenge classes, making their Sebring debut, did little to add to the event, other than traffic around the 3.7mile course.

GT Challenge was, predictably dominated by the over-qualified Alex Job Racing squad in the first GTC race, their no.81 car leading for nearly every minute of the 12 hours, eventually taking the class by three laps over a second AJR car, with the team's third entry completing the podium.

Less auspicious a debut was the LMPC class. The spec-class was dogged by reliability problems worthy of European LMP2 fields, compounded by a lack of spare parts, made all the worse by the team's propensity to need them after off track excursions.

The class brought out all but one of the four full course yellows for crashes and spins, including heavy impacts into the tyre wall for the Primetime no.11 and Genoa Racing no.36. The early hours of the race saw a fine internecine battle between the Level 5 Motorsports entries, but mechanical dramas and penalties soon split up the pair though the no.55 car, with a driving trio headlined by Christophe Bouchut held on for the win. The comedy of errors was only made worse by the disqualification of the other Level 5 car and the Green Earth Team Gunnar entry due to one of their drivers not completing the minimum time behind the wheel. That handed second place to the Genoa Racing car, some 47 laps behind the class winning car.