This year's 12 Hours of Sebring has a little extra interest in it.
Not only is the Le Mans sportscar world's first step out the off-season hibernation. Not only is it one of the most significant endurance races in the world, but it the start of new era in the racing – the grid of nearly 60 cars includes several new car, designed to fit brand new regulations and the trip of Florida is also the first race of the new Intercontinental Le Mans Series (ILMC) – a new seven race series that has gained significant interest from teams.
At the top of the timesheets – fans for the Auto Club de l'Ouest (ACO) brand of racing will have grown accustomed to – will be a battle between the diesel fuelled cars from Audi and Peugeot, the German manufacturer giving one last outing to their R15+ design before christening their new R18 coupe later in the year.
As the pre-season testing for Sebring gathered pace thecheckeredflag.co.uk spoke to Audi driver (and three time overall Sebring winner) Allan McNish about the preparations for the campaign and the challenge that lay in prospect at Sebring.
“You've got to be absolutely on it all of the way through,” says McNish of Sebring. “From the first practice session to the last lap of the race. So it doesn't give you any sort of chance for a breather and that's something that'll be even more of a factor this year could we're talking about nearly 60 cars.”
“It's got an intensity about the race that I think has got a fatigue level to it as well. In the last years it's always been decided – apart from last year, but certainly when we've been there – it's been decided by second on quite a few occasions.”
The 3.7 mile circuit on Sebring Regional Airport is notoriously bumpy (read McNish describing a lap) – adding a further challenge to the race, and McNish also warns of the humidity of Florida in mid-March.
Of course, being in the fastest of the five different classes that will on track during the 12 Hours, and with nearly 60 cars on track it is something that concerns McNish, though simply the speed difference between his R15+ and the GT3 Porsches of the GT Challenge class is only one part of the challenge, as he says that the differences may be just a great on European tracks where although the slowest cars on track are faster, McNish's own speed will be too, thanks to the more open tracks of the LMS calendar.
“I think the biggest factor is there's going to be a lot of driver that you don't know,” McNish details. “And so when we're coming to overtake, say for example coming into the last corner, which has got a blind entry underneath a bridge and back out again. We're not sure what their natural line is going to be, the inside, the outside or if it's something that's just going to be a variety of lines through the course of the race.”
The increased field may also accentuate another aspect of Sebring, and US racing in general, McNish cites with the potential for full cause cautions meaning he says teams have to be “quite cute from a strategy point of view.”
“When you race in the States there are a lot more full course yellows – safety cars – that's partly circuit and because the tracks don't have the same big run-off areas that they do in Europe so the accidents are closer to the racing. But it's also partly just the way they are.”
“Races in America historically have been built up around about entertainment – the fan, the race, close finishes and everything else – and I don't just mean sportscars I mean everything,” he says comparing it to European racing where “the fastest guy wins”, though he says that one style is not necessarily better than the other.
Interest turns to the ILMC season stretching out ahead of McNish and the rest of the Audi team, though for them all – drivers and team – there is only one title they want to end 2011 with.
“Anything else is kind of token if you like in comparison to Le Mans.”
“It's the big one,” he says of the Grand Prix de l'Endurance. “It's a fact, it's the big one and the championships are important in their own right – the ALMS, ILMC, LMS are important but I can tell you from driver's point of view there is nothing that is more important that winning Le Mans and that's the same from the manufacturers.”
“Our car, our philosophy, R15, R18, R10, R8 was always the same – it was designed and built around Le Mans. So in that side of things that's where the clear focus lies, and that's the biggest race.”
So what of Sebring? McNish recognises it as a “prestigious title”, citing the winners of the race dating back to the 1950s, but he still places success in June above winning for a fourth time this weekend.
This weekend will add the latest names to that history at the start of new chapter. While the R15+ is last year's car simply restrained to within the new regulations – McNish emphasises that no development has gone into the car, the focus of pre-season tests instead being on race set-up and tyre choice – rivals Peugeot will bring their new 908 to the race, a custom built racer for the 2011 regulations.
I ask Allan how he feels about the changes – the most sweeping of recent seasons.
“A driver wants to go faster all of the time but the regulations always have to be trimmed back to stop that happening because otherwise cars would just become impossible to control,” he says. “I think that what they've done is quite clever is force the manufacturers – specialist manufacturers as well as car manufacturers – to go a route of looking for efficiency and that's what the modern world is requiring from road.”
While McNish and his fellow drivers say the decrease in horsepower is the main difference between old and new machinery fans will notice the F1-alike sharkfin extending from the rear bodywork of new cars (on an old car, such as the R15+ this is not mandatory). While drawing some criticism for the way it looks it something McNish is almost universally positive about.
“[The fin is] introduced for safety and I've seen too many fellow colleagues who are friends flying through the air to have anything other than a positive feeling towards the introduction towards some of these things to try to improve safety.”
He adds; “I subscribe to accidents to happen but I don't go looking for them and from that side of things though I don't necessarily like the look of it aesthetically it if keeps the cars on the ground it looks a hell of a lot better than a shunted car like we had with Ortelli at Monza, and we had Marc Gene on a few occasions.”
McNish, along with regular co-drivers Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello, will drive the no.2 Audi R15+ (the no.1 plate going to their Le Mans champion stablemates). It will mark the sixth season the trio have driven together.
“If you find people the work together well,” he assesses, “and that's out of the car as well as in the car, so driving style as well as mentality – then normally it's quite successful and if it's successful why change.”
McNish, Kristensen and Capello will be attempting to add more success this weekend, the 12 Hours of Sebring being streamed on line at americanlemans.com for fans around the world.