Audi Motorsport scored an emphatic 1-2 to begin the new FIA World Endurance Championship at the 12 Hours of Sebring, Allan McNish crossing the line to take the checkered flag in the R18 TDI he shared with regular teammates Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello.
“I'm very proud of the team,” said the Scot. “We worked very hard for this victory. Together with the engineers and the mechanics Tom, Dindo and I invested a lot of time in working out the optimal race setup. That paid off because I think we had the best race car today. It was consistently fast and made it possible for us to be in contention from the beginning to the end. The new world championship couldn't have started better for us than with a victory.”
The trio – in the no.2 Audi – dominated the race, leading 270 laps of the 325 they completed during the event. McNish started the car from the outside of the front row, but led the opening laps before becoming the first of the leader to pit with less than half an hour gone, taking advantage of the first of eleven cautions, brought out by a stopped GTE Am Ferrari.
The stop put McNish out of sync with the other two R18s and when they made their stops McNish assumed the lead and the pattern was set of the race. The sister Audi's would assume the lead briefly during the regular exchanges of pitstops but so long as the no.2 car ran faultlessly the win was always likely to fall to them.
McNish crossed the line letting loose a salvo of fireworks into sky, but behind eyes were on the simultaneous fireworks on the track as the GT class went down to the very last lap.
After a catalogue of problems early in the race knocked them well out of contention Gianmaria Bruni was completing the final stint for the no.71 AF Corse Ferrari team, racing around class leading Joey Hand in the ALMS BMW.
Over the course of only a handful of corners Bruni passed Hand, before Hand – convinced he was racing Olivier Beretta in the sister AF Corse car for the class win – attacked hard into the fast first corner, repassing the Ferrari as they raced into the technical section of the track for the final time.
At turn five Bruni dived up the inside of the BMW, tipping Hand into a half spin onto the grass onto the outside of the left-hander. Behind Beretta spun as he saw the incident occurring ahead, allowing Jan Magnussen to slip through for second in the combined GT class.
“I really don’t know what happened, but apparently the BMW and Ferrari got together,” Magnussen said. “I didn’t even know that I had passed the Ferrari in the darkness. We were struggling at the end of the race with the track conditions, so second is a huge bonus and a fantastic foundation to build on. Sebring is such a difficult race, and I’m very happy with a podium finish.”
Gifted extra time to recover by Beretta’s spin Hand rejoined the track and completed the final lap to successfully defend BMW’s 2011 Sebring class victory, beatin Magnussen back to the line by just seven seconds.
Sharing with Andrea Bertolini and Marco Cioci Beretta, a Corvette driver until the end of last season, recovered from his own spin to finish third in the combined class to maintain the lead of the WEC GT class, a lap clear of Team Felbermayr-Proton trio Marc Lieb, Richard Lietz and Patrick Pilet.
The bulk of the race in GT, especially after problems knocked out two of the Ferraris, was a race between the ALMS teams of BMW and Corvette, with the M3s of BMW Team RLL appearing to have the speed advantage. Several times all four cars – two for each team – pitted together under the safety car, placing the race for the lead in the hands of the pit crews. It was a battle the BMW team invariably won.
The race was not without positives for Corvette Racing, who had several stints in the lead including and early run to the point when Jordan Taylor made a pass on the Felbermayr Porsche on track. Taylor, the latest man brought into the Corvette fold having driven in Grand-Am prior, proved himself a worthy addition to the team, adding good race pace to a fine qualifying when he beat the much more experienced Oliver Gavin, driving the sister Corvette.
Aston Martin Racing – returning to the GT ranks after running prototypes in recent seasons – started brightly, keeping pace with the class leaders, but faded during the second half of the race, losing 25 minutes after the car lost a wheel on the straight before the turn seven hairpin. However, with problems for both the Luxury Racing and AF Corse no.51 Ferrari's the team left Sebring with a WEC class podium.
The frantic final laps – the action of which was not pieced together until long after the checkered flag – were in keeping with the rest of the GT class action which began at the opposite end of the race before the field had even met the green flag.
Dominic Farnbacher in the GTE AM pole sitting Ferrari and Jorg Bergmeister collided on the run to the final corner on the formation lap, knocking Farnbacher's car out of the race before it had even started. Bergmeister – potential contender for class honours as part of the Flying Lizard Motorsports team – was left with a heavy time penalty that had he and the rest of the team making laps for the rest of the event.
Farnbacher's early demise left the GTE Am battle open to fellow Ferrari team Krohn Racing and the Larbre Competition Corvettes. Running the trademark blue and green of Tracy Krohn's team, the team of he, Nic Jonsson and Michele Rugulo led much of the early running before they ceded the lead to the no.50 Larbre entry, featuring former Peugeot man Pedro Lamy among the driving talent. The team – Larbre having won the GTE AM class of the WEC precursor, the ILMC – looked like they would start 2012 off in similar fashion until lap 288 when mechanical issues stopped the car its tracks, allowing Felbermayr-Proton's GTE AM entry to run the final ten laps of their race to score the class win ahead of the second of Larbre's two Corvettes.
At the head of the race overall, proceedings were calmer as all three Audis had their time in the lead during pit cycles. However, as the hours ticked by both the no.1 and no.3 would lose time. The no.1 car that took pole position in Friday's qualifying session hit problems in the first half of the race, having to stop for repairs behind the pitwall with gear selection problems. The car, crewed by Le Mans winners Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler, lost 15 laps to the leaders they were never to recover, ending the race in 16th overall, fifth among the LMP1 competitors in the WEC.
The third Audi would keep pace with their teammates until the final hour when a pitstop to repair damage after contact with a slower car lost them four laps. They were, however, able to keep second place as they fell back into the six lap gap that had opened up behind the Audis.
Third, fourth and fifth overall went to the best of LMP2 category, Starworks Motorsports (Vicente Potolicchio, Ryan Dalziel and Stephane Sarrazin) taking class honours on their first appearance in LMP racing, ahead of the best of ALMS runners in the no.055 Level 5 Motorsport, making it a 1-2 in LMP2 for HPD chassis. Third in class, and second for WEC points were OAK Racing. Pecom Racing's ORECA 03 and Greaves Motorsport completed the class top five.
Two more potential winners were taken out by contact in a crazy few laps. Olivier Lombard was leading the class for ILMC class champions Signatech Nissan when he span the black ORECA on oil and was followed in my Jaime Melo in the GTE Pro Luxury Racing Ferrari. Lombard, already backwards and heading for the tyre wall was hit by the sliding Ferrari and while Melo was able to drive away the impact had ripped off the front left corner of Lombard's charge, ending their race early.
Behind the LMP2 battle Pescarolo Team, with drivers Emmanuel Collard, Jean-Christophe Boullion and julien Jousse clinched third in LMP1, the final inhabitants of a position that seemed to a poisoned chalice.
Once the third Audi had dropped from the overall podium several teams mounted a challenge on the position. The Muscle Milk Racing HPD entry occupied third place overall – and the role of the best placed of the ALMS runners – only for fuelling problems to knock them out of the race late on.
The no.12 Rebellion Racing Lola-Toyota was the third placed of the WEC entries until problems caused the car – and driver Nicolas Prost – to slow on the back straight. JRM too tried to make the final step of the WEC podium their own before problems in the hours of darkness that ended the race.
The second of the WEC takes place at Spa-Francorchamps in May and will feature the race debuts of the new Audi R18 'ultra' and e-tron Quattro and the new Toyota TS030 as they begin their racing season.