If any lesson can be taken from the 12 Hours of Sebring it is 'respect your elders'.
With the Peugeot works team debuting their new 908 in a two car entry it was expected that, if a French coupe was to take the win, it would be one of them.
Instead it the year old 908 HDI FAP of Team Oreca Matmut that screamed its way beneath the checkered flag – quite literally thanks to an emotional Loic Duval at the wheel – to take the French privateer team's biggest overall victory to date.
Hugues de Chaunac – an elder statesman of racing himself – meanwhile, was in tears as his car crossed the line. “It's a historical result!” he beamed later. “We built this victory step by step. We finished ahead of three factory teams and the drivers and team were perfect. I had asked them to be quick and make no mistakes: it wasn't easy, but they did it! We were able to count on a car – the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP – thatâ€Ÿs competitive and reliable. I'm very proud of [drivers] Nicolas [Lapierre], Loic, Olivier [Panis] and the rest of the team. The engineers made the right decisions, including the last 'splash' that was done at the right moment. Really, it was a perfect race. We weren't the favourites, but we are the winners. It's awesome!”
The car had spent the opening hours of the race – as was predicted – as the fifth in the troupe of five diesels at the top of the leaderboard. The works Peugeots bossed the opening exchanges, threatening to leave not just Nicolas Lapierre in the Oreca car, but the two Audis behind. If was only a steady stream of safety car periods that kept the leaders pinned together.
But one at a time (and occasionally two at a time) their rivals were delayed. The no.1 Audi – piloted by the men who won Le Mans in 2010 – was the first to fall. Mike Rockenfeller was a victim of two left-rear punctures in quick succession that necessitated a trip into the garage that would drop them a total of seven laps off the pace.
The no.2 Audi and no.7 Peugeot were the next to hit problems. Battling for the lead in the race's fourth hour Spaniard Marc Gene tried to launch an ill-advised passing attempt down the inside of the final corner. The first contact knocked Dindo Capello – in the Audi R15'++' he shared with Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen – into a spin, the second contact completed the job. Both were able to continue, though out of contention for overall glory, the promise of points for the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup (ILMC) motivation enough to bring both back onto the track, the Peugeot incurring the greatest delay after nosing into the tyre barrier in the incident. Gene would claim he was level with Capello. Replays of the accident suggested otherwise.
That incident made the race a three car affair, de Chaunac's 908 HDI FAP against the remaining competitive works 908 and Highcroft Racing's HPD ARX-01e.
The HPD – only a week since having first turned a wheel – was back to the sort of pace it had shown in testing. Despite David Brabham glibly explaining the he didn't know whether to double stint tyres because “we've never got this far”, the car ran almost faultlessly as the best non-diesel as their rivals for the unofficial honour were unable to keep pace. Rebellion Racing, at Sebring as part of an ILMC assault ran steadily, but unspectacularly to seventh, one place behind ALMS regular Dyson Racing.
The Muscle Milk squad – debuting with a Lola-Aston Martin endured a torrid race, battery issues destroying the team's chances of a good result before the results of contact with a GT car somewhere on the crowded 3.7mile Sebring International Raceway ended their day early. OAK Racing, with the no.15 Pescarolo-Judd had run well in fourth, though unable to match the pace of three ahead. However, their race came to an early end Mattieu Lahaye stopping the car the Frenchman dousing his foot sat on the tyre wall – apparently with a fuel leak in the cockpit.
The final twist Sebring had to deal the diesels came with three hours of the race left. Stephane Sarrazin brought the no.8 Peugeot in from the lead for a full service. Fuel, tyres and driver change – Pedro Lamy climbing aboard – accompanied by a change of front bodywork to replace a set of broken louvers over the left wheel. The additional work came with additional delay, the quick releases on the new car being anything but and a change the team have doubtless practised dozens of times was looking like their undoing, taking 25 seconds as Oreca and Highcroft ate up time to them on the lead lap.
Lamy returned to the race, but the Portuguese spun lazily, and almost inexplicably, at turn four. The cumulative delay was enough to make sure than when next Oreca pitted the no.10 it was able to keep the lead. If that gave them the lead, then the “splash” de Chaunac refers to gave them the win. Strategy meant that both they and the no.8 – running in third behind Highcroft – had to make splash-and-dash stops to make it race's end while Simon Pagenaud in the HPD could (just) make the end of the race on fuel.
The risk was there of a final safety car in the Florida darkness, the worry forcing both teams to short pit for their final helping of diesel, locking them into the same strategy and taking away the only advantage Duncan Dayton's Highcroft outfit had. Instead of fighting for the win Pagenaud spent the closing laps trying to keep a charging Franck Montagny at bay for second. The Peugeot man was able to halve the gap from twelve to six seconds in only a matter of laps. But a pair of laps from Pagenaud – himself a Peugeot works driver for events when there a three 908 entered – pulled the lead back out, enough to hold onto second by just six second.
Duval was able to streak across the line unchallenged, setting off Sebring's battery of fireworks. When it was time to start my last stint, I was really stressing,” said the 28-year-old. “To be honest, I hadn't imagined that I would be in that position! With ten laps to go, things got better: I wasn't taking any risks and I knew it was going to happen. I still don't believe what's happened! I think we did something big and it will sink in during the coming days.”
The two Audis recovered to fourth and fifth overall, five and six laps behind the winner, their reliability once problems had already struck a good, yet ultimately hollow, finale for the R15 before the R18 arrives at Spa.
Behind the lead LMPC car, the Genoa Racing team of Dane Cameron, Michael Guasch and Jens Peterson taking victory as much of the spec-class entry succumbed to mechanical problems, lay the head of the GT battle.
It was typically physical battle – Gianmaria Bruni taking only a few laps to make the first contact as he pushed back into the lead having lost his pole position advantage to Oliver Gavin in the Corvette. Both Bruni's AF Corse charge and Gavin's no.04 Corvette would fall back – the Corvette after Jan Magnussen's part in a three car crash following the second caution period.
The Dane was tipped into a spin by Patrick Long's Flying Lizard Porsche, the American caught out by the range of bumps on the inside of turn 17. Both cars spun ahead of much of the GT pack, Johannes van Overbeek, the first on the scene, getting clipped into the barriers on the outside of the track – destroying the rear of Extreme Speed Motorsports' new Ferrari 458 Italia.
It was Risi Competizione who led the Ferrari challenge – and the class – for much of the race. The no.062 shared by Mika Salo, Jaime Melo and Toni Vilander exchanging the lead with the pair of Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan BMWs.
Risi's race – in another car only run on the week before the race – came to a late end with just an hour remaining, alternator problems and a battery drained by the 458s lights. That left the way clear for BMW.
Both M3s had had to come back from on track incidents. The no.56 had been hit twice in the early running – once by Level 5 Motorsport's Lola Coupe and once by the no.098 Jaguar, causing a puncture and a lurid spin at turn one respectively. The no.55 had its own damage – missing a chunk of the front bodywork – and was again damaged in a coming together with the no.04 Corvette exiting the hairpin with two hours left, causing a flat tyre, but somehow – considering the car had to scrape back on three wheels for two-thirds of a lap – with no further damage.
The final hour saw the no.56 car in the lead, and with 37 minutes to go Dirk Werner made it a BMW 1-2 with a clean move at the hairpin on the no.03 Corvette driven by Tommy Milner – who switched from BMW to Corvette over the winter. The work the BMW team had done over the winter paid off and the reigning teams' champions got their title defence off to the perfect start, and also handed BMW the advantage in the class's ILMC standings.
The two Corvettes finished third and fourth, with AF Corse's older-spec Ferrari 430.
Porsche, on the other hand suffered. Their lead car – packed with three of the company's works driver – was the one Long damaged in the early crash. The Falken Tire liveried example ran in the top five as the race entered the darkness, only to retire with gearbox failure. Long would finish sixth in class, the best placed of the 997 RSRs, one place, and three laps, ahead of the other Flying Lizard Motorsports entry.
Even Porsche's GTE-Am entry of Richard Lietz, Gianluca Roda and Christian Reid was taken out a chance of the class win by a clutch problem, having to settle for a distant second place behind winners Krohn Racing – their familiar green and blue Ferrari 430 no longer run with help from Risi Competizione.
LMP2 honours – such as they were – went to the Level 5 no.055 open cockpit Lola, but only because it was the least fragile of the four entrants. Signatech Nissan set the early pace – as they did in qualifying – but were soon halted by gearbox problems. That gave the lead to Level 5's coupe entry, which pulled into the garage from the lead with suspension failure. Repaired, Signatech retook the lead, before gearbox issues retook them, handing the win to the car of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Luiz Diaz and Scott Tucker. A car that around the halfway point was brought back to the paddock on the back of tow truck.
The race marked an unwelcome return of the days when the best LMP2 runner was the one that least broke down less. Sebring, perhaps, was the race where that reputation was shaken off when Penske racing took a LMP2 Porsche RS Spyder to victory. Now, from this initial showing the new era of the class appears to have taken more steps back than forward as far as a promise of racing is concerned.
Completing just one lap less than the LMP2 winner were the GTC winners Black Swan Racing and drivers Damien Faulkner, Sebastiaan Bleekemolen and Tim Pappas.