Audi closed out the P1 era at the 12 Hours of Sebring with a dominant 1-2 at the 61st edition of the race – their first with their R18 e-tron quattro hybrids. With two slightly different specifications of the car – the 2012 version and the updated version for this season – it was the 2012 iteration, with reigning Le Mans winners Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler joined by Oliver Jarvis that took the checkered flag, 7.6 seconds ahead of the team of Lucas di Grassi, Allan McNish and anchorman Tom Kristensen.
With both Audis relatively trouble free for the entire race the pair remained close throughout the race, frequently swapping the lead as each made their scheduled pitstops. Between them the two Audis led all 364 laps – 19 short of 2009’s record distance.
While it Fassler, Treluyer and Jarvis’ #1 that led the majority of the laps after taking the lead from pole position as the two R18s swept into turn one in numerical order it was they who – arguably – had the more troubled run in the race with the team having top make rapid repairs to what appeared to be flapping undertray on their car. The repairs – made as part of two scheduled stop just after half-way – did little to delay the team – the only concrete bearing it had on the order being to allow McNish to take the lead when the Audis stopping unison during the eighth hour of the race.
McNish had been the victim – and possibly the cause – of the #2 car’s only delay during the race, the Scot pulled out of the lead serve a 60 second stop-go penalty after what stewards deemed avoidable contact with Mirco Schultis in the #81 PC entry.
There was little sign of team orders between the two Audis the lead changing on track four times in just over thirty laps. The exchange began with a nervous moment for the team when Lucas di Grassi dived inside of Jarvis over the bumps of turn 17. The pair added their own bumps, Jarvis pushed wide on entry to the corner as di Grassi took the lead.
Battle was rejoined after pitstops, di Grassi now against Treluyer in the #1. Racing around slower traffic the lead changed twice more before Treluyer made the decisive move to restart the succession of the lead changes on pitstops.
Third place – and potentially crucial points for the ALMS regulars – went to the #12 Rebellion Racing team of Nick Heidfeld, Neel Jani and Nico Prost, with a lap lead over Muscle Milk Pickett Racing. The HPD team had the early lead among the petrol-fuelled P1 privateers but out to the #12 team in the second hour after Lucas Luhr lost a left-front wheel only a few corners after exiting the pits. Luhr managed to limp back to the pits with minimal damage to the car.
More damaging were the two 60 second penalties Klaus Graf picked up in successive hours in the evening hours. The first for rear-ending David Cheng out of the PC lead, the second for spinning one of the two Extreme Speed Motorsports P2 cars around at turn 3.
By that time the P2 order had been firmly established the way it was to stay for the remainder of the race with the two Level 5 Motorsports cars ahead of the Greaves Motorsport Zytek. Even before Graf had spun Ed Brown around both ESM cars had already brought out a full course caution. Brown beaching the #02 on the kerb at turn five in the fourth hour, David Brabham coasting to halt just before half way in the team’s other car with drivetrain failure.
Level 5 team owner Scott Tucker had led the opening lap in P2 before Tom Kimber–Smith relieved him of the position as Tucker – starting the #551 – slipped back to fifth in class. However, Kimber-Smith lost the lead to Ryan Hunter–Reay in the #552 Level 5 car before the end of the opening hour.
The class remained close between the two Level 5 cars, Greaves and the #01 ESM car until Brabham’s problems. The telling delay for Greaves came in the first half with all three drivers – Eric Lux and Christian Zugel driving alongside Kimber-Smith – struggling with a handling issue. The time lost on track was compounded by a penalty (though only 20 seconds) for having too many members of the team working on the car in the pits.
Together the problems left the Nissan powered team three laps in arrears to the two black HPDs at half way, a gap that was to remain to the checkered flag with the #551 of Tucker, Marino Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe winning the class.
In the remaining three classes – despite the 12 hours only being slowed by a total of four cautions – hosted lead changes in the final hour.
The final hour hours were all run under green flag following the lengthy clear up after Bill Sweedler had spun the #23 West Racing/Alex Job Racing Ferrari into the wall at turn 14. The first caution of the race – before the two caused by ESM – was broughout out shortly before the end of the second hour by Andy Meyrick and the DeltaWing. The new Elan engine coming to fiery end to terminate what had been a difficult weekend for the team, running for points for the first time.
The final 60 minutes in PC was a battle between PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports’ David Ostella and BAR1 Motorsports’ Kyle Marcelli.
The competitive class had been led by six teams during the 12 Hours, Pierre Kaffer taking the lead at the start from Jon Bennett starting the pole-sitting CORE Autosport car, the gentleman driver falling to the back of the class in the opening laps. The team with Mark Wilkins and pole winner Colin Braun would make it back to the lead much later in the race before another stint from Bennett dropped them from contention once more.
Kaffer and the DragonSpeed Mishumotors team would fall out of the lead fight too, though much earlier than the CORE squad beset with mechanical problems finishing fifty laps off the class winners.
Ostella and the rest of the #52 team had been in the fight at the top of the class for the entire race despite the damage picked up by David Cheng when Klaus Graf pushed him off the track. The incident, which knocked out one of the rear lights on the #52 allowed Marcelli to take the lead in BAR1’s #8.
The same two teams, though with Ostella rather than Cheng, would fight it out in the final hour with Marcelli taking the lead when both teams made their penultimate pitstops with 75 minutes remaining the starting the final hour with just eight seconds between them. Marcelli kept the lead until almost exactly half way through the final hour when Ostella took the lead on the inside line at turn 17 moving 15 seconds clear before the end of the race, showing the pace advantage he had in the final stints.
There was also late drama other Challenge category – GTC – where Damien Faulkner went from the lead to fifth in the final 30 minutes. The Irishman had taken the lead from Spencer Pumpelly when the Flying Lizard Motorsports’ driver pitted. However, he was struggling with severely worn brakes, leaving him powerless to fend off the challenge of Jeroen Bleekemolen in the Alex Job Racing car he shared with Dion von Moltke and reigning class champion Cooper MacNeil.
While Bleekemolen continued onto victory Faulkner gave up second to Pumpelly to make a final splash-and-dash pitstop. Faulkner would stop on the final lap allowing Sean Edwards to take third place in NGT Motorsport’s #30 with JDX Racing’s #11 fourth. Faulkner ended up in fifth for TRG as the first car off the lead lap with the two Dempsey/Del Piero Racing cars together two laps further down the order after a race that began with Andy Lally leading through the opening hour from pole for the new team in the class.
Unsurprisingly the GT class was also decided in the final 60 minutes when Tommy Milner took advantage of a Matteo Malucelli mistake to complete a topsy-turvy for the #4 Corvette Racing team with a first 12 Hours of Sebring victory for the brand since they ran unopposed in GT1 in 2009.
The victory was considerable reward at the end of a difficult day for the team. The #3 car was an early casualty. Starting driver Antonio Garcia was forced to take the car behind the wall to tend to the first of a number of gearbox problems that had the team performing shuttle runs between pit box and makeshift garage. They managed to return the car to the race – though several laps down – but the gearbox issue reappeared later in the race, this time spelling an end to the day for the team.
Technical problems had also affected the #4 team. Richard Westbrook pitted the from the lead car after reporting smoke coming from the dashboard, the cause of which was tracked down to short-circuiting wire for the traction control lights. The fix took several pitstops, the first attempt only succeeding in putting Oliver Gavin back out in a still smoking car but without the aid of most of the dashboard lights.
The problems – and a pit lance speeding penalty – dropped Westbrook, Gavin and Milner off the lead lap to ninth place to begin the team’s first fight back. Milner got the car back on the lead lap in time for the field to be bunched up under caution while Brabham’s P2 was recovered. It fell to Westbrook, the man who gave up the lead initially, to retake the lead from Olivier Beretta and Risi Competizione at the end of the seventh hour.
The sequence of events that would put the team back on the back foot happened only half an hour later, Westbrook spinning – in the eyes of the officials – Bill Sweedler, though Westbrook insisted that Sweedler had waved him through. The contact may have been the cause of Sweedler’s spin and crash minutes later, with Westbrook’s penalty assessed following the yellow flag period to recover the wreckage of the Ferrari.
The penalty – served by Gavin who had replaced Westbrook at a stop under the full course caution – let Risi Competizione with Malucelli at the wheel back into the lead, Gavin falling into second place but a lap behind the Ferrari.
The Risi squad – returning to the ALMS after a season away – led for the follow three-and-a-half hours until Malucelli skated wide under braking for turn ten allowing Milner to lead the final 15 minutes for victory. Malucelli, making his ALMS debut alongside Gianmaria Bruni and Beretta, held on for third place with Team Falken Tire Porsche of Bryan Sellers, Wolf Henzler and Nick Tandy a surprising third after quiet race.
While taking nothing from the trio there result indicated just how many of their fellow GT teams had battled problems during the race.
As well as the #3 Corvette the #97 Aston Martin was a visitor behind the wall in the opening hour after contact caused overheating on the 2013-spec Vantage. The other Aston – the 2012 spec #007 – lasted longer before its own problems led to an hour in the pits. BMW Team RLL were debuting their own new car in the shape of the Z4 GTE and both machines performed well on debut with Joey Hand taking the #56 to the lead on several occasions, though their run on the lead lap would be ended by front suspension failure.
Also a frequent feature of the lead battle was the #91 SRT Viper. Dominic Farnbacher and Ryan Dalziel both took the car to the class lead – while the sister #93 was delayed by a problem which saw the wheel hubs machining themselves down with metal shavings falling from the tyres at pitstops. Unfortunately, though the #91 team raced with the threat of the same problem effecting them, it was an electrical problem that forced the #91 car behind the wall. The issue was rectified with the loss of a handful of laps but enough to knock them out of contention. They eventually finished fifth in class, one place behind the #55 BMW which, like the Falken shod Porsche completed a quiet race away from the most heated battles in the class.