Saturday, March 16, 2013

Ten Audi victories at the 12 Hours of Sebring

By Tarek Ramchani

Since the debut of the Audi sportscar program with Le Mans prototypes, the German brand has almost always competed at the prestigious 12 Hours of Sebring.

It all started back in 1999, with the all new Audi R8R. The car didn't win but took an honourable third overall. A year later, Audi's Sebring winning legacy started with the Audi R8. The car gave Audi six straight outright wins at Florida's classic from 2000 to 2005. In 2006 a brand new car and new technology debuted at Sebring, the Audi R10 TDI. The car was immediately victorious, winning the race in both 2006 and 2007. The Audi R15 TDI continued a long legacy of Audi cars winning on their debut when Audi won in 2009, and they repeated the debut win with the arrival of the R18 TDI in 2012. The victory last year marked the tenth overall Audi win at Sebring. The 2013 Sebring 12 Hours will be the last LMP1 Sebring, and Audi wants to take their eleventh overall victory as a swansong with the Audi R18 e-tron quattro.

Here is a complete round up of the ten outright victories of the Audi brand at Sebring.

The race debut of the legendary Audi R8. Two cars entered the 12 Hours of Sebring in 2000. With strong competition coming from Panoz and mainly from the 1999 Le Mans winners BMW with their V12 LMR. Audi won the race with a fantastic 1-2 victory for Audi Sport Team Joest. The winning drivers were Emanuele Pirro, Frank Biela and Tom Kristensen. Second and finishing on the lead lap, the #77 Audi R8 with Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Rinaldo Capello.

For 2001, no less than four Audi R8 cars entered the 12 Hours of Sebring. Two fielded by the factory Audi Sport Team Joest and the others were privately run cars from Champion Racing and Johansson Motorsport. A stunning 1-2-3-4 Audi win. Victory went to the #1 Audi R8 driven by Dindo Capello, Laurent Aiello and the late Michele Alboreto. Again the sister car finished on the lead lap, the #2 Audi of Emanuele Pirro, Frank Biela and Tom Kristensen.

The 2002 race was the final one for Audi as a full factory team with the Audi R8. Three cars entered the race. Two fielded by Audi Sport Team Joest and the third a privateer car from the American team, Champion Racing. The Audis battled with each other, but also had to attend to the strong Panoz team and the growing competitors of Team Cadillac. After a much fought race, victory went to the #2 Audi in hands of Dindo Capello, Christian Pescatori and Johnny Herbert. The #38 Champion Racing car finished in a strong second place, a lap behind the winning car, with drivers Andy Wallace, Jan Lammers and Stefan Johansson.

The 2003 season and a new era for the Audi R8. With the full factory Audi Sport program being over, all the teams were privateers on both sides of the Atlantic. For the 12 Hours of Sebring three Audi R8 cars were entered. Team Joest. Champion Racing and Audi Sport UK each fielding a single car. The factory Team Bentley also entered the race with their new Speed 8 GTPs. After a titanic battle between Joest Racing and Champion Racing, the German team was victorious. The #1 Audi R8 took race win with drivers Frank Biela, Marko Werner and Philip Peter. The #38 Champion R8 finished in second on the lead lap with Emanuele Pirro, JJ Lehto and Stefan Johansson.

For 2004, Joest Racing stopped their sportscar efforts after four straight victories at Sebring. Three Audi R8 cars entered the 12 hour race. Two from Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx, and a single car from Champion Racing. The three cars gave Audi a clean 1-2-3 win. Victory in the end for the #28 Audi R8 of Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx with drivers Allan McNish, Pierre Kaffer and Frank Biela. Champion Racing with Emanuele Pirro, JJ Lehto and Marco Werner finished in second, but five laps down from the winning car.

The final race of the Audi R8 at the 12 Hours of Sebring. Only two cars entered the 2005 race. The two Audi R8s from team Champion Racing, the reigning ALMS champions. While facing a very small field of LMP1 competitors, the two Champion R8s battled with each other during the whole race. In the end a 1-2 victory with the #1 machine taking the overall win with drivers Tom Kristensen, JJ Lehto and Marco Werner. The #2 Audi was driven by Allan McNish, Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela. A few months later, the Audi R8 won its final ever race at Le Mans 24 Hours.

A new car and a new technology. Audi made history by debuting in and winning a major international race with a Diesel powered race car. Audi Sport Team Joest was back to Sebring as a full factory team, the only American race for them, as they were preparing Le Mans 24 Hours. The brand new Audi R10 TDI stormed Florida's race taking victory with the #2 car of Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen. The #1 Audi failed to finish, the car was driven by Emanuel Pirro, Frank Biela and Marco Werner.

The Audi R10 TDI was back to defend its 2006 crown. Two cars entered by Audi Sport Team Joest (under Audi Sport North America name). Once again the competition wasn't that strong in LMP1. The challenger this time came from the lower LMP2 cars, with factory teams from Porsche and Acura. The Joest team won the race in the end with the #2 Audi R10 TDI of Emanuele Pirro, Frank Biela and Marco Werner. The sister #1 car driven by Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen faced some problems and finished fourth overall, 11 laps behind the winning car. This is the last victory for the Audi R10 TDI at Sebring.

In 2008 Audi failed to win Sebring for the first time since 2000. The victory went to Penske Racing and their Porsche RS Spyder LMP2 machine. For 2009 Audi Sport replaced the three year old Audi R10 TDI with the new LMP1 challenger, the Audi R15 TDI. Yet again the race debut for the new car was at the 12 Hours of Sebring. Peugeot and new comers from Acura in the top LMP1 class were the rivals to beat. The race against the Peugeots proved to be one of the most fought for Audi in Florida. In the end the #2 Audi R15 TDI won the race overall with drivers Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen, just ahead of the second placed #08 Peugeot 908. The sister #1 Audi of Lucas Luhr, Marco Werner and Mike Rockenfeller finished in third, 2 laps down.

After a two year drought at Sebring, Audi Sport Team Joest arrived with the Audi R18 TDI in 2012. Armed with three cars they were determined to reclaim victory at the legendary endurance event. The Audi R18 TDI cars proved to be the class of the field and qualified 1-2-3, a position which they held for most of the opening hours. Various issues dropped the #1 car down the field, driven by Marcel Fässler, Benoît Tréluyer and Andre Lotterer, who ultimately finish 16th overall, 15 laps down. The race came down to a duel between the #2 Audi R18 TDI (Dindo Capello, Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish) and the sister #3 car of Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Loic Duval. The team mates battled for hours but in the end the #2 crew came home to win the race, leading an Audi 1-2. They won the race by 4 laps, securing Audi's tenth overall Sebring 12 Hours victory. 

Photo credit: Audi Sport Media