The first race of the new FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) took place this weekend at the Sebring 12 Hours in Florida. It saw a number of new cars entered, as well as the return of some familiar faces.
Among the latter was the Audi R18 TDI, which made its farewell performance at the race and claimed victory for the driving partnership of Dindo Capello, Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish.
This was Audi’s tenth overall success in the race, and signing Loïc Duval completed Audi’s one-two victory with his team-mates Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas in the team’s second car.
The race was interrupted by 11 caution periods, so the Capello/Kristensen/McNish R18 TDI #2 had to work hard for the victory. Their main rivals were from their own team in car #3, which remained within a few seconds in the first ten hours of the race.
The safety car repeatedly reduced the gap at the front but Bernhard/Dumas/Duval lost four laps shortly before the end after contact with a competitor.
While Audi Sport Team Joest was battling internally, it kept its opponents at bay by alternating pit stop strategies for its two best-placed Audi R18 TDI cars. This kept the quickest rivals from HPD-Honda one lap behind the two diesel-powered cars.
The race featured heavy traffic and a large number of accidents in the field of 63 entrants but, thanks to very good driving, the victorious R18 TDI managed to complete the entire distance without any damage.
Not only was this Audi's tenth victory on the 60th anniversary of the Sebring 12 Hours but Tom Kristensen celebrated his sixth personal success at the classic race, Dindo Capello his fifth, and Allan McNish his fourth. Three years before, the trio had clinched Audi’s last Sebring victory.
A third Audi had been in contention for a top result. André Lotterer clinched pole position together with team-mates Benoît Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler. Shortly before mid-distance, car #1 lost 17 laps when a defective electric shifting unit on the transmission forced the team to make an unscheduled repair. Ultimately, the three 2011 Le Mans winners finished 16th overall, fifth in the LMP1 class.
Audi also provided a glimpse of the future at Sebring with the new R18 e-tron quattro. Accompanied by the new Audi R18 ultra, it will enter the second WEC round on May 5 at Spa, Belgium.
Meanwhile, the BMW Team RLL claimed victory for a second consecutive year. The #56 BMW M3 GT took the top spot in the GT class after 307 laps and a dramatic final stage.
Over the course of the marathon, Dirk Müller (DE), Joey Hand (US) and Jonathan Summerton (US) shared driving duties. Last year, Müller and Hand (along with Andy Priaulx) crossed the line as winners at the season opener.
The sister BMW M3 GT #155 was driven by Jörg Müller (DE), Bill Auberlen (US) and Uwe Alzen (DE). The trio finished the race in fifth place overall, fourth in the ALMS GT class.
New driver Jonathan Summerton experienced a perfect debut and with the win, a BMW M3 has now emerged victorious in the GT class for the fourth time: 1997, 1998, 2011 and 2012. BMW also claimed overall victory in 1975 with the 3.0 CSL, as well as with the V12 LMR in 1999.
In contrast to many of the competitors, BMW cars managed to avoid the turmoil in the first half of the race. Clocking consistent lap times, they remained in touch with the front-runners throughout the race.
As the race developed, a duel between BMW Team RLL and the two Chevrolet Corvettes kept the fans on their feet, all four cars only seconds apart for several hours.
More than ten full-course yellows kept the GT field close together until the closing lpas. Only in the dying moments of the race were the BMW drivers able to seal their second consecutive at Sebring. Both Hand and Jörg Müller were victims of contact in the final minutes of the race, and while Hand successfully defended his lead despite heavy damage, Müller lost third position in class.
Round two of the 2012 American Le Mans Series with be held at Long Beach on 14 April.
Aston Martin also stepped onto the podium at the Sebring race on the debut of its Vantage GTE. The car covered 292 laps and more than 1000 miles of the punishing 3.7-mile Sebring course, eventually finishing third in the WEC GTE class and tenth in the combined WEC and ALMS GTE Pro class.
Factory driver Stefan Mücke qualified #97 Vantage GTE in ninth position in class with a lap 1.5 seconds faster than 2011’s pole time.
Team-mate Darren Turner drove the first stint of the race and battled his way up the order. After 1hr 20min of intense action, Turner fought his way into the overall GTE lead to prove the debutante’s potential among the more established GTE racers.
The Aston Martin Racing team performed faultlessly over the first six hours, with no fewer than seven GTE cars were on the lead lap. Despite the fierce competition, the factory V8-powered Aston Martin was on course to score third in the GTE category and second among the WEC runners.
However, an incident around the seven-hour mark cost Aston Martin Racing 25 minutes when the left-rear wheel of the Vantage GTE broke free, leaving #97 stranded until it could be recovered to the paddock. Swift action saw the car repaired and back on the circuit with the team’s hopes of a WEC podium still intact.
Between them, Mücke, Turner and Adrian Fernandez (MX) guided the Vantage GTE into the darkness and towards the checkered flag without any major problems. A minor power steering issue in the closing stages caused the team to exercise caution in the final 15 minutes, but didn’t threaten the podium result.
The Vantage GTE can next be seen at the second American Le Mans Series round in Long Beach, CA on April 13/14.