If you have to leave, leave on a high. Say auf Wiedersehen in style.
On Sunday March 17 the most successful endurance racing team of this century loaded their cars into the trucks and drove out through the gates of Sebring Raceway in Florida. The end of a chapter in the history of Sebring and the end of an era for Audi Sport.
As from 2014 the Sebring 12 Hours will be run to a new formula following the merger of ALMS and Grand-Am. No more LMP1 cars. No more Audis.
Never say never, however. The new United SportsCar Racing series is yet to publish final regulations and the men from Ingolstadt may well be back before the decade is out. North America is a very important market for their road cars.
Since 1999 Audi has dominated endurance racing, won Le Mans eleven times, and amassed a truly extraordinary number of wins with their sleek and silver diesel-powered machines. And it was the same story at Sebring, for many years past one of their sweetest stomping grounds. This year they brought a new car, the 2013 R18 e-tron Quattro hybrid, and the 2012 version.
A thrilling battle for pole run under blue skies and Florida sunshine saw Marcel Fässler snatch top spot by 0.009 from Allan McNish. The Audis nearly three seconds ahead of the ‘petrol cars’. This was a new qualifying record and the tenth pole for Audi at Sebring. Surely only a fluke could get in the way of an eleventh victory at what the marketeers have dubbed the ‘Home of Quattro’.
These days, of course, 12 hours is a sprint, and a good shakedown for Le Mans in June. The Sebring raceway is tough on cars, tough on drivers, the bumpy old airfield track a far cry from the billiard table surfaces in Europe. If it’s going to break, it will break at Sebring. So the race is a tense affair.
Ben Tréluyer led away in the 2012 R18 Audi, chased by Tom Kristensen in the new 2013 machine while Nick Heidfeld in the Rebellion Racing Lola-Toyota led the rest, already falling back into a different race. Tom Kimber-Smith led the P2 class in his Zytek-Nissan and Oliver Gavin headed the GT class in his Chevrolet Corvette.
In truth the result was never in doubt, assuming reliability, and the excitement would come from the battle for victory between the two R18s. In the early laps Fässler and McNish gave the huge crowd some thrills as they fought for the lead, ducking and darting around among the slower P2 and GT cars. At times it was too close for the comfort of Messrs Wolfgang Ullrich of Audi Sport and Ralf Jüttner of Joest Racing on the pit wall. Behind them the competition for third step of the podium was fierce and feisty, Lola vs HPD vs Zytek.
Just after half-distance a chink in the Audi armour, a loose undertray and puffs of diesel smoke on the leading R18 of Tréluyer/Fässler/Jarvis causing a few furrowed brows. Otherwise the team was on plan with McNish/Kristensen/di Grassi just nine seconds behind the sister car and two laps ahead of the field, with the Graf/Luhr/Dumas HPD best of the petrols. Meanwhile Marino Franchitti/Briscoe/Tucker led the P2 class and in the GTs a great battle between Viper and Corvette kept the Stars and Stripes flying but it was Brit Richard Westbrook, with Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner, who led the class.
The Florida sun set on the 61st Sebring 12 Hours, sinking below the orange groves, with less than three hours racing to go. So, out of the tricky Sunset Bend and into the dark they went. And, when the flag fell, it was the ‘old’ 2012 R18 of Tréluyer/Fässler and Oliver Jarvis on his Sebring debut which took an emotional victory, by less than eight seconds after 12 hours, from the new 2013 car of Kristensen/McNish/di Grassi despite the ‘Dane in the Dark’ putting in a sensational final stint. Third overall behind the Audis was the Jani/Heidfeld/Prost Rebellion Racing Lola.
The P2 class went to the HPD of Franchitti/Briscoe/Tucker while the PC honours went to the Oreca of Ostella/Chang/Guasch. A terrific GT race was won by Gavin/Milner/Westbrook in their Chevrolet Corvette while the GTC class (all Porsche 997s) went to Bleekemolen/MacNeill/von Moltke.
All in all a great Sebring 12 Hours and one we will remember as a typically polished, stylish and efficient farewell from the Audi Sport team. The fans will miss them next year. But the word on the street is that Vorsprung durch Technik will be back in Florida before too long.