Sebring 12 hours

Half as long, twice as tough

They say if you can last 12 hours at Sebring, doing 24 at Le Mans is no problem. Perhaps this is why it remains one of the three greatest sports car races on Earth. Andrew Frankel experiences the ultimate Le Mans rehearsal

There is something magical about Sebring. It’s not the magic that floats in the air around Spa or Monza. The magic about this converted airfield is simply that which has persuaded anyone to turn up at all.

Sebring has been called America’s answer to Snetterton, and all I can say to that is never has a British circuit been so insulted. Sebring is in Florida and before you even think about the holiday location of your dreams be advised: this is not West Palm Beach nor Fort Lauderdale; Miami has charm by comparison. The nearest town of consequence is Okeechobee 50 miles away and if you have never been, you’re blessed.

Yet people have flocked to the Hendrick airbase since it was renamed after the local village of Sebring and held its first 12-hour race in 1952. The entry was not world-class but word spread, and in ’53 the likes of Peter Collins, Reg Parnell, Briggs Cunningham, John Fitch and Masten Gregory had come to try their chances on the 5.2-mile track, most of which was spent flat out on one or other of its two runways. These days it has at least been turned into a proper track, currently 3.75miles in length.

By 1954 it was a staple on the sportscar calendar with the likes of Fangio, Ascari and Moss joining the bill, and there it has remained. Then it was the second-biggest sportscar race in the world, eclipsed only by Le Mans; its importance is undiminished to this day even if the Daytona 24-hours is now more famous.

Today it kicks off the most exciting development in sportscar racing since Group C: Don Panoz’s American Le Mans Series, a championship made all the more exciting by the fact that, despite its title, it does not stay on the far side of the Atlantic. It is coming to Silverstone on May 13 and ends in Adelaide on 31st December.

But for the teams, there is another reason for going to Florida: there is no better way in the world to prepare for Le Mans.

Ask anyone familiar with both and they’ll tell you if a team can survive 12-hours here, you have nothing to fear from Le Mans. Allan McNish, the 1998 Le Mans winner, is under no illusions. Driving for Audi this year, he takes time between stints in the R8 prototype to compare the two races.

“It’s true that Le Mans presents it own challenges, because the speeds are so high all the time. If something goes wrong you are usually going at a hell of a speed and there’s not much time to do anything about it But you don’t get the pounding you have here. I mean, have you seen the first and last turns? The bumps are unbelievable — and our car is better damped than most Everything, suspension, transmission, engine, driver gets the most incredible kicking. And we go over every one 350 times in one race here.”

Had I seen it? You could hardly miss it. During practice the Audis looked the most comfortable and even they squirmed visibly. The Panoz prototypes jumped across the road while the BMWs twitched alarmingly over every lump. Perhaps it was no coincidence then that first three rows of the grid were occupied by two Audis, then two Panoz, then the BMWs. Further back the Corvettes and Vipers looked entertaining as they bounced over the bumps but by far the bravest were the Porsche drivers. The 911s might have been the slowest cars in the race but they were also, visibly, the scariest to drive. Without the vast aerodynamic grip of the prototypes or the several hundred kilos of American iron in the nose enjoyed by Viper and ‘Vette, the 911s appeared electrocuted every time they hove into view, so shockingly did they leap and twitch about.

It was Derek Bell who was most enlightening about the circuit He wasn’t even racing this year but found himself drawn back to the circuit, perhaps because he has signed to race an Audi Touring Car in America this year but probably because there is something about this place that has got under his skin.

Watching the drivers flailing at the wheel he turned and sighed: “You know, every year I promise myself I’m not going to come back and every year, here I am. I’m not sure what it is. As a driver it’s incredibly hard and its very tough on the car. If you can do 12 hours here, you can do well at Le Mans.

For Audi, this is the agenda. Talk to anyone from the team owners to the drivers and you are left with the indelible sense that they’d lose every race in the championship if it guaranteed victory at Le Mans. Despite having no championship status, despite having been deserted by the Mercedes, Porsche, Nissan, BMW and Toyota works teams for 2000, Le Mans remains bigger than all the other sportscar races put together. Sebring is important, of course, as is any first race of the season, but its critical significance is that all the main players who will be at Le Mans — Audi, Panoz, Cadillac and Chrysler — are here too, testing not simply their cars but those of the opposition too.

The race starts and grid order is maintained. The Audis look strong but they fear the two Panoz prototypes even more than the BMWs. The BMWs are mildly evolved versions of those which raced and won at Le Mans last year but the feeling in the pitlane, despite the fact that Charly Lamm’s Schnitzer team has been retained to run the cars in the ALMS, is that they are no longer the force they were when they won here last year. BMW’s money, most say, is being poured into the back of a Williams. Audi reckons the Cadillac will be a force to be reckoned with soon but not yet, and its number one driver, Andy Wallace, agrees.

“We are absolutely where we’d expect to be at this stage. The car is good and it’s going to get better but no way do we yet have the speed of the Audis. It’s no particular area, they just have more power and more grip. They look fantastic over the bumps; follow one and you can’t believe how well it rides.”

Wallace runs hard and fast with the front runners until his rear suspension breaks at 180mph, pitching him into the biggest impact of his career before coming to rest, mercifully unscratched.

Before the race is halfway done the Panoz challenge is effectively over, with one car out with throttle linkage problems, the other delayed with shock absorber trouble. And so began one of the most fascinating sportscar battles of recent years. Far from being a spent force, the BMW of JJ Lehto and jorg Muller were a constant headache to the two lead Audis, making up in smart strategy and Lamm’s legendary slick pitwork what it lacked in outright pace.

It shouldn’t have been a fight as the Audis were quantifiably quicker, but as day turned to night it became clear all was not well with the R8s. As the McNish car shot down the straights at 185mph, you could see its brake lights flashing on and off; its sister car had already spent time in the pits having its brakes bled but now there simply wasn’t time: Lehm had seen the weakness and was going all out in an entirely healthy BMW to exploit it.

Afterwards, McNish, exhausted after a triple stint at night with just one headlight, explained what was required. “Everytirne I went down the straight I had to pump up the brake pedal so that, when I arrived at the corner, I could count on 2g’s braking being available.” On one occasion, it clearly wasn’t, the R8 understeering until McNish had to lift to avoid going off, sending his car into a vicious series of slides requiring a truly heroic save. In the pits, team-mate Alboreto could scarcely contain his anxiety.

In the end it turned out right for Audi: its cars came home first and second, ahead of both BMWs. For McNish, however, there was disappointment, for it was the sister machine of Biela, Kristensen and Pirro which crossed the line first. Some say Allan’s car should have won, and had both run troublefree, that would have been likely. But racing in general, endurance racing in particular and racing at Sebring specifically, is not like that. McNish and his team-mates should be rightly proud to have finished at all.

So does this point to an Audi walkover at Le Mans? It’s possible. In Kristensen, Alboreto and McNish they have three previous winners in their line-up and with Allan teamed once more with his 1998 co-victors Stephane Ortelli and Laurent Aiello for the race, they have two more. The car is fast but it is also economical, obviously comfortable, well-behaved and, above all, reliable. Ignore the more recent ALMS result at Charlotte which saw the BMWs vanquish the Audis – it was a three-hour race with Audi using an updated version of last year’s car, keeping the Sebring cars and a new chassis for a fresh threecar assault on pre-qualifying.

However, it is no foregone conclusion: Le Mans never is. History says you need a three-year campaign to win and this is only year two for Audi. And remember Panoz were quicker than the BMWs at Sebring until they broke. Then there is also the threat from the new Chrysler prototypes, cats run by the ORECA team that has made the GT category a Viper closed shop for some seasons now and had little trouble shaking off the initially promising challenge of the Corvettes at Sebring.

Even so, I think it will take an upset of considerable if not unprecedented proportion if anyone other than Audi drivers are to climb to the top step of the podium in France on Sunday, 18th June. The cars certainly the quickest out there right now, the drivers the most experienced; they have proved they can survive Sebring so every expectation must be that they and their steeds will survive Le Mans. And if just one of the three has an untroubled run, right now you would have to bet on it finishing first, particularly as, and it’s a point worth making again, the BMW team that made life so difficult for Audi at Sebring and won at Le Mans only last year won’t be going.