Sebring 12 Hours
Last year at Le Mans Hugues De Chaunac cried tears of despair after an engine failure cost his ORECA team victory. At Sebring in March, the tears flowed again but for very different reasons.
De Chaunac is an emotional Frenchman who for many encapsulates the true spirit of modern sports car racing. ORECA’s first-generation Peugeot 908 HDi FAP was an outside bet for glory at the 12-hour classic, but when the factory teams of Peugeot and Audi faltered Nicolas Lapierre, Ldic Duval and Olivier Panis stepped up to complete the set of big enduro wins for their team boss. Victory at Sebring marks a triple crown of sorts for ORECA, which won Le Mans in 1991 with Mazda and the Daytona 24 Hours in 2000 with its super-successful Dodge Viper.
Peugeot chose to give its all-new 908 turbodiesel a race debut at Sebring, as the 12 Hours marked the beginning of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, a seven-round global series that includes Le Mans itself and offers the big manufacturers a World Championship stage in all but name.
The 908, built to the new 2011 regulations that demand a reduction in engine size, took pole position and ran reliably during the day-into-night race on Sebring’s demanding concrete airport circuit. But driver errors would cost the French giant a debut victory.
First, Marc Gene lunged clumsily into Dindo Capello’s Audi R15 Plus at the final corner during the fifth hour. Both cars were sent behind the pitwall for repairs, and although both returned to finish they’d lost too many laps to challenge for victory.
The pole-winning 908 of Stephan6 Sarrazin, Franck Montagny and Pedro Lamy looked on course for glory until it all went wrong in the 10th hour. Damage to air louvres on a front wing forced a pitstop for a new nose, before Lamy lost more time with a spin on his out-lap. Montagny charged over the final two hours, but third place was all he could manage.
These dramas not only played into the hands of ORECA, but also Highcroff Racing’s new HPD ARX-01 e, in which David Brabham, Simon Pagenaud and Marino Franchitti came close to pulling off a shock of genuinely giant-killing proportions. Pagenaud didn’t have enough to take on Duval in the closing stages, but clever fuel strategy from Duncan Dayton’s team helped him across the line for a superb second place.
Audi’s heavily restricted 2010 R15, racing for the last time before the new R18 coupe takes its bow, went out on a whimper despite showing good pace, the two cars finishing a distant fourth and fifth after delays. Last year’s Le Mans winners, limo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Mike Rockenfeller, were out of the reckoning at the end of the first hour. Rockenfeller picked up a puncture running offline in traffic, but his left rear immediately punctured again on his first lap back thanks to damaged bodywork caused by the first deflation. The drivers knuckled down to score ILMC points for Audi, which could prove valuable at season’s end.
The GTE class lived up to expectations, as BMW Ferrari, Corvette and Porsche fought for honours. Briton Andy Priaulx was inspirational as he shared the winning M3, after teammate Dirk Muller lost time with a highspeed spin in the first hour after being tagged by PJJones’s slow Jaguar RSR. Punctures for both the winning Priaulx/ Muller/Joey Hand car and its sister M3, pedalled by Augusto Farfus, Bill Auberlen and Dirk Werner, couldn’t stop a deserved 1-2 for Munich.
The ILMC resumes in May at Spa, where Audi’s R18 will go head to head with Peugeot’s new 908. Then it’s time for the big one, Le Mans, in June.
Phillip Island Classic
The sense of anticipation is tangible and an endless stream of open trailers provides a raffling symphonic accompaniment. Even at a relatively minor level, European paddocks are often swamped by pantechnicons and motorhomes, but this is Australia and the Phillip Island Classic is an engaging throwback. More than 500 old cars are entered with the majority exposed to the elements during transit.
Some entrants admit this has more to do with legislation than a craving for period accuracy many Europe-built race transporters are barred from Australian roads on the grounds of width, while those that comply tend to be prohibitively expensive but the landscape is all the beffer for it.
Phillip Island lends itself well to history. Australians talk up the 2.76-mile circuit’s facilities it is, after all, host to both MotoGP and the Superbike World Championship yet it retains a cosy ambience.
“The locals couldn’t be more helpful,” says Brit James Owen, who’s brought his Triumph TR5. “I have loads of spares, almost everything except the fuel metering unit that packed up. Another driver loaned me a replacement, which is set up for a different cam profile. I have to use fewer revs, and am now here to drive around rather than race, but that’s still a treat at a venue like this.”
Andy Newall has travelled from the UK to Phillip Island for the fifth time, to drive both Chevron B8 and 31-year-old Palliser Formula Ford. “I live two miles from Donington and love racing there, but it’s worth travelling 12,000 for this. It’s a proper circuit fast and flowing. If we took these cars to such speeds at home, they’d put chicanes in.”
The outlook is similarly positive for spectators. Large expanses of track are visible from many vantage points, the galleries are close to the circuit’s fringe and there isn’t a strand of debris fencing to compromise the view. More than 40 races are crammed into the weekend: most last five or six laps and each category runs twice a day. That can be frustrating, because the flag sometimes appears just as a contest is becoming interesting, but Newall favours the format: “There’s less waiting around. As soon as one race finishes you start fiddling with tyre pressures and stuff for the next. It always feels busy.”
Entry lists are both cosmopolitan and diverse. Yes, there are lots of indigenous Holden Toranas and Ford Falcons, but the temperate climate and absence of road salt means 30-year-old Alfa Romeos survive and thrive locally, so there are many of those, too.
Australia also has a rich seam of original Ford Mustangs and Sydney driver Chad Parrish has restored a fair few. His latest project is a Shelby GT350, which wins first time out and goes on to take another two victories during the weekend. “I love everything about Phillip Island,” he says. “There is no finer track this is the best historic event in Australia.”
South African Greg Mills christened his recently rebuilt Sana. “It began life as an F3 car in Britain,” he says, “but was converted to Atlantic specification before somebody put a 5-litre V8 in the back, for hillclimb use. I was in the market for a Lola Formula Atlantic when I spotted the Sana in a shed near Chesterfield. I knew nothing about it, but couldn’t resist the chance to tackle such an unusual project.”
Restoration took three years and the car almost missed its renaissance after being bumped off a plane in Thailand en route. “It arrived too late for practice,” says Mills, “so it’s even more of a test session. It doesn’t matter the circuit is unbelievable and just being here is a privilege.”