Last Saturday’s 57th Sebring 12 Hours was a cracker of a race with the Audi and Peugeot teams fighting it out all the way. In the end it came down to a straight fight during the final stint between Allan McNish and Franck Montagny, with McNish turning in another stellar drive to win for Audi on the debut of the all-new R15 turbodiesel.
McNish was superb in the final hour, laying down a series of laps that were a second or two quicker than anything Montagny could muster in the rival Peugeot 908 HDi. McNish took the chequered flag 22 seconds ahead of Montagny, as the Scot and team-mates Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello showed that Audi’s R15 is a substantial improvement over the R10.
“It’s really extraordinary,” said Kristensen, who recorded a record fifth Sebring triumph. “It shows the know-how Audi has taken from the previous cars, the R8 and R10. We had not done a lot of dry running before we came here last week and it’s just very impressive what the team has done. It’s unbelievable.”
McNish described how he attacked the race’s final hour: “When I got into the car at the end I knew I needed a 55-second gap to be able to get into the pits and back out from a splash-and-dash stop,” he said. “Once I made that gap we were in a comfortable position. However, if a yellow had come out after the Peugeot had pitted and prior to our splash-and-dash, then everything could have been lost. It was a very risky situation. But thankfully, there was no yellow.”
A little earlier in the race McNish was dispirited when Peugeot’s Sébastien Bourdais turned the race’s fastest lap a full second quicker than anything he was able to produce. “When I got the radio report on Bourdais’ lap I felt it slipping away,” said McNish. “When Bourdais did that lap time he was right at the end of his stint so he was low on fuel. But I think ultimately they probably had a wee bit quicker car even if we had a slightly quicker car over the distance in all conditions. They’re a bit quicker on top speed and we’re probably a bit quicker in high-speed corners. We’re probably very similar in the medium and low-speed corners.”
All the Audi drivers said the R15 is much better balanced car than the R10 and can be driven more aggressively. “I would say the R15 is like a kart to drive,” said McNish. “You can throw it around and it came into its own at the end. When Tom, Dindo and I had to push to get every last tenth out of it we could do it lap after lap after lap. That was something you could do with the R10, but certainly not to that level. I was able to push all the way through the last two stints. There was not even a consideration that the car was going away from you. You could just lean on it all the way through.
“It’s physically different to drive,” McNish continued. “You had to grab hold of the R10 and throw it around, which was quite physical in its own way. It was a heavy car and the R15 is lighter, but your work rate on the steering wheel is much more because it’s always reacting. But I think that suits my driving style quite well.
“It’s a little bit easier to drive around Sebring because the car is smoother in turn one. If you’ve got a harsh car through there, you hang on every lap and you come up to the start/finish straight not looking forward to it and happy when you come out of the first turn.”
Initial testing of the R15 in Europe was hampered by cool, wet weather so last week’s practice, qualifying and race at Sebring taught the Audi team plenty of lessons. “This week was the first time we’ve done any consistent, dry-weather running,” said McNish. “We learned more about the car this week than we have done up until now – its weaknesses, the seating position, lots of different details.”
McNish believes the Peugeots will be very hard to beat at Le Mans where the 908’s high-speed cornering ability and superior top speed will be more useful than at Sebring. “Peugeot’s reliability was pretty good today,” said McNish. “They had a problem with one car right from the start, but they were reliable, they were fast and they were always there. They had a couple of driving mistakes but they didn’t make any team mistakes like they’ve done in the past. Their pitstops were more efficient than before. I think they’ve learned a lot of lessons.
“If you look at where their car was fast I would suggest they’re going to be very quick at Le Mans. To say that we’re favourites is very presumptuous. We’re going to have to do a very good job to try and beat them. Remember, they were five seconds a lap faster than us last year. So we’ve got five seconds to catch up. We’ve got to bridge that gap to them.”