The men from Ingolstadt were in sombre mood at the end of the 2008 Sebring 12 Hours. For the first time this century they failed to win. Worse still, it was the men from Stuttgart who were first to reach the chequered flag. It could have been worse, it could have been the men from France.
Yes, there were chinks in the Audi armour at Sebring. But it could have been worse, it could have been Le Mans.
There is much to be done before June. And it will be done. Words were not minced in the debrief on Saturday night, nor in those that followed on Sunday. On Monday morning they were back at the circuit, gearing up for a 12-hour test. There will be no rest.
“There were technical problems, ones we had never had before,” said Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, “and there were some driver errors. We had to change the front discs on one car – that’s never happened before. We had to change a turbo on the other car, and there were issues with the front suspension. All these problems came our way this weekend and there is already a full investigation into why this happened.”
When a car has a major problem at Sebring, it passes through the pits and “goes behind the wall” as they say down Florida way. When Marco Werner’s Audi went behind the wall, and into its paddock garage, I went to watch the mechanics go to work on changing the turbo on the engine’s right bank. After a few minutes I was aware of a person standing very close behind me. Looking over my shoulder, I came face to face with a man dressed in Peugeot fireproof overalls. This man proceeded to take a video camera from his pocket and record the surgery to the back of the R10, pausing only to jot some notes onto a small pad. The atmosphere was somewhat tense but he remained expressionless as he filmed over my shoulder. As soon as the work was done, and a swarm of mechanics began to re-fit the bodywork, the Frenchman sidled away. Espionage is alive and well. “It happens,” an engineer told me afterwards. “It is very open house in the paddock here and you can waste a lot of time and effort in trying to stop this kind of thing.” There were a lot of people working on that car, all highly focused on not losing too many laps. Maybe one extra person, looking at the onlookers, might just be a worthwhile idea.
Both Audi and Peugeot went to Sebring to try and break the cars ahead of Le Mans. And both teams succeeded. “If something is going to fail, it will fail at Sebring,” said Dr Ullrich. “It is the toughest race we do. So, we go away, we learn, and we get it right.”
And then, of course, there is Peugeot to worry about. The new car was very quick all week in Florida, not reliable, but very fast. The duel of the diesels – Audi TDI versus Peugeot HDI – is well and truly on. We are on the cusp of a classic battle in sports car racing. If both teams have reliability at La Sarthe in June, the race will be sensational.
On Friday, in the heat of the Sunshine State, the Peugeot was fastest in qualifying but was not awarded pole. What? How so? Well, the session was red-flagged after a huge shunt that damaged the concrete barriers that surround much of this airfield circuit. Nothing unusual so far. But then IMSA decided not to re-start, and instead of giving pole to the quickest car so far (Peugeot) they averaged out all the times from Thursday and Friday and it was the Audi of Allan McNish that came out on top. Had the qualifying run its course, the story may have been different, but probably not.
“There’s no question the Peugeot has outright speed over one lap,” said McNish, “and really they should have had pole. But we are confident of our race pace and our strategy. The battle is on, though, you’d better believe it, and we have work still to do.” He was right about the race pace. Despite losing time in the pits, McNish, Rinaldo Capello and Tom Kristensen climbed back through the field in the evening and into the night, taking second place behind the Penske Porsche, which ran like clockwork. The Peugeot led from the start but was soon in the garage, finishing this gruelling test of endurance many laps down on the leaders.
Sebring is a four-day party for the 100,000 fans who travel from all over the USA to make this event a most extraordinary happening. Camped out in tents and motorhomes, they make the Sebring infield their own for the best part of a week. It is surely the rowdiest and most bizarre motor racing party on the planet, smoke from the hundreds of barbecues drifting across the circuit, a cacophony of rock and country music sometimes drowning out the cars, and a lot of whooping and hollering from the rooftops of trucks, campers and enormous jeeps. This is down-home America. Forget Boston or Manhattan, this is party time down South. Creedence Clearwater Revival blasts out into the night, very scantily clad girls get them well revved up for the annual bikini contest, and there is beer, a very great deal of beer. “Helps ugly people have sex,” one fan told me. “There’s 24 cans in a pack, one for each hour of the day, man.” And in among this mayhem is a motor race. Down in the ‘zoo’ – otherwise known as Turn 10 – there is some serious frolicking, not all of it fully clothed. They have fun, these people, and they love their racing, especially the throaty roar of the Corvettes. They’re not so sure about the whooshing, whispering diesels and Peugeot fans seemed to be thin on the ground. “We hate the French, you know,” one group of ZZ Top lookalikes told me. Right, I see, I said.
Team Audi does not hate the French. But they do respect them right now. We are in for a very exciting Le Mans. The R10 will take a lot of beating – it is a supremely good racing car – but Peugeot is coming.
Sebring 2008, the 56th running of this classic contest, resulted in Hans Stuck, Derek Bell and Roger Penske being inducted into the Hall of Fame. Everybody was very happy about that. And Roger Penske was the happiest of them all on Saturday night.