Sebring 12 Hours preview


A new era of sports car racing kicks off in Florida on Saturday. The Sebring 12 Hours marks the return of what should be classified as a World Championship of Makes – even if we’re not allowed to officially call it that.

The tough enduro is much more than just the first round of the American Le Mans Series this year. It also counts for something that calls itself the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, a seven-round global series for sports cars which includes the Le Mans 24 Hours itself. Last year’s three-race pilot series was a toe-in-the-water exercise. Now it’s for real – and even though a title with an acronym as meaningless as ILMC will mean little to the world outside the paddock, the manufacturers are taking it very seriously.

That’s because they know this is the start of something that should be very big. The series is the brainchild of Le Mans organiser the ACO. The target now is for the FIA to embrace the series and give it the World Championship title it so fully deserves.


Audi Sport boss Dr Wolfgang Ullrich summed up the feelings of everyone in sports car racing this week when he said during a press conference: “The ILMC means nothing outside this room. We need a World Championship and we need it quickly. Not in five years, but in two or three.”

There were nods of agreement from the rest of the panel beside him, which included team bosses representing the interests of Peugeot, BMW, Chevrolet and Ferrari.

It is believed that FIA president Jean Todt – who of course led Peugeot’s Group C campaign in the final days of the old World Sports Car Championship 20 years ago – is open to the idea of bestowing a proper title on the series. Let’s hope he moves on it soon.

At the front of the ILMC, we’re looking forward to another chapter of Audi versus Peugeot, as the two giants renew their intense rivalry on the bumpy concrete runways of the Sebring airfield circuit. Typically, they’re being coy over their chances.


Peugeot comes to this race with its all-new 908 LMP1. Yes, I know, it’s got the same name as the old one that won Le Mans in 2009, and at first glance it looks identical. But trust me, it is a new car. Just wish they’d given it the new name it deserves. A confusing decision.

The 908 conforms to the new 2011 regulations that have been designed to slow Le Mans prototypes, and make them safer. Diesel engine sizes have been slashed from 5.5 to 3.7 litres, while the most significant chassis change is the addition of the ungainly F1-style ‘shark fins’ on the engine cowlings. As featured in Motor Sport last year, these have been added as an attempt to stop the old problem of prototypes flipping during accidents. They look awful, but if it marks the end of cars taking flight, then so be it.

“This is a working session for us,” reckons Peugeot Sport boss Olivier Quesnel, who adds a quite remarkable statement regarding the team’s Sebring aspirations: “We don’t intend to win and I don’t think it will happen.” Well, that’s ambitious…

Of course, Le Mans is the focus for the Pride of France. But Anthony Davidson topped night practice on Thursday, following the team’s time-topping performances in testing earlier in the week. The new car has every chance of scoring a debut victory, whatever the boss might say.


At Audi, the new R18 coupé won’t arrive here until the day after the race, as the team prepares to continue its testing programme on Monday. Instead, the German giant is wheeling out its old R15 ‘spyder’ for one last fling. The car has been dubbed the R15 Plus Plus, to reflect the changes that have been forced upon it to allow the team to race it against new 2011 cars. Internally the team is calling it the R15 Plus Minus, which is more accurate. A power-sapping smaller air restrictor has suffocated the turbodiesel that won Le Mans against the odds last year. “It’s as flat as a fart,” was Allan McNish’s colourful description of the difference it has made, but that did not stop the two cars setting the fastest times in the opening pair of practice sessions.

Where the difference will really tell in the race is how much harder it will be for the prototypes to lap GT cars around the high-downforce circuit. With a field of 56 cars, avoiding trouble in traffic could well decide the outcome of this race between the two giants. There’s little in it for pace. As Dr Ullrich said, “performance is not everything for this race”.

The Sebring 12 Hours is always hard fought, and so it promises to be once again. And its significance, as the kick-off point of a new era, only increases the intensity between the two rival camps. Whatever they might say in press conferences.

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