The French ORECA team pulled off a famous victory in the Sebring 12 Hours on Saturday as the major factory teams of Peugeot and Audi faltered in the opening round of the new Intercontinental Le Mans Cup.
Nicolas Lapierre, Loic Duval and Olivier Panis, driving a first-generation Peugeot 908 HDi FAP for Hugues de Chaunac’s squad, led home the French manufacturer’s all-new 908 which was making its race debut at the Florida classic. The works car, driven by Stephane Sarrazin, Franck Montagny and Pedro Lamy, started from pole position and looked on course to win first time out, only for drama to strike in the 10th hour.
Lamy was forced to pit to replace a damaged nose, then spun on his out-lap – a mistake that would prove fatal to the car’s victory hopes. Montagny charged over the final two hours, but could only secure the factory squad a place on the bottom step of the podium.
Ahead of the factory Peugeot was a team that produced a giant-killing performance to more than rival ORECA’s achievement. Highcroft Racing’s Nick Wirth-designed HPD ARX-01, driven by David Brabham, Simon Pagenaud and Marino Franchitti, was in contention for victory from the fifth hour. Clever fuel strategy in the final hours allowed Pagenaud to make it to the flag just 12 seconds ahead of Montagny and just over half a minute behind winner Duval.
Audi’s R15 Plus bowed out from racing with a disappointing four-five after both modified cars, which ran with heavily restricted power to equalise their performance with the new, smaller-engined 2011 cars, suffered major delays.
Last year’s Le Mans winners Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Mike Rockenfeller didn’t make it beyond the first hour before a puncture, picked up running over offline debris in traffic, forced an unscheduled stop. Rockenfeller rejoined, only to find his left-rear Michelin immediately deflate again. The second puncture was found to have been caused by bodywork damage inflicted by the first. The car lost eight laps.
Allan McNish led Audi’s challenge against the new Peugeots with a typically gritty double-stint, his efforts ably backed up by team-mates Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello. But in the fifth hour Capello was smacked into a spin at the final corner by the number seven Peugeot of Marc Gene, who lost control as he challenged the Italian for second place. Both cars were severely damaged, Capello rejoining seven laps down – one place ahead of the sister R15. The drivers of both cars knuckled down to put in recovery drives, in a damage-limitation exercise to score valuable points for the seven-round ILMC. As for Gene’s Peugeot, the incident cost it 19 laps, but the car was still running at the end to claim eighth position.
Briton Andy Priaulx drove brilliantly with team-mates Joey Hand and Dirk Muller to win the fiercely competitive GTE class for BMW. Muller had been tagged by PJ Jones’ Jaguar in the first hour, spinning wildly in Turn 1. But at the end of 12 hours, Hand led home the sister M3 of Dirk Werner, Augusto Farfus and Bill Auberlen, both cars having also suffered puncture delays to deliver a superb one-two for the Munich marque.
Ferraris both old and new had taken the fight to the BMWs. Risi Competizione’s brand new 458 Italia challenged for a debut victory, only for electrical problems to force the car out. AF Corse’s older F430, driven by Giancarlo Fisichella, Gianmaria Bruni and Pierre Kaffer, faded to fifth in class behind the pair of Chevy Corvettes.
Oliver Gavin stormed into the class lead at the start, only for team-mate Jan Magnussen to be spun out by the Flying Lizard Porsche of Patrick Long. The incident, best described as a racing accident, left both cars playing catch-up for the best part of 10 hours. Magnussen, Gavin and Chevy ‘new boy’ Richard Westbrook trailed the number 03 ’Vette of Olivier Beretta, Antonio Garcia and Tommy Milner for a three-four class finish at the flag. The Flying Lizard Porsche made it into the darkness too, clawing its way back to sixth.
The bumpy concrete of Sebring’s airport circuit always provides thrills and spills, and the great 12-hour race offered the perfect kick-off point to the ILMC, a series that is a World Sports Car Championship in all but name. And for the first race to spring a surprise result was all the better – especially when the winning team is so popular. For sports car fans, Hugues de Chaunac encapsulates the true spirit of sports car racing. His tears of joy were a fitting end to a memorable first day of what looks set to be a bright, new endurance racing era.