SEBRING, Fla. -- Just when it looked like Champion Racing would finally win its first American Le Mans Series race, a bizarre sequence of late-race events handed the win to the Joest Audi of Frank Biela, Marco Werner, and Phillip Peter, which had trailed the Champion Audi for most of the 51st running of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.
"I had to stop early as I suddenly got a cramp in the calves of both legs," said Pirro, the 2001 ALMS champion. "I did not have enough time between my stints to recuperate sufficiently and it would seem I possibly did not take in sufficient food and drink."
Although Stefan Johansson, who took over for Pirro during the fatal stop, did his best to catch the streaking Werner, the Swede came up 13.493 seconds shy at the finish.
"It was pretty close the whole day," said three-time Le Mans winner Biela moments after his second Sebring win. "But the turning point in the race came when Pirro came out of the car and the full course yellow brought us to within six seconds of their [Champion's] lead."
"We had it in the bag," said a dejected Johansson, who double stinted his tires in a Herculean attempt to reel in Werner. "I don't know what happened. I don't even want to talk about it."
Today's Sebring win was the fourth in a row for both Reinhold Joest and Audi. It was also Champion Racing's second heartbreaking runner-up finish at Sebring in as many years.
"The two R8 cars of Champion Racing and Infineon Team Joest battled for the full 12 hours," said Dr. Wolfgang Ulrich, Head of Audi Sport. "Both had a chance to win the race. The Joest team was just a little luckier."
"It was difficult to start from the back of the grid, but it was a good opportunity to see how the car handles in traffic," said three-time Formula 1 winner Johnny Herbert, who shared the driving duties in the third place Bentley with David Brabham and Mark Blundell.
"We had a few problems with some minor damage, costing us time in the pits; otherwise the car ran faultlessly the whole way through. I think we have an excellent base for Le Mans."
"Everything has been working very well," said four-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen, who co-drove the fourth place Bentley with Rinaldo Capello and Guy Smith. In fact, Kristensen recorded the race's fastest lap, a 1:49.52 around the 17-turn, 3.7-mile course.
The JML Panoz of Olivier Beretta, Max Papis, and Gunnar Jeannette rounded out the top five.
"We are the only team to split Audi and Bentley and that means a lot to this group because our program actually started quite late," said Papis.
The green-trimmed Audi UK entry of Formula 1 veteran Mika Salo, Johnny Kane, and Perry McCarthy finished sixth, followed by the Doran Racing Dallara-MG.
First, the No. 88 entry of Tomas Enge, Peter Kox, and Jamie Davies had to stop for repairs to the engine's air intake system. Then when too many crewmembers assisted with the repairs, the team received a stop-and-go penalty that cost them six laps to the thundering, V-8 powered Corvettes.
A short time later, the No. 80 car, driven by Anthony Davidson, Darren Turner, and Kelvin Burt, had to make an unscheduled stop to replace the right front brake disc and bleed the brakes.
With the two Ferraris falling down the leader board, the pole-sitting Corvette of Oliver Gavin, Kelly Collins, and Andy Pilgrim appeared to be headed for certain victory until gearbox problems sidelined them with less than two hours remaining, handing the lead and the win to Ron Fellows, Johnny O'Connell, and Franck Freon in the second Corvette. Gavin and company had to settle for second, while the No. 80 Ferrari hung on for third.
"This is great," said Fellows, last year's GTS class champion. "I feel bad for Andy, Kelly, and Ollie, but that's racing."
Fellows credited most of his team's success to new Goodyear tires.
"Goodyear did a lot of work for us over the winter and we had two different tires for the conditions this weekend. Our ability to maintain a solid pace goes to Goodyear."
The Alex Job Racing Porsche GT3-RS of Lucas Luhr and Sascha Maassen won the GT class for the third consecutive year, surviving a bitter duel with Johnny Mowlem, Nic Jonsson, and Craig Stanton in the White Lightning Petersen Motorsport Porsche, which finished one lap behind the indefatigable Alex Job car. The Seikel Motorsports Porsche of Gabrio Rossa, Alex Caffi, and Andrea Chiesa claimed the final spot on the GT class podium.
"Four in a row is tough," said Luhr, after becoming the first driver to win his class four years in a row. "I didn't expect it, but it feels great. It was not easy. Sebring is always hot and bumpy. Next year we need to do it [the race] with three drivers instead of two."
Although they are normally among the most reliable cars on the grid, attrition decimated the LMP 675 class. Indeed, by the end of the sixth hour, four of the six entrants, including the No. 16 Dyson Racing Lola-MG of James Weaver, Andy Wallace and Butch Leitzinger, had called it quits.
In the end, Didier de Radigues, Chad Block, and Chris Dyson overcame a lengthy stop to repair a broken suspension to take the win in their MG-Lola. Jon Field's Lola-MG, the only other 675 car running at the finish, came home in second, a number of laps behind the class winners.
"We had a tough week with our car," said Dyson, who won his first ALMS race. "Every little snag that could have hit us did. We lost an hour and a half early in the race with the suspension, but after that, we just tried to stay out of trouble and run a clean race. It's great to come down here and get a good result for the team. I'm ecstatic."
"We don't come to races to participate," added Chris's father, Rob Dyson. "It's our plan to do as well as we can. We want to win 675, but we also want to run up front because we're used to running up front."
With a field that included more than 20 drivers with Formula 1 experience, this year's 12 Hours of Sebring featured one of the most talented fields in recent memory, and the racing reflected that.