For the fifth consecutive year, a low-slung Audi R8 prototype drove to victory in the 12 Hours of Sebring, the opening round of the nine-race American Le Mans Series season. This time, however, the winning car came not from the venerable Joest Racing team, winners of the past four races at the 3.7-mile, 17-turn Sebring International Raceway, but from the stables of Audi Sport U.K.
With his win Saturday, Biela became only the fifth driver to have won the 12 Hours three times. The others are Mario Andretti, Phil Hill, Hans Stuck and Olivier Gendebien.
"Someone just told be about this record," said Biela. "Three times at Le Mans and three times here is great. I'm obviously very, very happy no doubt. What else can I say? It was a great weekend, and the team did a fantastic job."
"It's a dream to win Sebring, especially in my first race here," added Kaffer.
Despite losing more than 30 minutes in the pits during the fifth hour while the team scurried to repair cooling system damage caused by contact with an errant Porsche, the pole sitting Champion Audi of JJ Lehto, Emanuele Pirro and Marco Werner managed to salvage a second place finish, five laps behind the winners.
"It wasn't our day," said Lehto, who came within minutes of winning the race last year. "I'm not saying it was Marco's fault, but we just had a tough day. All the Audis are so close that you can't have any problems. You can't afford to lose any time."
The second Audi Sport U.K. entry, with Johnny Herbert, Guy Smith and Jamie Davies sharing the driving chores, led during the fourth hour, but had to settle for third after the team had to replace a driveshaft seal during the seventh hour. Unlike in years past, new rules prevented the team from changing the entire rear end assembly, a move the Joest team had turned into a well-choreographed ballet of cranes and mechanics moving in harmonic unison. Thus, what used to take five or six minutes, took 37 minutes.
The factory-backed Corvette C5R driven by Ron Fellows, Johnny O'Connell and Max Papis dominated the six-car GTS field, finishing fourth overall, 21 laps behind the winners and 22 laps ahead of the second-place Barron Connor Ferrari 575 GTC. It was the Corvette squad's third consecutive Sebring win and its first on Michelin tires.
"It's amazing," added O'Connell after his record setting sixth class win. "I've had such good fortune here. The Corvette is one of the most important cars in history and it's a great way to represent GM."
"Today, we didn't just win, we dominated," said Papis.
The ACEMCO Saleen finished third in GTS, albeit 72 laps behind the winning the Corvette. The second Corvette, shared by Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Jan Magnussen, was not quite as fortunate as the winning car, stopping on course near the end of the third hour with a clutch problem that eventually forced it to retire.
"This is a very disappointing day for us," said Gavin, who was behind the wheel when the ailing Corvette coasted to a stop. "When I got in the car, the clutch pedal felt very soft and I felt as I left the pits that I should immediately come back. The car kept slipping out of gear and eventually I had to pull over."
While Gavin was disappointed with his day, Alex Job Racing was elated with its race, as Timo Bernhard and Sascha Maassen finished 1:11.988 ahead of their teammates, Lucas Luhr, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb, to sweep the top two spots in the GT class. A bad cold prevented Jorg Bergmeister from joining the winning pair behind the wheel. The Alex Job team has now won four straight Sebring races.
"The competition in GT was very strong," Maassen said after his fourth consecutive class win. "We did not lead the entire race and I made a small mistake, but Alex Job is a just a little more efficient than the rest of the teams, and that helped us to win."
"You don't know how good this feels," said Macaluso. "We didn't think the car would make it. This is a miracle. It's sensational. This car has a Pirelli tire on it that's five hours old, and a gearbox that's falling apart. It's just amazing that we made it to the end."
The No. 7 Rand Racing Lola Nissan and the Intersport Racing Lola Judd finished second and third, respectively, in LMP2.
Due to testing and pre-qualifying leading for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the ALMS will not return to the track until June 27 at the Mid Ohio Sports Car Course.