Penske Racing and Porsche rewrote the history books Saturday, winning the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring and giving Porsche it's first overall win at Sebring in 20 years. The No. 7 RS Spyder of Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Emmanuel Collard led a 1-2 Porsche sweep of LM P2 cars on the overall podium, breaking Audi's eight-year stranglehold on the race.
This year's race brought challenges to many competitors, such as the much-hyped Peugeot vs. Audi diesel face-off in LM P1, which never really materialized. After a flying start, the French 908 HDi FAP suffered early hydraulic gremlins and both R10 TDIs had problems of its own. This opened the door for the P2 cars to shine, especially in the second half of the race.
The race was also flooded with records. It was Porsche's first overall win at Sebring since 1988, when the Bayside Porsche 962 of Klaus Ludwig and Hans Stuck took the checkers. It was also Michelin's 10th consecutive overall Sebring win. The victory was also special for Roger Penske, as "The Captain" is now the only owner to take overall wins in the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and the Twelve Hours of Sebring. His last and only Sebring class victory came 40 years ago.
The battle for the overall win came down to a four-way fight in the closing hours. The No. 7 Porsche, No. 15 Lowe's Fernandez Racing Acura, No. 20 Dyson Racing Porsche and the LM P1 class-leading No. 1 Audi all provisionally finished on the lead lap, another Sebring first.
"You were never sure where you would end up," Bernhard said. "Until the last hour, we didn't know the strategy and if any others would have to make a late splash."
Dumas made a late fuel-only pitstop, staying ahead of the second-placed Lowe’s Fernandez Acura of Adrian Fernandez as well as Butch Leitzinger's Porsche and Tom Kristensen's P1 Audi. Dumas took the checkers, provisionally 12.979 seconds ahead of Fernandez.
"We were on the lead lap and thinking, 'Why not win?' Dumas said. "Today was just exceptional and I think the season will be. It will be very difficult to win so many races overall, I'm quite sure about that. Today was something special."
Dumas even overcame challenges of his own. The Frenchman injured his knee during last month's Porsche fitness camp and said he worried on going the distance.
"It's a very, very big result for us," he said. "For myself, a few weeks ago I had a small problem and wasn't sure a week ago about running in the race. My plan was to run 25 laps to score points. But when you have great teammates going for the overall win, those plans can change."
After falling victim to reliability woes the past two years, Porsche can now check off that its RS Spyder has won the Series' iconic event. The car has now also won (in class) on all American Le Mans Series venues.
"In the end we proved that the Spyder is not just quick but also strong and reliable," Bernhard said. "Doing one quick lap is one thing but being in traffic is completely another. Sebring is the hardest race I've ever driven with the dusty track, wind and rain from yesterday. With these changing conditions, you have to find a good setup and we did a really good job of that."
The trio completed 351 laps, about 1,300 miles. But the sister No. 6 entry of Sascha Maassen, Patrick Long and Ryan Briscoe dropped out in hour two due to overheating.
"The key today is that we ran without a problem," Collard said. "That's why we won this race. I think it was bad luck for the No. 6 car, but we were just focused on our race and did what we needed to do."
News broke late Saturday that the second-place Lowe's Fernandez Acura has been excluded from the results because of failing the post-race stall test.
"By the rules, each class of engine has an air restrictor mandated by ALMS and only air that passes through this restrictor may be utilized by the engine," explains Tom Anderson, team co-owner and managing director. "The rules require that if a plug were to be inserted into this restrictor, the engine would shut off if running or not start at all.
"The Acura engine in the No. 15 Lowe's ARX passed the "plug" test performed by HPD prior to the start of the race. However, when the test was performed by ALMS officials after the race, the engine did not shut off thereby disqualifying the car.
"It has been found that the carbon fiber air intake system which holds the restrictor had broken sometime during the 12-hour rough ride around the Sebring circuit resulting in a leak which allowed the engine to continue to run when the plug was installed."
The exclusion elevated the No. 20 Dyson Racing Porsche of Leitzinger, Lally and Marino Franchitti to second overall. They battled late-race power steering issues to finish five seconds ahead of the P1 class winner, which is now classified in third.
While Porsche enjoyed a 1-2-3 finish in P2, Audi suffered miserable luck in terms of reliability. The No. 2 car of Marco Werner, Lucas Luhr and Mike Rockenfeller had turbo problems, and Rockenfeller damaged the rear undertray in an off-course excursion. The No. 1 car fared better, but fought all race to make up lost time. In the first hour, Rinaldo "Dindo" Capello made contact with a GT2 Porsche, resulting in a penalty. The IMSA race director issued further infractions via a statement from the stewards during the race.
"I really did not enjoy to drive today because every time I got in the car I had some problem, starting with the contact with the GT2 car," Capello explained. "It was something I didn't expect. At Turn 1, the Flying Lizard car did not see me and it was my mistake moving over too soon."
Capello was also behind the wheel when the team changed the pushrod, resulting in more delays. He, Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen soldiered home to a third place overall result, first in P1. Kristensen made up even more ground towards the end of the race, getting the car on the lead lap. But his only way to challenge Dumas would have been if the caution flew to equalize the field.
"We had these issues and we had to deal with them under green, which was very tough," Kristensen said. "Allan brought the car back from three laps down to two laps down. I went in the car one lap down and of course we really went for it. We needed something yellow, and not the yellow car. We needed a yellow flag to help us but it didn't come."
This race possibly marks McNish and Capello's one and only ALMS start of the year, as the duo will focus on the European-based Le Mans Series program, as well as the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The two-time defending series champions said they will miss the atmosphere in America.
"At the end of the day, the competition is strong here and in Europe," McNish said. "I think we'll have a big hard fight. That's why I get up in the morning: to go racing and have good competition. Dindo and I have had a really good time racing in America and we'll miss it."
Dyson Racing's No. 16 Porsche of Guy Smith and Chris Dyson finished fourth overall, third in P2. The No. 9 Highcroft Racing Acura of David Brabham, Scott Sharp and Stefan Johansson came home fifth, with the No. 2 Audi taking sixth, second in class.
Horag Racing debuted its new Porsche RS Spyder and had a solid effort in seventh, while Intersport Racing notched a ninth place overall result, third in P1 with its E85-powered Lola
Peugeot made instant impressions on the race, leading the early laps. But the diesel-powered French coupe suffered hydraulic issues early on, dropping 25 laps behind. The No. 07 machine of Stephane Sarrazin, Pedro Lamy and Nicolas Minassian were further delayed late in the race with a wheel bearing failure and an air intake leak. The trio rebounded to finish 11th overall, fourth in P1.
"The purpose of this race was to see how the car performed over such a long distance and to work on the reliability of certain technical solutions," Michel Barge, Peugeot Sport director said. " At the end of the 12 hours, the global result was positive. We posted some excellent, consistent lap times and put the pressure on our main rivals, but we do not lose sight of the fact that we still have a great deal of work to do. Last but not least, the heat made it a first class practice run for the team."
Andretti Green Racing was also in impressive form for much of the race, especially when 21-year-old Marco Andretti was behind the weel. Running in contention for two-thirds of the race, the Acura retired with overheating issues in the final hour.
Corvette Racing scored another 1-2 finish in LM GT1, with the No. 3 car of Jan Magnussen, Johnny O'Connell and Ron Fellows taking the win. The trio completed a relatively uneventful race after the sister No. 4 machine of Olivier Beretta, Oliver Gavin and Max Papis was delayed because of a broken half shaft. They recovered to finish eight laps behind the class winners.
With the win, O'Connell becomes the all-time leader in race wins at Sebring with seven victories, beating racing legend Phil Hill.
"It's huge," O'Connell said. "When I grew up, I had a lot of heroes. When you have some success you start to meet some of them. I've you ever had the chance to meet Phil Hill, he is everything good and proper about motorsports. He was what was wonderful about that era."
Fellows, who is back as the team's third driver for the endurance races for 2008, is happy to finally land back in victory lane. The No. 3 car suffered horrible luck last season and the Canadian was glad to help elevate Magnussen and O'Connell to an early points lead.
"Doug Fehan calls Sebring our 'Bermuda Triangle'," Fellows said. "It was one of those places that Corvette Racing was the last to win. We had some unfinished business. We had a really strong car at Road Atlanta and had some bad luck with Jan... All three of us feel that this is a great way to start. Le Mans is the next big prize we're going to shoot for."
The Bell Motorsports Aston Martin finished 16th overall and 29 laps behind the winning Corvette. The independent team hopes to get closer to the factory entries in future races.
In LM GT2, Flying Lizard Motorsports prevailed with the class win, securing a 1-2 finish for the Porsche team. Jorg Bergmeister, Wolf Henzler and Marc Lieb drove to a three-lap lead over its sister 911 GT3 RSR of Darren Law, Seth Neiman and Alex Davison.
"To win this race after the last two disappointing seasons, it makes me very happy," Lieb said. "The Lizards really deserve this victory because they have worked so hard over the years."
The team took advantage of the two class leading cars falling out of the race early. During the fourth hour, the then-class leading No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari of Jamie Melo drove into the second-placed Farnbacher Loles Porsche of Dirk Werner. The two leading cars retired, and Melo apologized for his mistake. This incident opened the door for the No. 45 car to cruise to victory.
"We had a really good day today," Henzler said. "The team did a fantastic job with first and second. It was an awesome day. After six hours the Ferrari hit the 87 Porsche, our main competitors were out of the race. We decided to take it a little bit easier and bring the car home. I want to say thank you to the team and Jorg and Marc. I'm really looking forward to driving the car for the rest of the season."
Bergmeister admitted that it was hard to concentrate once the Risi Ferrari and Farnbacher Loles Porsche dropped out of the race.
"The big competitors we had for this year had a lot of bad luck and zero points," he said. "So that makes for a nice cushion. I was pretty amazed... It was actually a little boring in the car! You just had to run your pace and try to stay on the track and take care of the car as good you can."
Risi Competizione's No. 61 Ferrari, run in conjunction with Krohn Racing, finished third in class. They inherited the position late in the race when the VICI Racing Porsche had power steering and half shaft failure, which finished sixth.
After a two-week break, it's off to the season's first street course event, the Acura Sports Car Challenge of St. Petersburg on April 4-5.