Audi vs Peugeot: Reflection on Sebring battle

12 Hours of Sebring Race Analysis: Audi vs. Peugeot The Battle of the LMP1 Diesel Giants in Detail At last year's Petit Le Mans, Allan McNish put his Audi R10 into the wall at Road Atlanta during the warm-up lap. He would start from the pit...

12 Hours of Sebring Race Analysis: Audi vs. Peugeot
The Battle of the LMP1 Diesel Giants in Detail

At last year's Petit Le Mans, Allan McNish put his Audi R10 into the wall at Road Atlanta during the warm-up lap. He would start from the pit lane, two laps down, and storm through the field to steal the win from Christian Klein and Team Peugeot. This time, Franck Montagny and the No. 8 Team Peugeot Total 908 HDi-FAP started from pit lane after the team frantically changed a power steering pump minutes before the green flag.

With 44 minutes remaining in the 57th Annual 12 Hours of Sebring, Peugeot's Montagny held a 14 second lead over Audi Sport Team Joest's McNish.

The early stages...

The 12 Hours of Sebring began with two brand new cars on the front row; the pole-sitting de Ferran Motorsports Acura ARX-02a and the Audi Sport Team Joest R15.

Scott Sharp, driving for Highcroft Racing in the new Acura commented, "We are a brand new car. There are two pieces on this car from the LMP2 car-the taillights! We've worked through a lot of reliability issues and this race is about endurance. With Audi being new, and a lot of reliability issues plaguing Peugeot last year, it's really up in the air."

Martin Rudmeyer, head of technical development for the R15, said, "The competition-Peugeot and Acura both-is very strong. We have tested in southern Europe but it was atypically cold and wet. It is 20 degrees warmer here in Sebring. Maybe we have to expect some surprises due to that."

The green flag fell on a warm mid-morning in central Florida and Allan McNish powered down the front straight, taking the lead from pole-sitter Gil de Ferren before Turn One. The No. 7 Peugeot of Pedro Lamy followed suit, slipping by de Ferran in Turn 17. After only four laps, the No. 8 Peugeot driven by Montagny, which started from the pit lane, had worked up to 8th overall.

The first round of pit stops revealed Peugeot's pit strategy of double- stinting the tires. This allowed Pedro Lamy in the No. 7 Peugeot to leapfrog the Audis of McNish and Mike Rockenfeller, who opted for fresh rubber, while Montagny jumped to fourth.

McNish regained the lead from Lamy toward the end of the stint in Turn 17, and Rockenfeller would make the pass in the same corner minutes later after the Peugeot was caught behind a slower GT car. "I tried to double-stint the tires and in the end I don't think we had the right pressure," said Lamy after handing off to Nicolas Minassian. That both Audis were able to overtake the Peugeot toward the end of the stint exposed the weakness in the French team's pit strategy.

Peugeot controls the afternoon...

Peugeot led 1-2 after Minassian gained a position on the No. 2 Audi now piloted by Rinaldo Capello during a pitstop, after a caution for a collision between David Brabham's LMP1 Acura and Andrea Robertson's Ford GT.

The No. 8 Peugeot of Stephane Sarrazin overtook Capello at the 2'16" mark, and Audi was relegated to positions 3 and 4 on the leaderboard.

Sebastien Bourdais took over from Sarrazin and inherited the lead from his teammate Klein, who spun at the hairpin nearly four hours in. The Audi of Tom Kristensen followed into second place, with Klein pressing on in third.

Audi's McNish makes his move; Montagny fights back...

Audi took the lead from Peugeot on lap 155 shortly before the 5-hour mark. Twenty laps earlier, race leader Bourdais violently hit a bump in the last turn, sending him into a spin. That allowed second place Kristensen to close the gap to 11 seconds. Audi's McNish took over driving duties from Kristensen one lap before Peugeot driver Bourdais deferred to Montagny. After a hard-charging out lap, McNish overtook Montagny, who was on cold tires. McNish had no trouble getting inside Montagny in Turn One, but was not able to pull away from the French coupe.

It wasn't long before Montagny stormed around Turn 17 and overtook McNish about ten minutes later going down the main straight, as both cars dove into Turn One. Only a few corners later, a lapped LMGT2 car caught Montagny with nowhere to go as he attempted a pass around the outside. McNish snuck to the inside of the Peugeot and darted back outside the GT car to reclaim the lead. Each pressed on with lap times below their qualifying times.

After 49 minutes, Montagny took the lead from McNish after each made a pit stop, continuing with the Peugeot strategy of double-stinting their Michelin tires, while Audi opted for fresh rubber with each stop. On lap 206, a mad dash for the pits saw driver changes for both Peugeot and Audi, with Sarrazin and Capello taking over from Montagny and McNish, respectively.

After his battle with Montagny, McNish told ALMS radio, "That was racing. That was real racing. It was a very good scrap with the Peugeot. We had to come from behind because we had changed tires, and I think I could have caught him at the end of the stint was it not for the yellow flag."

Acura drops behind, Peugeot suffers a/c failure...

The de Ferran Motorsports Acura ARX-02a, fourth overall in P1, remained on the lead lap for over five hours despite the pace shown by McNish and Montagny. Before the race, de Ferran Motorsports driver Simon Pagenaud commented, "Having three manufacturers fighting at the top is quite impressive. We put on a good lap in qualifying and are pretty consistent throughout a stint." The petrol-powered Acura did not show the straight-line speed of the diesels of Peugeot and Audi, nor did it have the reliability. The de Ferran Motorsports Acura finally dropped out of the race with a suspension failure and fuel leak in the ninth hour.

Shortly before the six and a half hour mark, Brabham spun the Patron Highcroft Racing Acura ARX-02a, bringing out a full course caution. Brabham's damaged Acura needed a rear wing element replacement and lost an unfortunate three laps to the race leaders before Scott Sharp rejoined the field. In the tenth hour, a gearbox failure would leave the new Acura stranded behind the pit wall.

On lap 135, the second Peugeot driven by Klein pulled into the pits after its air conditioning system failed. After falling 9 laps behind, the French team repaired the problem and Lamy brought the car back on track. The air conditioning unit is the only new part on the Peugeot 908, due to regulations requiring that the cockpit temperatures do not exceed 32o. Celsius. That is a problem that the open cockpit Audi R15 TDI will never suffer.

Audi takes a page out of Peugeot's playbook...

Ten minutes before the six-hour mark, race leader McNish brought his Audi into the pits, once again taking tires and handing the lead back to Montagny, who was able to open up a twenty second gap by double-stinting. With the Peugeot able to double-stint and temperatures falling as day turned to night, stickier Michelin rubber could be used, increasing their advantage over their diesel-powered rivals.

On the restart after the Brabham spin, Sarrazin nearly jumped the pace car, slowed slightly, then built back momentum and was able to hold the Audis of Capello and Lucas Luhr at bay.

By the next round of pit stops at the 7'35" mark, Sarrazin had opened up a gap of over 3 seconds over Capello. Once again, Peugeot exited the pits without a tire change, while the lead Audi opted for fresh Michelins. One lap later, interestingly, the second Audi of Luhr did not. "We are checking out how that works out," Audi's Ralf Juttler coolly told ALMS radio after the pit stop.

A lap later, Sarrazin held a 13 second lead over Luhr and was 20 seconds clear of Capello. The tire experiment didn't give Audi the results they were hoping for, as Capello passed Luhr 6 laps later. On his new tires, he would also close the gap to Sarrazin and was on the Frenchman's heels and at the 8'21" mark. At the end of the stint, Capello was able to outbrake Sarrazin going into the inside of the hairpin. Before the end of the lap, Capello would dive into the pits for a driver change and Kristensen took the wheel of the Audi R15. One lap later, Sarrazin would yield the controls of his Peugeot 908 to Bourdais. The long Peugeot pit stop would give Kristensen the overall lead.

Darkness falls on Peugeot...

Shortly before sunset, a slow puncture in the right rear of the No. 08 Peugeot led to an unscheduled pit stop for Bourdais, who emerged 45 seconds arrears of Kristensen and third overall.

With two hours to go, Kristensen held a 44 second lead over Bourdais. Yet Audi would most likely need to make one more pit stop than Peugeot to make it to the end. Kristensen would pull the new R15 into the pits, and McNish took the reins in "Seek and Destroy" mode.

Bourdais inherited the lead, 35 seconds clear of McNish. The Formula One regular for Scuderia Toro Rosso extended his lead to 45 seconds when he set a new fastest lap of 1:43.274 on lap 331. The end of his stint was classic F1 driving as the bespectacled Frenchman became increasingly faster as he burned off the last of his fuel.

Said Bourdais, "For sure that puncture set us back. When the night set in, the GT cars put some dirt on the track. At the end of the stint the car was responding very well. The car was really fantastic."

Flashback to Petit Le Mans...

Peugeot could not beat Audi at Road Atlanta due to the superior race strategy of Audi Sport North America's technical director Brad Kettler. The numerous caution periods allowed Audi to regain their two lost laps by staying out and gaining the wave around. McNish closed in on the hapless Klien and found the opportunity to pass when the Peugeot was caught behind slower traffic mid-corner. McNish then challenged Klien's resolve, running the Peugeot into the dirt down the backstraight. With his left side tires dirtied from the excursion, Klien could not gain on the Audi, and McNish ran away with the victory.

The German Audi Sport Team Joest, rather than Kettler's Champion Racing, heads the racing efforts for Audi in Sebring. But when the Joest engineer for the No. 2 car fell ill, Kettler filled in as the race engineer. It was not a happy coincidence for Team Peugeot Total.

The final hour...

Bright white lights appear in the distance. Crew members peer over the pit wall with their knuckles bearing down on the concrete in steadfast anticipation. The lights draw near and a choreographed hell breaks loose. Tires are changed-Left front and right rear, and air hoses fly, and right front and left rear. A door swings upward and a current Formula One driver scrambles out and a former climbs in. The fuel flows and a photographer's flash freezes time. Finally the motor fires and Montagny launches the blue rocket off the pad. He exits the pits behind McNish! He goes off in the hairpin on cold tires! He loses precious seconds!

McNish pulls into the pits with an hour remaining and Montagny inherits the lead 21 seconds clear of the flying Scotsman. With 44 minutes remaining, the Peugeot pits for fuel only. The team brought the tires out but didn't put them on.

McNish takes the lead back with 36 seconds to spare...
...But he would need to stop once more for fuel.

"Audi have just won the race right there," says the radio commentator, in response to Peugeot's decision to save time and double-stint the last set of tires. Speculation ran rampart in the pressroom. With 37 minutes to go, the Audi folks said it's going to be close. The commentators declare that McNish needs a 50 second lead to maintain the lead after he pits. Audi says he needs 46.

With 30 minutes to go, McNish holds a 43 second lead. No one can sit down. The pressroom monitor cuts to a Peugeot coasting to a stop in the middle of the track.

But wait! It's Lamy in the other Peugeot. He's in turn seven, where the track extends far past the hairpin corner used by ALMS. There will be no yellow.

With twenty minutes to go, Montagny's teammate Sarrazin tells XM radio, "We lost one minute with the puncture. We are not in the lead so it is difficult, but we hope. Everybody pushed a lot but with traffic and old tires. It will be very very close"

Victory again...

As the race wound down, the tires on the Peugeot started to fade. Montagny's lap times slipped from the 44s to the 48s. The differential grew to 1:04 with 14 minutes to go as McNish dove into the pits. The gap was insurmountable. McNish emerged 25 seconds ahead. He held on to win by 22 seconds after traveling a race record 1,417 miles.

Bourdais lamented, "McNish just killed us. We were quite a bit quicker than the Audi when I was on the track, but he just got quicker and quicker. He seems to be on another planet."

After the race, Peugeot Sport Director Olivier Quesnel confessed, "We were quite close to the Audi and I think if we didn't get the puncture, it would have been quite close. Maybe not on the good side, but it would have been quite close."

The rivals will meet again for a showdown in the June classic, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

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About this article
Series ALMS
Drivers David Brabham , Rinaldo Capello , Tom Kristensen , Allan McNish , Franck Montagny , Scott Sharp , Gil de Ferran , Nicolas Minassian , Stéphane Sarrazin , Pedro Lamy , Lucas Luhr , Sébastien Bourdais , Mike Rockenfeller , Simon Pagenaud , Andrea Robertson , Olivier Quesnel
Teams Toro Rosso , Audi Sport Team Joest