Saturday's Twelve Hours of Sebring marks the first face-off of the year between the two diesel powerhouse teams in LM P1. Audi Sport North America and Peugeot Sport Total enter the season-opening American Le Mans Series round with two goals in...
Saturday's Twelve Hours of Sebring marks the first face-off of the year between the two diesel powerhouse teams in LM P1. Audi Sport North America and Peugeot Sport Total enter the season-opening American Le Mans Series round with two goals in mind: to prepare for the 24 Hours of Le Mans but also land in victory lane tomorrow evening.
Audi's past success at the historic 17-turn, 3.7-mile circuit speaks for itself. The German marquee has gone unbeaten in the last eight years, including wins with its R10 TDI in the past two. Peugeot, which debuted its 908 HDi FAP last season, swept all races in the European-based Le Mans Series, but lost to Audi at Le Mans. The French diesel now make its North American debut.
These two rivals will contest each other at least seven times this year, because of Audi's ramped up commitment in Europe. Both teams are first focused on winning Sebring, but also keeping a close eye on other potential challengers coming from LM P2.
"At this time, we are satisfied by practice and the different sessions we completed," Michel Barge, Peugeot Sport director said. "We are very disappointed by the qualifying since we thought we were very fast. But there is nothing we can do, so we have to accept it. What is important is the race."
Stephane Sarrazin posted the quickest lap in qualifying, but times were eliminated and the grid was set on practice speeds because of an accident. Barge said he believed Sarrazin could have achieved even more speed out of the car. The reverted times handed Audi's Allan McNish the first starting position for the race.
"The Peugeot we know is fast," McNish said. "We saw it last year at Le Mans, we saw it in the LMS, we saw in practice and they were faster than us in the time we had in qualifying. Ok, the way the session was annulled changed that. But certainly, they're there."
For the race though, McNish not only sees the single Peugeot as a challenger, but also the Porsche RS Spyders and Acuras in P2.
"The LM P2s, in terms of ultimate pace are not as consistent as us or Peugeot," McNish said. "However, if you look at the laps they've done in the long runs, they're fastest than what qualifying would suggest."
Peugeot driver Nicolas Minassian agrees: "I've been very impressed by LM P2s as well. They're very fast. I think I'm not only thinking about the Audi for the race tomorrow, but also the Porsche and Acuras. I think they have as much of a chance of winning as we have."
Both diesel prototypes have an 81-liter fuel tank, nine fewer liters than the gasoline-powered P1 or P2 cars. McNish thinks fuel consumption, coupled with the lighter and more nimble design of P2s help put them as factors for the race.
"Where [P2] will come into play is with strategy," McNish said. "With their 90-liter fuel tank and the weight of the car, they can probably do six laps longer than us on a tank of fuel. Which means over the course of the race if it's green all the way, three stops less. If that's the case, then the lap times it could run, they're in a really, really good position. Right now, it's a four-way battle."
Peugeot made clear intentions that it's here at Sebring to learn and develop its car. Barge reiterated the team's goals for the race.
"We came to Sebring to prepare for Le Mans and that's the main reason," Barge said. "If we can win, of course, we would take our chance to win if it's possible. But it's important to develop the car for this season."
One advantage a race brings over a test is that the car competes in real life conditions. Peugeot team manager Serge Saulnier says it's the best environment to speed development.
"You can do as many simulations as you want, but when you're alone, you're alone," Saulnier said. "You don't have traffic, you don't have rubber, you don't have race incidents, you don't have the safety car. It's different. The race is a race.
"Also at a race, the team is under pressure," Saulnier added. "It's good to see [the crew] work under pressure to see if everyone is right in this conditions. In terms of preparation for Le Mans, it's really the right thing."
While the team stresses that Sebring is targeted as a test, the chance to win is still very realistic. Peugeot has been the pacesetter all week, and Minassian says the only challenge so far has been tire wear.
"Most of it has been to make the car go good on the long stints," Minassian said. "It hasn't been performance, it's been making the tire last as long as possible. Michelin has come up with new tires. They've done a very good job. We made a good compound choice for the race."
Minassian thinks that they'll have to single-stint tires during the day, but possibly could double-stint in the evening hours. It's the same consensus at Audi, especially with very warm temperatures expected for race day.
"This track is so aggressive on the tire," McNish's co-driver Dindo Capello said. "When you are driving out of line, it's very easy to pick up some dust or dirt that makes the tire lose grip. Sometimes, it's probably not a good idea to double stint because once you lose the performance, you can lose a lot of time."
Capello predicts Audi's past success at Sebring could come into play as well: "We have a lot of experience at Sebring. The drivers, the team, and everybody have raced Sebring at least six, seven or eight times. That's what I hope will be the key of the race tomorrow."
Peugeot has entered only one car for Sebring because of lack of resources. Saulnier admitted that could turn into a disadvantage for the team in terms of strategy.
"With just one car, in terms of setup, tire choice and strategy, you cannot split the strategy," Saulnier said. "That's been the disadvantage with one car.
"It's true that the performance we did during the week makes us think it would be fantastic to win. But we have to keep our feet on the ground and race. We'll see, but certainly it will be difficult."