Sebring: Champion Racing preview

Champion Racing aims for elusive maiden ALMS win in own "backyard" Team ADT Champion Racing has an added incentive for winning the opening round of the American Le Mans Series at Sebring on Saturday (15 March). Champion Racing, of Pompano Beach,...

Champion Racing aims for elusive maiden ALMS win in own "backyard"

Team ADT Champion Racing has an added incentive for winning the opening round of the American Le Mans Series at Sebring on Saturday (15 March). Champion Racing, of Pompano Beach, began its motorsport activities at the 3.77-mile Florida track almost 10 years ago and a maiden ALMS victory, achieved on "home soil" in one of the world's toughest and most prestigious endurance sportscar races, would be sweet reward for the burgeoning South Florida team.

Former Sebring race winners Stefan Johansson, JJ Lehto and Emanuele Pirro will bid for glory in the 51st 12 Hours of Sebring at the wheel of Champion Racing's updated 2002-specification Audi R8 - a type of car that has won the corresponding Sebring race for the past three years.

The ADT Champion Audi finished second in last year's gruelling Sebring race, one of seven top-three placings the well-drilled outfit achieved in the 10-race ALMS series, which comfortably earned them the IMSA Cup for "Privateer" teams.

For Team Owner Dave Maraj, victory in the historic Sebring race would taste sweet and justly reward his hard-working race team that has quickly gained worldwide recognition in motorsport circles.

"Champion Racing entered its first races at Daytona and Sebring in 1994 and so to achieve a top result would be a thrill," commented Mr Maraj. "We want to win every race but obviously a victory at Sebring would be very special.

"We've an excellent driver line-up and the Audi has been ultra-successful over the past three years but in a race lasting 12 hours, with a field of 60 cars including two similar Audis and two new Bentleys, means it's going to be very tough."

Monaco-based Lehto (37), of Finland, won the Sebring race outright in 1999, and will drive for Team ADT Champion Racing in all 10-rounds of this year's ALMS. Having raced for BMW and Cadillac in recent seasons, JJ is relishing the prospect of his first season with Champion and of driving an Audi.

"We're up against two other Audi R8s, both in a similar 2002-specification configuration, so we're level in terms of Audi equipment," confirmed Lehto. "I was really impressed with the Audi R8 when I drove it for the first time last month. The grip level is amazing, the engine strong and responsive - it's the total package. I've spent the last couple of years trying to chase the Audis but now I'm in one, the others will have to do the chasing!"

Italy's 2000 Sebring winner Pirro (41) has driven for the "factory" Audi Sport team at Sebring since 1999 but with no "works" Audi team racing in 2003, the 2001 ALMS champion joins Champion for Sebring and the Le Mans 24 hours in June.

Emanuele commented: "I didn't get to test the car at Moroso with Stefan and JJ last month because I had to get back to Italy but having looked around Champion's raceshop, I returned to Europe knowing that the team's commitment is total. I won the Sebring race in 2000 and have finished second and fifth over the past two years but feel very confident we can be on the podium again."

Johansson (46) raced most of last season with Team ADT Champion Racing but as Team Principal of the new American Spirit Champcar team, the Swedish veteran will limit his Champion race program to Sebring, Le Mans and Atlanta.

"I think we've a great chance of victory especially now that all of the Audi R8s competing will start off on an equal footing in terms of specification," said Johansson, a Sebring winner in 1984 and '97. "Champion's driver combination is very strong and I'm really looking forward to Sebring which is one of my all-time favorite races."

Over 60 cars have entered the race which starts at 10.30am on Saturday with drivers from North and South America plus Europe. Like the Michelin-shod Champion Audi R8, sponsored for a second consecutive year by security service company ADT, most cars will have three drivers who will rotate stints during the grinding 12-hour endurance event.

-cr/audi-

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Series ALMS
Drivers Stefan Johansson , Dave Maraj , Emanuele Pirro , JJ Lehto