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FUMES #437

March 19, 2008

Publisher's Note: I'm at the New York International Auto Show this week so we asked A.J. Morning, our East Coast motorsports correspondent, to file a report from the 12 Hours of Sebring. "Fumes" will return next week. - PMD


The only constant is change.

By A. J. Morning

Sebring, FL. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is credited with having said that. Isaac Asimov repeated it years later. And last Saturday, while the perennially-favored Audi and dark-horse Peugeot teams were suffering mechanical issues, Porsche took full advantage of that constant and rode it to their first endurance race victory in the American Le Mans Series – and their first Sebring win since 1988.

The same Porsche team took the overall win several times in 2007, but only during shorter races. Audi reigned supreme when it came to the long-distance endurance run.

Not anymore.

At this point, there is little sense in defining the Penske Porsche RS Spyder team (or that of Dyson Racing) as P2, or the Audi R10 TDI and Peugeot 908 HDi as P1. In the ALMS, starting last year and making itself absolutely clear over this weekend, the lines that used to separate those two classes are effectively blurred beyond recognition. While the P1/P2 designations remain in place for what amount to political reasons, the timing and scoring screen tells another story. The top three finishers overall were P2 cars, at least until Adrian Fernandez’ Acura was disqualified following a post-race inspection. Even after the #15 Lowe’s Acura failed the stall test, four of the top five overall spots were taken by P2 entries.

Without diminishing the fantastic run by the #7 DHL-sponsored Porsche, however, there were mitigating factors. The #1 Audi finished 67 seconds behind the winning Porsche, after having spent ten minutes in the pits earlier on. Brake issues, plus a stop-and-go penalty in the pits for taking out the #46 Porsche, cost Audi what would have likely been an astounding ninth straight win. While the team from Audi Sport North America celebrated a class win in P1, there was no masking their disappointment at losing the overall.

At a track as tough as Sebring – and let there be no doubt, few tracks on Earth present the challenges known to drivers here – the win goes to those teams that most effectively anticipate and respond to the aforementioned constant, change.

At the beginning of the race, the sky was clear, the sun’s heat was strong, and the track was hot. Naturally, as the day wears on and darkness falls, the track conditions change. Grip diminishes. The setting sun blinds drivers blasting wide-open down the Ullman Straight heading into Turn 17, and then disappears into darkness. The air becomes cool and dense. Acceleration, deceleration, and cornering loads take their toll on drivers and cars – as the brake engineer from Audi would certainly attest.

The flat, bump-ridden concrete span doesn't cut the driver any slack, and if one is lucky enough not to demolish the car when it goes off-course, you still end up shoveling half of the dirt in southern Florida as you limp back to the pits.

Some cars didn’t even get to start: The BK Motorsports Mazda (done up in some gorgeous new BP livery) crashed during qualifying – a wild ride through the air that saw the car land on top of the tire wall. This necessitated a halt in Prototype qualifying, during which the sanctioning body determined that the qualifying session (and the new lap records set in various classes) would be disallowed – teams would start the 12 Hours based on their practice times.

As one team guy told me earlier today, "this is the exact opposite of the Daytona 24 we just ran. Daytona was 24 hours of heaven. This is 12 hours of hell."

GT1 class offered little in the way of surprises, but was still long on talent and excitement: Johnny O’Connell, Jan Magnussen, and Ron Fellows scored the win in the #3 Corvette C6.R, fully eight laps ahead of teammates Olivier Beretta, Oliver Gavin, and Max Papis. With or without formidable competition, the two-car Corvette team is still one of the most fascinating to watch in all of motorsports. The cars are fast, louder than hell, look great (especially with the new graphics), and are always as uniquely American as it gets.

Just one class down, in GT2, the Flying Lizard Porsche of Marc Lieb, Wolf Henzler, and Jorg Bergmeister broke through for the team’s first Sebring win. The Lizards clearly had their program together, as they took the top two positions in GT2.

Further back in GT2, the #61 Risi Competizione Ferrari took the last spot on the podium, and the class saw the introduction of both the Ford GT and Dodge Viper Competition Coupe. The Ford looked great (depending on who you are), and sounded like a true American monster of steel, though it retired after 186 laps. The Dodge, on the other hand, was still in the game at the end, completing 295 laps. Both cars looked fantastic on the grid, and both show plenty of promise.

In its 56th running, this is still the greatest road race in North America . It’s some of the finest international diplomacy played out on tarmac. The French, the Germans, the Brits and the Italians, the Swiss and the Aussies, the Kiwis and the Scots, and us, the host Americans, all working it out at speed. It all comes together, and it all blends beautifully.

Somehow, we all just get along and have the best damn time in the world.

That’s it for now – I’ll see you at the next pit stop.


Publisher's Note: In our continuing series celebrating the "Golden Era" of American racing history, here is another image from the Ford Racing Archives. - PMD

(Ford Racing Archives)
Ontario, CA, 1971. A.J. Foyt drives the Wood Brothers' Purolator Mercury to victory in the 500-mile NASCAR race.