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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Sebring was a different race than expected

by Gordon Kirby
This year's 56th running of the Sebring 12 hous was billed as a Le Mans preview centered on the dueling turbo diesels from Audi and Peugeot. The race was supposed to be all about a titanic struggle between the two factory teams from Germany and France, but both Audi R10s and the lone Peugeot 908 ran into unexpected troubles as the Penske/Porsche team came through to score the first outright Sebring win for Porsche in twenty years and Penske Racing's first win in the endurance classic. It also meant Penske becomes the first team owner to win both the Daytona 500 and Sebring 12 hours in the same year and the first team owner able to boast of wins at Indianapolis, Daytona and Sebring.

Victory came the way of the Penske/Porsche combination because car, team and drivers Romain Dumas, Timo Bernhard and Emmanuel Collard ran a faultless race with zero problems or mistakes. That's what it takes to win any race of course--long-distance races in particular--and the nature of the beast was emphasized the early retirement at Sebring of the second Penske Porsche RS Spyder with overheating problems.

In the end, Dumas/Bernhard/Collard beat Adrian Fernandez/Luis Diaz's Acura ARX-01B and the first of Rob Dyson's Porsches driven by Marino Franchitti/Butch Leitzinger/Andy Lally. Finishing on the lead lap in fourth place was the first of the Audi R10s driven by Dindo Capello/Alan McNish/Tom Kristensen which came back from time lost to an unplanned change of brake pads and discs, and also having to replace a bent suspension pushrod. Meanwhile, the second Audi R10 made it home eighteen laps down in seventh place after changing a turbocharger. Thus did Audi's eight-year Sebring winning streak come to an end. And the single factory Peugeot 908 ran into oil pump and hydraulics problems after setting the early pace. The Peugeot eventually finished twelfth.

Audi confirmed at Sebring that it will compete this year in both the European Le Mans Series and the ALMS. The factory Audi R10s and drivers will race in Europe this year while the Joest and Champion teams will run Audi's cars in the American series. This decision means that Sebring was the final race in the United States for Audi's factory team and its drivers so it was interesting last weekend to discuss the development of the turbo diesel R10 and the increased competition from Porsche and Acura with the departing Alan McNish who has built a popular following in America with his fast driving and good-humored commentaries on racing and life.

McNish drove a superb double-stint late in Saturday night at Sebring to get back onto the lead lap after the long stop changes the brakes. Normally, even over twenty-four hours at Le Mans, Audi doesn't change brakes on its R10s and McNish was mystified about the cause. "Maybe we got some garbage in the cooling ducts," he guessed. "I really have no idea. But when I saw them start to dig into changing the discs, I knew our chances of winning had gone."

Before the race, McNish reckoned the Penske Porsches were serious dark horses to win the 12 hours. "We saw Penske and Porsche step up last year and raise the bar, and Acura had to follow," McNish remarked. "Porshe improved their downforce from last year and between that and their fuel advantage, they will be very hard to beat. The Porsches are good in every situation.

"We already had the bar at a pretty high level and now the last shake of the dice is about pitstops and strategy. It's not so much about how quick the car is but on everybody thinking at the right time and getting their focus right and doing the job one hundred percent. You can't leave anything unturned.

"The Porsches are a little slower than us in qualifying but their race pace is very similar to ours," he added. "Also, the LMP2 cars' fuel capacity mean they can run longer than us on a tank of fuel which can add up to three pitstops less over the course of a twelve-hour race. So that's a lot of advantage in their pocket."

McNish says he knew from the first time he drove the turbo diesel R10 two years ago that he had a very potent package in his hands. "It was quite exciting when it started because nobody had done it and we had to find out whether we were good enough, or not," McNish commented. "I drove the car for the first time when we came to Sebring in 2006 and my second lap was pretty much on a good R8 time. Right away, I knew we had something that was a developable package and I would say now, two years down the line, we've got a pretty good understanding of what the chassis requires and where we need to improve, and what the engine requires.

"We've done a lot of work with driveability. We've got traction control on the car now. We had it on the car last year and that was a big thing because how do you make a traction control system for a diesel? No-one had ever done it before. You can't do it with spark retard. How do you do it and which parameters do you utilise? It's a constant evolutuion and we're still going forward but we're now coming up to the boundaries."

McNish said it took a little while from him and his teammates to get used to the physical nature of racing a car without any exhaust note. "It's past tense for us now," McNish remarked. "When we first started you couldn't hear the engine. At 120 mph the airflow over your helmet was noisier than the engine note out of the exhaust system and that meant downshifting was a problem.

"In very high-speed corners, for example, you would brake and make the first two downshifts, but you didn't know that it had gone in because it was a very smooth downshift but you didn't hear the engine revving-up. So a lot of time was spent looking at the data display going into the apex of a corner to see if you had actually gone into the gear you wanted.

"But we've got used to that now and we've also as drivers adapted to how the car brakes, the way the engine brakes and the way the power delivery comes on. We've changed our driving lines a litle bit, partly due to the weight and the weight distribution of the car, and also partly due to the power delivery. We've given a list of desires to the engine department and they've come back and told us what they can do to try and improve it.

"Another thing is that the Michelins are always evolving because they had never built a tire to do 24 hours and 330 kilometers per hour and all the torque and load that's going through the tire. So altogether we knew we had something that was pretty potent but we didn't really know what to do with it. Now we know what to do with it and we can tune it. But it's been quite a long process."

McNish readily admits to the difficulties of racing the R10 on street circuits and short, tight race tracks. "Certain circuits like Long Beach were quite tough for us in terms of lap time, no question," he commented. "Trying to get that size of car 'round the hairpin at Long Beach is much more difficult than getting an LMP2 car through there. We've definitely made the car better and more raceable last year. We proved we can do it on a variety of types of tracks and in different conditions as well because we've won in the wet. But it's much harder because we haven't got the width and the adaptability that the LMP2 cars have."

The Scotsman also talked about the many differences between Sebring and Le Mans. "Sebring is different than Le Mans in many ways," McNish observed. "You've got to know your strategy and how to use the yellow flags, and you've got know the evolution of the circuit and what the right tire choices are for the right time and conditions. And you've got to know the cars that are good and the cars that are not good, and the drivers who are good and those who are not so experienced that you've got to watch out for.

"The other thing is the circuit at Sebring is always changing and evolving because it picks up sand when it's windy and that blows across the track. That means that turns three and seven and ten and thirteen are really, really slippery. So you can easily brake too late, slide out of line, or miss your apex."

McNish discussed driving through the notoriously fast and dark backside of the Sebring track. "Turns thirteen and fourteen are flat-out in top-gear and you've got to get to your apex," he observed. "If you miss your apex you really struggle because you're then out of sequence for the next part and you lose it all the way down the straight. When you get to turn fifteen, you're braking into the corner but that section of the circuit is extremely dark and you go through some contrasts where you've got either the lights from the grandstands or some of the motorhomes out the back shining through the pitch dark. And that's hard for the eyes to suddenly acclimatize to.

"Also, the rubber line becomes very narrow halfway through the race and you can easily get out onto the part of the track filled with tire pick-up and have a grassy excursion that you don't want."

McNish is looking forward to competing this year in the European Le Mans Series. "In my opinion, you've got to focus on one thing and LMS is a big challenge," he said. "Oreca have a new update kit out for the aero on the Courage and Hughes de Chaunac has done it before plenty of times. They're pretty confident that they've made a step forward and I think we've got our hands full over there with Peugeot and Oreca and Pescarolo. I think we're going to have a big, hard fight."

Few lessons were learned from Sebring about how the Audi and Peugeot turbo diesels will stack up at Le Mans this year. "I think the Peugeot is faster than us over one lap," McNish remarked. "But can they string together twelve hours of laps, like we can do? They had pole position at Le Mans last year but they had a fluctuating pace through the race, and we didn't. But I'm pretty sure they've learned a lesson from that."

McNish also believes Peugeot will enjoy some benefit from having a closed car versus Audi's open cockpit. "I would say it's pretty apparent with the regulations we have now that a closed car will do the job," McNish said. "A closed car produces very good downforce and they've also got good tire life. It's not like the old days when it was a bit more of a toss-up. The negative is that it can get pretty hot inside by the looks of the Peugeot guys when they get out. Hopefully, that will be a plus for us."

As Audi focuses its factory racing efforts with its R10 on Europe this year, it will be interesting to see if the Penske Porsche RS Spyders will continue their winning ways in the American Le Mans Series. After winning eight races last year and Sebring for the first time in twenty years, has Porsche replaced Audi as the new standard-setter for the ALMS?

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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