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Newbie Gene Wins Sebring Pole

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 19 2010

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Sebring, Fla. – A rookie to the prototype division of the American Le Mans Series won the pole at Sebring for the veteran Peugeot Sport team. Marc Gene, a veteran of Formula One and a winner at the Le Mans 24-hour last year, said the track at Sebring would shock most F1 drivers due to its speed and lack of runoff area. But that didn’t slow him down on a lap where he averaged 126.599 mph in the diesel-fueled Peugeot 908 HDi FAP.

“If the Formula One guys were here, their hair would be (standing on end),” said the Spaniard of the high cornering speeds on the 3.7-mile airport circuit afforded by the full-bodied prototypes.

Despite being at Sebring for the first time, Gene said the decision of who would qualify at was decided long before the season’s first race at Peugeot Sport’s headquarters near Paris. He will share the No. 07 entry with two other veterans of F1: Alexander Wurz, who has raced once at Sebring and co-drove to the Le Mans victory last year with Gene, and another rookie to the Florida race, Anthony Davidson.

After a reduction in the air restrictor for the 2010 season, Gene’s lap of 1:45.214 fell just short of the lap record (1:44.974) set by Marco Werner in the Audi R10 TDI. The Peugeot team has tried to compensate for this year’s smaller air inlet dictated by the rulebook for the Le Mans 24-hour by improving the engine’s efficiency for air intake and limiting its parasitic drag. For the straights, the Peugeot has been further trimmed out for top speed.

Nicolas Minassian (1:45.841) drove the No. 08 Peugeot to the other front row starting position. The Frenchman has driven for Peugeot Sport at Sebring in each of the last two years, which proved fruitless for the French team. It is still looking for its first victory at Sebring after being beaten by Audi Sport to the victory laurels last year in a race-long fight. The Peugeots ran into reliability issues in 2008.

The Aston Martin Racing entry, featuring a Lola-built prototype powered by a V-12 Aston Martin engine, was third in qualifying in the hands of Sefan Mucke, an endurance racing veteran who is also a rookie at Sebring.

The race for the overall victory is expected to be contested by the top three teams on the grid, although finishing the 12 hours on the rugged Sebring course is never a given. Driving a Lola B09-Judd, Lord Paul Drayson became the second team owner/driver to find the wall in practice. But the damage was repaired by the Drayson Racing team. Former Audi works driver Emanuelle Pirro, a late addition to the line-up, qualified the Lola at 1:46.460.

In the LMP2 class, Marino Franchitti was assigned qualifying by a Highcroft Racing team where veteran speedsters David Brabham and Simon Pagenaud will share the Acura ARX-01c. Franchitti responded with a class pole lap of 1:47.684. That edged the Porsche RS Spyder of Klaus Graf (1:47.738) in the Muscle Milk machine. The third LMP2 entry of Dyson Racing clocked 1:47.782 in the hands of Guy Smith.

“We haven’t quite got the balance right,” said Franchitti, who had a spin late in the session. “We’ll tweak it and get it done before tomorrow.”

In the fierce dispute for the pole in GT2, the Dunlop-shod BMW M3 of Dirk Mueller (2:00.782) emerged with the fastest lap after nine entries were faster than the previous track record for the class (2:02.439). But Mueller’s time was disallowed when the BMW failed the post-qualifying stall test used to check the air restrictor, meaning his car will have to go to the back of the grid.

The speeds resulted in no small part from a tire war in the class where four manufacturers are competing. The next quickest in GT2, the Michelin-shod Porsche GT3 RSR of Joerg Bergmeister, was elevated to the class pole.

One of the keys to the race will be tire wear as the conditions change during the day-long race in warmer temperatures compared to the clear and sunny qualifying session.

In the LMP Challenge class, Gunnar Jeannette (1: 55.279) of Green Earth Technology Gunnar edged Ryan Hunter-Reay for the top spot late in the qualifying session. Leh Keen (2:05.599) won the pole for the GT Challenge class in the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car of Alex Job Racing.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday. com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 19 2010
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