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Peugeot Looking Good At Sebring

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 20 2010

Saturday's race at Sebring got off to a crowded start. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

Sebring, Fla. – The high-tech cars are often considered the stars in sports car racing. Judging by a circuit packed with all manner of vehicles and fans on foot, the phenomenal Peugeot 908 HDi’s continue to draw a crowd despite the absence of Audi from the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring for the first time since 1999. But it was driver Emanuele Pirro who wowed the crowd in the opening hours by scything through traffic to move up to second place behind the leading Peugeot of Alexander Wurz.

Pirro, a winner at Sebring with Audi in 2007, used the traffic of GT class cars to move from fourth on the grid in Drayson Racing’s privateer Lola-Judd, passing Aston Martin Racing and the No. 08 Peugeot of Sebastien Bourdais. The ebullient Italian was clearly happy to be back in prototypes after a year off while working as an ambassador for Audi.

“I was really ready to retire, but I realized how much I missed this kind of racing,” said Pirro.

Cynics point out that the Peugeots tend to emit some black smoke from their diesel engines if they are on full power. None of the black stuff was sighted in the opening hours as the two French cars settled into steady pace on the 17-turn, 3.7-mile course, turning laps about two seconds off their qualifying times.

By the fifth hour, the No. 08 Peugeot of leader Nicolas Minassian had a one-lap lead over the No. 07 Peugeot of Anthony Davidson, which in turn had a one-lap lead over the Aston Martin Racing Lola of Harold Primat.

Anything can happen at the rough, fast and old airport circuit. But Peugeot’s preparation run for the 24-hours of Le Mans in June was going according to plan approaching the halfway point.

GT2 Is Tight: The pressure and competition in the GT2 category among the factory teams of BMW, Covette, Ferrari, Jaguar and Porsche was evident in the opening hours. The Pratt & Miller team, known for its organization and execution, had an early steering box problem with its Corvette ZR1 when a seal failed. Despite a quick repair, the No. 3 entry fell two laps behind the leaders.

Early in the third hour, a routine pit stop then went awry for Pratt & Miller when the No. 4 Corvette driver Emmanuel Collard broadsided the No. 3 Corvette of Antonio Garcia as the latter began to pull out of the team’s pit stalls. Garcia had just relieved Jan Magnussen and was mistakenly sent out as the No. 4 entered the team’s pit area.

“Sebring is our Bermuda Triangle,” said team manager Doug Fehan. “For us if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen at Sebring.”

With six other GT2’s on the lead lap, Fehan was not optimistic about the recovery of the Corvettes, which fell nine laps (No. 4) and 11 laps (No. 3) down, respectively. “Ideally you work as hard as you can and you come out of it a lot smarter.”

The Jaguar XKRS team of Paul Gentilozzi was joined during the Sebring weekend by Bill Riley of Riley Technologies in order to help sort out the new car’s chassis and handling. Riley and his father Bob are currently best known as the designers and manufacturers of the Riley chassis that have been dominating the Grand Am’s category for Daytona Prototypes.

Handling, it seems, was not the only problem facing the Jaguar team, which ran only one race at the conclusion of the 2009 season. The car suffered overheating problems in the first hour with team owner Paul Gentilozzi at the wheel and completed just 11 laps.

Trouble at Level 5: While rivalries are not unheard of in sports car racing, it usually doesn’t occur within a team. But Ryan Hunter-Reay had some harsh words for Level 5 Motorsports teammate Christophe Bouchut after an opening double-stint.

“Bouchut is a moron,” said Hunter-Reay. “He almost ran me off the track out on the back (of the course). That’s pretty strange when it’s your teammate.”

After Friday’s close qualifying session, the two Level 5 drivers were running in a tight pack contesting the LMP Challenge lead in the opening hour, a contest that included former Sebring overall winner Andy Wallace and Gunnar Jeannette.

Morton’s Start: Every participant has a story to tell about drama, travail and/or triumph at Sebring. John Morton, who is second on the all-time list for starts at Sebring with 20, had an unusual first start at the Florida track.

Working as a gopher for the Carroll Shelby’s team in 1964, Morton’s primary responsibility was hauling tires to the old pits on the backside of the course to keep the five Shelby American Cobras supplied with rubber.

“There were five cars and nine drivers,” said Morton. “They figured one of the cars would have a problem so they could switch a driver from one car to another,” said Morton. “But none of the cars had a problem. They only had Ken Miles in the 427 Roadster, so when he needed relief they put me in that car. That was my first race as a professional driver – without a single lap of practice!”

Thirty years after his first start, Morton won over-all in the Nissan 300 ZX-Turbo in 1994. A member of Sebring’s Hall of Fame, Morton was present for the induction on Friday of Hurley Haywood, the all-time leader in starts at the circuit with 28.

A similar version of Morton’s story occurred in 1984 – with a twist.

Due to a plane flight delays, Stefan Johansson and Hans Heyer arrived at the track after the morning warm-up for the 1984 race without either driver having turned a single lap at Sebring. Johansson started the race in the Porsche 935 entry prepared by Reinhold Joest and entered by Colombian flower magnate Mauricio DeNarvaez.

“The first time I had been around the track was on the parade lap,” said Johansson, who was also driving a  rudimentary but very powerful 935 twin turbo for the first time. Johansson, Heyer and DeNarvaez ended up winning by two laps!

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 20 2010