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Bourdais Spins, Rival Peugeot Wins at Sebring

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 21 2010

Peugeot beat Peugeot during a wild 12 hours at Sebring on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

Sebring, Fla. – It was fitting that an armadillo ambled onto the track shortly after sunset during the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring – and then safely made it to the other side of the wide expanse of concrete at Turn 17. This was one wacky race, although typical of the difficult conditions that often prevail at the bumpy  3.7-mile circuit comprised in part of old airport runways.

After a relatively drama-free day, the No. 08 Peugeot 908 HDi entry lost a shot at the overall victory in the night when Sebastien Bourdais suffered a 360-degree spin while exiting the pits following his final pit stop. That gave the leading sister Peugeot driven by Alexander Wurz, Marc Gene and Anthony Davidson a 20-second cushion with 40 minutes remaining and the LMP1 class victory.

“This just shows there are no team orders,” said Davidson of the duel between the two Peugeots that lasted throughout the race. “I got some text messages from back home (in Britain) that said, ‘You guys aren’t really racing.’ Believe me, I’ve got the aches and pains to show that we really were.”

“We had two Peugeots and we pushed like crazy inside the team,” said Wurz. “The strategy people had smoke coming out of their ears, because it was three seconds between us at the last pit stop. We pushed each other for the entire race. It shows that this is the best test for (the) Le Mans (24-hour).”

It was a day and night when the much anticipated competition for GT2 class laurels among factory entries was also decided by typically unusual Sebring twists. The two Corvettes collided into one another, Ferraris teammates also collided, and a contending Porsche was taken out when a disengaged wheel from another Porsche crashed into its rear fender. The brace of BMW entries, meanwhile, were gerrymandered out of the lead lap by confusion during a safety car period.

All this occurred shortly before the Extreme Speed Motorsports Ferrari caught fire in the 10th hour. Although driver Scott Sharp escaped injury, his new team’s 430 GT was extensively burned at the rear.

The only-at-Sebring drama in the GT2 class began in the third hour, when the Corvette ZR1 entries of Pratt & Miller took one another out of contention when they collided in the pits. The collision resulted when Antonio Garcia was waved out of his stall just as the sister Corvette arrived. “Sebring is our Bermuda Triangle,” said team manager Doug Fehan, whose cars finished 11 laps behind the class leader. “For us if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen at Sebring.”

The GT2 class race took a really bizarre turn early in the eighth hour during a full-course yellow flag brought out by the disengaged wheel off the Porsche of Team Falken Tire. It was the second problem for the team, whose driver Wolf Henzler had earlier had lost a wheel.

The standard procedure under full-course cautions is for the safety car to pick up the first class leader. That prevents any of the class leaders from gaining a lap on the field. But when LMPC class leader Christophe Bouchut inadvertently passed the safety car, the ensuing confusion enabled the Risi Competizione Ferrari to gain almost a full lap on the two BMW’s of Rahal Letterman Racing.

“I think if we had put on some different tires then we might have given (the Ferrari) some competition,” said Bill Auberlen of the scuttled duel. “But they were the class of the field the entire race and we would have really had to take the race too them.”

After getting hit by the disengaged wheel from the Falken Porsche, meanwhile, the second-placed Flying Lizard team was forced to enter pits closed at the outset of the safety car period. The rules prevented the Lizard team from working on its car until the pits were officially opened. But the confusion under the yellow meant the Lizard Porsche spent three laps waiting for the pits to open — which only then enabled the team to begin work on its damaged rear fender and wheel.

Before the incident with the flying wheel, the Porsche driven by Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Long and Marc Lieb was nose-to-tail with the leading No. 62 Ferrari of Risi. “I should have played the lottery today,” said Bergmeister, “because the chance of winning is greater than the chance that I would be hit by a wheel from (fellow factory driver) Wolf Henzler.”

As if that wasn’t enough drama, just ten minutes prior to this yellow period the No. 62 Risi Ferrari with Gianmaria Bruni was knocked off the track at the Turn 7 Hairpin by its sister Ferrari driven by Tracy Krohn, who had just left the pits. Bruni claimed it was the second contact between the two and Krohn said he simply didn’t see the other Risi car. “I think he was a little too aggressive passing people,” said Bruni.

In a lap by itself, the Risi Ferrari driven by Bruni, Jaime Melo and Pierre Kaffer – which had led from the second hour – played out the string to get the victory by one lap over the BMW M3 of Auberlen, Tom Milner, Jr. and Dirk Werner.

The one-two finish by the Peugeot Sport team – where Bourdais was joined by Nicolas Minassian and Pedro Lamy in the No. 08 car – completed a remarkable sweep of three major endurance races. The French team’s first victory in the 58th running of the 12-hour followed wins at the Le Mans 24-hour last June and the Petit Le Mans in September.

In the LMP2 class, the Patron Highcroft Racing Acura was leading by four laps in the ninth hour when an electrical problem cost the team eight laps for repairs in the pits. That put the Cytosports team’s Porsche RS Spyder of Greg Pickett, Klaus Graf and Sacha Maassen into the lead. “Endurance racing is that way,” said the 63-year-old Pickett, who previously scored a class victory at Sebring in 1969. “The race doesn’t always go to the swiftest.”

The third entry in LMP2, the Lola-Mazda of Dyson Racing, was forced behind the wall in the first hour to repair a faulty oil pump. It eventually finished third, 50 laps down, but ran enough laps to gain points for the season-long battle with Highcroft. “It’s a good start for us,” said Guy Smith, “because this place often isn’t very kind to our team.”

In the first race for the LMP Challenge class, the Level 5 Motorsports team of Christophe Bouchut, team owner Scott Tucker and Mark Wilkins took first, although it was four laps behind the winning GT2 entry.

The Alex Job Racing team of pole winner Leh Keen, Butch Leitzinger and Juan Gonzalez won the GT Challenge class by three laps.

When it was all over, winners and losers alike were philosophical. “I’m going to drink a lot of beer tonight,” said Leitzinger, who scored a win his first time out in a GT-class Porsche at Sebring after over a decade of fruitless pursuit of victory lane in Dyson Racing prototypes.

Fellow Porsche driver Henzler left Sebring behind with a shrug after finishing 76 laps behind the GT2 class winners in the Falken entry. “I guess my English is not that good,” said the German. “They told me to drive the wheels off it and that’s what I did.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 21 2010