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Strong New Peugeot On Pole Versus Audi

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 18 2011

Peugeot is on the pole at Sebring. (Photos courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Sebring, Fla. – A new era of endurance racing began at America’s oldest road racing circuit with a new car on the pole for the 59th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

Driving a new Peugeot 908, Stephane Sarrazin beat the runner-up Audi, an “old” R15+ from last year, by a sizeable margin of 1.109 seconds to claim the pole for the factory Peugeot Sport team. The Peugeot, which turned a lap of 1:46.571 (124.987 mph) on the 3.7-mile circuit, was built according to the new specifications devised by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, hosts of the Le Mans 24-hour. Audi brought its car from last year, which has been grandfathered into the rules for this season.

“It was a hard week of work to try to balance the new car,” said Frenchman Sarrazin of the preparations for Saturday’s race. Sarrazin has been on the pole three straight years at Le Mans aboard a Peugeot but not previously at Sebring. In 2008, Sarrazin set the fastest lap in the qualifying session for the P1 class, but it was disallowed when a red flag prevented the session from going the full distance.

“I did a good lap without a mistake,” said Sarrazin. “The car was really good and that gave me a lot of confidence.”

Frenchman Romain Dumas drove the runner-up car for Audi Sport, which has been privately testing its new generation R18 at the nearby Homestead-Miami Speedway and will also test the new car at Sebring following the race. Audi is expect to run the first race with the R18 at Spa in May in preparation for the Le Mans 24-hour in June.

In the meantime, Audi is using the prototype powered by a 5.5-liter V10 turbo diesel

Audi R15 at Sebring. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

versus the new and smaller 3.7-liter V-8 of Peugeot. Although the Audi engine’s power has had its air restrictor reduced to equate the power for the new and old classes, the margin versus the new Peugeot was surprising.

Wolfgang Ulrich, director of Audi Sport, did not seem worried about the gap. “It was a good result with an old car,” said Ulrich, who added the team will concentrate on staying calm in a race on the rough, fast Sebring circuit featuring a starting field of 56 cars.

It appears the cat and mouse game of pre-race posturing continues between the French and German endurance racing giants. Last year at Le Mans, for instance, Audi poor-mouthed its chances against a fleet of faster Peugeots. But when the 908 HDi FAPs broke down after dominating the first half of the event, Audi swept to victory.

Bruno Famin, technical director for Peugeot, said the goal for his team is to have two cars running at the end of 12 hours in order to get maximum “testing” for its new 908. But Famin added that the Peugeots will push the pace “to find out how the new car works.”

Both cars on the front row were slower than last year’s pole of 1:45.214 set by Marc Gene. The new rules are designed to not only reduce speeds, but to fall in line with manufacturer’s goal of improving mileage from smaller engines in production cars.

The HPD ARX-01e, the other new car among the P1 class prototypes, had a

The new Highcroft car.

disappointing debut two years after the Acura ARX-02a won the pole in its first race. “There was something strange happening with the car from the first lap of qualifying,” said Simon Pagenaud of the Honda-powered car. The problem was considered temporary by Highcroft Racing, which began testing the ARX-01e for the first time four days ago versus the four months of testing the team had with the debut of the ARX-02a.

The new cars are part of a larger new era – the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, a seven-race series that will appear in the U.S., Europe and China in the coming year. Given the prestige of what amounts to a world championship, manufacturers and teams are committing to events included on the ILMC schedule in considerable numbers. The first of the seven events that includes Le Mans and the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, Saturday’s race will be the largest starting field at Sebring since 2002. The race also marks a return by Audi, which skipped last year’s event, which will battle Peugeot for the ILMC title.

Peugeot’s Gene qualified third, followed by the Audi of Tom Kristensen. Peugeot will also have one of last year’s chassis in the race in addition to the brace of new cars, entered by the ORECA team, which will start fifth.

The LMP2 category was won by Soheil Ayari of the Oak Racing team, a French outfit seeking an ILMC title in the smaller prototype class. He was 4 seconds ahead of the American LMP2 team of Scott Tucker’s Level 5 Motorsports, which will also participate in the ILMC title bout.

The GT category had the usual frought qualifying session. Aboard the Corvette Racing C6-ZR1, which he had oversteering in the corners, Oliver Gavin chased the Ferrari F430

A Ferrari of AF Corse will start first at Sebring in the GT class.

of Gianmaria Bruni throughout the session. But the Italian driver held on to claim the pole by a margin of 0.182 seconds. “We just didn’t have that last little bit when I needed it,” said Gavin.

Bruni won the pole in last year’s model. Ferrari has introduced a new F458 Italia, but the AF Corse team did not receive its new cars in time to prepare for Sebring. “We do have much more data on the F430, which has been racing here since 2006,” said Bruni. “For sure it will be fast at the beginning of the season.”

The BMW M3 GT of Dirk Werner was third in GT, followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing teammate Dirk Mueller and the Risi Competizione Ferrari of Jaime Melo, the highest placing F458 Italia. The Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche of Jorg Bergmeister was 0.663 seconds behind the pole winner’s pace in sixth place.

In the Challenge classes, Dane Cameron made it two-for-two in qualifying at Sebring. He followed a Star Mazda Series pole in 2007 with the LMP Challenge pole for Genoa Racing. Leh Keen drove Alex Job Racing’s Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car to the pole after the team took parts from its crashed new car to build up one of last year’s models on a day when old and new seemed to come and go quite often.

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 18 2011
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