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‘Other’ Peugeot Surprises Sebring

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 19 2011

The non-factory Peugeot 908 HDi-FAP won the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on Saturday night. (Photos courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Sebring, Fla. – The Oreca team upheld the pride of Peugeot by winning the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. The private French squad and its older model Peugeot 908 HDi FAP held off the new Honda-backed prototype of Highcroft Racing by 36 seconds to win the 59th running of America’s oldest sports car race. The factory Peugeot’s new 908

entry that started from the pole finished third, 46 seconds behind the winners, after driver Pedro Lamy spun early in the 10th hour and fell a lap down.

“We didn’t expect to be that quick and that lucky,” said Loic Duval, who drove the final stint for the winners, including co-drivers Nicolas Lapierre and Olivier Panis. “It’s a great accomplishment for the Oreca team.”

While the privateer team beating the factory was an upset, it prevented a huge upset by an unheralded new car from Honda with virtually no testing prior to arriving at Sebring. The new car named for Honda Performance Development, the American racing arm of Honda, nearly pulled off a successful fuel strategy with Simon Pagenaud at the wheel for a closing triple stint. But Oreca’s Peugeot had enough pace to keep the lead after a final trip down the pit road for a splash of fuel with 40 minutes remaining.

“It was very exciting,” said Pagenaud, who described himself as “shocked” by the race result after a poor qualifying session with Highcroft’s new car, designed by Wirth Research. “It is still a long way to go but it certainly shows the potential of this car.”

The victory was the second for Oreca and team owner Hugues de Chaunac at Sebring. The team ran the ALMS series with Dodge Viper GT-R’s in 1999 and 2000, claiming a GTS class victory at Sebring in 2000, the same year it claimed the over-all victory in the

The Highcroft Racing entry at Sebring. (Photos courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

Rolex 24 at Daytona in the Grand-Am Series. Saturday’s score at Sebring was the team’s first over-all victory in a major endurance race with a prototype. The Michelin-shod Peugeot was the same car the factory team drove to victory at Zhuhai China in the final race of last season.

“It’s a really historic result for us for many reasons,” said de Chaunac. “It’s a (result) we built step by step. We finished just in front of three manufacturer teams by not making any mistakes. It was a perfect job by the three drivers. It was a difficult job for them because I asked them to be quick and not make any mistakes. It’s like I tell them at Le Mans. ‘If you want to win, you have to achieve no mistakes.”

The winning trio was comprised of two younger Frenchmen, the 28-year-old Duval, who has spent much of his career racing in Japan, and the 26-year-old Lapierre, whose route to Formula 1 suffered a detour after an accident at Monaco in a GP2 race. They were joined by veteran Olivier Panis, 44, who spent 11 seasons in Formula 1 and is a former F1 winner at Monaco.

The vaunted new Peugeot 908 diesel turbos each suffered from driver errors. “The tires were cold,” shrugged Lamy of his error at Turn 2. He had just replaced pole winner Stefan Sarrazin and the team had lost time while replacing a front nose damaged by debris.

When Marc Gene ran into the right rear of Audi Sport driver Dindo Capello at Turn 17 in

A factory Peugeot at Sebring on Saturday.

the fifth hour, the No. 7 Peugeot car had to go behind the wall for extensive repairs and ultimately finished eighth. The No. 2 Audi R15+, meanwhile, lost six laps for repairs made on the pit road. It soldiered back to a fifth place finish for Capello, Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen while driving on the pace without further problem. The trio managed to salvage points in the first of seven Intercontinental Le Mans Series events where the chief competition will come from Peugeot Sport.

“Watching the TV replays it was clear I was not responsible for the accident,” said Capello, who described Gene’s decision to fight for position so early in the race as “frustrating.”

The No. 1 Audi R15+, which qualified second, cut a left rear tire when driver Mike Rockenfeller ran off the circuit shortly before the end of the first hour to avoid traffic. After his team replaced the rear bodywork damaged by the blown tire, the No. 1 car suffered another blown tire due to the bodywork rubbing it. Rockenfeller, Romain Dumas and Timo Bernhard also fell six laps down, gained one lap back and finished fifth. “A big field like this can create a lot of problems,” said Dumas. “Unfortunately for us, we had a problem early and that killed our race.”

A furious battle in the GT category was settled at sunset. That’s when the BMW Motorsports-backed team of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing began to outpace the Ferraris and Corvettes after nose-to-tail duels during the daylight hours. The Dunlop tires proved to be the difference in the cooler temperatures. Joey Hand sailed to the victory in the No. 55 entry without problem in his final double-stint, but the No. 56 was knocked into a spin with an hour remaining. After falling to fifth, Dirk Werner brought his M3 GT back to second place, 52 seconds behind Hand.

“I got clipped and spun in Turn 1,” said Werner, who elected not to pit despite one flat-spotted tire.

The Ferraris of AF Corse and Risi Competizione provided the most competition for the BMW’s during the daylight hours of the race that began at 10:30 a.m. The Risi team’s new 458 Italia, which led 25 consective laps at one stage, fell from contention and then out of the race with electrical problems. The AF Corse team and it’s 430 GTC fell off the pace in the final three hours run in darkness.

Oliver Gavin got Corvette Racing off to a strong start by taking the lead on the first lap in the No. 04 entry. But pole winner Gianmaria Bruni quickly return to the front. In the second hour, Flying Lizards Motorsports driver Patrick Long hit Magnussen in the No. 04 Corvette at the apex of Turn 17, spinning both cars. “I got a better run going onto the straight, and Long moved to the right to block me, no big deal,” Magnussen said. “I went around him on the outside, and in the kink before Turn 17, he’s still right there. I think he was bouncing over the bumps, and bounced into the side of my car. I can’t be upset with him, but I was upset at the situation.”

Both fell off the lead lap and never regained it, although the No. 04 Corvette made up two laps to finish fourth. The same accident sent the Extreme Motorsports Ferrari into the outside wall at the exit of Turn 17 in the day’s worst crash. Johannes van Overbeek was not injured, but the back half of his Ferrari was destroyed.

The No. 3 Corvette finished third, the only other GT car on the lead lap in the class, with Tommy Milner, Olivier Beretta and Antonio Garcia at the wheel.

In the LMP2 class for smaller prototypes, the No. 55 Level 5 Motorsports Lola-Honda finished 20th over-all but claimed first in the category where four cars started. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Luis Diaz and team owner Scott Tucker handled the driving.

In the spec LMPC class for Oreca-built, Chevy powered prototypes, Genoa Racing emerged first and ninth over-all with Dane Cameron, Jens Peterson and Michael Guasch at the wheel. In the GTC class for Porsche 911 GT3 Cup cars, Black Swan Racing’s Tim Pappas,Damien Faulkner and Sebastiaan Bleekemolen scored the victory.

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 19 2011
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