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Flat Spot On: Frontier Justice On The Last Lap?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 18 2012

Joey Hand and his Team RLL BMW M3 survived a mysterious last-lap rumble to win at Sebring on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

SEBRING, Fla. – So what really happened over there at Turn 3 in the shards of light glaring in the dust on the last lap of the GT contest in the Sebring 12-hour?

Check the replay if you like, now available at ESPN3.com, but it won’t solve this one. It may be one of those mysteries already in the belly of the whale, swallowed by the night. If nothing else, it will be one of those finishes not soon forgotten at a race known for strange developments in the hours after sunset.

When the preverbial smoke, shredded rubber and overheating that results from spikes in emotion had cleared, Joey Hand emerged as an American hero at this most international of sports car racing events on U.S. soil. He won the showdown at the 12-hour mark, if not High Noon.

Hand, whose leading BMW M3 was hit on the final lap at Turn 3 amidst three Ferraris, pushed back with a vengeance. “I wasn’t surprised,” said Hand of the slam-bang action, which he blamed on the trailing second-placed AF Corse Ferrari of Olivier Beretta. “I’m just glad I got the car cocked. I damaged him more than he damaged me.”

By the time they got to the final sweeper at Turn 17, Hand could see that his retaliation had cost the Ferrari driver, whose left rear tire was turning to shreds. “I knew my car wouldn’t hold,” said Hand, who aimed at the Ferrari’s door. “I was prepared to put him into the tire wall.”

As it was, Beretta’s three-wheeled Ferrari floated to the outside of the wide bend and Hand was home free with the victory for the No. 56 BMW Team RLL.

But which of three Ferraris in Turn 3 hit the BMW? Beretta declared his innocence, saying the problem was typical Sebring: too much traffic, too many amateur, under-qualified drivers. “If somebody rides a bicycle on the freeway, what happens?” said the man from Monaco.

Beretta said the traffic jumble at Turn 3 found Hand’s BMW already sliding off on the outside by time he arrived. He braked to keep his car intact and avoid damage to his car. “He was on the outside and he went off,” said Beretta with a shrug. No contact from him. In short, if Hand retaliated, it was the BMW driver who was less than sporting about losing his lead – according to Beretta.

Alas, it’s highly possible that Beretta’s teammate at AF Corse may have been involved. Some saw it as the No. 51 Ferrari of Gianmaria Bruni, many laps down after starting on the pole, that tagged the BMW. When asked about it, Hand insisted the culprit had been Beretta. “It was 71, not 51,” he said.

Ironically, everybody emerged a winner. BMW won the class outright, plus the top points in the American Le Mans Series, and the No. 71 AF Corse car took the top spot in the World Endurance Championship, which is contested among factories and teams, not individual drivers.

I suppose we should have seen this coming. It’s Sebring, after all, home to crazy and wild finishes, especially in the GT class of recent. This conclusion built with Hitchcock-like suspense throughout the final hour, which saw the lead exchanged eight times between Hand and Beretta — including a banzai pass by the Ferrari which lasted only momentarily before Beretta slid off at Turn 10.

Ultimately, it was another significant step in the career of Hand, who had long since declared himself tough as a tire iron after his BMW went end-over-end at Mid-Ohio in 2006. The horrendous shunt never seemed to phase the driver, who since arriving in the ALMS has displayed his toughness by giving ground grudgingly and gaining it when the chips are down.

Just like Saturday night, this one made for fighting.

“I pushed and pushed and pushed,” said Hand of his closing stints, which included a gas-and-go stop with 45 minutes remaining and no application of fresh Dunlops. So technically, Hand’s BMW was under-tired versus his adversaries, including the Corvette of Jan Magnussen, who ultimately brought the No. 03 of Corvette Racing home second.

From this writer’s perspective, any of the three scenarios at Turn 3 was highly possible. But I suspect that Hand’s reaction was similar to drivers in NASCAR who always blame the second place driver for any contact; Beretta had to catch Hand before he could put the BMW off and wasn’t all that close going into the corner. Ultimately, we may never know, even in an age of instant replay.

In the long run, Hand has left his calling card for his foray into the German Touring Car championship, where as a BMW factory driver he will be the rare American in the DTM, as its known by the German acronym. The Europeans are known for cut-and-thrust road racing on their home turf, sort of like NASCAR sprint races with right and left turns.

Or like the 12 hours of Sebring when there are 64 cars in the starting field – and 54 running at the finish.

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 18 2012
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