Friday, March 16, 2018

1000 Words: 2008 12 Hours of Sebring

Ten years ago, Porsche and Team Penske were the underdog. Together they took an unlikely overall victory.

Before the FIA World Endurance Championship, Daytona Prototype international, GT3 classes or Balance of Performance, the 12 Hours of Sebring kicked off the American Le Mans Series schedule and unlike today, the LMP1 class was the strongest but it was not the undisputed king.

Porsche returned to sports car racing at the end of the 2005 season with the Porsche RS Spyder, an LMP2-spec prototype, the German manufactures first prototype in seven years. With Team Penske running the program, it won on debut at Laguna Seca and finished fifth overall one lap off the winning Zytek 04S of Tom Chilton and Hayanari Shimoda.

Despite the surprise Zytek victory at Laguna Seca, Audi domination of sports car racing had just begun. At the end of the 2005 season, Audi had won five of the previous six editions of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Audi had wrapped up its sixth consecutive American Le Mans Series title and had 48 of 60 races overall in that time period.

Audi had challengers. Pescarolo took on the German manufacture at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with the Pescarolo C60-Hybrid but the innovative car from the French manufacture lacked the reliability to defeat Audi. In 2006, Audi continued its despite the switch to diesel powered Audi R10 TDI. Audi won the 12 Hours of Sebring by four laps while both Penske Porsches retired due to transmission issues. Two months later at Houston, Audi reverted back to the Audi R8 and won again, this time by five laps with the GT1 Corvette C6.Rs rounding out the overall podium. The next closest LMP1 car was the Dyson Racing Lola B06/10-AER in sixth overall, nine laps down. The LMP2 winning Lola B05/40-AER for Intersport Racing was 11th overall, 14 laps again. The rough Houston circuit caused problems again for the Porsche transmissions and forced another double retirement despite leading 50 laps in the race. Nine days later, something surprising happened.

ALMS returned to competition at Mid-Ohio and the #6 Porsche of Sascha Maasssen started on pole position while a weight infraction dropped the #7 Porsche of Timo Bernhard to the back of the grid with the #2 Audi of Allan McNish starting second. The tight nature of Mid-Ohio favored the LMP2 machinery with the mighty Audi R8 not able to reach the cars maximum potential. Bernhard and co-driver Romain Dumas overcame the penalty and won overall with the #6 Porsche finishing on its teammates bumper in an overall 1-2 with Audi taking top LMP1 honors in third overall.

Audi won overall in the final seven races of the 2006 season while Porsche took six of seven victories in LMP2.

The 2007 season would see Porsche gain some company in LMP2 with Acura entering the series with the likes of Andretti Green Racing, Fernández Racing and Highcroft Racing each field an Acura ARX-01a. Porsche's second year at Sebring would see both cars make it to the finish but not without electrical issues during the race plaguing not only the Penske Porsches but of Dyson Racing as well. Audi once again dominated, winning by six laps and Acura not only won in its maiden race but finished 1-2 in LMP2 and second and third overall.

Two weeks later, Porsche bounced back on the streets of St. Petersburg and not only won in LMP2 with Team Penske but challenged Audi, finishing on the lead lap and in third overall. At Long Beach, the LMP2 cars held the advantage over Audi with the slower nature of the circuit and the Penske Porsche not only finished 1-2 but Dyson Racing made it a clean sweep of the podium for the Porsche RS Spyder and LMP2 cars took the top six positions overall with Audi winning in LMP1 in seventh and on the lead lap.

It was the start of eight consecutive races where a Penske Porsche won overall. Porsche not only succeeded on the tight circuit of Long Beach, Lime Rock Park and Mid-Ohio but won on the larger Miller Motorsports Park and Road America. At Petit Le Mans, the Porsche gave Audi a fight to the wire but finished second overall by 0.923 second in what remains the closest Petit Le Mans finish. Team Penske finished the season with its 11th consecutive LMP2 victory and once again finished second overall and on the lead lap with Audi at Laguna Seca.

The 2008 12 Hours of Sebring marked 20 years since Porsche last won the famed endurance race. Audi was gunning for its ninth consecutive Sebring victory with two R10 TDIs. Team Penske and Dyson Racing each entered two Porsche RS Spyder Evos with Horag Lista Racing from Switzerland adding a fifth Porsche to the grid. All three Acura teams returned with the updated ARX-01B. The usually cast of characters had company from France.

Peugeot returned to sports car racing in 2007 with the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP. The French manufacture took no time getting up to speed and won on debut in the Le Mans Series at the 1000km of Monza in April. In May, it went two-for-two with a win at Valencia. Peugeot took pole position for the 24 Hours of Le Mans by over a half-second ahead of Audi but in the race Audi flexed its muscle while the 24-hour endurance race broke the down the Peugeots. Audi won by ten laps with Peugeot finishing a respectable second but with work to do. Peugeot ended the 2007 Le Mans Series season with four victories from the final four races, a perfect season.

To start 2008, Peugeot sent a car to Sebring, a track notorious for pushing the limits of every bit of a race car and a track that has been used as a barometer for whether or not a car could survive the 24 Hours of Le Mans. If a car could handle the grueling World War II-era runways of Sebring than it was more than ready for the French classic in June.

Audi started on pole position and in third with the lone Peugeot sandwiched between the R10 TDIs. The top Penske Porsche was the #7 of Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Emmanuel Collard in fourth. The sister #6 Porsche of Patrick Long, Sascha Maassen and Ryan Briscoe was fifth on the grid but just over an hour in the #6 Porsche was done due to overheating issues. Nicolas Minassian took the lead at the start for Peugeot and handed over the car in the lead to Pedro Lamy. Peugeot led 80 of the first 85 laps but shifting issues and hydraulic problems derailed the French team's hope of victory early. Audi inherited the lead but would have its own spat with mechanical issues.

The #2 Audi lost a lot of time due to a turbo issue, taking it out of contention for victory. The #1 Audi dropped out of the lead through a combination of brake and pushrod issues that forced changes to be made. The #7 Penske Porsche took the overall lead with just under five hours to go ahead of the Dyson Racing Porsches and the Acuras. With three hours to go, the #1 Audi was still three laps down.

Tom Kristensen clawed the #1 Audi back into fight and got back on the lead lap in fourth overall but he needed a full course caution to bunch up the leaders to have a shot at victory. Romain Dumas, nursing a leg injury, had a comfortable lead to Adrian Fernández for most of the final hour but lapped traffic and two years of unreliability kept the victory from being a certainty for Team Penske and Porsche. Despite two years of disappointment, Dumas held on for the final hour and took the overall victory, Porsche's first in 20 years and for the first time in ALMS history the LMP2 class took the overall victory at Sebring. Fernández's Acura would be disqualified for a broken air box, elevating the #20 Dyson Racing Porsche and giving the German manufacture a 1-2 finish. Kristensen and the #1 Audi rounded out the overall podium and took the class victory.

Porsche did not match same level of success it had in 2007 but the LMP2 class once again provided stout competition to the Audis. Audi would win seven of 11 races overall in 2008 but Porsche and Acura each picked up two overall victories, including a famous battle between David Brabham and Timo Bernhard at Lime Rock Park for the overall victory with Brabham getting Acura's first overall victory with a pass to the outside of the German into turn one on the final lap. It was a move where the Australian shut the door so hard the German was forced to spin. Acura won six races in LMP2 but Team Penske and Porsche won the championship.

The global recession hit at the end of the 2008 season and Audi withdrew from full-time ALMS competition but would return for the endurance races at Sebring and Road America. Team Penske and Porsche withdrew entirely. Acura stepped up to an LMP1 program with Highcroft Racing and the newly emerging de Ferran Motorsports while Fernández Racing remained in LMP2.

I look back on the 2007 and 2008 American Le Mans Series season with a bit of fondness. As much as we are thrilled to live in present for American sports car racing with Cadillac, Mazda, Nissan and Acura all fielding factory supported efforts with plenty of competitive privateer prototypes, those two seasons in ALMS were special and the last time multiple classes entered a race with a legitimate shot at the overall victory.

In the decade since the 2008 12 Hours of Sebring, LMP1 became a hyper hybrid class. There was no way to win without it. LMP1 machinery was reaching unfathomable levels and LMP2 was slotting into the space LMP1 was leaving behind. Porsche went to LMP1, won Le Mans three times and won the world championship three times. Audi ended up winning six of seven 24 Hours of Le Mans from 2008-2014 as well as two world championships. However, the escalating costs of innovation, combined with an emissions scandal, forced both German manufactures out of LMP1, leaving the class with Toyota as the sole manufacture in class.

I miss those days. I miss LMP1 cars being a regular feature in American sports car racing. I miss the dynamic of tighter circuit favoring one class over another. The crazy thing is ten years later and the teams are all back. Team Penske returned with Acura. Team Joest is back but now runs Mazda. Dumas will drive an Oreca-Gibson with CORE Autosport this weekend. Nine tracks on the current IMSA schedule were on the 2008 ALMS schedule. The difference being the inclusions of Daytona, Watkins Glen and Virginia International Raceway in place of St. Petersburg and Miller Motorsports Park.

Five different manufactures and five different teams have won the last five years at Sebring. Porsche will not take victory this year and neither will Audi. It is a cycle. Porsche will be back someday. They always return. There have been plenty of rumors in the two years since Audi withdrew that it would be back and possibly with a DPi. Sebring returns to the international schedule next year with the WEC running a 1,500-mile race the same weekend as the 12-hour race, though the actually logistics are still being worked on.

It doesn't feel like it has been ten years since the night an LMP2 Porsche outlasted the LMP1 Audis and Peugeot. IMSA is at a great place and WEC is working a few things out but still appears will have an interesting 2018-19 season despite Toyota being the only manufacture in the top class but this season is missing something that 2008 had. I can't put my finger on it but it is something that mystifies me still.