Allan McNish has predicted that the upcoming Sebring 12 Hours will be a 'titanic' battle between Audi, Peugeot and Acura for outright glory - adding that anybody who claims to be using it as merely a test session for Le Mans is lying.

McNish is a former double winner of the Florida endurance classic - in 2004 and 2006 - and he refers to it as the second greatest sportscar race in the world, behind only the legendary Le Mans 24 Hours, an event in which he has also twice ascended the top step of the rostrum.

Though Audi failed to prevail at Sebring last year for the first time since all the way back in 1999, the Ingolstadt manufacturer did make amends when it counted most, at La Sarthe in June, making it an incredible eight wins from the last nine years.

What's more, the German marque had to see off a stern challenge from Peugeot with the visibly faster 908 HDi in order to do so, and having had to wait so long for his second success in mid-France, McNish admits, only served to make that victory champagne taste all-the-sweeter.

"It was far too long coming!" the 39-year-old joked, in an exclusive interview with Crash.net Radio. "Every year from 1998 that I've raced there - because I didn't do it for three or four seasons - I've led and we've always had a car and team capable of doing it, but it's gone away through various things.

"That I think just proves how hard Le Mans is; it is a full year's racing in a day, in one particular 24-hour event. From that point-of-view, to have stood up on the top step so early was probably a false sense of security in some respects, but 2008 really was the sweetest victory I would say of my career to-date.

"I think overall 2008 for us was a very, very good season. At the beginning we realised that the Peugeot was quicker than us, and also in America the Porsche and the Acura were very strong. We had a bad Sebring 12 Hours - really bad in reality - because even though we won the category we finished third overall, which was not what we wanted to do.

"The team fought very well, though, and brought a lot of developments, so by the time we got to Le Mans although we were still not quick enough, we were able to so everything - pit-stops and strategy and everything else - at 100 per cent, and we managed to bring away the Le Mans 24 Hours, the Petit Le Mans, the Le Mans Series and the American Le Mans Series.

"From Audi's perspective it was a total clean sweep across the board, and personally for it to be crowned off with the British Competition Driver at the Autosport Awards was a very nice recognition if you think of all the other Brits out there, especially this year. It was a very sweet December."

It was indeed, and if the 'clean sweep' to which McNish refers was not entirely expected in view of having such a fiercely strong adversary, the former Toyota F1 star acknowledges that the French giant is unlikely to be caught sleeping again in 2009.

With lessons learned from the past two years, this time around the Lion is determined to triumph on home turf - and the man from Dumfries knows both Audi and the soon-to-be introduced R15 will need to be absolutely at the top of their game if the recent hegemony is not to be rudely interrupted.

"It was basically always planned," he explained of the advent of the R15, which will first surface in public at Sebring. "The R10 had a lifespan in its design concept of three years principally, but then again Peugeot and Acura - or Honda, if you want to call it that - coming into LMP1 obviously lifted the benchmark a little bit, and so we had to respond.

"There was no way for us to be able to do that without a completely new car. Audi don't go in to finish second; they go in to try and win races and also to do so in the best way possible in terms of the technology. We're back with a new diesel and also with a completely new car, and hopefully it will allow us to give the Frogs some good competition at Le Mans!

"Anybody that tells you they're going to a race as a test, they're lying - they go there to win it. If you go there [viewing it] as a test, then you're already beaten. We go there to win the race, but obviously we use Sebring very much as a development for Le Mans, in terms of the car getting rattled around over the bumps and the high speeds and the hot conditions for twelve hours.

"Twenty-four hours later we do another twelve-hour test, with the same car that - hopefully - has finished the race. From that point-of-view it's a very aggressive test for the car and the team and everybody else, but it's a necessary one. As soon as we get there, everybody in that race team goes into the race with one objective, and that's to win - clear and simple.

"Right now we know where we are but we don't know where they (Peugeot) are. They'll make some big improvements; they won't make the mistakes that they made in the past. I know that they went away and licked their wounds [after the 2008 Le Mans 24 Hours], and I think the defeat that they received at the last LMS (Le Mans Series) race at Silverstone hurt them badly as well, so I would expect them to be very strong in 2009.

"I also expect Acura to be extremely strong in America, so I think Sebring is going to be a titanic battle - and it's one that we're looking forward to, because we've got the might of three major manufacturers fighting it out for top honours in the biggest races in the world. That to me is a perfect situation."

TO LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL: CLICK HERE

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