The factory Audi Sport North America squad saw off the best the rest that the American Le Mans Series could throw at them once again as the #2 trio of Rinaldo Capello, Christian Pescatori and Britain's Johnny Herbert came home one lap ahead of the privateer Champion team.

The 50th Annual Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring Presented by Dodge was grand in both title and entry but, despite what must surely be a record crowd and exceptionally high temperatures, nothing could stop the Reinhold Joest-run factory Audi team from taking the victory spoils.

After 346 laps of the bumpy, abrasive and tremendously slippery 3.7-mile Sebring International Raceway it was the #2 Audi R8 piloted by Capello, Pescatori and factory debutant Herbert - on his maiden outing at the Florida venue - who crossed the line first. The trio led much of the final eight hours after the pole-sitting Tom Kristensen/Frank Biela/Emanuele Pirro R8 suffered the first of several delays, that would eventually include a 30-minute pit-stop to replace a broken steering rack.

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Instead, it was left to the privateer Champion Audi of Jan Lammers, Andy Wallace and Stefan Johansson to provide the challenge, and the trio took up the cudgels manfully, with Lammers clinging desperately to his lead lap place in the dying minutes in the vain hope of a full course yellow. A spin on the penultimate lap by the Dutchman finally knocked the #38 car from its course, but the experienced crew still held on to second.

Third place went to the rapid and reliable Jim Matthews Racing Riley & Scott piloted by the team boss himself, along with Guy Smith and Marc Goosens. The Dyson Racing R&S of Leitzinger/Weaver/Forbes-Robinson finished fourth.

In truth, however, there was nothing to touch the invincible Audis, with the factory cars trading the lead throughout the first two hours before crash damage interrupted the battle. Capello was the first to succumb to the attentions of the backmarkers, dropping away from the #1 sister car while a suspension repair delayed the handover to Pescatori. Once installed, the younger Italian maintained the team's place ahead of most of the pack, but trailed Pirro in the lead car by more than a lap.

Only when the true outcome of Kristensen's early brush with the backmarkers began to manifest itself did 'Pesca' gain ground, with first Pirro, then team-mate Biela, having to make lengthy stops. The Italian pitted twice for bodywork repairs, while his regular ALMS co-driver had to have his tyres changed after flat-spotting them under braking. Then came the killer blow, as steering problems forced the mechanics back into service while Biela was still at the wheel. A complete change of rack was required to get the R8 back into the race, but the delay while the repair was made virtually ended any hopes the team had of adding Sebring victory to its double Le Mans triumph.

''Perhaps we have been a little bit spoiled during the last three years, because we never had any technical difficulties at all," Pirro lamented later, "The sad thing is that we were at the front in almost every session, but during the race we had all the bad luck you could have.''

Nevertheless, Ingolstadt could still claim two examples of its all-conquering sportscar at the head of the field, as the leading work entry was chased by Champion's privateer example. The car in which Herbert will conduct much of his season's racing was clinging gamely to second spot, despite pressure from the second of the Panoz cars, with Lammers, Wallace and Johansson all putting in sterling performances.

It was never going to be enough for the white R8, however, as, no matter how much pressure the veteran crew put on the works car, there was always the suspicion that the factory had more under its belt. In qualifying trim, both silver cars had full seconds in hand over the best that Champion could manage, and the same appeared to be true of the race set-up. If the Champion car gained a couple of seconds in traffic, it was easy for the leader to re-extend its advantage, and the fact that Champion managed to stay on the lead lap for so long was probably due to conservatism in the #2 car as much as anyone else's new-found pace.

''All three of us drove really hard,'' Wallace insisted, ''We gave everything - but it wasn't quite good enough.''

''The Audi just improved with every lap," team-mate Johansson added, "I was really hooked up in my second stint and the car allowed me to be pretty aggressive. A caution period when we managed to get back on the lead lap in the closing stages would have made the finish interesting but it didn't materialise. It's both pleasing and frustrating to finish second.''

The high temperatures and humidity did not affect the winning R8, although its drivers would admit that things were far from easy.

''We put in a lot of hard work for this win," Herbert said, "Having achieved it, however, it's fantastic. The Audi R8 is still the car to beat. In the end I was basically trying to conserve the fuel and the brakes. I set a comfortable pace which was enjoyable as well.''

"It was incredibly hot,'' reported Capello, ''We did three stints in a row right from the beginning - which was really difficult in these conditions.''

The Audi crew, however, were thinking of more than just winning the race, remembering as well fallen comrade Michele Alboreto, who helped Capello to victory twelve months earlier.

''I am so proud that we were able to win this race," Pescatori admitted, "Last year Michele celebrated his last victory here, and Dindo and I wanted to win this race for him. I am really happy that we achieved this.''

Panoz had gone into the race aiming to be Audi's closest challenger, especially after promising pre-event tests. However, reality came sharply into focus in qualifying, where the lead car trailed the works R8s by the same margin as Champion, and was underlined in the race when reliability issues again reared their ugly heads.

The David Brabham/Jan Magnussen/Eric van de Poele car lasted but 56 laps due to engine failure, but appeared briefly at the head of the pack when the safety car caught the Audis unawares.

''I really am disappointed,'' Brabham said, ''Our luck never seems to be on our side at this race. We now have to put our heads down and concrete on the Le Mans test day.''

The sister car, crewed by all-American trio Bryan Herta, David Donohue and Bill Auberlen fared better, despite not exactly handling well on the notorious Sebring surface, and almost made it to the flag in a top three place. However, the team's usual bad luck returned with a vengeance when, with just 30mins to run, Herta was forced into the pits with little in the way of brakes. With no time to effect a repair and get back out on track, Herta was forced to cool his heels until the chequer approached, before being sent back out to claim an unrepresentative eighth place.

''I am really disappointed because the boys had worked so hard to make this happen,'' Herta sighed, ''The car was fantastic all day and the Michelin tyres were actually quite amazing - through double stints the car stayed really strong. It would have been great for the crowd to have an all-American crew on the podium, but we will have to come back and get them next year.''

This left third place in the hands of two venerable R&S entrants, albeit separated by some seven laps at the end as the Jim Matthews car ran reliably to the flag. The two younger members of the crew proved their speed, as Smith had done at Daytona, but were stymied by tyre problems that prevented long periods of running at pace. The Dyson car ran equally reliably to fourth, but lacked the same speed as the newer MkIIIc ahead of it.

The demise of Panoz should have been the opportunity Cadillac was waiting for to elevate itself to the front of sportscar racing but, instead, the revamped Northstar LMP-02s flattered to deceive. Emmanuel Collard's early second place had faded to distant memory by the time the chequered flag fell, with problems besetting both entries. The Frenchman, teamed with JJ Lehto and Eric Bernard for the race, failed to last the distance but covered enough ground to be classified 27th overall. The sister car - crewed by stalwart Wayne Taylor, Max Papis and Christophe Tinseau was running, albeit four places and twenty laps shy of its stablemate.

"The extreme heat caused problems for our new cars," admitted Cadillac LMP programme manager Jeff Kettman, "Because of the heat, the starter ring gear got too hot and started to expand. As a result of that, the starter mechanism couldn't travel far enough to engage and turn the motor over. When we cooled the unit with CO2 and ice, it restarted properly. Eventually a wire lead started to melt, necessitating the long repairs. Then the same problem repeated with each stop on both cars."

With the #1 Audi recovering to fifth at the end, and the tiny British Ascari team registering a meritable sixth, the way was clear for the LMP675 class to notch up top ten finishes. As they had in practice and qualifying, the MG-Lolas proved to be the class of the smaller prototype field, with Intersport's example, piloted by Jon Field, Duncan Dayton and Henri Durand chasing the all British Ascari crew home.

''The motor got stronger as the race went on and, as the temperature cooled, it was untouchable,'' Dayton enthused, ''Thanks to MG, the car was awesome!''

It could easily have been the other way around, as Sebring virgin Justin Wilson caught and passed the Banana Joe's MG in the final half-hour, but the Ascari crew could also have been better placed had it not been for officialdom and incidents costing it at least six laps. That would have been good enough to overhaul the #1 Audi and claim fifth for Wilson, Ben Collins and Christian Vann.

The second MG, run by KnightHawk Racing, failed to break the top ten - which was completed by the ailing Panoz and two GTS runners - after a night of drama. Team boss Mel Hawkins had taken the brave decision to drop himself in favour of rising US star Andy Lally, and it was the youngster, along with mercurial Irishman Jonny Kane, who caused ripples early on. Kane had the MG challenging for front row honours in qualifying, and dicing equally with Panoz, Cadillac and privateer Audi in the first couple of hours, before gearbox and suspension problems blunted its effort.

As expected, Corvette won the GTS battle, with the Ron Fellows/Johnny O'Connell/Oliver Gavin car giving the Brit back-to-back victories in the event. Despite the presence of Saleen, it appeared that the two C5-Rs were headed for another 1-2 finish, only for Andy Pilgrim in the sister car to crash out of contention after the throttle stuck open.

"I am delighted to be with this team and to have a win the first time out is just amazing," Gavin smiled, "The car was very well prepared and ran perfectly. It was so hot today that I was wondering how we were going to cope with the heat. Ron and Johnny and myself all had tried to prepare for it. My first stint was between twelve and one in the afternoon and, when I got out of the car, the medical team told me that my temperature was 103.9 degrees. You know when you have the flu with that kind of fever you don't even get out of bed let alone drive a race car.''

This allowed the Konrad-entered Saleen into second in class, and tenth overall, in spite of the restrictions placed upon its performance after a dominant success in 2001. Only the Larbre Viper effort, led by Christophe Bouchut, provided any resistance, but the Frenchman and co-driver Vincent Vosse were hobbled by frequent pit-stops and did well to push the S7 so hard for a spot in the top ten.

Alex Job Racing took GT honours with Germany's Sascha Maassen and Lucas Luhr leading the way to another Sebring victory. The Porsche crew finished ahead of the second Corvette, in twelfth overall, and headed the rest of the 'junior' class by some eleven laps. The Seikel team, winners at Le Mans last year after an equally steady run, claimed second only when the second Job entry retired late on, such was the dominance of the US-based team.

''We had added some additional cooling vents and an auxiliary fan in anticipation of the hot weather,'' Maassen explained of the team's meticulous preparations, ''but the fan quit for the middle part of the race. However, the car was so well prepared that all we had to struggle with was the heat. Even though it was last year's car, it felt brand new.''

The Ferrari challenge fell short in both GT and GTS classes, with the Prodrive-entered trio of Alain Menu, Rickard Rydell and Tomas Enge performing best of all to take 30th position in the 550 Maranello. The similar car of Naspetti, Schiattarella and Cecotto posted the fist retirement after just eleven laps, with MSB's 360 Modena doing likewise in the GT class one lap further on.

''I'm very disappointed not being able to get into the race,'' debutant Marino Franchitti said shortly after hearing of team-mate Ralf Kelleners' demise, ''I expected the car to last longer than that, but that's motorsport - you've got to take the good with the bad. I'll just go home and watch the end of the race on television.''

In truth, however, the entire twelve hours were about Audi, which now marches on towards a possible third successive Le Mans triumph. After the upset in Florida, however, not everyone's money will be on the Pirro/Biela/Kristensen crew completing the hat-trick.

''This is Audi's third Sebring win in a row and now we focus on Le Mans win number three,'' commented race winner Herbert, ''I triumphed at Le Mans in 1991 and I want to win it again. Audi has shown in this 12-hour 'dress rehearsal' that it's capable of achieving a Le Mans hat-trick and I aim to be on that winner's rostrum.''