16 March 2002
Audi wins Sebring again.
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.
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.
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