Audi has secured a debut victory for its new R15 TDi after coming out on top of a race-long battle with arch rivals Peugeot in the opening round of the American Le Mans Series at Sebring.
Dindo Capello, Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen took top honours at the wheel of the #2 car after a race which saw the leading cars running more or less together for long periods, with the second placed Peugeot of Stephane Sarrazin, Franck Montagny and Sebastien Bourdais ultimately coming home little more than 22 seconds behind.
After Audi led through the early stages, Peugeot then moved to the front as the 908 HDi chased its first win in the event but the #9 car dropped out of contention for victory when it ran into a problem with its air-conditioning unit, forcing the team to pit and putting the car nine laps down on the lead battle.
It left the #8 car to take the fight to the Audi's, despite having started the race from the pitlane, but a suspected puncture near the nine hour mark led to an unscheduled stop for Montagny while running in second place that put the leading cars out of sync on pit-stops.
When Montagny made his final stop, it allowed McNish to take the lead and a series of quick laps by the Scot allowed him to build enough of a lead to complete a late 'splash and dash' stop for fuel with less than 15 minutes remaining and rejoin the track ahead of the Frenchman before taking the chequered flag 22.279 seconds ahead of the Peugeot after a race where the leading pair remained on the same lap throughout.
“I knew I had 55 seconds to get in and out with a comfortable gap,” McNish said. “But if a yellow came out after they pitted and prior to our stop, it was all out the window. We were lucky because I think everyone drove exceptionally well until the end. The poker aspect is played by the engineers not by the drivers; the pit strategy is by the guys behind the wall. We are just given instructions to do things and that was drive very, very quickly.”
The victory was a record fifth success for team-mate Kristensen and completed a hat-trick of debut wins for Audi's LMP1 machinery, with the R8 and the R10 TDi having also won first time out. With only three caution periods, the race also broke the records for highest average speed, distance covered and laps completed.
The Peugeot crew had to settle for second despite leading the race on no fewer than eight occasions while the second Audi eventually secured third place but was two laps behind the battle for victory after dropping away from the leading pair as the race went on. The #9 Peugeot had battled back from its problems to hold fourth before stopping on the track in the closing hour, although it was still classified in fifth place.
The debut for the new Acura ARX-02a didn't go according to plan, as both the Patron Highcroft Racing and de Ferran Motorsports teams failed to make it to the finish. The de Ferran car had started from pole but was unable to hold off the diesel cars at the start as de Ferran quickly dropped behind the Audis and Peugeots when the race went green and retired with mechanical problems after 246 laps, while the Highcroft car also ran into issues which forced the team to call it a day after just over 300 laps. The Autocon and Intersport Lolas also failed to make it the finish.