As Audi Sport North America set out on I-95 to Sebring, Florida, an air of tension loomed. Though performance balancing by the IMSA sanctioning body of the American Le Mans Series hadn’t pushed Audi Sport boss Dr. Wolfgang Ulrich into pulling out of the series entirely, the team had to be thinking of the strong LM P2 competition they’d meet in Florida during the 12-hour race day on Saturday. The Porsche Spyder would be back in greater numbers, and Acura had mounted a multi-car and even mult-chassis campaign of teams that represented the who’s who of IRL open-wheel racing. That competition would make for one hard-fought win, though it wouldn’t stop Audi from hitting its eighth straight victory at the rough and tumble Florida track.
Once the new 2007-liveried R10 was able to turn a lap, the outlook appeared quite favorable for Audi. Marco Werner nailed down a qualifying lap that would put his #2 Audi R10 on pole and knock almost a second off of the Sebring track record.
Then, Thursday night, Audi would be dealt a less than optimum hand. During some night practice, Audi’s Dindo Capello swerved to avoid contact with one of the black and red Panoz racecars, lost control and put the #1 R10 TDI into the wall hard enough to keep the Audi Sport staff up all night performing an intensive rebuild.
Dindo was fine, but the R10 required a major reworking. By Friday morning, Audi Sport was wheeling the newly repaired car into the scrutineering tent for final review ten minutes before Friday’s only practice session. The car would pass and log a few laps before the session ended later that morning.
Other Audis would also hit the track on Friday. Drawing some of the most attention was probably a new R8 sportscar being used for V.I.P. rides, though it was an all-carbon fiber bodied RS 4 that had fans asking Champion Racing, the car’s owner, if they had plans for returning to the SPEED World Challenge series where the S4 Competition and RS 6 racecars created a name for Audi.
Representatives from Champion were coy. As they described their new “V.I.P rides” car, built close to series rules, other than the stock RS 4 motor with straight exhaust pipes, they pointed out how amazing the carbon fiber work was. They didn’t dwell much on the series potential, other than to say it was always being considered. Audi says they didn’t fund the car’s build and that was Champion’s move, but it’s hard not to get excited about a potential return to SPEED when you see how clearly intense the build was on this car ‘officially” assembled solely for thrill rides.
After the ALMS practice session came the SPEED Touring event, where Audis from STaSIS have returned for competition this year with three red A4s. Strong competition from Mazda and Acura, combined with lack of wet weather until the race was basically over, didn’t favor the Audis. Nevertheless, STaSIS’ Chip Herr piloted his #17 Audi A4 touring car from 10th on the grid to 4th at the checker, winning him the Sunoco Hard Charger award for biggest gain in position during the race.
Another four-ringed racecar was spotted on track during the week’s vintage events in the form of an early Coupe GT. With flared wheel arches, large Ronal Turbo wheel sand Votex markings, this vintage Audi racer drew more than a few stares and comments.
In addition to other Audis, other Audi racecar drivers could also be spotted within the crowd. In addition to the six-man team of R10 drivers and the STaSIS A4 team, we also bumped in to Audi rallying legend and Florida native Hannu Mikkola and Swedish Touring Car ace Thed Björk floating around the various Audi hospitality facilities.
During Friday afternoon, Audi’s six works drivers headed down to the Audi Corral, a large fenced area anchored with a giant hospitality tent hosted by the Audi Experience and the local Audi Club of North America chapter. Each of the three-driver teams set themselves up for a long autograph session.
If you haven’t attended an American Le Mans race, hitting one of the events where the Audi Experience plans a Corral and/or event is well worth the price. Packages include a very reasonable Corral fee and a more premium package where enthusiasts can make use of Audi’s full range of local hospitality tents and facilities.
To compliment the Audi Experience, Ingolstadt also included another enormous tent in ,the same place as last year, where they displayed the latest offerings in the Audi lineup. A new TT Roadster and a fleet of new TT Coupes were on display. Also present was another new R8, grabbing plenty of attention as it sat amidst the rest of the Audi lineup.
A staple at the Audi display tent is also an Audi Collection store with a major focus on Audi Sport North America goods. This area was also used as overflow display area for the continuously growing Audi Corral enthusiast cars.
Later that night, those same enthusiasts took to the track as the Audi Corral drove its parade lap.
By Saturday morning the team was well-rested, at least as well-rested as one might expect, and ready to go. Cars hit the track at 7:30 AM for some last-minute sunrise practice before the start of the 12 Hours at 10AM.
Unlike last year, no R10 started from the pits and, after a warm up lap led by a parading Audi R8 road car and a TT pace car, the #1 and #2 R10s blasted down the front straight with their trademark whisper quiet diesel wail, maintaining their second and first grid positions.
An early flat tire would put the #2 Audi of Biela, Pirro and Werner a lap down from the front-runner and behind some LMP2 competition, though it was early and the team would fight their way back up through the pack.
When two long stops for starter replacement plagued the rebuilt #1 car and knocked it out of contention, it was the #2 Audi that would re-take the lead and bring home another win for Audi.
Luck was not with the Audi 4.2-powered Spyker, competing in GT2. Running nearly flawlessly for 11 hours, the orange Dutch sportscar experienced several failures necessitating numerous returns to pit and drops in position. Up until hour 11, the Spyker ran in fourth, though dropped to tenth position by the finish.
No doubt there had to be a large sense of pride pervading the minds of the Audi Sport crew as they loaded the R10s back into the transporters, rolled up the tents, packed the tools and headed for home. This season won’t be an easy one for the R10, as competition appears more intense than ever before. Still, the R10 remains undefeated thus far and Audi is now an eight-time consecutive winner at Sebring.
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