• Stéphane Sarrazin takes pole in the brand new 908
• Peugeot are defending their 2010 victory in the race
Peugeot struck first in the opening clash of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup in Sebring, Florida, taking pole position in the competition’s first race of the year. Stéphane Sarrazin took the place with 1min 46.571sec in the works team’s brand new 908, the first time the car has run competitively.
The race is part of the ILMC endurance racing series that was conceived by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the organisation that has run the Le Mans 24-Hour race since 1923 and held the first incarnation of the competition last year, while the International Raceway at Sebring has hosted a 12-hour race here since 1952.
Peugeot are defending their 2010 victory in this race but face stiff competition from Audi, who have won at Sebring nine times in the past 11 years. Both teams race in the fiercely competitive Le Mans Prototype class, the top end of endurance racing.
Unsurprisingly, then, Audi completed the front row with an R15 driven by Roman Dumas taking second and pushing Marc Gene, in the second Peugeot, into third. Gene had, however, squeezed the final Audi into fourth. It was qualified by Tom Kristensen, who will be unconcerned by a place on the second row of the grid. He has not only won Le Mans eight times but is also the only driver to have won here at Sebring five times and knows this bumpy and extraordinary circuit well. Built on a former Army Air Force base it’s uneven surface and difficult corners demand everything from both driver and car over the full 12 hours.
Audi will be hoping he and his co-drivers Allan McNish and Dindo Capello can deliver. The race is the final one for their R15 before it is replaced at Spa with the R18 and here, at its last hurrah, it seems to lack the raw pace of the Peugeot, who can at this stage be quietly confident. It was “a good lap in a good car, we are ready for tomorrow,” said Sarrazin.
However, the pole-sitter acknowledged that nothing is a given in endurance racing. Not only is the track punishing but the weather for the race will be tough, too, hot and demanding on engines and drivers alike: “The target is to finish the race with our car. We have had a few problems with a new car but that is normal.” That is understandable caution from a driver who was in one of the three Peugeot works teams to begin last year’s Le Mans 24 as favourites, only to see all three cars go out with mechanical failure and for Audi to take a 1-2-3 win.
“Things were much better in qualifying than in free practice because of the traffic,” Sarrazin said, which may also represent a decisive factor in the race. Qualifying is conducted by car class but tomorrow there will be six different classes on the grid all at once, as in practice, making up a daunting 56 cars.
There are so many, in fact, that space in each pit box has been reduced to 22ft and, with the average car taking up 18 of those 22, there is little margin for error. “It will be key to make no mistakes,” Sarrazin acknowledged. He and his team-mates, Frank Montagny and Pedro Lamy, know that raw pace will count but over 12 hours on a circuit that represents one of the greatest tests in motor racing it will not be enough alone and Audi are not at this race to make up the numbers. Stand by for a thriller.