We were baffled a few weeks back when the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series announced new classes that will make up their combined racing program in 2014. Gone from the list is the Le Mans Prototype class, otherwise known as LMP1. The LMP1 class has long been the top dog of endurance racing, both in Europe and the US, so we couldn't figure out why this newly minted racing series was jettisoning it like yesterday's donuts.
It appears as if Audi is confused by the move as well. The German brand has announced it will participate in this year's ALMS opening round, the famed 12 Hours of Sebring, as it does every year, and bringing two Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro hybrid race cars with which to compete. Unlike every other year, Audi is treating this year's race as its potential swan song in this famous Florida race.
There's a good reason that Audi is so fond of the 12 Hours of Sebring, as it debuted the gas-powered R8R there in 1999 that kicked off its participation in the upper echelon of endurance racing. The R8R preceded the R8, which debuted at Sebring in 2000 and won that race, starting an amazing career for that car that included five more wins at Sebring. The R8 was followed by the R10, then the R15 and R18, and finally we wind up at today's R18 E-Tron Quattro – all winners, all dominant, all exciting to watch.
Along with the two R18 E-Tron Quattros doing the actual racing, one of which will be a new updated version, Audi is bringing an R8 from the 2000-2005 era, an R10 TDI from the 2006-2008 era, an R15 TDI from 2009 and the R18 TDI that won there last year, all for the enjoyment of spectators who've watched Audi dominate this race, winning it outright in 10 of the last 12 years.
Though Audi has long since abandoned campaigning the whole ALMS season, it was still usually good for at least the season opener in Sebring, which provided a nicely timed testing opportunity ahead of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, if not a couple of other races on the calendar. Unfortunately, with the demise of LMP1 in American endurance racing, March 16 in Sebring, Florida may be the last time for a while that we see Audi dominate an endurance race on American soil. Let's hope ALMS and Grand-Am find a solution.
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Ingolstadt, January 21, 2013 – March 16, 2013 will mark the end of an era as the world's highest-caliber sports cars are running at the tradition-steeped Sebring 12 Hours for the last time. Before the Le Mans prototypes of the LMP1 class are no longer permitted at this event from 2014 on, Audi is coming full circle in Florida. In 1999, the first LMP sports car of the brand celebrated its debut on the former airfield – and now two prototypes emblazoned with the four rings will arguably be competing there for the last time.
"We're in for a very emotional race weekend on which we'll be taking the fans along on a journey into our past," says Head of Audi Motorsport Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich. "Sebring is where Audi's sports car era that has been so successful began. We expect that with two current hybrid models we'll be battling for overall victory at the 12-hour race for the last time this year. At the same time, on the fringes of the race, the fans can look forward to seeing four other race cars and several race drivers who made history at Sebring with Audi."
In addition to a 2012-generation Audi R18 e-tron quattro, an updated version of the prototype will be on the grid in Florida. Marcel Fässler/Oliver Jarvis/Benoît Tréluyer (CH/GB/F) and Lucas di Grassi/Tom Kristensen/Allan McNish (BR/DK/GB) will be driving the two hybrid race cars in the race. With six victories under his belt, Kristensen holds the record at this event.
In 13 runs at the sports car classic to date, Audi has clinched 22 podium positions including ten overall victories. Right on the debut, on March 20, 1999, three Audi drivers – Michele Alboreto/Dindo Capello/Stefan Johansson – were on the podium. Audi Sport Team Joest was the race team back then, as it is today.
As part of the program for the endurance race that has been held since 1952 Audi will be treating the fans to an exhibition in March reflecting the brand's entire sports car era. An Audi R8 represents the successful period from 2000 to 2005 whereas the R10 TDI paved the way for diesel power from 2006 to 2008. The R15 TDI won there in 2009 on making its debut, and the winning car from last year – the R18 TDI – can be marveled at as well.
Former Audi factory drivers who were successful at Sebring will be on hand to sign autographs for fans as well as for pictures and interviews. This way, Audi wishes to thank the ardent sports car enthusiasts in the United States for having been loyal to the brand for so many years.