By IMSA Wire Service
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When you’re on the grid for the pre-race fan walk on the morning of March 16, shortly before the command to start engines for the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts, take a look at the long structure behind and towering above the pits.
You’ll notice signs with national flags, names and years corresponding to the overall-winning manufacturer of each race going back to the first Twelve Hours back in 1952. And when you’re on the pit-in end of the tower, you’ll see a whole bunch of German flags and the name, “Audi.”
We’ll save you the trouble of counting them yourself. Between 2000 and 2013, there are 11. And there are eight in a row from 2000 through 2007.
What the signs don’t tell you, however, is that those 11 wins came from five different types of Audi prototypes: the R8, R10 TDI, R15 TDI, R18 TDI and R18 e-tron quattro; or the fact that these engines ran the gamut from gasoline to diesel to hybrid. They also don’t tell you that 16 different drivers won for Audi at Sebring between 2000 and 2013.
Allan McNish, the recently announced Super Sebring grand marshal, was part of Audi’s Sebring driver lineup for its entire, 14-year run. He won four times, in 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2012. But it’s one he didn’t win that he reckons was the most significant for Audi, and that was the maiden victory in 2000 by Frank Biela, Tom Kristensen and Emanuele Pirro in a 1-2 sweep for Audi R8s ahead of McNish, Rinaldo “Dindo” Capello and Michele Alboreto.
“It was Audi’s first victory in sports car racing,” said McNish in his unmistakable Scottish brogue. “So, you think about all of Audi’s successes in sports car racing, but you always remember your first. It has got a very, very special place in Audi’s heart, but also in its history books, because it was the first one.
“I was there. I finished second with Michele Alboreto and Dindo Capello, and it was Frankie, Tom and Emanuele that won. That was a special night, I’ve got to be honest with you. It was like a little mark in the book. And for every single one afterwards, it was trying to uphold the honor that the circuit has, and that we were able to join on.”
In addition to kicking off the unbelievable run of success in the Twelve Hours of Sebring, that 2000 victory launched an amazing period of sports car racing for Audi worldwide. In June that same year, Biela, Kristensen and Pirro won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, beginning a run of 13 victories from 2000 through 2014.
Audi would win nine American Le Mans Series (ALMS) championships from 2000 through 2008 and took FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) titles in 2012 and 2013. The manufacturer leveraged the on-track success in global marketing and advertising programs, making Audi prototypes among the most recognizable race cars anywhere in the world.
But which one was the best?
“I would say my favorite is the R10 (which won Sebring in 2006 and 2007),” McNish said. “However, my favorite Audi at Sebring, without a question or shadow of a doubt, was the R15. That car was just stunning that year, in 2009.”
It was McNish’s third Sebring victory, coming alongside Capello and Kristensen in a head-to-head battle with the Peugeot shared by Sebastien Bourdais, Stephane Sarrazin and Franck Montagny. The field also included two different versions of Acura prototypes, including the ARX-02a from de Ferran Motorsports that Scott Dixon qualified on the pole position.
“That was probably the toughest race,” McNish recalls. “That was a race where, I think, Tom, Dindo and I were absolutely on our peak and the R15 was stunning. It was simply stunning. It was the first time I ever overtook an LMP car around the outside into Turn 1 and right through the corner.
“It was one where I was building up from the start-finish line and working out where I was going to catch, and realized it was going to be just after the braking point. The car gave me so much confidence that I thought, ‘Right, ‘round the outside we go,’ and pulled it off.
“That was a bit of commitment, I’ve got to be honest with you, but the sort of commitment we needed to do, because we were not quite as quick as the Peugeot over singular laps, but we could achieve it over the course of the race distance and the stints. That was a very, very special one to continue our war with Peugeot.”
McNish, who became Audi’s coordinator of all motorsport activities for the Audi Group in 2015, looks back on the entire period with fondness.
“You see all the names above the pits,” McNish said. “When Audi came back in 2001 – because we had the 1-2 in 2000 – the first time we came back and the Audi name was above the pits, it was like, ‘Bloody hell, our name is on the board with everybody else. Look at the other people and then our name’s up there.’
“It went forward, and it got to the point where – we won there the first time out with the R8 in 2000, we won the first time out with the R10 in 2006, which was the first run with the diesel, and then in 2009 with the R15. Then, it became a bit of a thing like, ‘Crikey, you’ve got to try and win every time that you’ve got a new car coming there.’”
McNish scored his final Sebring victory in 2012 – when the WEC ran concurrently with the ALMS in a field that included 64 cars and nine different classes – in an R18 TDI with co-drivers Kristensen and Capello. Audi’s last overall Sebring win came a year later with Oliver Jarvis, Marcel Fassler and Benoit Treluyer in the R18 e-tron quattro.
“To have made a little bit of a mark of history at Sebring, at a race that’s been around for a very, very long time – it’s been around longer than me and it will be around longer than me, that’s for sure,” McNish said. “I think that, if you can be a part of that, it’s really, really special. Certainly, from Audi as a brand, it is.”
Tickets for the doubleheader Super Sebring weekend featuring the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and FIA World Endurance Championship are still on sale for the weekend of March 14-17.
Ticket packages are available on www.sebringraceway.com.
For fans unable to attend, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring will be broadcast on Saturday, March 16 starting on CNBC at 10:30 a.m. ET with more coverage throughout the day on the NBC Sports App and NBCSN. The entire race can be streamed live on the NBC Sports App.
The 12-hour race follows the IMSA MICHELIN Pilot Challenge race, the Alan Jay Automotive Network 120, on Friday at noon ET and the IMSA Prototype Challenge race on Thursday at 12:35 p.m. ET, all of which can be streamed live on IMSA.tv with IMSA Radio commentary.
Live IMSA Radio coverage of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring also will be carried on SiriusXM Radio (XM Channel 202/Sirius Channel 216/Internet Channel 972).