The Audi Sport UK team can look confidently ahead to the Le Mans 24 Hours in June achieving sixth place on the debut in the 51st Sebring 12 Hours last weekend (15 March). Mika Salo started the race placed fourth in his Audi R8 on the 55-car grid but quickly found a rhythm in his first-ever sportscar race to slot in to a comfortable third behind the similar Audis of Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela.
Salo and co-drivers Jonny Kane, from Belfast, and Brentwood’s Perry McCarthy, held fourth place at mid-distance despite a brief unscheduled stop with a turbo boost pressure problem after five hours.
Minor collisions with backmarkers damaged a front nose section – which had to be replaced on a scheduled pit-stop – and a rear aerofoil endplate but the "British" Audi began the final four hours placed fifth behind the two Audis and a pair of Bentleys.
But all hope of a podium placing on the "British" Audi’s debut disappeared soon afterwards when Salo was unable engage first gear after a regular pit-stop for fuel and tyres. The team lost around 20 minutes in changing the Audi’s rear section before Kane resumed in sixth place – a position held to the chequered flag.
Salo reflected: "This was my first ever sportscar race and I loved the experience. The start was fantastic and I just loved overtaking in the traffic - it was very exciting. I felt very comfortable with the car and we looked good for at least a top-five placing so to finish sixth was a little disappointing."
Biela, partnered by Marco Werner and Philipp Peter, ultimately scored Audi’s fourth consecutive Sebring victory. Biela, having started from pole-position, led home fellow triple Le Mans race winner Pirro’s similar Audi R8 by just 13.493secs after almost 1,400 miles of hard racing.
"A slight collision with a slower car damaged the nose section whicb had to be replaced on a scheduled stop but at the start of my second stint, I could not engage a gear and the team had to take the car to the transporter in the paddock to change the entire rear section but that lost us around 20 minutes," added Kane.
The mighty German manufacturer led all 367 laps, completed at an average speed of over 113mph, in the Florida heat. Pirro, driving for the American ADT Champion team, led most of the race but a full-course yellow caution period with a little over three hours to run effectively cancelled out Pirro’s 32-second lead. Then, with just 90-minutes remaining, Pirro suffered cramp forcing the Italian to make an unscheduled pit-stop.
McCarthy concluded: "Considering that the team was racing the 2002 R8 for the very first time and that Mika, Jonny and I arrived at Sebring with less than 20 miles experience in the car, we’ve still done fantastically well. This was a Le Mans ‘test’ for Audi Sport UK, the team and its drivers and Sebring has provided us with invaluable data and experience."
1. (1) Frank Biela,Germany;Marco Werner,Germany;Phillip Peter,Austria; Audi R-8 (P900), 367, 12;00:23.360, 113.097 mph, Margin of Victory 13.493 seconds
2. (2) Emanuele Pirro,Italy;JJ Lehto,Finland;Stefan Johansson,Sweden; Audi R-8 (P900), 367
3. (51) Johnny Herbert,England;David Brabham,Australia;Mark Blundell,England; Bentley Speed 8 (P900), 363
4. (52) Tom Kristensen,Denmark;Rinaldo Capello,Italy;Guy Smith,England; Bentley Speed 8 (P900), 362
5. (6) Olivier Beretta,France;Gunnar Jeannette,Palm Beach Gardens, FL;Max Papis,Italy; Panoz LMP01/EPP (P900), 352
6. (4) Mika Salo,Finland;Jonny Kane,Ireland;Perry McCarthy,England; Audi R-8 (P900), 351Published 18 March 2003