The 2013 Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring was advertised, in part, as the “Audi’s farewell to top-level prototype racing.”
Twelve months later, Audi’s still got a chance to add to its illustrious history at the iconic circuit. It’s just going to be in a different class, and with a different car.
Without LMP1 racing in North America full-time in 2014, this year’s Sebring sees a more wide-open field across the board.
Audi’s presence shifts from the established top class to the new TUDOR United SportsCar Championship’s class with the biggest car count this year, GT Daytona.
Five Audi R8 LMS cars, under the overall Audi Sport Customer Racing umbrella, have the chance to add to Audi’s rather distinguished prototype record in Sebring.
From 2000 through 2013, Audi won 11 times in 14 years. One of the three times they didn’t was a year they didn’t enter the race (2010).
Now, any of Flying Lizard Motorsports’ two cars or single entries from GMG Racing, Fall-Line Motorsports and Paul Miller Racing have a shot.
“It’s a different kind of business,” explains Brad Kettler, director of operations for Audi Sport Customer Racing USA. “When you go into these big prototype projects, the development of technology is the only primary focus.
“(In GT) we have to work to control costs, and make sure this doesn’t become an arms race because of escalating technologies and who can spend the most money.”
Even so, while the R8 LMS is still a different breed of both technology and cost from an LMP1, it has come a long way in terms of development in its three-year life span in either GRAND-AM or now the TUDOR Championship.
The only U.S.-based driver there from the start is Dion von Moltke, who has three years’ worth of experience sorting out this version of the R8.
What was a purely development project – and a trying one at that throughout the entire 2012 season – began to show signs of life when von Moltke and co-driver Jim Norman finished second at the season finale at Lime Rock Park.
Then came the 2013 Rolex 24 at Daytona, where the R8’s offseason changes, including an altered rear wing and other aerodynamic upgrades, paid huge dividends and ultimately ended with a 1-2 finish.
“This car is drastically different than when we rolled out first time at Daytona 2012,” said von Moltke, who co-drives the No. 35 Flying Lizard Motorsports entry.
“There’s been geometry, spring changes and other things we’ve done. The car generates grip so much different from a European R8 without the downforce. For this weekend, we left the Sebring test pretty confident in the package for the full race.”
Kettler spoke highly of von Moltke’s maturity level; the South African is only 23 but has already provided a huge level of insight to the R8’s U.S. growth.
“He had the dedication to stay with the car when others weren’t so sure,” Kettler said. “He saw it as a winner and an opportunity. His feedback was essential to where we are today.”
Von Moltke is seeking his third straight class win at Sebring, having taken home the GTC class win with Alex Job Racing’s Porsche GT3 Cup cars each of the last two years.
Asked what it would mean to win at Sebring, in an Audi, von Moltke said not only is it harder to win but it would be a different kind of win for the manufacturer.
“It might be more difficult than ever to get Audi into victory lane,” he said. “There’s so many GTD cars, and they’re all really competitive. It’s not like in GTC where it was only one car, and all the teams handled it so well.”
As it is, the five Audis appear to face an uphill struggle this week. The No. 32 GMG entry rolls off best of the quintet in 16th, with the rebuilt No. 48 Paul Miller car 19th, and the remaining three starting 20th to 22nd in class.
Even so, in a 12-hour race notorious for how punishing it is, Audi could still be there at the end.
“It’s a different proposition now compared to the LMP1,” says Matthew Bell, co-driver of Miller’s No. 48 car. “There were less manufacturers to compete against, but the technology was more open and the car more challenging to build.
“Here, now, it’s challenging for us is a 26-car grid of many different marques. But it would mean a great deal to win Audi’s first race here in a GT car for those reasons.”