Temperatures soar, but the team of Capello, Herbert and Pescatori endures and leads the final seven hours.
By LOGAN NEILL
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2002
SEBRING -- Team Joest, the juggernaut Audi effort that has dominated the American Le Mans Series the past two years, celebrated the 50th running of the 12 Hours of Sebring on Saturday with a solid, hard-fought win for its third straight title. Rinaldo Capello, Johnny Herbert and Christian Pescatori drove their silver and yellow-trimmed No. 2 Team Joest Audi R8 to victory less than a lap ahead of the Florida-based Champion Racing Audi driven by Andy Wallace, Jan Lammers and Stephan Johannson.
For Capello, the win was nearly an exact repeat of last year's, in which he drove with Laurent Aiello and the late Michele Alboreto. Similar to then, he and his co-drivers moved ahead of the leading team of Frank Biela, Tom Kristensen and Emanuele Pirro after it developed mechanical problems.
Herbert made the winning move on a restart. Herbert, a former Formula One star from England, passed fellow Audi driver Biela in Turn 1 five hours into the endurance race. Team Joest led the final seven hours of the race.
Herbert, new to the track, found the pace exhausting.
"It was one of the hardest races I've ever driven," he said. "The track is absolutely bumpy. But we had a car that handled nicely, and that was a blessing."
Perhaps more than anything the win signaled Team Joest's unwillingness to relinquish its dominance on the world sports car racing stage.
Quick competition from Panoz, MG and Cadillac seemed formidable early but not at the end, and none seemed to have the sureness and speed that is Audi's hallmark. Jim Matthews, Guy Smith and Marc Goossens finished third in a Riley & Scott/Elan Prototype. For some the race offered a strong measure of redemption. After four attempts at winning the GTS class, Corvette Racing finally ended its string of shutouts, courtesy of a near flawless performance by co-drivers Ron Fellows, Johnny O'Connell and Oliver Gavin.
The revived effort by MG got a boost from the team of Jon Fields, Duncan Dayton and Michael Durand, who won in LMP675. The Porsche 911 GT3RS of Lucas Luhr and Sascha Massen pulled off a repeat for Alex Job Racing by winning the GT category.
A field of 59 cars, the largest in 10 years, took the green flag. The race attracted more than 160,000 fans to the 3.7-mile Sebring International Speedway. The race, considered by many top drivers to be among the toughest endurance events in the world, again lived up to its billing as an event in which heartbreak is a heartbeat away.
At least that was how Didier Theys felt after his Oreca Dallara Judd LMP 900 launched itself into a tire barrier less than an hour after the start. For Theys, fresh off two victories -- the 24 Hours of Daytona and the Miami Grand Prix this month -- the extensive damage to the car ended his hopes. "All of a sudden I had no brakes," said Theys, who was not injured in the crash. "I was going about 150 mph and I hit backwards, hard."
But it wasn't just hard luck that ruined the day for some drivers. Blistering temperatures did their share to wear down man and machinery. Drivers, many of whom withstood cockpit temperatures of 150 or more, climbed out of their cars after hourlong driving stints searching for anything cold with which to douse themselves. "It's like a 180 mph sauna out there," driver Guy Smith said. "It was just too hot."