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Team Joest wins Sebring

No.1 Audi R8 takes the lead after Champion driver develops cramps.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2003

SEBRING -- For 10 hours, the Team Champion Audi team looked like a runaway winner at Sebring International Raceway. But there's a reason it's called endurance racing.

The car must endure.

So must the drivers.

The Team Joest Audi, which ran second most of the day, took advantage of a late caution and Champion's questionable strategy to win its fourth consecutive 12 Hours of Sebring.

Marco Werner took the checkered flag in the No.1 Audi R8 with a lead of more than 13 seconds over Champion driver Stefan Johansson. The Audi cars were the only ones to complete 367 laps on the 3.7-mile road circuit.

Frank Bielo and Philipp Peter completed Joest's lineup.

Champion, which at one point lapped the field, lost a 32-second lead during the race's first full-course caution in the ninth hour. Midway through the 10th, driver Emanuele Pirro succumbed to muscle cramps in his calves.

Joest took the lead and kept it.

"We were hoping for a yellow," Peter said. "We said, 'Let's hang around for 10 hours and race the last two. To win a race, the driver has to be fit, the car has to be good and the team has to do a good job. We got all three of those components together."

Audi made its sports car debut at Sebring in 1999, the same year the American Le Mans Series was founded. The manufacturer has dominated the series and its endurance event since debuting the R8 model in 2000.

In the series' 37-race history, Audi has 30 victories in the high-power LMP900 class, including 24 one-two finishes. It has 35 poles and the fastest lap in 36 races.

In June, Audi will try for its fourth straight 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world's most prestigious sports car race. The past four Sebring winners have won Le Mans.

Champion was heartbroken.

Wanting Pirro, its fastest driver, in the car as long as possible, Champion put him back in after a 74-minute break and left him in during the caution, when Joest put in Werner.

When Pirro was unable to finish his stint -- he pulled in 10 minutes earlier than scheduled because of the cramps -- the strategy fell apart. Pirro handed the car to Johansson and an 18-second lead to Joest.

"I went out of the car and after an hour they wanted me back in," Pirro said. "I think that wasn't so smart. ... I did not have enough time in between my stints to recuperate sufficiently."

Forced to play catchup, Champion did not give Johansson fresh tires.

"That was our race," Johansson said. "We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory."

Bentley, racing on American soil for the first time since the 1922 Indianapolis 500, quickly became the fan favorite. But despite posting the fastest times in practice and qualifying, the cars finished third and fourth, four and five laps down, respectively.

They qualified first and second but failed technical inspection because the rear diffuser, which has no impact on performance, was at an improper height. As a penalty, the cars were dropped to the rear of the 55-car grid for the start.

The Bentleys also ran on narrower tires than the rest of the LMP900 field -- 14 inches rather than 16 -- to compensate for any aerodynamic advantage they might have had as the only cars in their class with closed cockpits.

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