Drivers Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz have been close to Victory Lane so often in the American Le Mans Series they were just tired of collecting runner-up trophies. But Saturday, in the 57th running of the legendary Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, the Mexican racing stars stepped to the top of the victory podium.
Fernandez and Diaz, both of Mexico City, turned in a stellar performance on the tough tarmac of Sebring International Raceway by driving the No. 15 Lowe's Fernandez Racing Acura ARX-01b sports car to the LMP2 class title. It marked Acura's eighth LMP2 win and second Sebring crown in just 24 starts in ALMS competition.
Diaz opened the event by driving the first three hours in his Acura 3.4-liter, V-8-powered prototype and established a large advantage before turning the driving chores over to team owner Fernandez, who continued the team's big margin. The Lowe's team completed 360 laps and placed fourth overall on the 3.7-mile classic circuit.
In the LMP1 category, Acura made its ALMS debut with the de Ferran Motorsports and Patrón Highcroft Racing operations and the all new Acura ARX-02a sports car. Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon put the No. 66 de Ferran XM Radio Acura on the pole Thursday with a stunning run against sports-car stalwarts Audi and Peugeot.
The two new Acura LMP1 prototype machines ran well in the 12-hour ALMS season opener but were forced to the garage area before the checkered flag was thrown. The de Ferran team of Dixon, team owner Gil de Ferran and young star Simon Pagenaud challenged the pair of Audi and Peugeot cars but retired at the eight-hour mark due to a front suspension problem.
The No. 9 Patrón Highcroft Acura, with David Brabham, Dario Franchitti and Scott Sharp driving, was running in the top five overall at 10 hours when a transmission malfunction sent the car to the garage.
The all-new Acura LMP1 cars, with 4-liter, normally aspirated V-8 engines, came to Sebring with a revolutionary chassis design from Honda Performance Development [HPD] and Wirth Research that featured the same Michelin tires on the front and rear wheels for more traction. It made for one of the best-handling sports cars ever designed for the American Le Mans Series.
The sensational pole run by Dixon on Thursday had the Sebring paddock area abuzz with the potential to take on Audi and Peugeot for the 12-hour title. But early exits kept the Acuras out of contention.
The Audi contingent of Allan McNish, Rinaldo Capello and Tom Kristensen won the LMP1 class.
57th annual Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring Results
1. Audi No. 2
2. Peugeot No. 08
3. Audi No. 1
5. PATRÓN HIGHCROFT ACURA ARX-02a No. 9
6. XM RADIO de FERRAN ACURA ARX-02a No. 66
1. LOWE’S FERNANDEZ ACURA ARX-01b No. 15
Drivers: Adrian Fernandez, Luis Diaz
UPCOMING ALMS RACE:
Event: Acura Sports Car Challenge
Track: Streets of St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg, Fla. (1.8 miles, 14 turns)
Date: Saturday, April 4, 2009, 1:30 p.m. (EDT)
Distance: 1 hour, 55 minutes
TV: ABC-TV, April 4, 1:30 p.m. EDT
Acura Contacts: Tom Blattler, 317-525-5692; T.E. McHale, 310-783-3169
(Photos) Gil de Ferran (below left) leads the start of the 57th annual 12 Hours of Sebring against a strong LMP1 field including Audi and Peugeot. The No. 66 de Ferran Acura ARX-02a battled on the lead lap before suspension trouble hamper the team’s effort. The No. 9 Patrón Highcroft Acura finished fifth in the LMP1 division.
ADRIAN FERNANDEZ (#15 Lowe's Fernandez Acura ARX-01b): "We had a great race today. It went just as we planned it. The crew was flawless and Luis drove a tremendous race. Last year, I was sick here and it was tough to drive to the finish. This year was different. I was a great physical shape and we drove hard throughout the race. This is a great feeling to finally get to the Winner's Circle. We have been close many times but we were able to get to Victory Lane at Sebring."
LUIS DIAZ (#15 Lowe's Fernandez Acura ARX-01b): "I had an early fight with one of the Mazdas. I was able to get on the inside going down the front straight and take the lead. After that, we ran a strong and consistent pace. The car was great all day. It is so exciting to win at Sebring, especially our first ALMS win for Lowe's and Acura. We had a good plan for the race and we stuck right with it until the end. It is a great way to start the season."
DAVID BRABHAM (#9 Patrón Highcroft Racing Acura ARX- 02a): "I think we didn't get enough time leading into the race to properly have everything together. I think it has been a success for the first race, since it was such a scramble to get to be reliable. We are learning as we go and it was great learning experience today. We now have a clearer idea of what we need to setup the car. I see a lot of potential with this new Acura."
SCOTT SHARP (#9 Patrón Highcroft Racing Acura ARX-02a): "It looked like we were destined for a strong finish, the Top Five. But we had to retire after ten hours when something grabbed us. I think overall it was a pretty impressive debut for the new Acura LMP1 car. We believe there is a lot of potential for the Acura and it was an exciting debut for the car with the pole and a solid run in the race. We'll get ready for St. Petersburg and attempt to win it."
DARIO FRANCHITTI (#9 Patrón Highcroft Racing Acura ARX-02a): "I got a bad cramp in my back in the first stint from an old injury. I couldn't put the pressure on the brake due to the cramp. I managed a cool 360 on cold tires and didn't hit anything. I love coming to Sebring for this race. It has great history. The Patrón Highcroft guys have really worked hard to prepare this new Acura sports car. It is going to be a tremendous car as it is developed."
SIMON PAGENAUD (#66 XM Radio de Ferran Acura ARX-02a): "It was an early retirement, but the eight hours at Sebring is a good start with this new Acura. It was a tough week for the de Ferran crew and they did a tremendous job. Putting the car on the pole was great and it shows the potential of the car. We were suffering in straight-line speed against the turbo cars. The design of this car with the big front tires is proving to be very good. It was only the first race and I'm anxious to see how the Acura's progress goes throughout the season. It is a fun race and very physical for the drivers. We drove very hard."
GIL de FERRAN (#66 XM Radio de Ferran Acura ARX-02a): "We are a little disappointed we didn't make it to the checkered flag. But I felt good about our performance today. We proved that the Acura is the best handling car out there today. The track was coming to us as the race progressed. We stayed on the lead lap until we had a couple of unscheduled pit stops. We are qualifying on every lap. Simon, Scott and I were driving very hard, just like qualifying. We were pushing the car hard and it was fun. We leave Sebring with a good feeling about the new Acura. It is a good concept and it will get better. Our team learned a lot about this car and the race. Now, we'll be ready for St. Pete."
SCOTT DIXON (#66 XM Radio de Ferran Acura ARX-02a): "It was tough trying to catch the leaders. The track conditions were improving as the race went on, and I think we had pretty good lap times in the middle of the race. There was some promise as the race went on. But we didn't have the straightaway speed and the momentum off the corners like the Audi and Peugeot. But it was a good effort for the first time out with the new car."