Sebring 12 Hours preview

This year's American Le Mans Series kicks off on Saturday at the spiritual home of endurance racing in the United States.

Sebring 12 Hours preview

The Sebring 12 Hours can trace its history right back to 1953 and the beginnings of the world sportscar series, but few times in the succeeding seasons has the event been able to boast such an impressive entry as in the first year of the new millennium.

All the major manufacturers heading for the Le Mans 24 Hours in June are taking part - and then there the reigning winners in France, BMW, to consider.

Sportscar returnee Cadillac's new Northstar LMP makes its second start, while Audi debuts the car that it hopes will bring it success not only at Le Mans but also in a full ALMS campaign.

Panoz brings out a refined version of the front-engined prototype that brought the Georgia-based outfit manufacturers' and teams' honours in last year's series.

And BMW is back with the V12 LMR, a car that not only won Le Mans but also four ALMS races in 1999.

Panoz's strong run at the end of last season must make the LMP Roadster S favourite for honours at Sebring, not least because the marque came out on top at the circuit in pre-season testing.

David Brabham, paired with Jan Magnussen and Pierre-Henri Raphanel in the number one Panoz this weekend, finished a close second in last season's ALMS and knows the importance of a good start.

"You get extra points for Sebring," says the Australian.

"Last year's champion came second here in 1999. We didn't finish and I only last year's drivers' title by a couple of points."

Audi's all-new R8 prototype should take the fight to Panoz around the bumpy Florida airfield circuit.

Last year, the German manufacturer's R8R finished a distant third at Sebring, but the Joest-run team is confident of improving this time around.

"The new car is better than last year's, no question. When we've tested we haven't gone looking to set ultra-fast times, but we know the potential is there," says Frank Biela, who teams up with Emanuele Pirro and Tom Kristensen.

Allan McNish, meanwhile, is paired with former Ferrari Grand Prix driver Michele Alboreto and Rinaldo Capello in the other car.

The jury remains out on BMW's V12 LMR. The car has undergone little development over the winter after the Munich marque's late decision to send the Schnitzer squad back to the ALMS.

Exceptional reliability and the ultra-strong driver line-up of JJ Lehto and Jorg Muller in the lead car means BMW will be a victory at Sebring.

The new Cadillac surprised the pundits with its pace at Daytona and further improvements have been made since the 24 Hours back in early January.

What's more, the factory Riley & Scott squad is bolstered by the arrival of the Caddy's European development team, DAMS.

Expect the top privateers to spring a surprise or two over the weekend.

But it may be too early for Rafanelli, a race winner in last year's ALMS, to prove that Lola's radical B2K/10 can mix it with the factory teams.

The same goes for the Johansson-Matthews team, which endured a difficult debut with Reynard's new 2KQ at Daytona.
Sebring and the ALMS is just about the battle for outright honours fought out by the prototype class.

Chrysler and Corvette resume the GTS class rivalry took them to first and second overall at Daytona, while the inter-marque battle among the team's running Porsche's 911 GT3-R in the 'baby' GT division.

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