SEBRING — Sebring International Raceway is going to be a proving ground as much as a racetrack when the 12 Hours of Sebring kicks off the American Le Mans Series season Saturday.
Two of the most innovative prototypes in the history of sports car racing will make their racing debut in the 57th edition of America's oldest endurance event, with Acura introducing its all-new gas-powered ARX-02a and Audi its R15 TDI, the latest diesel-engine car from the German company.
The new cars face a challenge in the American Le Mans Series' elite LMP1 class from another diesel-powered entry — the returning Peugeot 908 HDi.
"Obviously, the Peugeot is not a new car so, in terms of knowing the car and reliability, Peugeot has the advantage," said David Brabham, who will co-drive one of two Acuras. "I think Audi and ourselves are still learning and understanding our new cars.
"I hope we all go out there and we're all reliable, and we can race to the end."
The new Acuras — making the company's LMP1 debut after racing in the LMP2 class last year — will be fielded by de Ferran Motorsports and Patron Highcroft Racing.
Former Indianapolis 500 winner and two-time Champ Car champion Gil de Ferran will team with Simon Pagenaud and reigning IndyCar and Indy 500 champion Scott Dixon, while Brabham will co-drive the PHR entry with Scott Sharp and Dario Franchitti, another Indy 500 champ.
The most unique aspect of the Acura design is a front end that allows the same size tires on both the front and rear — something not seen in major auto racing in more than four decades. The idea was to make the Acura so fast in the corners that the car will overcome the horsepower advantage of the diesel-engine cars.
"The goal of this new program was to try and create the fastest and most agile (LM)P1 car that's been built," chief designer Nick Wirth said.
"There is an art to winning a 12-hour race in spending as little time as possible in the pits," Sharp said. "Our reliability, strategy and consistency of the car and the drivers will be tested."
Last year's Le Mans winners, Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello, will share one Audi, while the other will be manned by Marco Werner, Lucas Luhr and Mike Rockenfeller.
Peugeot has yet to win an ALMS race and it doesn't have a new car, but its two entries are also expected to be competitive.
Nic Minassian, Pedro Lamy and Christian Klien will partner in one Peugeot coupe, while Franck Montagny, Stephane Sarrazin and four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais, now racing in Formula One, will drive the other.
The race is guaranteed to have a new winner this year, with Penske Racing, which won with a Porsche Spyder LMP2 car last year, having moved to the rival Grand-Am series.