McNish, Audi To Start From Sebring Pole Position

Allan McNish gave Audi pole position for Saturday’s 56th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh from Florida after the grid for the season-opening race for the American Le Mans Series was set by practice times. Because the prototype field had less than 10 minutes of green-flag qualifying time, the results from the session were disallowed.

As a result, McNish’s Audi R10 TDI will start on the inside front row based on his time of 1:43.195 (129.076 mph) in Thursday morning’s official practice session. He will start alongside the Peugeot 908 of Pedro Lamy, Nic Minassian and Stephane Sarrazin, which posted the second quickest time of the week at 1:44.27 (127.744 mph). Like the Audi, the Peugeot set its best time Thursday morning.

The qualifying session stoppage occurred when Ben Devlin went hard into the outside tire wall at Turn 1. The Englishman was checked out and OK but the car and the debris were another matter. With not enough time in the 25-minute session to clear the track and resume qualifying, officials cancelled qualifying and set the grid by practice times in accordance with Series Standing Supplemental Regulations.

“We were hoping to see qualifying. We didn’t really get a fair opportunity to see what the cars could do,” McNish said. “That would be the first time any of us could see the improvements in the Peugeot and new Acura. As we came into today we made some changes which made the car feel much better. This is such a hard circuit that you don’t want a bucking bronco for 12 hours.”

Third on the grid will be the second Audi of Lucas Luhr, Mike Rockenfeller and Marco Werner.

Audi will go for its ninth straight win at Sebring, a string that started in 2000 with its R8 prototype. The diesel-powered R10 TDI has won the last two seasons but the German marque faces a serious challenge from the factory Peugeot. Both are diesel-powered cars and will face off Saturday for the first time since the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2007. Peugeot sat on pole position. Audi won the race.

Saturday also will be the first time Peugeot has raced in North America. It comes in a race where starting position rarely means anything at all. The 3.7-mile, 17-turn circuit is notorious for finding weaknesses in cars, especially on the bumpy parts of the track.

“You expect the unexpected here. In that respect, we go into the race knowing we will be competitive and they will be competitive,” McNish said. “We have a general gameplan but in reality no one knows how it is going to shake out.”

Penske Racing’s No. 7 Porsche RS Spyder will start fourth overall and first in LMP2. Timo Bernhard’s time of 1:45.220 (126.592 mph) was good enough to take the top spot in class by 0.79 seconds over the No. 6 sister car.

Bernhard will team with Romain Dumas, the duo returning to defend their 2007 Series class championship. They will join Emmanuel Collard behind the wheel this weekend.

“I am very happy to be back in the Series with the same team and teammate, the same number and car,” Bernhard said. “This gives me a lot of trust to go into 2008. “We have the same tools to have the same success we had last year. It will be very hard to copy that because it was such a special season. Sebring is one of the toughest races but I have full trust in the people. We finished third and last year and it was a good way to start the season.”

Bernhard and Dumas won eight times in LMP2 for Penske in 2007 with six of those overall victories. But the Penske team has come up short at Sebring since its first start here with the Porsche RS Spyder in 2006.

“This is the race we haven’t won in the RS Spyder,” Bernhard said. “But we have to also get points. That is the first goal. This track is quite rough; not only on the drivers but the car as well. If you can do consistent lap times throughout your stint, that is an advantage. I think we are in a good position where we can push if we need to. But in a 12-hour race you don’t want to do that all the time.”

The Lowe’s Fernandez Racing Acura ARX-01b led the Acura contingent in the manufacturer’s quest for a second straight P2 win at Sebring. Adrian Fernandez set the time of 1:46.029 (125.626 mph) in the entry he will share with Luis Diaz. The pairing finished third overall and second in their very first P2 race in 2007, trailing the Andretti Green Racing Acura for the class victory.

Corvette Racing’s No. 3 Corvette C6.R will start from the GT1 pole for the second straight season thanks to Jan Magnussen’s fast lap of 1:56.547 (114.562 mph) Thursday morning. The Dane beat out teammate Oliver Gavin by 0.389 seconds to claim the top spot in class.

Magnussen will team with Johnny O’Connell and Ron Fellows. Gavin will join Olivier Beretta and Max Papis, the defending class winners in the event.

“For us the week so far has been working on the race setup,” said Magnussen, who qualified on the class pole for the 2007 race. “It has been very hard with the temperature. It doesn’t look like it has been close to what it will be for the race. The qualifying setup was probably the closest we could have gotten. We tested sometime ago here with similar conditions and we used that to our advantage.”

Antonio Garcia qualified Bell Motorsports’ Aston Martin DBR9 third in class at 2:00.385. The team has suffered from lack of track time after having to repair the chassis on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Like Magnussen, Risi Competizione’s Jaime Melo posted the fastest class lap for the second year in a row, his coming in GT2. The defending class winner and season champion was at 2:01.184 (109.916 mph) in the first of Risi’s two Ferrari F430 GTs. Melo will team with Mika Salo, with whom he won at Sebring and captured the class championship, and Gianmaria Bruni.

Like Porsche in P2, Ferrari held the top two spots in class. Tafel Racing’s Ferrari of Dirk Mueller, Dominik Farnbacher and Rob Bell was second at 2:01.800 (109.360 mph).

As close as the 0.6161-second gap seemed, it was bigger than Risi’s winning margin in last year’s race. Melo beat Flying Lizard J

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