words: George Achorn, photos by author, Regis Lefebure, Tim Enders, Bill Cho & Audi Sport
Sebring, FL – There’s an uncharacteristic tone of relaxation in the air around Sebring International Raceway this particular morning. It’s 10:00 AM, late by nearly anyone’s standard save spring breakers or retired poseur Hell’s Angels at Bike Week just up the road in Daytona. We slipped past the front gate with but a John Hancock signed on the gratuitous racetrack liability waiver and we now sit, gathered around tables in the Audi Sport Team Joest team hospitality tent as engineers and world class drivers relax nearby casually and almost lazily finishing their breakfast or any pre-test prep. The tone and maybe the St. Patrick’s day special Entenmann’s donuts with their green sprinkles up for eating on a buffet table nearby seem alien given the high level of tempo of a team like Audi Sport and the fitness of an Allan McNish, Andre Lotterer or Tom Kristensen.
Outside the tent, Sebring International Raceway is surprisingly kempt. It seems the cleanup started early and lest you wander over to the fabled Green Park with its burnt shells of couches, abandoned barbecue grills and deflated porn dolls you might mistake this as any other day in Sebring… certainly not the post apocalyptic moonscape one might expect the Monday after the 12 Hours.
This particular post race week and this particular track is a favorite of Audi Sport chief Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich. Audi has made a bit of a tradition of staying on in Florida just a few days more – less to catch rays and more to log grueling miles on this undulating track, now bedded with plenty of fresh rubber. In the old days prior to the Audi R18, Ullrich and his team would roll the cars into the garage after the race and turn out the lights, only to return and continue running them on Monday – part of their preparation ritual for Le Mans.
With the R18 program things have been a bit different. For whatever reason, Audi’s raced its “last year” car at the season opener for the second year running. That’s been a plus because the old car is then a point of reference in the test. And while this also keeps key competitors from gaining critical on-track comparison with Audi’s latest and greatest, it also places more importance on the test session where Audi Sport must scramble to learn the nuance of a new car… or cars in the case of 2012 since the team will campaign both the diesel “hybrid” R18 e-tron quattro and the diesel-powered R18 ultra.
Dr. Ullrich and his communications officer Eva-Maria Veith walk in and their simple presence draws the talkative group of journalists on hand to near silence. Audi Sport is pulling back the curtain again this year on its post Sebring test. Veith, often extremely measured and organized on race day, is also surprisingly casual outside of the craziness of a race weekend. Testing is old hat for this seasoned team, but there’s an unstated understanding that we’d best heed the few guidelines they’ve put in place.
The rules are simple. No photos in the pits and check in with Eva if there’s anyone you’d like to interview. Drivers are all here save Mike Rockenfeller who is at a test in Valencia with his new Audi A5 DTM car. Each driver will be in and out so they’re catch as catch can but even the stoic Dr. Ullrich is open for chats.
Ullrich walks us through the essentials for those out on the track spotting the Audis that will be testing today. He informs us that there will be four cars in use today, each relatively easy to spot. Three will be test chassis cars, most obviously identified due to their lack of painted livery and menacing bodywork with exposed carbon fiber. These three will be numbered #1, #2 and #3.
Audi R18 test car #1 will be an e-tron quattro. This car will be running an endurance test cycle and one might assume running the most laps. Audi R18 test car #2 will be a second e-tron quattro that will be testing the latest aerodynamics package. The #3 R18 test car is an example of the R18 ultra – TDI only and without the so-called “flybrid” system. The #3 is set to test various aero throughout the day.
Finally there is a second car bearing the #3. This is basically the second place car from Sunday’s 12 Hours of Sebring that had been driven by Bernhard, Dumas and Duval during the race. This car was essentially rolled into the paddock after the race and will be run today as a reference car.
Reference for what? Pace is the obvious answer here though we’ll not try to estimate a pace differential in this story because none of us were on the radio nor aware of the cars out there pushing the same pace at the same time. That one car may have been faster than another at any given time isn’t terribly indicative of anything in particular.
Ullrich and Veith adjourn our photographer’s meeting and the group mounts their golf carts and disperses for points around the track. We catch up with Tom Kristensen for a quick conversation about the differences between the various R18s and then quickly shuffle over to Dr. Ullrich’s motor coach for a second interview with the Audi Sport boss.
Funny thing about Dr. Ullrich’s coach, you find yourself climbing around trophies. Having just nabbed first and second in the 12 Hours of Sebring, plus all the various prizes that go with it, Ullrich’s RV is littered with massive gold-plated cups that continuously remind of the man’s stature even if he comes off as stoic, calm, cool and collected. It’s a good problem to have for the German racing icon.
Ullrich spends about 20 minutes chatting with us about his cars, the new technology and even recalls his memories of last year’s momentous 24 Hours of Le Mans upon request.
By the time the team is headed back to the paddock for lunch we’ve barely photographed a shot… barely seen the test cars other than black blurs off in the distance. We’re chomping at the bit but that’s also where Regis Lefebure comes into play.
Lefebure is one of motorsport’s top shooters. He was Audi Sport’s own photographer back in the R8 LMP1 era and today he’s playing for the Fourtitude team. Regis disappeared quickly after the photographer’s meeting and hasn’t been seen since… off to little known points around the track we’ve yet to discover.
In some ways, working a test is a bit like a pie eating contest. When something is placed in front of you like an interview with driver or key player, or you’ve got a test car racing past you, you try to capture as much of it as possible as quickly as you can. You ask all the questions you can think of. You capture as many photos as possible in the time you’re allowed.
That track is nearly empty as Audi Sport breaks for a team-only lunch that sets the mood while we hoof it up to an air-conditioned Team Joest box above the front straight. It’s eerily empty compared to how it was during the race, but it’s a cool place to wait out the meal until the Audis return to track. Our wait reminds us very directly that tests like this include a lot of down time.
You try to get an interview, but the driver might be out on the track… or maybe not even at the track at all. Tom raced off at the wheel of a Jeep Wrangler to go pick up Dindo at the hotel following our own discussion with him. You just never know, and you may find yourself all set up at a corner that suits the sun’s current position when all of the cars go into the pit, or worse the paddock. It’s not like a race where there is always a sense of urgency, always cars out on track.
As we putter around on our golf cart we spot various players going about their business. There’s Bodo the Audi Sport photographer sitting coolly on his own cart by turn 16 waiting for the R18s to come out on track. He has no radio that we can see but he seems to instinctually be in tune with the team’s activities. Like a Jedi he sits on his golf cart, if Jedi’s had golf carts, conserving himself for the right moment to move into action. A lone Gulf livery Aston Martin continues its own all-day endurance test, blaring by though not causing Bodo to move from his seat or really raise an eye. Then the R18 #3 reference car hits the track and still he sits. One of the test cars laps once and he finally moves to position himself, gets the shot, then nods to us as he coolly walks back to his cart. Then, he’s off to his next spot.
Later we roll past Sebring’s famous hairpin and catch Oliver Jarvis and Marco Bonanomi standing on a viewing mound and surveying the passing R18 as it goes through one of Sebring’s trickiest corners. Both will drive today and we confirm Jarvis in the reference car at one point. No doubt both, experiencing their first year as starting drivers for Audi Sport, are eager to log as many miles as possible in the Audi prototypes.
At one point in the afternoon we find ourselves shooting near turn 11, both an interesting shot and conveniently in the shade of a grove of trees. A golf cart rolls up and it’s none other than Tom Kristensen. Hanging his Team Joest radio on the chain link fence, Mr. Le Mans hangs about for a bit and watches the cars. He explains that one of the things he’s watching is the R18 e-tron quattro’s rotation in turn 10. Dindo Capello is currently logging some flyers in #2 with its otherworldly aero package and he watches it intently as it streaks by.
Such encounters would be impossible to experience during a race, but the starkly different atmosphere at the test make this possible. The slower pace allows for trackside chat, or exploration of areas you’d previously never found.
We’ve shot Sebring for years, but seasoned Car & Driver photographer Marc Urbano gives us a tip on another place to go… on the outside and up toward the airport. We head that way and nail some refreshingly different shots than everything we’d captured during the race. It’s nearing sunset and the warming filter of evening has begun to make light dance in a very different way across the track and these sinister black Audis.
At one point, activity stops. No cars are lapping, not even the persistent Aston Martin that’s been rounding Sebring incessantly all day.
We see some course trucks somewhere up near turn 13 race off up the track but aren’t really concerned. The track is downright serene as it sits, devoid of cars and rapidly approaching that perfect “happy hour” for snapping photos.
Still no cars approach so we head back to the main portion of the track to peek into the pits and check status, while maybe heading to turn 1 for the gratuitous sunset shot. As my golf cart rounds the Chateau hotel near the main entrance I spot several stopped cars on the driving bridge just above turn 17 where it transfers to the front straight. They’re all looking down at the track. Clearly there’s been an accident.
I roll up on the group and look down. There’s a car under cover buried deeply into the tire barriers and an ambulance on scene. The red flame suits of the Audi Sport team indicate this is unfortunately one of the cars I’m here to watch.
It’s known now that Timo Bernhard experienced some sort of equipment failure going into turn 17, that long right-hander that I’m told by the more experienced Mr. Lefebure is done flat out in a prototype like the R18. Timo was travelling at an impressive pace when the back end of his R18 ultra test car let loose and the racing prototoype backed itself rather forcefully into the tire barriers. Timo removed himself from the wrecked car under his own power but was then put on a stretcher and taken to a hospital.
The official description from Audi Sport reads like this.
“On March 19 at about 7.15 p.m. local time, Timo Bernhard lost control of the car he was driving due to a technical problem. At Turn 17 on the Sebring race circuit, he collided at high speed while the car was moving backwards with the protective barrier consisting of motor vehicle tires. Analysis of the situation confirmed that the technical problem could not occur on the other test cars, and it was therefore decided to continue testing. Timo Bernhard was able to free himself from the car after the accident, and was taken to a hospital for a medical examination.”
Fortunately in the end Timo was bruised but not beaten. The German driver remained in Florida for recuperation. Audi Sport remained at Sebring through the end of the week in order to continue testing, though our day was over as a result of the crash. No more cars would go out on track as the damaged R18 had to be removed and the barriers repaired.
With a wrecked car and potentially injured driver to deal with, Audi Sport wished to lower the curtain for the journalists and we fully understood this desire. Our day ended even more surreally than it had begun. After grabbing dinner at a local Thai restaurant in Sebring that came highly recommended by Tom Kristensen, we wearily hit the road for home.
Editor’s Note: Want to know more about the Sebring test in March. Check out our two interview videos directly below. Below that you’ll find links to related stories as well as a photo gallery with hundreds of original photos from the test in our photo gallery.