Acura to challenge Audi, Peugeot at 12 Hours of Sebring

Every time he slams the brakes entering the hairpin turn Saturday at Sebring International Raceway, Gil de Ferran will be reminded of two things:

Why drivers have big necks and why Acura is sticking its neck out to enter the premier division of the American Le Mans Series.

"We're pulling 4 Gs in a lot of corners, and that feels like hanging 120 pounds off your helmet," de Ferran says with a laugh. "Some people actually call that fun, and it is because it's challenging.

"That's how I feel about entering LMP1 with Acura. Will it be easy? No! But it's what we do."

Moving up a class to P1 this year with de Ferran Motorsports and Patron Highcroft Racing, Acura will face competition that's as stiff as many competitors will be under the collar at the end of the Mobil 1 Twelves Hours of Sebring.

The 2009 season opener will feature two of the world's most dominant sports-car teams. Audi, which has scored nine consecutive LMP1 victories at Sebring, is rolling out two new R15 turbo-diesels against rival Peugeot's 908 HDi diesel.

he European manufacturers squared off last season at Sebring, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Petit Le Mans, and Audi barely swept all three events.

Acura will bring a formidable lineup to Sebring, Fla., in trying to turn P1 into a three-horse race. De Ferran, the 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2000-01 CART champion, takes the wheel of his team with Simon Pagenaud and defending IndyCar and Indy 500 champ Scott Dixon. For Patron Highcroft, ALMS veterans Scott Sharp and David Brabham will team with Dario Franchitti, winner of the 2007 Indy 500 and IndyCar titles.

But the key to surviving Sebring's abrasive and punishing 3.7-mile layout — teams employ masseuses and trainers to keep drivers loose in a race that de Ferran says is the world's most grueling — is having a car that's durable and lightning-quick.

The diesels of Peugeot and Audi offer better fuel economy and horsepower. Parent company Honda has no diesel-powered cars in its U.S. lineup.

"With limited knowledge of diesels and no marketing tie-in, it'd be harder to justify a new era of those powerplants for us," Honda Performance Development president Erik Berkman says. "We thought if we think outside the box, we can find a way to compete against those guys with gasoline."

The philosophy was to build an ARX-02a that could overcome deficient speed on the straightaways with state-of-the-art handling in the turns.

The revolutionary design maximizes downforce with a lightweight suspension and four tires of identical size, a concept that Berkman says "is unheard of in sports car racing" (rear tires normally are larger).

De Ferran, who estimates the car's corner speeds can hit 160 mph, is fascinated by a power steering system, which reminds him of the title character in the movie Robocop "with all these levers and cables running everywhere.

"If you're a gearhead like me, you look at the car and think, 'My god, it's beautiful,' " he says.

The diesel engine's horsepower was reduced by about 10% (according to Berkman) by offseason rules changes, but Peugeot was fastest in two practices Wednesday with Audi ranked second. Acuras were fourth and fifth.

Allan McNish, whose Audi team won the overall class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans last year, says the diesels retain an edge in torque ("the kick coming off the corners") but that Acura must be respected.

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