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With Dr. Mario Theissen (BMW Motorsport and F1 Sauber director) in attendance to show support for the Rahal/Letterman ///M3 in the 57th annual 12 Hours of Sebring, the pressure was on. There was a huge problem though; the cars were not up to up what Sebring was dishing out. Sebring is notoriously hard on cars and this race was no different, with many cars not seeing the checkered flag.

Both BMW cars made it through testing and qualifying during the week. The No 90 car driven by Bill Auberlen even qualified 7th. Bill and his car however would not start the race on the grid as the ///M3 suffered from serious electrical issues during warm ups that would take the first hour of the race to fix.

The ///M3 (No. 92) driven by Dirk Müller had moved up to 5th place from his 12th position start in the first hour of the race. Several pits and cautions later with Milner at the helm the car was now only one lap down and in second place. Both the car and racers were in top form and gaining on Ferrari.

The number 90 car on the other hand suffered another set back after completing only 27 laps; an oil leak. As the team attempted to fix the leak it was realized that it was too severe to fix and the car was taken out of the race.

Five hours into the twelve hour race, after completing a pit-stop and driver change, the second place No. 92 car with Müller at the wheel was also forced to call it a day. Something currently undisclosed broke in the car and it too, was sent packing.

While neither car completing the required 70% of the laps during the race to receive series points the race was not a complete failure. As a new team, with a completely new car there are bound to be some early teething problems. In the future BMW fans can expect cars that have the chance to compete with the more established teams as the No. 92 car proved for the first 5 hours.

The next race in the American Le Mans Series, The Acura Sports Car Challenge of St. Petersburg, is scheduled for April 3 – 5.

On a side note: the Audi R15 won the race in LMP1 after exchanging the lead numerous times with the Peugeot 908 HDis, both cars are diesel powered.

Photos: SpeedTV/Marshall Pruett

Official Release:

Sebring, Fla. – March 21, 2009… Sebring International Raceway had best of the BMW Rahal Letterman Racing Team in its debut race today as both BMW M3s were forced to retire before half-distance of the 57th annual 12 Hours of Sebring.
Teething problems for the new cars began early. Despite exhaustive pre-race preparations and a trouble-free morning warm-up session, electrical problems struck the No. 90 M3 on the grid and Bill Auberlen was forced to relinquish his sixth starting position. (He had qualified seventh, but a competitor was moved to the rear of the field following an infraction in Thursday’s night practice.) The team rolled the car to paddock to affect repairs as the field took the green flag.

Dirk Müller started the No. 92 M3 from 13th in the GT2 field. By lap 17 and some 37 minutes into the 12-hour contest Muller was in sixth. He pitted for fuel and tires 20 minutes later and began a second stint.

Following diagnosis and yeoman’s work by the BMW Rahal Letterman Racing Team crew to the No. 90 machine, just before the one hour mark both M3s were on the track with Müller moving up to fifth and chasing after the fourth place car.

The first caution period of the race came at the 1:30 mark and both M3s came to the pits for fuel and tires. Milner replaced Müller and Hand took over for Auberlen.

As the green flag flew again Milner moved into third and at the two-hour mark had moved the No. 92 M3 into second, one lap behind the leader.

After a total of 27 laps, Sebring struck a fatal blow and Hand pitted the No. 90 M3 with an oil leak. The leak was unable to be repaired and the car was retired from the race. Sebring was proving to be especially difficult this year, taking its toll on many of the top GT2 class cars.

With some three hours of the race complete, the team took advantage of the second caution period of the race to pit Milner and send Müller out with a full tank of fuel and new tires. 30 minutes later he had the No. 92 M3 back into second position. Another pit stop saw Milner back behind the wheel and consolidating the No. 92’s hold on second place with 139 laps complete. Pitting just past the five hour mark Müller took over, but as he launched something broke and the car had to be retired.

“Sebring bettered us today, but it will definitely make us better,” said Martin Birkmann, BMW of North America Motorsports Manager. “Strategy, consistency and reliability are the keys to success here and it’s hard for a new car to be perfectly reliable. We know all BMW fans share our disappointment and we thank everyone who came out to cheer us on and be part of our return to the ALMS. Sebring is a big race, but BMW did not return for only one race. We came back for the season and are looking forward to Round Two.”

Bobby Rahal, Team Principal, added, “For almost half the race we put on a good show for all the BMW fans here at Sebring. To run as high as second, and for a number of hours, in our debut race is a very good sign and a testament to the team we have put together. Yes, we are disappointed, but on to St. Pete. Focus forward.”

“Sebring demands perfection”, said Tommy Milner. “We are a new team in a new car and everybody is working very hard. We aren’t perfect. We will figure this out. We’ve proven we have a good team.”

Dirk Müller said, “The M3 was running really great – the best all week – which is a big compliment to everyone’s efforts. We were running trouble-free in second place, no incidents, no scratches, nothing. I made it from the back to fourth place in two stints. Then we got a drive train issue that ultimately made us stop. It’s a new car and we need to investigate this problem, but I have no doubt St. Pete will be a better race for us.”

Round Two of the 2009 American Le Mans Series, The Acura Sports Car Challenge of St. Petersburg, is scheduled for April 3 – 5.