By Tim Tuttle
March 17, 2009

Acura rolls out its new prototype -- designated the ARX-02a -- Saturday in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in what may be the most interesting sports car race of the year.

The 57th running of the classic endurance race in central Florida will bring together Acura, Audi and Peugeot for the first -- and probably only -- race this year in the most technologically advanced sports cars on earth.

"We're taking on the big players in sports car racing," said Scott Sharp, who will be one of Acura's drivers with Patron Highcroft Racing. "[Audi and Peugeot] are duking it out in Europe and at Le Mans. Those are two serious programs."

Acura, Audi and Peugeot are entering two cars each at Sebring. They are among the most expensive cars in the world; with multi-million dollar price tags they're right up there with Ferrari, McLaren and Sauber BMW in Formula One.

"The technology in the cars is incredible," Sharp said. "They're like F1 cars with bodies on them."

Acura, Honda's luxury brand, hasn't spared any expense in building the ARX-02a. They hired Nick Wirth, a former F1 chief designer at Benetton and other teams, to design and build the car in England. The new 4-liter, normally-aspirated V-8 engine and electronics were done by Honda Performance Development in southern California.

Wirth's design is somewhere between unconventional and radical, and uses the same width tires on all four corners.

"Typically, the front tires are more narrow than the back tires," Sharp said. "But to go against Audi and Peugeot with their turbo diesels, knowing those power numbers, to make up for that, the chassis design had to be pretty aggressive."

The Acura's design is both advanced and aerodynamic. It has a raised front nose like F1 cars to channel air around the body. According to Sharp, if all goes well, they should end up with more tire to the ground, more mechanical grip to the ground and more cornering speed.

"You can see on our cars the body work is much wider to encompass the front tires," Sharp added. "Theoretically, you have more drag and you have to put in more downforce to get the tire to work well. We're still in the early stages of development, but it's showing promise. Once we get the car to where we want, it will really fly."

Wirth believes the cornering speeds by the Acura may be the fastest in Sebring history.

"The goal of this new program was to try and create the fastest and most agile P1 car that's been built," Wirth explained, "and also try and find a fundamental advantage that would offset the diesel's raw power."

Audi didn't stand still, even though its R10 TDI has won the last three at Le Mans. With rule changes that reduced the size of the rear wing, air intakes and turbo boost, Audi built a new car, the R15 TDI, too. It will make its debut at Sebring.

Sharp will be joined by regular teammate David Brabham and former Indianapolis 500 champion Dario Franchitti in the Patron Highcroft entry. Owner-driver Gil de Ferran, regular teammate Simon Pagenaud and reigning Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon will also drive Acura's ARX-02a.

The two Acura teams ran a simulated 12-hour race at Sebring three weeks ago, complete with yellows and pit stops, and they liked the results.

"Our goal was to punish the car in an actual 12-hour race to see what areas we needed to beef up," Sharp said. "We came out of there feeling very positive. The car is pretty well set from a build perspective. We strengthened some components and HPD did some software and traction control work for the race."

Audi won eight straight at Sebring from 2000 to 2007, but last year it had suspension and brake problems on its car that finished third overall and turbo and brake problems on its sixth-place car. Penske Racing's LMP2 Porsche RS Spyder was the overall winner of the 12-hour last year. It has withdrawn from ALMS this season.

Peugeot also had mechanical problems with its single car at Sebring last year and finished 11th overall.

Acura has two goals Saturday: Win the race and find out what it takes to compete against Audi and Peugeot in preparation for Le Mans.

"We're here to win," Sharp said. "We have a chance. We have to have great reliability and at this early development stage, sometimes it doesn't work that way. The Audi is a new car as well. Peugeot has had reliability problems in the past and you'd think they spent the winter beefing them up.

"It will take some time for our program to get on its feet and be able to go head to head with those guys."

Sharp and Brabham won four races in LMP2, including Acura's first overall ALMS victory, in 2008, their first season together at Patron Highcroft. It earned them a promotion to LMP1 and a likely shot at Le Mans.

"Certainly, to get that opportunity down the road, that would be nice," Sharp said. "(Patron Highcroft owner) [Duncan Dayton's] dream has been about being the next American team to go and win Le Mans. Acura wants to launch the brand in Europe and they wanted to get into top class at Le Mans before they did that."

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