Standing in the pit with the BMW RLR Team( now BMW Team RLL) late into the evening of the 2010 Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta was an electrifying moment as a race fan. On the last lap of the last race of the season – nearly to the last turn too – a Ferrari 430GTE unbelievably ran out of fuel and gave the #92 BMW of Bill Auberlen, Tommy Milner and Dirk Werner the fourth spot after a grueling 10 hour endurance sprint race. With that position BMW earned enough points to take the GT championship over the field.

As news trickled in that the Ferrari was out of the race the darkened pit of the 90 and 92 cars lit up with cheers as the mood of the team was resurrected from somber and downtrodden to joyous and incredulous. The normally stoic Dr. Mario Theissen, Director of BMW M Gmbh, and the legendary Bobby Rahal were both elated, smiling and toasting with a fresh Miller Lite beer!

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The team had come back from a poor judgement on a drive through penalty on Dirk Muller and a season of hard fought battles to win the season.90 car driver Joey Hand summed it up best in our post-Petit Le Mans interview with the statement that the team’s victory was attributed to hard work and consistency throughout the season and learning from the mistakes of 2009.

This performance stood in stark contrast to the 2009 12 Hours of Sebring with the debut of the M3 GT’s – one failing to start the race and the other out with mechanical problems before darkness beset the central Florida raceway. Thankfully, a resurgence in the team was seen at the 2010 12 Hours of Sebring with the #92 and #90 car earning the 2nd and 3rd spots in the GT class. This successful combination put BMW RLR into a position where they were able to secure an in-class podium finish throughout the entire season. Again, consistency being a crucial ingredient to the recipe for success in a season where endurance races turned into long sprint races against the likes of Risi Competizione Ferrari’s and Porsche GT3’s of the Flying Lizard variety.

The 2011 season promises to up the ante for racing fans within the GT class again with arguably some of the best racing you can see in North America. Mercifully, we’re only a few weeks from the first race! The start of the season kicks off with the 12 Hours of Sebring March 17-19, 2011 in Sebring, Florida. For those not familiar, the 12 Hours of Sebring is an historic and internationally renowned race, now in it’s 59th year, pitting titans of the automotive industry against each other in a variety of car classes such as GT(similar to road-spec cars like the M3, Porsche 911 GT3 and the new-for-2011 Ferrari 458) to the Le Mans prototypes of the Audi R18 and Peugeot 908HDi.

The 12 Hours of Sebring is of particular importance internationally as it is the first race of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup however, the race has a history far beyond the current season. The race, carried out on a former World War II-era runway, is notorious for its bumpy, suspension-rattling surface. Some say that Sebring is so hard on cars that 12 hours at the Florida circuit are equivalent to 24 hours of hard racing on most other circuits. Porsche and Ferrari have a long, infamous history of epic duels on at the track with the likes of Steve McQueen and Mario Andretti facing off against each other in the 1970 12 Hours of Sebring only for McQueen to compete with a broken foot and place an astonishing 2nd overall.

Most important to the BMW enthusiasts, though, is BMW’s overall victory in 1975 with a BMW CSL in the expert hands Hans Stuck and Brian Redman. Quite a way for BMW of North America to mark their first year of incorporation. BMW would wait another 24 years before performing the same feat with the impressive V12 LMR driven by JJ Lehto, Jorg Muller and the-now-synonymous-with-Audi Tom Kristensen. With the progress BMW Team RLL( Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing as of 2011) has made with the M3 GT and the victory in class from last season, many expect big results from the 2011 12 Hours of Sebring. For the current season, the only driver change will be Dirk Werner – BMW Works driver – taking the place of Tommy Milner – keeping a fair amount of consistency and experience in the cockpit. Those having any doubts about the drivers – I can only point to Auberlen’s performance last season and J0ey Hand’s incredible drive at the 2011 24 Hours of Daytona.

2010 proved that BMW Team RLL had the reliability to wins races and achieve podium finishes – all signs point to more of the same from the Bobby Rahal-led outfit. Our only thought is that the all-new Ferrari 458 GT2 commissioned and run by Risi Competizione and Extreme Speed Motorsports could be a big thorn in the side of BMW while defending their championship in the ALMS. The 458 GT2 is reportedly 2 seconds faster than the outgoing 430GTE around Ferrari’s Fiorano test circuit which could prove to be a difficult car to get by on the circuit. Though – in its inaugural season, the 458 GT2 will undoubtedly be in uncertain territory when it comes to standing the test of a full 12 Hours around the historic Sebring. If BMW didn’t have enough to worry about – they’ll have to contend the now seasons-old Flying Lizard Porsche’s and factory Corvette team.

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One thing is for sure, BMW Team RLL will have their work cut out for them come March 19th when the flag drops on the 12 Hours of Sebring. As we’ve already shown you, they’ve been working hard on revised aero kits for the M3 GT but our understanding is little aside from that will change from the car from last year. BMWBlog will be present at the 12 Hours of Sebring to provide live coverage of the race and BMW Team RLL via BMWBlog, Twitter and Facebook.

458 GT photo via James Boone’s Flickr page