The start of the 2011 American Le Mans Series is all but upon us when the flag drops on the 59th 12 Hours of Sebring this Saturday morning, March 19th. The season starts at the historic Central Florida track where a mind-blowing 56 cars will line-up to represent a handful of classes and a cadre of manufacturers with names like BMW, Audi, Peugeot, Chevrolet, Ferrari and, of course, Porsche.

The 12 Hours of Sebring has a special place in BMW lore when, in 1975, they managed an overall win with a E9 CSL. BMW managed to nearly win the GT class with both cars finishing on podium 2nd and 3rd in 2010. An impressive feat considering their disappointing 2009 attempt at the 12 Hours of Sebring.

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BMW Team RLL ( Renamed from 2010’s RLR due to former IndyCar team owner Mike Lanigan joining for 2011) will field two all-new M3 chassis for the 2011 season as the team aims to defend their championship in the GT class over the more experienced Ferrari, Porsche and Corvette teams. BMW Team RLL, the U.S.-based sister team to the European BMW Team Schnitzer M3’s, makes only one tweak to their prior year driver line-up with Tommy Milner’s departure for the Corvette C6.R while Dirk Werner has found a permanent role on the team. This is a step up for Dirk’s presence on the U.S. team as he only ran in the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Petit Le Mans as part of BMW’s push to win the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup – Andy Priaulx reprises his spot on the team while he has also assumed full-time driving duties on BMW Team Schnitzer’s M3 GT.

Joey Hand will again partner with Dirk Muller (Priaulx will be the third driver) and Bill Auberlen will share an M3 GT with Dirk Werner while former BMW WTCC driver Augusto Farfus will assume the third driver’s spot on the Auberlen/Werner M3. Farfus is also a permanent fixture on BMW Team Schnitzer and has a proven record as a works driver for BMW in the fierce World Touring Car Championship behind the wheel of the E90 320Si.

Aside from the revisions in the driver line-up, the new M3 GT has also undergone a few improvements to prepare for the forthcoming season-long battle in GT class. The most notable revision has been the loss of a traditional manual transmission in favor of a faster, sequential gearbox with steering wheel-mounted paddles. Additionally, as we showed you earlier this year in pictures from winter testing, the M3 GT has also received a revised aerodynamics package at the nose of the M3 GT to improve aerodynamic efficiencies as well as improve downforce.

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Along with revised aerodynamics, expect to see the  familiar BMW Team RLL livery – now much more akin to the European M3 GT2 scheme with M tricolor stripes along the nose of the car and the shedding of the expression of BMW Joy text across the rear quarter panels of the car leading to a cleaner look to the M3 GT overall.

As noted, BMW Team RLL nearly won the 12 Hours of Sebring at the start of the 2010 season when both cars finished 2nd and 3rd on the podium – an impressive finish considering both cars were unable to finish the race during the 2009 12 Hours of Sebring. By way of consistency and teamwork, BMW Team RLL managed a substantial number of podium finishes that led up to an unbelievable finish at Petit Le Mans where BMW was able to pass a Ferrari short on fuel on the last lap.

When asked to comment on the upcoming season and the first endurance race of the season, the driver line-up each had their own statements:

Dirk Werner: “I’m very happy to drive a full championship season with BMW Team RLL and Bill Auberlen. With the practice starting on Monday there will be enough time to get rid of the winter-rust during the week. The field in the GTE class is impressive and the race is very demanding. To win everything has to be 100%.”

Bill Auberlen: “Last year at Sebring we were on the second and third step of the podium. This year the plan is to be on the first and second step. I’m looking forward to co-driving with Dirk Werner and Augusto Farfus as I know the BMW M3 GT will always be in perfect hands.”

Augusto Farfus: “It’s great to be back at the wheel of the BMW M3 GT. My season started well with victory in the Dubai 24 Hours. Now it’s time to get the ball rolling in ALMS and ILMC. We have a great team, great drivers and a great car – so I hope we can score a strong result in Sebring. I’m looking forward to driving in America. Sebring has a long tradition and the fans are enthusiastic.”

Dirk Müller: “I am extremely excited about the 2011 season. BMW did a superb job over the winter and gave as an updated BMW M3 GT to race. We are all looking forward to fight for a Sebring 12-Hour victory. Everyone on the team is working very hard to continue BMW’s positive momentum in the US.”

Joey Hand: “This is our third ALMS season together and I can feel the potential energy. Pre-season testing has shown we have longevity, strength, speed and reliability. We have worked hard and definitely raised the level of our game. I am excited to add Andy Priaulx onboard with Dirk Müller in my car for the 12 Hours.”

Andy Priaulx: “I’m really looking forward to the start of my season, racing with BMW Team RLL in the opening round. This year will be a new challenge for me. I’m going to Sebring with a very different focus compared to last year, when I just wanted to back up the other guys really well. Now we are fighting for ALMS and ILMC points together as one big team. Sebring is a bumpy and narrow track. It’s not like all the modern race tracks, but I really like that. It has a lot of character.”

While the team’s energy is positive and their minds focused on the tasks at hand preparing for Sebring, BMW Team RLL will have its work cut out when it comes to GT class. Many experts are predicting 2011 to be one of the most exciting seasons in GT for years. Along with BMW’s dual M3’s, the Flying Lizard Porsche GT3 RSR and Corvette Racing C6.R are back with Tequila Patron and Risi Competizione Ferarri 458 GT’s being introduced as the first GT race of the 458. Let’s not forget the Jaguar XKR and Ford GT also competing in this class. Look for a big fight for the diesels in LMP1 with Audi and Peugeot and then a flock of Porsche 911 Cup Cars running around in the GTC segment.

BMWBlog is putting its money on the P65-powered E92 M3 GT’s with their 480HP V8’s over that of the potentially unreliable 458 GT’s. Our best guess is that you’ll see a head-to-head battle of Munich vs. Stuttgart with the BMW V8’s and Porsche flat 6’s or maybe a charge from the Corvette Racing Team.

BMWBlog will be present for the whole of the 12 Hours of Sebring starting this Friday afternoon to provide live coverage of this historic race as well as BMW Team RLL content as the M3 GT vies for points in both the ALMS and Intercontinental Le Mans Cup.

For now, we will leave you with some important words from Bobby Rahal, team principal of BMW Team RLL, about the season opener this weekend and what he thinks is in store for BMW Team RLL.

In the lead-up to the race, be sure to check out the BMW Conversations live chat hosted in Sebring with interviews from Joey Hand and Bill Auberlen. Be sure to follow us on raceday on Twitter, Facebook and this space for coverage of the 12 Hours of Sebring with exclusive photos and video! Be sure to check out the spotter’s guide courtesy of the ALMS and Andy Blackmore in the gallery below!

Ferrari 458 GT via Old Boone’s Flickr page