Le Mans 24 Hours - 16.06.2012

Instead of a normal race report, we thought the best update from the Le Mans weekend would be Roger's personal report to family and friends:

 

We are just back from Le Mans and I promised updates during the race but it was so busy I just didn't have the chance. Sorry if this is long and boring but someone may appreciate reading it so skip the stuff that is not interesting!

 


I was driving in the JMW Motorsport Ferrari 458 in the GT Pro class. There are 2 GT classes at Le Mans - Professional and Amateur. The Amateur class (where we were with CRS in 2011) is for cars that are one year old and where at least one of the drivers (and most often 2) are amateur / non-professional drivers. There is a complex ranking system of who is classed as a pro and amateur. So this year, my drive was in the Pro class and I was the only amateur in the entire class, all other cars being driven by 3 professional drivers. I was asked why we were in the Pro and not Am class so many times over the course of the week and I've seen there was a fair bit of chat about it on the internet. The fact was that it was the best deal for me and while not ideal to be in a class of only pro drivers, it meant I had 2 pros in the car with me to help me during the week and improve my performance as well as to setup the car.

 

My co-drivers were both young English guys - Jonny Cocker and James Walker.

 

I flew to Paris on Saturday (9th)  for the race the week after. The ACO sure know how to keep you waiting around and many commented on how it is obviously designed to employ half of Le Mans' citizens for as many days as possible.

 

We were scrutineered in the centre of Le Mans town on Sunday amongst crowds of people, the drivers briefing was Tuesday afternoon and we finally got out on track on Wednesday evening!



We had been there a week earlier to do the rookie test day which most teams participate in and the car had been upgraded between the test day and race week from sequential gearbox to paddle shift. This meant we lost over an hour of the first practice session with the new gearbox not shifting properly - a bedding-in issue apparently.

 

It always amazes me how little track time you get at Le Mans. You look at the schedule with 6 hours of running on Wednesday, 4 hours on Thursday and it seems like lots of time. But with a 4 minute lap and constraints to limit running to conserve engine wear etc, you end up having very little seat time before the race starts.

 

I managed to get 4 laps on Wednesday during the day and achieved a best lap of 4.09 which was roughly my best lap time from 2011.

 

Every driver needed to do 5 laps in the dark to qualify to race and  that means a minimum of 1 lap out of pits, 3 flying laps past the pits and then 1 lap into the pits. I did 3 flying laps just before midnight but struggled to find my reference points and only managed a 4.17 and was a bit disappointed that I hadn't done better.

 

So having been at Le Mans from Saturday, by midnight on Wednesday I had managed 7 flying laps!



Thursday afternoon we had qualifying for the historic Group C support race and I was out in the Lancia LC2. The car was on pole at LM in period so it was very cool to be racing it there again despite it being out gunned by some of the later cars. It competed in 1983-85 and some of the other cars were as late as 1990/91 and the technology at that time was racing ahead so fast. I qualified 3rd behind the Mercedes C9 and C11 but knew I had no real chance against them in the race as they are 7-8 years newer and way quicker, especially down the long straights. I had the same feeling of speed differential against the Mercs as you do in a GT car versus the LMP1 prototypes.

 

Back to the Ferrari. As I had struggled a little in the dark on Wednesday, I asked not to drive in the daylight session on Thursday and to drive in the dusk and into darkness. Georg Kjallgren and his son Sebastian (9) had arrived late Thurs pm so got to watch a little of the qualifying. I felt a lot more comfortable in the car and was straight on a better pace and did a 4.10 which was only 1 second off my best lap up to that point so I finished Thursday feeling pretty good about my prospects for the race.

 

We had only managed to qualify 9th in the Pro class which was lower than we had hoped but we had a brake issue that was costing us a bit of time versus the other cars. Looking at our optimal lap time by combining best sector times, our pace would have been middle of the class so we were not unhappy. We also had a strategy of not going for ultimate all-out pace in the race and conserving the car to minimise any lost time in the garage etc.

 

Friday is a pretty quiet day with no driving. It is basically a day to allow the car to be stripped and all the new race parts fitted to the car. Sebastian had some fun driving the little Bugattis around the garden of the chateau in advance of George and Zoe's arrival. Olga had flown into Paris on Wednesday and nanny, G and Z arrived Friday midday and James (who had masterminded the entire Le Mans race drive for me and took brilliant care of me, family and guests all weekend - thanks James!) had kindly gone to Paris to collect Olga and kids and bring them to Le Mans for the drivers parade.

 

The drivers parade was incredible. Despite the rain, thousands and thousands of people lined the streets of central Le Mans and we were driven around in the back of an open vintage Citroen throwing beer coasters with our car on it out into the crowd. We got through several thousand coasters and the atmosphere was just incredible. We had rented a balcony overlooking one of the main squares and out of the nasty weather to watch the drivers go past.

 

After the parade we had dinner together in a restaurant near the square and then I jumped on the scooter to get back to the circuit to get an early night sleep in the motorhome for race day.

 

Saturday and the race morning dawned wet and miserable. We were out first for warm-up in the Ferrari and this was basically out of the pits and straight back in just to make sure the car was ok and we got a look at the track conditions. I was really hoping the weather would improve as 24 hours in the rain would be pretty grim and very demanding!



The Group C historic support race was for 45 minutes from 10.00am and I had qualified 3rd in the Lancia LC2. It was bucketing down and really unpleasant but I got off to a good start and made a place up to second into the first corner where I remained for the rest of the race. Unfortunately there was a very long safety car period after a huge crash on the Mulsanne straight and it meant the real racing was pretty limited. This clip shows the start with me down the inside nearest the pitwall.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6zFFP029Ws



There is also a full video from the race (albeit with German commentary) here on youtube:



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1J4UxCfD02I 



The safety car period runs from around 8 mins into the video to around 32 mins (if you want to skip the boring stuff!).



I finished second to Bob Berridge in the Mercedes so it was a great start to the day to be on the podium at Le Mans!



Fortunately the weather started to clear and the long and drawn out preparations for the start of the race began around 1pm for a 3pm start.

 

The run plan was for Jonny to start the race and we would each do single stints at the start - 1 hour in the car, change driver, fill with fuel and then back out. After 2 lots of single stints each, we moved to double stints. So into the car with fresh tyres and full fuel, out for 1 hour then pit stop for fuel only, back out for one more hour then change drivers, fresh tyres and full with fuel.

 

The race seems to have many stages but the team got into a good rhythm of pit stops and driver changes and all was going well. My best lap time in the race was done in the late evening when the air is cooler and the engine runs more powerfully as a result and I achieved a 4.03 time, and a best lap time in the dark at around 4am of 4.05 secs. We had been running around 7th in class but were up to 4th or 5th when I got out of the car at around 5am and was surprised to see Georg Kjallgren and Sebastian in the garage so early in the morning. They planned to leave early to drive back to London early so wanted to get an early start to see some of the racing before leaving.

 

I got changed and went to the motorhome to sleep for a couple of hours and was due back in the garage at 8am for my next stint. They called me just as I got up to say the car had broken a driveshaft and despite efforts to get it moving back to the pits for repairs, we had been forced to retire. A gutting end to what had been a trouble-free run all week for the car. We managed 15hrs 20mins and unfortunately a simple component failure (and one that had been replaced on Friday for the race) let us down. 204 laps in total versus a total of 336 for the Pro class winners. I think if we had run trouble free to the end we would have been in a battle with the Aston Martin for 3rd place on the podium, "if" being one of the biggest words at Le Mans!



Looking at the results, Jonny did a best time in the race of 4.00.827, James a 4.02.228 and me a 4.03.741 so I think I can be pretty happy with that versus 2 professional drivers.



So two Le Mans starts and zero finishes. Unfinished business for sure and I really hope I can find a way to be back next year!



Signing off from my desk in Moscow, slightly gutted about the end result but still a very good race all round and there is always next year!



Roger


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