There’s a wonderful opening sequence to the 1971 movie Le Mans when Steve McQueen drives his slate-grey Porsche 911S through the French countryside en route to the most famous endurance sports car race in the world. That car, normally worth around USD$70,000 today, was sold last year at auction for USD$1.375 Million – McQueen and fast cars went hand in hand, and for collectors his Porsche probably ranks a close second to the Ford Mustang McQueen drove in Bullitt.
Le Mans held enormous interest for the King of Cool for, as an accomplished racing driver himself, he had won the 3 litre class in the 1970 Sebring 12 Hours sharing a Porsche 908 with Peter Revson. For the French race McQueen had hoped to share a Porsche 917 with none other than Jackie Stewart, but the producers of Le Mans threatened to withdraw their support. Faced with that ultimatum, McQueen opted to film the movie instead of competing in the race. I suspect he wished he’d made a different decision, for the movie isn’t very good and to have competed with ‘JYS’ at Le Mans would have been a career highlight.
I remember watching Le Mans as a 10 year old, and for many years I regarded the Le Mans 24 Hours as the pinnacle of motor racing. That was until I discovered Formula One and proceeded to spend almost my entire career travelling the globe attending Grands Prix.
Le Mans, however, was never far from my mind and so it was with a great sense of expectation that I found myself retracing McQueen’s steps, or rather wheel-tracks, by driving to the French city this year in order to witness my own team make is debut in the world’s toughest race. When I founded Status Grand Prix in 2005 I was always interested to move into sports car racing. Indeed in 2006 we built and ran an Aston Martin for a customer at the Le Mans 24 Hours; it wasn’t our entry, or even our car, but we provided the bulk of the team and sourced the drivers including David Brabham and Nelson Piquet Jr, both sons of former F1 World Champions.
We had an involvement with Le Mans again last year, this time in building and helping to operate a Lola LMP2 (Le Mans Prototype 2) Coupe for the American Level 5 Motorsports team. The car finished 3rd in a class – a podium finish!
For 2012, however, we moved up several gears, not only acquiring our own Lola Coupe powered by a BMW M3-based Judd V8 engine, but securing our own entry for Status Grand Prix.
This is like no other race; it’s no accident that the ‘Big Three’ in motor sport remain the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours. Only one man in the history of motor racing has won this coveted Triple Crown – the late Graham Hill. Preparation for Le Mans starts many months beforehand and, with pre-race testing held at the circuit two weeks before the race, the team is effectively in-situ for around 3 weeks at the same venue.
Aside from the race lasting 24 hours, a number of additional aspects make Le Mans a formidable challenge. The circuit, first used in 1923, still includes some public roads and a single lap covers 13.6 kms/8.5 miles. This long lap means that if drivers hit trouble they often have a very long drive back to the pits – a single puncture can cost you up to 10 minutes of lost track time alone. In addition there are three categories of car on the track, from the 200mph+ Le Mans Prototype 1 (LMP1) cars of Audi and Toyota, the 180mph LMP2 cars such as the Status Lola, through to the road-car based GTE category for Ferraris, Aston Martins and Corvettes. Throw into that technical mix a vast array of driving talent from arch-professional, ex-F1 drivers and expert endurance racers through to young drivers with much less experience and older ‘gentleman’ drivers whose deep pockets have eased them towards Le Mans to a great degree than their skills behind the wheel, and the challenge expands. With speed differentials of up to 50mph/80kmh the prospect of an LMP1 car coming upon a much slower GTE car at 200mph, at night, in the rain, and you can begin to understand why Le Mans is not for the faint hearted.
As though to prove the point, this year’s event saw the LMP1 Toyota driven by Anthony Davidson collide with a Ferrari 458 GTE car, being launched into a terrifying somersault which ended with both cars destroyed and Davidson hospitalised with a broken back.
For Status, our preparation this year were badly affected by two incidents; a serious accident at the Belgian round of the World Endurance Championship which saw our Lola all-but destroyed, and the collapse of Lola Cars into administration. With a badly damaged car and our key supplier apparently going out of business, it was a case of all hands on deck as our technical and operations staff dealt with myriad suppliers and ensured that we not only had the car rebuilt in time for Le Mans, but had sufficient spares.
The team did a superb job, and our pace in practice and qualifying was promising. We qualified 8th in LMP2 from 20 cars, 21st overall, and then ran competitively in the race itself until a puncture around 3am resulted in an unscheduled pitstop. On fresh tyres the car exited the pits only to go off the track at the famous Indianapolis corner – causing significant damage. Fortunately the driver was able to slowly make his way back to the pits, but we lost a further 35 minutes carrying our repairs before returning to the race. Later the alternator would fail and, despite a repair, it subsequently failed again at 9am causing our retirement from the race after 18 hours.
My lessons from Le Mans 2012 were varied; we need to be better prepared, have undertaken more testing, and assured ourselves of our systems and processes to a better degree. Our team, meanwhile, had done a fantastic job by building, preparing and running our Lola Coupe so competitively in the world’s most demanding race. The 80th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours was not to provide us with a rewarding result, but we learned from our experiences and will come back better prepared, wiser and focused on the old adage that To Finish First, First You Have To Finish.