Early on Wednesday evening there was a moment – a long moment – when spectators, team members and anyone watching the day’s first session of free practice held their collective breaths. Once again, as we’ve witnessed perhaps too many times in recent years, one of the fastest sportscars in the world had been involved in a massive accident. The #1 Audi R-18 e-tron hybrid driven by Loïc Duval had been going through one of the most complex high-speed sections of the circuit here at Le Mans when something went wrong. We still don’t know what, but the result was devastating; the car being pitched up and over the unforgiving concrete wall and thrown into the catch fencing, where the girder uprights ripped through the carbon fibre bodywork of the Audi, tearing off the cockpit roof, and leaving Loic sitting exposed among the debris. Remarkably, perhaps incredibly, the Frenchman was virtually unhurt, sustaining little more (we’re told) than bruises, cuts and grazes.
As the dust settled, and everyone started to breathe normally again, all those involved faced a number of pressing questions. Top priority was the health of Duval of course, and this year the officials were quick to issue a statement confirming that he was undergoing routine tests in the circuit’s medical centre, but in essence he looked to be in good shape. The car was not. Audi appealed to the ACO and, in due course, the team was given the okay to substitute the #1 with a brand new chassis. Duval, however, despite his apparent protestations that he wanted to drive, was advised (perhaps very forcibly) by the doctors that he should not take any further part in this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours.
Drivers being forced to withdraw from a motor race is hardly an unusual occurrence, and we would see it again on Thursday evening, after James Calado suffered a similarly heavy crash in the #71 AF Corse Ferrari 458, but selecting a substitute isn’t always as straightforward as it was for Audi on Wednesday. Already processed through scrutineering and preparing to race was Marc Gené; official first reserve driver for Audi and pencilled in to drive for Jota in the #38 Zytek Z11SN Nissan LMP2. All it took was a few phone calls and approval from the ACO. Jota Sport then turned to their own ‘reserve’ driver, Oliver Turvey, and gained a nod from the ACO to bring him on board.
That the fundamentals for such an arrangement were already in place is slightly unusual but may well set a precedent for the way some teams can work together in the future. We spoke to Sam Hignett, Team Manager at Jota Sport, who explained how the relationship had been established, and how it worked on Wednesday.
“We have had close ties with Audi for some time, and this year we have a number of young contracted factory drivers who will appear in the Jota Zytek over the course of the ELMS season. They lend us their reserve drivers, it’s as simple as that, but it’s a win-win situation for everyone. Audi has several of these drivers for whom there’s no permanent factory seat, but they need to get extra miles regularly under their belts in order to remain ‘current’ and fresh. From our point of view, it allows us access to young, talented drivers who already have considerable experience, and can bring pace and development expertise to Jota. Our team improves as a result, the drivers remain on the ball, and enhance their own experience, and we all benefit.”
It is a concept that appears to have developed almost independently in both parties, but gained impetus through the close mentoring ties that exist between Allan McNish and 24 year-old Harry Tincknell. “The idea was suggested, we shared some thoughts, had a couple of meetings, and it all came together very quickly, very simply. The delight is, it works so well,” said Hignett.
Exactly how well it does work was amply demonstrated on Wednesday evening, when #1 Audi driver Loïc Duval was involved in that massive accident in the Porsche Curves. “As soon as we learned of Loic’s accident, we immediately knew there was a chance we’d get the call from Audi,” admitted Hignett. “You only had to see the ferocity of the impact to know that there was a strong possibility that Loïc wouldn’t be allowed to drive again this weekend. Sure enough, the call came, and it was a matter of minutes before the ACO confirmed that they had no issues with the move.”
“It’s a case in point, and demonstrates the enormous value, especially to a major factory team, of a relationship like this. We were able to provide Audi with a driver who already had twenty laps under his belt, and was up to speed on the state of the circuit, the conditions, and the minor changes that have taken place to the track since he last raced here. Anyone else would have been straight in at the deep end – Marc Gené was not.”
“This is where Force Majeure comes into effect, especially when the primary concern has to be safety. Audi was getting a driver who was already better prepared for racing here at Le Mans than anyone cold to the track might have been, and we needed a third driver. Since the regulations now stipulate that no one driver can do more than ten hours in the race, it’s impossible for a team to complete the 24 Hours with just two. We knew that our contract meant that Audi could take back Marc at any time, and that left us without a driver, and as was the case with Audi, where Force Majeure allowed them to find a substitute for Loïc, that same obligation then applied to Jota. The ACO readily agreed to our request that Oliver Turvey re-joined the squad. Oliver was available, and he knows us, he knows the team, and he’s familiar with the car.”
Hignett believes this was a generous sporting gesture that satisfied everyone’s needs – Audi’s, because they sourced an excellent replacement for Duval; the ACO, because the key questions of safety and continuity were addressed; and Jota, because they were able to nominate a replacement with all the attributes they needed at short notice. “We’re here to race, to put on a show, and we had to nominate a fresh driver. It was an elegant solution for everyone concerned.”
“Out of adversity came opportunity. I feel desperately sorry for Loïc, but if we could help out, we were always going to. It’s the ultimate example of how these relationships are valuable. Without the arrangement with us, Gené would have stepped into the car cold, without his laps, and without the benefit of all that experience. Instead, he headed out on Thursday evening and was straight up to speed.”
Hignett sees this as a template that ought to be developed for the future, and he considers it realistic that other teams can take the idea forwards – as long as they work with other manufacturers, of course. “I think, in terms of giving drivers an opportunity to keep fresh, it’s a no-brainer,” he says. “In the twenty-four hours or so since this all happened I’ve already had one of the other major manufacturers coming to speak with me, and saying what a great idea this is, and asking how it all works.”
The net result of this game of musical chairs was that Oliver Turvey joined the driver line-up for Jota Sport. “Yes, the prodigal returns! Olly is very quick, and the last time he drove for us, at Paul Ricard last season, he put the car on pole. He was the logical replacement for Marc, and we’re delighted that it’s worked out for him. He should find it very easy to fit back in again – it will be just like sleeping with an old girlfriend; same basics, new tricks!”
The #38 Jota Zytek ended up second in LMP2 in qualifying. “Harry (Tincknell) set the time on his only lap, and was several tenths up on his next when the car developed a fuel pump issue. We were getting serious fuel surge through the Porsche Curves, so brought the car in, and never got another chance. I suspect however that, if we’d not had that extended “slow zone” period at the end of last night’s session, Oliver Pla would probably have snuck through and taken pole.”
The car itself is almost exactly the same this year as it was in 2013, so Turvey should certainly feel well at home in the Zytek. “The main difference is the huge step forwards we’ve made in our relationship with Dunlop, and their tyre compounds,” says Hignett. “I appreciate that other teams will also have experienced that same surge in performance, from the tyres, but it seems that some have been better able to exploit that development, and unlock the potential, than others. I believe, and hope, that we’re one of those teams.”
“So far our season has been ticking along nicely. Harry stuck the car on pole by a huge margin at Silverstone, and we were leading by a country mile when Simon had a huge accident on Hangar Straight. There’s a good chance we would have won there. Then we went to Spa, but ballsed it up good and proper in qually, and finished second. Then, last time out at Imola, Filipe (Albuquerque) set pole again, and with luck on our side, we won. Given that level of form, I reckon we’re in good shape for the race this weekend.”
“Of course, we’re committed for the rest of the season now in ELMS. By the time you’ve got to this stage in the year, you’ve already spent 85% of your budget, so you might as well press on to the end – especially when you’re in as a strong a position as we are. Added to that is the possibility that we could go back to finish off the ELMS being able to say that we had a class-winning Le Mans driver in the car, and how cool would that be? Filipe is Portuguese, and I know he’d like to round off his season with a great result in Estoril.”
Jota will certainly be looking for a good result here this weekend, so that they’re well set up, psychologically, for the demands of another 24-hour race just a few days later. The squad will be heading north east after Le Mans to contest the Nürburgring 24 Hours with Mazda, where Stéphane Johansson, Owen Mildenhall, Teruaki Kato and Wolfgang Kauffman will be sharing the Jota-prepared Mazda MX-5.