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The Brundle Blog: Le Mans!

Me again, back with another edition of The Brundle Blog (or Racer’s Digest, which sounds more professional but has less alliteration. And people like alliteration, in my humble opinion).

These past couple of weeks have been dominated by one thing: the Le Mans 24 Hours. And, for me at least, this year’s race was certainly a tale of what might have been…

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I think some people were a touch sceptical about a bunch of ‘kids’ being let loose in a brand-new 600bhp sports-prototype (just imagine the insurance premium), but for nearly 20 hours we led the way at La Sarthe, metronomically ticking off fast and consistent lap times at the head of the LMP2 field in our beautiful little Ligier – even when Jann and my stint plan got somewhat hardcore in the hours of darkness!

We had a lap’s advantage at one point, and even when the engine problem struck at 10am – the first time the car had been delayed all race – we still believed we had a shot. Indeed, during Mark’s subsequent stint the issue seemed to intermittently clear. But it was a false dawn, and one that only made the subsequent realisation harder to accept. Turn up to a knife party with a letter opener and you’re always going to struggle. I was going to have to push.

We were still leading when I got in the car for my final double stint. The gap to second place was something like two minutes at that point, and with the problem hampering our top speed – just about the last thing you need at a place like Le Mans! – we knew it was going to be a tall order to stay there. Even so, those two stints were probably my best of the race. Obviously that didn’t show up in the lap times, but I was so incredibly focused on doing everything I could through the less speed-critical sections in an effort to prolong our lead.

After a while I radioed in for the gap. ‘16 seconds’, came the reply. My heart sank. A few laps later the Thiriet Ligier blew past me along Mulsanne Straight and the game was up. At that point I thought about all the effort put in by everyone at G-Drive Racing by OAK Racing and the energy spent to come so far without reward. It was a crushing moment, let me tell you.

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Nevertheless, I think we can all be incredibly proud of what we achieved last weekend. I know our collective performance didn’t go unnoticed, which softens the blow slightly. After all, with an average age of just 23 we were easily the youngest crew at Le Mans this year. Jann and Mark drove very well and together we had a great week.

Living together certainly enhanced our relationship. You’re thrown together and all in the same boat, trying to deal with this mad situation of contesting the world’s greatest motor race. It’s quite surreal and there’s nowhere to hide; you take the work home with you for that week and if you don’t get along it can have a negative impact on morale. But they’re great guys and we had a lot of fun. I think that came across in our performance.

Mind management

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: maintaining concentration while behind the wheel at Le Mans is incredibly difficult. Not many racing drivers will admit to that – their PR guys will go crazy for starters! – but it’s true.

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Physically, Circuit de la Sarthe is not overly difficult. There are lots of long straights where you can take a breather between the fast corners where G-forces have an impact. But for thoe same reason it’s a tough place to maintain focus, especially as the finish draws closer.

This year I did three quad stints and then a double towards the end. You’re always sharpest at the start, which was just as well due to the weather! I got in just before the first short, sharp shower arrived and was also there when the second hit, which was much worse actually. There was standing water and cars aquaplaning everywhere. I was on cut slicks at the time and couldn’t keep up with the Safety Car! But to pit and lose a lap would have been disastrous. The team did ask if I was okay to continue on the inters, to which I said ‘we don’t have a choice if we want to stay in the hunt, do we?’ ‘No’ came the reply!

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By dawn on Sunday we’d established a good lead and, rightly or wrongly, that’s when the mind starts to wander: ‘Could we win this? We might just win this!’ It’s an automatic reaction and one that you have to fight hard to banish. As I said, there’s a lot of free time to think around the 8.4-mile lap and it’s easy to slip in to autopilot, even with so much distance still left to cover. I know a lot of drivers think of something completely unrelated, like a pink elephant, and make a mental note to check things inside the car at certain points of each lap, just to keep the mind sharp. I’m pretty brutal with myself in those moments, mashing my mind back into focusing on the job at hand.

Back to reality

With Le Mans now behind us, my preparations have shifted to the next Tudor United SportsCar Championship round at Watkins Glen on June 27-29 with OAK Racing’s Morgan-Nissan LMP2.

My previous USCC outings were dovetailed with Onroak Automotive development work so switching between the Ligier and Morgan won’t be an issue. If anything I’ve got more experience of the latter anyway after racing it in last season’s World Endurance Championship.

There’s been a lot of talk about balancing the performance between the European-style LMP2s and American-built Daytona Prototypes this year, and I’m expecting the DPs to have an edge at The Glen. Their straight-line speed and the fact they’re more robust and better suited to that style of close-quarter competition really gives them the upper hand. But OAK Racing has done a great job of adapting to the USCC, so hopefully we’ll be at the front.

I’ll let you know how we get on in a couple of weeks.

Alex