Well that was something!
Of course when you make a change to sportscars the Le Mans 24 Hours is the Holy Grail, it’s a real buzz to realise that you’re going to race there but the odd thing was that it really was a very slow burn for me.
That’s probably because we had a tough time at the Test Day, the test was going well until we had a blowout that did a lot of damage. That happened before I was due to get back into the car for the last 2 hours, I’d done the required 10 ‘Rookie’ laps in the morning, and it looked like there was going to be no way the car would run again during the test. The Jota boys team though did an amazing job to get the car out at the end of the session and I got at least a couple of additional laps in.
The bigger problem though was that we’d lost out on hours of track time so the job list for race week was a lot longer than we’d planned for.
Race week proved to be disjointed too, we were battling some niggles, brake temperatures and other bits and pieces that would likely have been sorted if we’d had the time at the Test.
There’s also the mental reprogramming you need to adjust to the time vs available laps, and that’s why traffic is such a big deal. It adds enormously to the frustration, and then the pressure.
And that was before, of course, the change in drivers midway through the week!
I was in the car when the Red Flag came out for Loic’s accident and came past the accident site on my way back into the pits.
My first thought was “Blimey I hope he’s OK”, It was very, very clear that it was a major shunt but honestly the thought hadn’t even occurred to me that there might be an impact on us with Marc (Gene) as nominated Audi Reserve driver.
Predictably though Sam (Hignett) was on it straight away, and before it had even occurred to me he’d already put Ollie (Turvey) on notice, a no brainer really!
That though did make a difference to me too as with Marc moving over a lot of the emphasis shifted onto me, Ollie’s job was to get up to speed, mine was to produce the goods.
With all of that we came into final qually in around 16th place! The pressure was really on and in truth the week creeps up on you, the crowds at scrutineering had been amazing but all the time at the track there had been too much to think about to focus on just how cool this was as an experience.
Finally though in the final session I got a clear lap in and went P1, then a further 6 tenths up next time around before another minor issue stopped the fun! The TDS Ligier pipped us at the end which was a bit gutting but by then I’d got back into the groove for the event, the buzz was back!
Then we had the parade on Friday – Absolutely mega, much busier and more crazy than I had imagined, not at all like a British F3 weekend now!
After that it was a matter of trying to conserve energy as much as possible. Le Mans is a long and busy week and a lot of the guys say that they wake up on race morning feeling pretty tired!
I was nervous, but pretty settled – the run in to the race actually calmed me right down and I just loved the pre-race stuff, the national anthems and the response they got from the crowd had the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end!
Into the race and whilst we had opted to run a cautious strategy on fuel and tyres there was an immediate opportunity right from the start with Gommendy in the Ligier ahead not getting good run through the Ford Chicane I got a good run on him and went outside into Turn One to lead the race – I was leading Le Mans!
So far so good but that was the first corner of a 24 Hour race and now it was time to get my head down, look after the car and the tyres and keep my eye on the prize, stay off the kerbs and let the rest worry about the #38 car.
A couple of them came by me before our first stop but I could see they were pushing hard, it’s tough to let a pass slide but we’d prepared hard to decide how to run this race, self control is a key element of delivering on that sort of plan.
It had started well, I’d looked after the tyres and we’d pitted at the perfect time but then we hit some problems, the rain came and we made a wrong decision over which tyres to put on the car, then we had a longer than planned stop to fix a glitch in a light pod, that cost us a lap, before being held at pit exit waiting for a Safety Car to come by, which meant almost two laps down and a plummet from P1 down to P15 in less than 2 hours!
Honestly at that point I wasn’t at all sure how recoverable that was but after that it was a 21.5 hour run on the comeback trail, pounding it out with Simon doing an absolutely brilliant job, keeping fast and consistent and Ollie getting quicker and quicker all the time.
It took time but began to pay off as the kerb banging from others started to tell.
After 17-19 hours several cars started to wilt and by the 20 hour mark we were back in the hunt.
I had the graveyard shift from 2:30 through to 6:30 am and got the car up from sixth to fourth, by the time I’d been to rest and got back to the garage and back into the car at 9am we were up to third!
Now it was time to push. We were 2.5 minutes back and I pushed harder than I ever have before, but still staying off the kerbs, the car felt absolutely perfect.
Then the OAK Ligier hit trouble, we were second and I needed to find around 10 seconds. I knew though that we had Ollie to come and TDS needed to put (Ludovic) Badey in the car as Gommendy’s hours were up.
As things turned out though we passed them in the pits, our guys turned the car around perfectly whilst they had an issue.
It is really, really tough to have the clock ticking down and know that you are leading and believe me the last 90 minutes were the longest I have ever experienced. Worse still, whilst we had a 30 second lead at the end the overall leading Audi was between us and the TDS car.
That meant that when he took the flag Ollie had to complete almost a full lap before we could relax, a lap where TDS couldn’t catch us, but we absolutely had to take the flag – I’d have traded those long 90 minutes for the final five!
But when we saw the car come through the Ford Chicane to take the flag – WOW, what a feeling, shouting, screaming, hugging – It’s worth remembering that several of the Jota crew have been here many, many times. 13-14 runnings here with maybe a single podium to relish makes me feel a very fortunate guy to have been a part of this on my debut.
And then there was the podium!
You are in the room waiting to go out, and all of a sudden it’s calm, it’s quiet, and everyone there is elated but knackered. Allan (McNish) was in there and had a few quiet words and then the doors are opened, you are out onto the famous gantry and the crowd is just massive – Absolutely fantastic, absolutely mental, absolutely mega!!