I’ve driven at Petit Le Mans so many times that I’ve noticed climate change. Yes, that’s right, hand on heart, it’s real. I’ve been going to Petit virtually since it started, and I’ve only missed three years. It never used to rain, now, it rains all the time!
To go full circle in my career, I would have had to have ended it at Daytona, because that’s where things started for me in 1999. Daytona was the first 24 hour race I ever did, in fact the longest race I’d done until then was 45 minutes! I remember thinking very naively that this endurance racing business was easy as we finished 2nd in GT and in the top 10 overall which led to me getting paid to drive for the very first time, but my first ever Petit Le Mans later that same year was a real baptism of fire by comparison.
Petit has an incredible atmosphere, and the circuit is incredibly difficult to learn, probably the hardest I ever experienced, in my opinion up there with Monaco in terms of finding the limit.
It’s harder to learn even than a place like Le Mans, because you can’t see what’s coming up in a lot of places. Going into Turn 1 and then approaching a blind crest flat out and knowing how to position your car into 2 and 3 and then into the Esses is so hard. Then out of the Esses into Turn 5 and up the hill, it’s technical and requires good instinct. And Turn 11 later on is a flat out blind crest, where you need to position your car carefully undeer the bridge or you’ll hit the grass on the left. It’s ballsy and very challenging with the traffic in the different classes.
I’ve driven at Petit Le Mans so many times that I’ve noticed climate change.
Looking back, my final international motor race at Road Atlanta didn’t go quite as well as I’d have liked. We missed out on pole by 8/100s which was rather annoying and then for one reason and another the podium slipped away early on in the race. But we all drove really hard, were amongst the quickest cars on the track inthe race and eventually finished 5th in the prototype challenge class.
The experience of racing at Petit Le Mans was once again an incredible experience. I’ve raced at Petit Le Mans 17 times and only come away with a podium five times, it’s been a tough race for me over the years and having another real battle against adversity at Petit again somehow seemed a fitting way to end my last ever Petit Le Mans.
I was there for the first championship counting Petit Le Mans in 1999 and despite her not being as kind to me as some other circuits, looking back some of the best memories from my career have still stemmed from that event. Since my first ever Petit back in 1999, I’ve raced there in some incredible cars and driven with some amazing teammates along the way.
The first year I went I was shown the ropes by none other than Hurley Haywood and David Murry, which when I think about it was pretty crazy. But I’ve had some terrific teammates at Petit ranging from Jean Christophe Bouillon, Joao Barbosa and Ralf Kelleners in the early days to Townsend Bell, Stefan Johansson and James Rossiter more recently.
Those last two stand out for me though, especially with Stefan Johansson back in 2006 – my best overall Petit Le Mans career result where we finished second overall in the factory LMP1 Zytek to Allan McNish and Dindo Capello’s factory LMP1 Audi.
The first year I went I was shown the ropes by none other than Hurley Haywood and David Murry, which when I think about it was pretty crazy.
That year with Johansson driving the Zytek was memorable for so many reasons, but mainly because it was my first drive in an LMP1 car since 2002 when I did a one off Daytona with Jan Lammers and Tony Stewart, and I was trying to make the jump from GT to Le Mans prototypes. Back then doing that was incredibly difficult, especially if you wanted to get paid.
Stefan was very much up to speed with driving that P1 car. The first time I turned a lap was during official practice that weekend, and going into the race the most laps I’d done consecutively was 10, with a grand total of 25 laps over three outings.
I remember that I was so keen and focused to not make any mistakes that I wasn’t relaxing my neck on the straights and it just wasn’t up to the job with the increased G-loads of a prototype. In the middle of my second double stint it just went completely to rubber! I was coming through Turn 12 and my head was bouncing off the side head-rest in the cockpit. Down the straights I was having to hold my helmet down with my left hand so I could look down to see the shift lights to know when to change gear! From that moment on I started doing neck exercises in the gym religiously and I have done ever since!
That weekend I observed Stefan, looked at his data and he really helped me get up to speed. By the time the race came around I was lapping much quicker and ended up having some great scraps getting past Jamie Campbell-Walter and Nic Minassian in their pole sitting Creation LMP1. Second overall was a great result and Stefan and I went on to further success together in the subsequent years still driving the factory Zytek.
James Rossiter meanwhile was a different story. We drove together in the factory Lotus GTE car. In terms of raw pace, he was one of the quickest teammates I’ve ever had, especially over one lap. If you examine his CV, the fact that he could be close to and/or match drivers of the quality of Anthony Davidson, Rubens Barrichello or Jenson Button when he was Honda Formula One test driver and coming up the ranks was competitive with the likes of guys like Lewis Hamilton shows his quality as a driver. Also you don’t stay as a test driver at BAR and Honda under Ross Brawn for long if you haven’t got quality, and he did for multiple years.
I was coming through Turn 12 and my head was bouncing off the side head-rest in the cockpit. Down the straights I was having to hold my helmet down with my left hand so I could look down to see the shift lights.
He’s now doing well in Super GT and Super Formula in Japan and proving his skills over there. It was great having him as a factory teammate, as the Lotus in its first year struggled to be a competitive package, but James and I worked really well together and kept each other on our toes! Even if we were both a second off the other cars in our class, we both knew that if we could beat or match eachother then we were both doing a decent job!
Significantly in both of our first races after Lotus, James came within a fraction of getting LMP2 pole at the Spa WEC race and I manage to grab pole from Nick Tandy in the ELMS at Silverstone, so clearly we’d kept each other reasonably sharp whilst tooling around at the back of the grid in that Lotus! He really kept me honest and most importantly I enjoyed his company and working and driving with him.
What will I miss about Petit? Well I always loved coming over the bridge on the way in with cars on the circuit going underneath you coming out of 10b. Often when I would drive into the track in the mornings other cars would already be out on track. I remember watching Dan Wheldon when he raced Indy Lights there one morning in the early 2000s and hearing him coming underneath that bridge flat out, and that gave me a real excited feeling in my stomach! I’ll definitely miss seeing quick cars flying down through Turn 12, and I’ll miss driving it as well!
Even though this was my last Petit, while I was out driving on the track, the emotion wasn’t really there, but there were two occasions when it did hit me that my career was coming to an end. In the drivers briefing, IMSA CEO Scott Atherton got me up and presented me with a chequered flag signed by the drivers in the briefing room. Listening to him speak about how long we’d been a part of racing together really brought it home that I was stopping, it made it kick in. It was a really nice moment and I was very appreciative that he took the time to bother to do that.
So now it’s over, I’d like to thank so many people who were there along the way. In particular, I’d like to thank all the broadcasters: every one at Radio Le Mans, John Hindhaugh and Eve especially, as well as Jim Roller and all the TV guys like Brian Till, Greg Creamer and Calvin Fish and everyone who I have become friends with over the years and made walking up and down the paddock such a social event.
Finally, there is one person I would like to mention, someone who meant a lot to me, and who made Petit Le Mans extra special. That’s Shelley McMahon, who managed the Hampton Inn hotel in Flowery Branch near the circuit. I got to know her really well over the last 8 years or so, and because of her I ended up staying at that hotel every year because the service she and her staff provided was so friendly and so good. She was a real race fan, and would always come to the race and I’d get her tickets and get her in and show her around the car with her husband.
Then about four years ago she got diagnosed with cancer and was given just one year. But she was a fighter and even though she had to stop working she still came to Petit Le Mans each year throughout her fight. We would still get her in and make her welcome in whatever team I happened to be drving for at the time.
I was really hoping that she would be able to make it this year to my last race, but sadly she eventually lost her huge fight and passed away earlier this year. It wasn’t quite the same without her smiling face and incredibly positive outlook on life.
So maybe that’s another good reason that it’s the right time to call it a day…
Featured image and PC image courtesy of IMSA