I had a big smile on my face returning to Le Mans from the moment I saw the grandstands as I was driven into the circuit on Saturday morning. The test day is the first time I’ve been back since crossing the finish line at the end of the 2016 race. It’s a chance to eye up the opposition and get back out on the circuit that can make driver’s and team’s ultimate ambitions come true.
Taking the limiter off at the end of the pit lane for my first run, it was immediately obvious how many fans turned out as I could see them all up on the banks around the Dunlop Chicane. Immediately following is the Esses, one of my favourite parts of the circuit and you’re on a rollercoaster ride as the car falls down the hill through the cambers of the circuit. Tetre Rouge requires maximum commitment if you are to carry good speed onto the straight, while not catching the eye of Eduardo Freitas for track limits by going too far over the exit kerbs!
Braking for the two Mulsanne Chicanes and Mulsanne Corner itself starts from over 290kph and you need confidence to brake at the limit of adhesion, knowing that 1 or 2 metres too late leaves you with little wiggle room to recover the car. Indianapolis is one of the most ballsy parts of the circuit. As small a brake as you dare through the quick right then slamming on the anchors and getting down the gears before throwing the car into the left with too much speed than you think, only for the banking on the inside of the corner to save you each lap.
Arnage is a tricky little tight 90 degree right, but while it’s one of the slowest corners on the circuit it’s low grip, as the surface changes from the public road back to the race track and this can catch you out. The following straight gives you a brief moment to gather your thoughts before your body is subjected to 20 seconds of pounding G forces as you corner right, left, left, right and left through the Porsche Curves at over 200kph, threading your way through the concrete walls either side.
Coming through Karting and the Ford chicanes are certainly where you want to be keeping the car neat and tidy, especially with the Ford VIP hospitality situated opposite! But in the car you brake and turn in before you can see the penultimate corner, hoping you guessed right. Smash the kerb on the left, smash the kerb on the right before going down one more gear for the final slower chicane. As you cross the line, you have enough time to look down and see you lap time before its time to get back on the ride for another tour.
While we weren’t as high up the timesheets as we’d hope, overall it was still a positive test for the #67 car on Sunday. Pipo had his first GT laps around the circuit which went well and I was able to validate some set up changes we had found on our latest simulator session in Canada. It seemed strange going all that way to drive a simulator but the time and expense was well worth it as all the gains were all replicated in real life, very impressive stuff from Multimatic there!
Most importantly, the car ran reliably and we worked through our programme as planned before Andy finished the day off. There is certainly pressure coming into this race after such a good result for the team last year and a very strong start to this season with our car leading the championship. With 50 points and a place in the history books up for grabs, we’ll be doing everything we can in preparation for race week. The team stayed on for the Bugatti Circuit test on Tuesday, shaking down the rear end of the car we’re saving for the race. You want to start with everything as fresh as possible, so we have a brand new engine, gearbox, clutch and suspension which only goes on the car the night before the race. It’s therefore important we run a few laps just to make sure everything is working normally. Andy had the pleasure of an extra couple of days in Le Mans as he’s the, how do I put this… “Most experienced” ;)!
Between now and the race it is a case of finishing off the final part of our training programme in the gym and staying rested. It’s a long week at Le Mans, so it’s important that you’ve got your films and box sets downloaded. I’ve got Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans already lined up. I also bought Andy’s autobiography off eBay, so I shouldn’t have any problems getting off to sleep at night!
In all seriousness it’s a great team spirit between all four cars and I am sure we’ve got a good weekend ahead of us. In 1967, Ford was victorious for the second consecutive year. 50 years on, if the #67 car can emulate A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney, maybe Andy’s publishers will commission a second edition of the book to bring his great story up to date.