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Stéphane Sarrazin, SMP Racing’s Not So Secret Weapon

Adding experience to the Russian LMP1 effort

Stéphane Sarrazin is about to embark upon his 17th Le Mans 24 Hours with what is likely the most impressive but personally irritating record at the great race.

Sarrazin has missed only one Le Mans 24 Hours in the 21st century and, after spells with both ORECA and Pescarolo has had a solidly factory cv, first with Aston Martin with the DBR9 for two years, then five years with the Peugeot LMP1 programme, and then six with Toyota’s hybrid efforts.

That cv has produced no fewer than four overall second places and a third overall, but his speed, and consistency makes him one of a select band of drivers who is a ‘go to’ guy for pace and guidance on how to approach the Le Mans 24 Hours (as well as just about every other area of motorsport!)

There was no real surprise then that he was snapped up by SMP racing as an anchor for their new for 2018 LMP1 programme, and his form thus far in the AER-powered BR1 has been excellent.

Third fastest overall in last night’s first qualifying session, edging out the more fancied Rebellions, looked like something of a message, “I’m still around!”

Sarrazin though is almost always understated, but has a role much valued by the team for his experience at Le Mans, just two of his team-mates having prior experience, Mikhail Aleshin and Vitaly Petrov, each having a trio apiece. The young guns in the #17 car with Sarrazin, Egor Orudzhev and Matevos Isaakyan are race rookies and so too is 2009 F1 World Champ Jenson Button.”

It’s a new era, a very different programme, but not your first chance, potentially, to podium or better. Where does this stand, for you?

“Yes, it’s a new challenge for me, after being with Peugeot for five years, and then with Toyota.”

Can you tell us a bit about the car?

“Last week I was very impressed by the balance of the car, especially through the high-speed corners. I have a very good feeling, just like I did when I was with Peugeot. If it’s wet, then it may be more complicated, but we have a good package. The car is new, the team is new, and we have little experience, so it will be tough, but we will have to do our best, the drivers, the engineers, the mechanics and this is Le Mans. Anything can happen. Last year it was an LMP2 leading, until one hour before the end.”

There are three reasons why you’re here with this team. You’re fast, you’re experienced, and you know this race. Tell us a little about the journey you’ve got with the young drivers in the 17 car, and for that matter, with Jensen joining the team, a driver with no experience of endurance racing.

“Of my five team mates, only two have done Le Mans before; The others have experience of motorsport, but not endurance.

“The young guys in my car are really excited, they want to push, but we need to stay calm, stay on track.

“Everybody can make mistakes, I can make mistakes, but the approach has to be different from single-seater racing. It’s not twenty-minute racing. This is for twenty-four hours.

“I need to give them the benefit of my experience here at Le Mans, where we can overtake, where we cannot overtake, and when, and I try to give them all the help that I can, to give us success.”

Are they good listeners?

“I hope so!”

The mark of a really good team is what happens when things go wrong. How will they deal with that? Spa was not a straightforward race for the team in many ways, What was the atmosphere like? How well did things come together in the immediate aftermath of Spa (where the #17 car had a ‘blowover accident in the hands of Isaakyan)?

“We had a good weekend in terms of reliability. We had only one issue all weekend, and the car had a big accident and that was bad for us.

“Since then Dallara have made a lot of modifications to the front of the car, and it looks as if it’s okay now. We have more downforce, and I think that problem is sorted. But this is motorsport, so you never know. “

Final question, and I almost know the answer, but how much would a win mean to Stéphane Sarrazin?

“I have scored some podiums already, and I have been on the podium, sometimes, and been disappointed, because I was not winning.

“Other times I have been on the podium, and I’ve been very happy, because it was not expected. Like Sebring one year, when I finished P3, with an LMP2 car. That was with Starworks. That was amazing. The year before we finished P3, and I was really pissed off. I was with Peugeot, and we could have won!

“A win would be amazing, but for that to happen we have to be perfect and Toyota have to make mistakes. We will see!”