To compete at Le Mans 24, you need more than just driving skill. Clocking up average speeds of 160mph and top speeds of 205mph, competitors rattling around France’s tricky Circuit de la Sarthe spend 24 hours cramming eight-and-a-half miles into three-and-a-half minute laps, alternating driving shifts with two other teammates. It pushes the very limits of motor racing and mental discipline to the full. Even if your engine holds out, your mind may not: on a course which has claimed the lives of 22 drivers, one lapse of concentration can be fatal.
Invited by Shell Motorsport – which fuelled Ferrari at Le Mans 2017 – RISING was trackside at this year’s race, where we sat down with drivers from two generations to hear how the 94-year-old event has changed.
James Calado: Finished 11th In 2017’s GTE Pro class
RISING As a 28-year-old Brit, you’ve competed three times in this race – what’s the lure of Le Mans for you?
JAMES CALADO ‘It’s one of the most prestigious races in the world, with a fantastic circuit to drive as well. The connection with the fans is really big – there aren’t many major contests in motorsport where people can really stand among the cars and see what’s going on and chat with the drivers, and Le Mans offers that.’
RISING It’s as much a mental battle as a physical one. How do you prepare for that?
JC ‘It’s all about keeping the confidence and self-belief high. Fortunately, I came into this Le Mans on good form following a few good finishes. For the physical side of things, we train as much as we can between races. Like any motor racing, the lighter you are the better you are, so it’s about conserving energy and eating right. I have a strict gym programme.’
RISING How strict are we talking?
JC ‘It’s a mixture. I’ll go to do weights work and strength work, little things to keep me sharp when I’m not in the car. Sleep and hydration is key to competing in Le Mans. This discipline of getting enough hours a night and keeping on top of water ensures my mind is focused and ready. It’s just about remembering to keep on top of the fitness and maintaining it.’
RISING Is there a comedown effect after a Le Mans event?
JC ‘I’m destroyed normally, but more mentally than physically. It’s so difficult to sleep; you’ve got huge amounts of adrenaline. You come out of the car at 2am expecting to go straight to bed but it’s tough to settle down.’
RISING Is there a part of race when you hit the metaphorical wall?
JC ‘Not one specific point, it just becomes uncomfortable. Le Mans does have the big straights where you can take a breather, move your hands around a little bit. Places like Sebring, Daytona, you’re always going around a corner, but I’m experienced, and if it gets too much I’ll let my guys know.’
‘One mistake could destroy the car, so you can’t switch off’
RISING In the car set-up, anything you need to be mindful of?
JC ‘It’s 24 hours. One mistake could destroy the car. You can’t switch off. That could be hitting the curb in the wrong position, could be locking the brake and clipping one of the floppies [corner markers], which takes out the front splitter.’
RISING How do you stay mentally focused with those hazards looming?
JC ‘For the duration of Le Mans you have to be constantly thinking, “My car has to be there at the finish to fight for the win”. As soon as that desire to win goes then it becomes problematic. You need to stay in control, managing the traffic well and being ready for whatever’s thrown at you. You’ve got amateur drivers as well as pros, and LP1 [Le Mans Prototype – the fastest race cars after those in F1], which are unbelievably fast. That is mentally quite challenging, and that’s what gets me at the end of the race.’
RISING How can the weather change things?
JC ‘Rain is never great when you’ve so many cars on the track. It was really wet last year. This year’s challenge is the heat. Being in a closed cockpit, the car gets hot. When it’s hot it’s more demanding, physically, which is intense. Just before it gets dark is peak time for my drive.’
RISING Does the darkness ramp up the danger?
JC ‘I wouldn’t say danger’s the word. It’s visually harder to know where you are and when to brake. Racing in the night makes everyone that bit more cautious. Practice helps too. You can get a simulator to 99%, but that 1% is everything.’
RISING Whenever you race Le Mans, what’s your mindset?
JC ‘To win. I’m just here to win.’
Jean-Paul Libert: Belgian driver who raced Le Mans 10 times from 1980 to 1997
RISING From a spectator’s POV, the cars whiz around like a blur – does it feel that way when driving?
JEAN-PAUL LIBERT ‘Strangely enough, the opposite. I was so focused at top speed that down the long straights I could make out people’s faces as I sped past. Speed didn’t scare me. The only time I was worried was with my first qualifier. I had to race four laps in the rain at night, with virtually no practice of Le Mans. I went in blind. One of the experienced guys told me to “follow the fastest car and you’ll be okay”. He was right. Eventually I knew it intimately.’
RISING Given the race is 24 hours long, do you ever forget how to take a specific corner?
JL ‘Only very occasionally. I remember sometimes, when it was extremely rainy and visibility was poor, I had to go by what I heard from sounds in front of me. It’s unbelievable if you think about it.’
RISING What was your oddest Le Mans experience?
JL ‘I was driving with Ferrari, and the hospitality section was serving a veal stew. In those years, drivers and guests were eating the same food. The weather was very warm, and my colleague got into the car, became very ill and vomited during a lap. As he was unable to drive anymore, I got in the car, and it was everywhere; on the pedal, on the seat, on the dashboard... I remember changing the gear and seeing some of the veal covering the gearstick. You wouldn’t get that now.’
‘As I approached two crashed Aston Martins there was a vast wall of fire’
RISING How else has Le Mans changed over the years?
JL ‘It has changed quite drastically. The first time I raced was in 1980 with Ferrari – I raced 1980, ‘81, ‘82 with Ferrari – and the infrastructure was still like you saw in the Steve McQueen Le Mans movie. There weren’t all the huge buildings around the track you see today – we had Shell’s hotel and restaurant, which was the main place to be. Today it really is Hollywood. The vehicles are close to perfection and start like F1 cars, whereas we had a gearbox. In the 70s and 80s you had to drive with your head, and finding the right balance between reliability, performance and yourself, because you were not trained like the guys are today.’
RISING How about the physical challenges?
JL ‘It’s easier now, physically. They have air conditioning in the car. Though mentally it’s harder because they need to go fast every lap. With Ferrari, we had to be careful with second gear, so there were parts of the course we’d go slowly. We finished the race because we were careful with the gearbox. It was as much a battle between man and machine. When I drove the Cosworth here, we needed to keep the car straight when between a certain number of RPM, because if you were a little bit lower or higher, you create vibration of the engine and you would break it.’
RISING The race has claimed the lives of 22 drivers. Did you ever race at Le Mans when people died?
JL ‘Yes, there was Jean-Louis Lafosse in 1981, who died on the Mulsanne Straight, more or less the same spot where the Aston Martin driver [Allan Simonsen] had a suspension failure and was killed [in 2013] – and also Jo Gartner in 1986 in the Porsche. When I was driving I knew nothing of their fate, just that they were bad crashes – we had no radio, unlike now.’
RISING How much does it dampen the mood of a race when there’s a fatality?
JL ‘Everyone at that time knew you must be careful, because there was no carbon fibre [to protect the drivers]. I always think that with everything you do with passion there is risk, especially on this course. But the fatalities were never a good thing, and one was a friend of a friend.’
Did you have any particularly hairy moments yourself?
JL ‘The most spectacular moment I had at Le Mans was in ‘82, when two Aston Martins crashed and there was a wall of fire. I came to it just after the hill and there was one guy with his leg out of the car. My Ferrari was very fast in a straight line, and I was right behind Porsche’s Jonathan Palmer when we approached the vast flames in a straight line. Palmer went in the middle and I followed. Which was the right move – the crashed cars were both on the sides and If we’d tried to pass around the side we would have hit them.’
RISING Was it then back to business?
JL ‘Of course, time to focus, always with the concentration.’
WHAT NEXT? How do you stay as fit as a championship Le Mans driver this summer? Sam Bird recommends jumping on a bike: ‘When I’m training I cycle a lot, and it’s by far the best thing for keeping me lightweight and nimble when I do get in the car. Great for getting used to the heat as well. I often ride 100 miles in a week.” Sounds like a challenge to us…