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Preparing for Le Mans: GTE-Pro
Rick Mayer, race engineer of the Risi Competizione No. 82 Ferrari 488 GTE-Pro Le Mans race team, shares his thoughts on the highly anticipated 84th Annual 24 Hours of Le Mans
Rick Mayer, race engineer, Risi Competizione
Le Mans is a harsh event to work. For me, Le Mans is a love-hate thing. I look forward to the end of the race every year. You hope Friday isn't a late night for everyone as warm-up is at 9:00 a.m. Saturday and the race starts at 3:00 p.m. You have to get to the track so early on Saturday, so it means the crew is working non-stop for just about 40 hours; that is if you finish. It's a constant struggle to pace yourself to maintain concentration and not burn out, especially on Sunday morning. At best you will get a few 10 or 15-minute naps, if you can fit it in and it works for you. The decision process is a bit complex by Sunday afternoon, maintaining focus is the challenge.
The circuit is 8.5 miles long and just under a 4-minute lap for the GTEs. Telemetry (live data from the car to the pits) coverage is poor with a circuit this long. You lose touch with where the car is on the track, timing systems are much better now and you can follow the car on the virtual track. It takes nearly 15 minutes just to do one timed lap if you include the 'out' and 'in' laps. We have a total of 10 hours of practice time but the number of actual practice laps is low in comparison to a normal Stateside (or European) sprint race because of the long lap time. It almost always rains in testing and/or the race, you just hope you have the setup and other essential testing sorted in the dry running. The forecast for this year is no exception.
Having a reliable car is the most important item; you have to finish to win. It needs to be comfortable for all the drivers with no unpredictable handling tendencies. If the car is good in the Porsche Curves, it's probably good everywhere as that's a good gauge. You hope to have the same car balance as the test. The aero setup for Le Mans is like nowhere else we race. The long straights here are so important, with three being over a mile long and two more over 4000 feet; you trim downforce to reduce drag for straight-line speed. There is a limit to reduced downforce. If you go too far you are too slow off the corners leading onto the long straights and the actual maximum speed in those sections can be slower. Part of the testing process is finding that limit.
Every manufacturer has an ACO-homologated Le Mans kit to reduce drag and give some parity between the different makes of cars. This is mainly to reduce front downforce that you balance with a substantial reduction in rear wing angle. The reduced wing is the main drag reduction. You want a good platform for the high speed and change of directions, so the setup is on the stiff side; there is only one really slow corner -- Arnage. The majority of the track is smooth so there isn't usually a grip issue, plus the track gains grip in the race as the rubber goes down; that's if the rain doesn't wash the rubber off! You always consider rain in the setup; seldom is the race totally dry.
This is similar to most 24-hour races. Large portions of the parts and systems on the car have a manufacturer's recommended service interval about the length of a 24-hour race. The week between the test and the event is used as time to replace, inspect or rebuild numerous items. Even if your setup is perfect and drivers dialed in you need to run enough laps in the event testing to ensure all the parts and systems that were replaced are functioning properly. There is a fine line between the amount of track time you need to validate proper function and too much track time reducing the life of the items you want to check.
Different Race Methodology:
It's a gruelling race; the drivers (and crew) need to be 100% focused. The drivers need to run a comfortable, careful, but quick pace. They need to leave room in the brake zones in case they come upon some unexpected fluid, debris, gravel or other anomalies on the track, particularly at corners with little to no runoff. We race in the GTE-Pro class, so we are passing and being passed. The drivers need to leave ample room when being passed by faster cars or when passing slower cars in the GTE-Am class. They spend as much time looking in the mirrors as they do through the windshield. The secret to success here is stay on track and out of the garage; think twice about each move - it's better to lose a second or two on the track than spend minutes or hours in the garage.
You win Le Mans by staying out of the garage and off pit lane. The past few years the ACO has used slow zones, in place of always deploying the safety cars, where drivers maintain speed at 80 kph in sections where track workers are required to remove a car, extract a car from the gravel, repair the track etc. Le Mans has 35 slow zones with light systems in the cars (and on track) defining their active locations. This has significantly reduced the deployment of the safety cars (3 SCs at Le Mans). Taking care of more minor issues this way keeps the race moving. If you have a fast car without issues this is to your benefit. If you have to repair damage and spend time in the garage this system makes it nearly impossible to gain back laps lost. This is a significant difference in philosophy to the IMSA-run races.
Again, (1) stay out of the garage, (2) stay on the track, (3) don't hit anything or get hit, (4) stop only for fuel, tires and the occasional engine oil, with a likely front brake pad change somewhere in the wee hours. The later you do it the better the brakes will be on Sunday when you may need to push. Fuel economy pays dividends; if possible try to get that additional lap per stint. The tire change rules force you to double or triple stint tires. A stint will be around an hour. The tire change will take around 18 seconds, if you practice, but it's done separate from fueling. It's a long track and when it starts to sprinkle with rain on the pit straight, it can be dry or pouring on the other side of the track.
Tire selection is sometimes more luck than skill but we have more tire options here than in the States. We have three dry compounds, two full wet compounds and 'cut' front option to help channel away heavy rain. The correct wet or damp option is not always obvious (see above comments about variable weather around the track) and you rely heavily on your drivers' judgment and experience.
You need a skilled crew and drivers and some luck to win at Le Mans. We did it with the F430 in 2008 and 2009, now the challenge is to do it again. But, with the competition being the stiffest since...well forever, never fiercer in GTE...it will be a tough, hard-fought race. But what a race it will be!