Where do I start? My debut week at Le Mans has been such a rollercoaster of huge highs and near crushing lows.
It all started with a dash straight from my Radical European Masters race at Silverstone directly to Le Mans. We were first on at scrutineering on Monday morning so I needed to get there on Sunday night. I arrived at the house just before 2am and managed to get a few hours sleep before meeting the team in the paddock in time to all head into town.
We got into the Place de la Republique to be greeted by hundred if not thousands of race fans who were already there. Both the Team AAI cars looked great in there liveries and we walked through into the signing on area and kit check area. This is when I realised how hardcore some of the Le Mans fans are. One asked me to sign a photo of me driving a German Formula Renault car from a one off race years ago. I had no idea where he got the picture from as I am not sure I even have any myself. He then asked me to sign a number of photos that he had of me in different cars. He said he researches everyone who drives at Le Mans, while his friend told me that he had a signed picture of every driver who has taken part in Le Mans for over thirty years! Unbelievable dedication.
There were lots of photos and interviews on the stage and then we had the obligatory Le Mans team photo. I felt very proud to finally have made it into one of those. The rest of the day was taken up with driver change practice, and going through some videos and data from the test day with my co-driver San. He had stayed for the whole week between the test weekend and race week and seemed a lot more comfortable in his surroundings. I then headed out to dinner at Legends in the town centre with my other co-driver Xavier Maassen, his partner Nalan and Xavier’s dad and it was a great time to get to know them all better. Legends is race themed restaurant just of the main square in the town centre and well worth a visit if you get chance.
Tuesday was taken up with driver’s briefing and a very busy autograph session followed by an early night as I tried to catch up on some sleep. I also managed to cycle a few laps of the circuit with my old Murphy Prototypes teammate Karun Chandhok. It’s the best way to see the circuit as it is too long to walk and you miss things when you drive it. I have to thank one of my Radical customers, Brian Caudwell for the loan of the bike for Le Mans. It was a Pinarello, super lightweight and fast and worth almost more than my car!
Wednesday was what we had all been waiting for, the first practice sessions. The car had been very twitchy on the test weekend and we had a programme to work through to try to find some, speed. The 997 Porsche does not have the latest aero package that the 991 has so we were running the absolute minimum wing setting on the car to try to keep up on the straights. We wanted to find rear end grip mechanically rather than go up on the wing. Xavier did a series of runs as our engineer Massimo worked through the changes and by the time I got in at the end of the session the car felt a step better and we decided to keep going in that direction on set up. Due to the red flag in the session I only ran six laps but felt comfortable that I knew where I could find time. The evening session required us all to do our mandatory five night laps. Again Xavier ran first then me and then it was to be San. As I got in the car the red flag came out again. We opted to switch to put San in the car to be sure he would get his laps on Wednesday as Thursday had rain forecast. I managed to get out for two laps at the end of the session. So only eight laps on my first day but it is a team game and I knew my time would come.
By now it had become apparent that we were going to be spending more time looking the mirrors than all the Kardashians put together. I have driven in the night in Dubai but I was shocked by just how blinding the LMP1 lights are at Le Mans and we needed to do all we could to prevent this. Our rear facing camera was next to useless at night as the contrast just meant it flooded with light whether the car behind was 200m or 20m behind you. Also the circuit lights were mounted almost horizontally and the same white colour as the LMP lights so often you would think you had a car coming up behind you when it was actually just a corner light. Eventually you would realise it was not getting brighter and you knew it was not a car. Still far too much focus was being spent making sense of what was happening behind than we would have liked. We also had a fairly large blindspot to the sides making it hard to see if anyone was alongside. The head restraint sides to the seat mean you cannot just turn your head as you would in a road car. When you get divebombed by an LMP1 car into a corner you need to be sure that there is not another following him through before turning in. If we were unsure we had to just leave space as it was never worth risking the car for. The AF Corse cars had a radar system which apparently worked well to tell you what class of car was coming up, how close they were and their position relative to you. This would have been amazing….next time perhaps.
On Thursday morning we tinted the rear screen more to and adjusted the rear camera to try to help the blinding from the LMP1 headlights. I also spent a long time with San going though each corner explaining where he could find time. For qualifying two in the early evening I was out first to try to make up for the missed laps the day before. I did an eight lap run and started to feel a lot more comfortable with the car and set up. My best sectors were good albeit on different laps while avoiding traffic. I realised that whereas I am used to thinking that I will have a good lap when there is a clear track ahead, in GTE AM you know you will have a good lap when you see a clear track behind you! San jumped in and within his seven laps he had found eight seconds on his previous time. He still had some way to go but it was positive. Then the reds came out again and the session was stopped early.
For night qualifying I still needed to get three laps in. I headed out first and got these out of the way. The plan was then for both Xavier and I to get a proper qualy run on new rubber. Xavier headed out first and got down to a 4m01.270. Not quick by the front running cars standards but it was absolutely driving the doors off our car. It was a good step forward and we felt confident as each time we left the pits we were making changes and finding time. I then headed out and onto my new tyre run. Within a lap the oil pressure warning came on. Normally racing drivers are taught that if the oil pressure light comes on then you stop the engine immediately to prevent engine damage. In the Porsche there is a reserve oil tank and you press a button to top up the oil. I was told over the radio to do this and continue with the run. On the next lap the light came on again and this time we pitted to check it over. After being given the all clear I headed back out onto the circuit. This time as I headed down from Dunlop towards Tertre Rouge the oil pressure light came on again. Again I radioed back to the pits for instructions. As I exited Tertre Rouge I had a call from Massimo “Stop the car! Stop the car!” I assumed that they had seen a bigger drop in oil pressure this time and dipped the clutch and switched off immediately so as to try to prevent engine damage. As I came to a stop halfway towards the first chicane I asked if they needed me to do anything in the car or whether I was parking it. The reply was delayed as Massimo was still being informed himself what the issue was. By this time and with the car stopped I could smell smoke that had not caught up with me while the car had been moving. Oil had been leaking onto the exhaust since Dunlop but due to the heavy tinting on the rear screen I had not seen the smoke. Also the engine compartment is completely sealed from the cockpit and at that speed smoke does not travel forwards and reach the driver. Had I known I had been on fire before I stopped then I would have driven to a marshal’s post where there were extinguishers. I did not wait for the reply on the radio and jumped out of the car and pulled the extinguisher. It was not enough to put it out and within twenty seconds the whole rear of the car had six foot high flames coming out of it. I could see my Le Mans dreams disappearing before my eyes and there was nothing I could do about it. Within a minute or so the marshals arrived and put the fire out but the damage was done. The whole rear of the car looked destroyed.
When I got back to the garage the team I had a couple of quick calls to make to my mum and my wife who had seen the fire on TV but did not know that I was fine. With them reassured I spoke to the team who were very apologetic but already intensely focused on assessing the damage and working out if we had a chance to make the race. We had just that day fitted the race engine and the practice engine was already up to its life on hours so we could not just swap that over. They worked into the night to strip the car and by 3am they had decided that they shell was salvageable but that everything else would need to be replaced. Porsche in Germany were already on the phone and the new engine left their factory at 9am on Friday morning. In the meantime the guys prepped the shell and resprayed it and the new wiring was installed in readiness for the parts we were waiting for.
With the events of Thursday night I had not got to bed until about 3.30am and was up again at 9am. Not ideal prep for a 24hr race but I hoped to get to bed early on Friday night. At this point all I wanted to do was help the guys in some way but I had other duties that I was committed to. I had a job for Stuart at Project100 giving some of his guests a circuit tour on Friday morning, followed by two interviews, a quick hello and lunch with my wife Jenna who had now arrived, and then straight to the drivers parade in the town centre.
The drivers parade was far, far crazier than I expected. Thousands and thousands of people line the streets of the town as the drivers ride through on vintage cars with brass bands playing and a real carnival atmosphere. No doubt most were there to see Patrick Dempsey and the ex-F1 drivers but I even had a few people shouting wiKapadia at me! So someone reads this then! We had fun throwing pictures to the crowds, having selfies taken and signing autographs on all sorts of bodyparts. It was definitely one of the highlights of the week. It went on until about 9pm and I wish I could have stayed for a beer in the town centre but we had to get back to the circuit.
When we got back it was 10pm and the new engine had just arrived. Despite the guys only having had 3 hours sleep the night before and now having worked 14 hours already today, the guys then worked all through the night to install the engine, gearbox and suspension and test all the systems.
I got to bed at around 11:30pm and was under instruction to sleep in as I would be doing a lot of night driving the next day. Xavier and San drove the car in warm up and it seemed to run perfectly! A huge testament to the guys hard work and attention to detail under pressure.
We then had a quick team briefing and some final driver change practice, while the team made final checks to the car, before the car headed out onto the grid for the start of the race. To see it on the grid after all their efforts was already a victory. Now we just had to hope it would last the race. While standing on the grid for the starting ceremony I felt a mixture of elation that I had finally made it to the grid of the Le Mans 24hrs and also exhaustion from the lack of sleep and running around. If that was how I felt I have no idea what it was like for the guys who had only had three hours sleep since Thursday morning and were now about to do another 24hrs!
Our strategy was to finish. We knew we were not going to do much on pace in the 997 and so our only hope for a real result was to make sure that we were there at the end when perhaps others were not. With this in mind all our driving focused on this goal. It did not matter if we lost a few extra seconds in traffic, we just needed to stay clean and stay out of the garage. Even in a car that is four seconds off the pace, if you rivals spend ten minutes in the garage fixing some damage, then that would take 150 laps at four seconds per lap to regain it. We just had to keep going.
Xavier started and did a double stint before handing over to San for a single. San was to do the minimum driving time of four hours and he wanted to do it in daylight conditions. This meant Xavier and I would do around ten hours each. After San’s first stint I headed out for my first stint and why not make it a triple one. I actually felt very relaxed as I got in and just took it easy and stayed out of trouble. Physically I was fine as I train hard and the Porsche at Le Mans is a lot less physical than say a Radical SR8 at Silverstone. The only worry came from a numb right foot.
As we went through the night Xavier and I alternated triple stints and by 4am we were thirteen hours into the race and I had done 6hrs of it. My back had started to ache and my foot was now totally numb. (Even as I write this on Wednesday after the race three of my toes have still not come back to life yet!) I managed to get just over an hour of sleep during the night. But we always had to be ready for the next stint so time was limited.
The track was starting to grip up now and Xavier got down to a 4m00.9 during the night. I got to a 4m02.8 in the morning but after studying the data all my time was being lost on the straights. This was either due to air temperature or engine losing me 4-5kph top speed everywhere, but I was happy to see that I had been quicker in a few places whilst driving perhaps overcautiously and well within myself. At this point it became pointless to try to push for times as we were not likely to catch the car in front and when Massimo told me I could choose my own pace in the last two hours I opted to save the car wherever possible. Not taking too much kerb, not abusing the driveshafts and reducing the revs a little. The team had given me the honour of finishing the car and they did not need me trying to be a hero with just two hours to go after what they had been through.
With two minutes to go I was overtaken by the lead Porsche who then slowed at Mulsanne to form the train that would cross the line. As I crossed the line and saw the whole team hanging off the pitwall it was a very special moment. We had come here gain experience, and to finish, and despite everything that had happened we had achieved that! It was mission accomplished!
The slow down lap was very special and quite emotional. I drove slowly past all the spectators enclosures where I had once stood and now I had raced it and finished it. Once the car was parked up in parc ferme one of the first people I saw was Jenna who got a huge hug before we were mobbed by the team who were ecstatic.
When I signed up to this drive I knew that the older car would not be quick and that San was also going to have a very steep learning curve. The reason I did it was because I had been very close to three different top LMP2 drives but each team had said that they “wanted a driver with Le Mans experience”. I have that now and I also appreciate the value of that experience more too. If I came back again my approach would now be different. With the hand we were dealt it was about playing it cautious and not making any mistakes while trying to find that “rhythm” that you need to be quick and not make mistakes. I have found that rhythm now and feel confident around the circuit and could go out and push from the off next time and also not be thinking about mandatory ten laps on the test day and night laps etc. This really eats into you programme and hugely affects your approach.
It just remains for me to thank AAI Motorsport and San for the opportunity and for all of their superhuman efforts, and to everyone else who had supported me. Keep up to date with my progress on twitter @alexkapadia and I hope you have enjoyed this column.