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BEHIND THE SCENES: HOW FORD GO RACING AT LE MANS

27 Jun 2017

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The story of how Ford ended up competing at Le Mans is now automotive folk lore: in the 1960s Henry Ford II was very close to buying Ferrari. But when, at the last minute, Enzo Ferrari pulled the plug on the deal, Ford was furious.

 

So furious that he ordered his engineers to build a car that would beat the red cars at the own game and win Le Mans.

 

Ford turned up with the GT40 and at the 1966 race they took a crushing 1-2-3.

 

Fast forward 50 years to 2016 and Ford had decided to take on the Le Mans challenge again with a new car, the GT. This time they won first time out, beating a Ferrari into second place, incidentally.

 

So for 2017, the 50th anniversary of Ford's second consecutive Le Mans win, we persuaded them to let DRIVETRIBE get up close and personal with the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Team to see how just how the men and women from the Blue Oval go racing at the world's toughest endurance race.

 

 

THE FACTS

The Le Mans 24 Hours race is brutal on drivers, cars and teams. The Circuit de la Sarthe is 8.5miles long and has 38 turns.

 

Each car will do 340 laps if it completes the race - that is a total of 2879 miles and will see each car get through 2356 litres of fuel.

 

Each lap involves 62 gear changes and the drivers on full throttle for 70 per cent of the time.

 

In the GTE pro class the cars will hit a top speed of over 300kph and last year's fastest GTE Pro lap was 3:51.514, posted by Scott Dixon in the Ford GT.

 

It is a fearsome event - and these are the people whose job it is to make it all come together:

 

 

THE BOSS

Raj Nair is, perhaps more than any other individual, the reason Ford is at Le Mans competing with a car designed and built with the express purpose of winning the race again, half a century after their first victory at the Circuit de la Sarthe.

 

A senior Ford exec, it was Nair that led the small team which came up with the GT and as he sits in the team's paddock hospitality unit just 24 hours before the flag drops to start the 2017 race, he looks remarkably relaxed for a man with so much on his shoulders. Isn't he stressed?

 

"Yes!" he answers with a laugh. "Part of this job is trying to hide the stress as much as you can so the rest of the team doesn't feel it. 

 

"We'll all do better if we're just feeling relaxed and we know our job and there's no point in putting the weight of the world on every team member.

 

"They know what they have to do, and they're professionals and they love what they do."

 

Other than the history, why is Ford at Le Mans? 

 

"It's not just that Le Mans is hard, it's the level of competition," Nair says. "Everybody brings their best game here. It's the most famous endurance race in the world. "There's something special when you come here and see all of these people, it makes a difference as to how you feel about the race.

 

"We're proud of all of our wins but if you can say you won at Le Mans, that's something special."

 

When asked about the unique challenges of a 24 hour race, Nair reveals the preparation really begins way back in the design process.

 

"We design very differently for a vehicle that needs to make a 24 hours. Most other race cars we literally design for the two hours knowing that they will be pretty well torn down after that and we can replace anything we need to replace. And clearly the chassis need to survive the season right, but we know they'll constantly be inspected.

 

"We have to design knowing there will be some type of damage that will happen in 24 hours and the parts that can be damaged we can change quickly. Quick nose changes and so on.

 

"Logistically, we have to design the whole process of managing that many tyres, managing the change from day to night, knowing what our set ups are going to be and all the combinations of temps and track conditions and how much wear we're going to have on the vehicle towards the end of the race vs starting out fresh."

 

 

LE MANS 24 HOURS? NO - IT'S MUCH WORSE THAN THAT

One of the first things to note about the Le Mans 24 Hours is that, for drivers, teams and even the fans, it's actually a hell of a lot longer than 24 hours.

 

Once you factor in testing, practice, qualifying and the race itself you're looking at almost a week of intense competition.

 

And unlike the drivers, who run a shift pattern when driving the car, there is no rest for the mechanics, who work throughout the event.

 

"For the crew, you got to remember it's not just the 24 hours but everything leading up to that," explains Nair. "So they've actually working over a five day period, and trying to keep them healthy is a challenge.

 

"Everybody thinks, 'oh you're just up for 24 hours' but no, they were qualifying until midnight last night (Thursday) then after that taking the car down. Today (Friday) they're changing over to the race engines so they don't stop.

 

"And there's no shifts or relief crew - they work and they work til it's done."

 

 

THE FITNESS TRAINER

The man who has the job of keeping the crew - and the drivers - healthy is John Camilleri.

 

DRIVETRIBE talks to John (L) about the unique challenges of Le Mans

John is a fitness trainer who is responsible for the well being of the whole team - it is his job to make sure everyone, from drivers to mechanics, is operating at peak physical performance for the duration of the race meeting.

 

So how do you go about preparing for a race that is a full 24 hours long?

"These guys can actually be quite fatigued before the race even starts," says John.

 

"There is a warm up at 9am on the morning on the Saturday and the race doesn't start until 3pm so even the race is more like the 40 Hours of Le Mans, which is very tough on mechanics and everybody else associated with the team, so the food and fluid intake is important."

 

The team can expect to carry out anything from "23 upwards" in terms of pitstops, says John, but cryptically he won't give me any more detail in terms crew preparation lest it give away any secrets to rival teams. At this level of motorsport, every tiny margin is crucial.

 

 

WHAT ABOUT THE DRIVERS?

The crew is one thing, but how does John ensure the drivers are able to withstand the physical demands of a 24 hour race?

 

"The preparation for Le Mans starts right at the start of the year, so in January we would be fitness testing the drivers, getting them working towards individual exercise programmes," he says.

 

The closer the race gets, the lower intensity the training gets. 

"In the build up to the race week itself, we might do a very light session, training wise on Monday or Tuesday," John explains, "but then it's all about the maintenance side, so sports therapy becomes more important, getting the nutrition right, getting the hydration right, making sure they are adequately rested before race day comes along.

 

"You wouldn't want to be doing high intensity training up to race day because if they're in a state of fatigue, then all that hard work has been for nothing."

 

So far, so elite sport, but what are the specific challenges of preparing drivers for a race that lasts so long?

"The major challenge here from a physical perspective is the duration these guys are staying in the car so up to three hours at a time with average heart rates of around 140bpm - and then it's sustaining that concentration and that level of physical output in that hot cockpit environment for that kind of duration, and then getting the drivers turned around ready to go again. 

 

"They will have to get in the car four, maybe five times during the race, so that's the main challenge, that sustained concentration and phsysical output."

 

But John's role is not just about preparing the drivers. He has a big part to play in race strategy as well.

The drivers all wear specialist kit to allow John to monitor their physiological condition at all times when they are in the car - meaning John is able to tell the team if a driver is getting too fatigued to continue, or if their core temperature is getting to a dangerous level.

 

 

THE DRIVER

Harry Tincknell is one man who knows what it takes to win Le Mans, having triumphed on his debut in 2014 in the LMP2 class with Jota.

 

Now a Ford factory driver with the Chip Ganassi team, Harry's best advice to drivers taking on the challenge can perhaps be summed up in one word: relax.

 

Despite winning at his first attempt, Harry says he was a "bit of a rabbit in the headlights" that first year.

 

"With so much going on all week in terms of driving, media commitments and everything, it's very easy to wake up on Saturday morning feeling tired - and you haven't even started the race but you already feel knackered."

Harry insists getting away from the garage and trying to sleep in between stints is crucial.

 

"It's very hard, especially if you're doing well, to tear yourself away from it," he says. "You've just worked your absolute balls off for three hours in the car, you don't want to see what work go to waste, you want to see what's happening, but you have to get away from it because you need to preserve energy for when you're back in.

 

"At Daytona [24 Hours] I had 45 mins sleep which wasn't enough really, I felt absolutely knackered."

 

 

I WEAR MY CRASH HELMET AT NIGHT

Imagine driving down a dark country road through a forest at 300kph, while overtaking slower cars (who may not have seen you) and allowing faster cars to overtake you (without crashing into them). For three hours at a time. In the pitch black of night. That's driving at Le Mans - but Harry insists that is the part he relishes.

 

"I love driving in the dark. I love it at 3am in the morning - I don't know if it's because that's when I'm normally falling out of a nightclub and that's when I feel most awake, but I do enjoy the night," he says with a smile, though as one of the most professional drivers on the grid I suspect it's some time since he was in a nightclub that late.

 

"It's much more of a challenge with the traffic," he explains. "You can't really see, the lights are so bright from the LMP1 and LMP2 cars behind you it's very hard to judge how far behind you there are.

 

"You trust the radar system a lot. We have a radar system that says how many metres behind the car is. When it pulls out into your blind spot it has a big arrow pointing left or right."

 

Dusk is even more tricky because of the glare, but dawn is the golden hour when every driver wants to be in the car.

 

"Dawn's actually pretty good because every lap the track's getting lighter, bit more visibility and also that's the happy hour when the track's at it's best, it's fully rubbered in, it's still nice and cool and you've got some visibility so if you're in (the car) at that time you get to really push on and get a good lap time which you can look back on for the rest of the year and say 'I was quickest'."

 

One of the challenges of Le Mans is being ready to jump back in the car at a moment's notice at any point during the race.

 

"In 2014 I got out the car at about 1am and was told I was going to be back in at around 7am so they would wake me up at 6am," he says.

 

"At half three they were banging on the door saying 'uou're in the car in 15 minutes' so I went from being asleep in bed to doing 200mph down the Mulsanne Straight in 15 minutes - I remember thinking in that first hour, 'this is dangerous, I was asleep 15 minutes ago!'

 

 

WINNER WINNER

In 2014 Harry won Le Mans in the LMP2 class with Jota Sport. So how does it feel to not only complete this mammoth race, but to win it?

 

"It's a combination of everything you've worked for coming together," says Harry.

 

"But the year I won I didn't finish the race - and the last two hours were horrible.

 

"I got us to the front, handed over to Ollie [Turvey] and I *knew* we'd done it on the in lap - even though there was two hours to go I just knew the car was going to be OK, I knew Ollie was going to continue to pull away, I knew it was over, I knew we'd done it and there was this eureka moment going through Porsche curves of 'we've done this, we've done this'.

 

"But then after that, stood in the garage and watching when it's out of your control - that is constantly brutal.

 

"When it sinks in, it's a mixture of relief, disbelief, pure, pure joy.

 

"It stays with you forever, you'll always be a Le Mans winner and you'll always have your name in the record books next to some unbelievable drivers like Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon, AJ Foyt, Dan Gurney - it's madness!"

 

 

THE 2017 RACE

Ford were not able to repeat their 2016 win, but it was still a thrilling finish - especially for the #67 car of Pipo Derani, Andy Priaulx - and Harry, who drove the final stint and managed the snatch second at the death.

 

It looked like being a very solid third place finish and Harry was coasting to the finish, treating the car with kid gloves to ensure it got home.

 

And then the #63 Corvette of Jordan Taylor, which had been leading, suffered a puncture on the last lap.

] Porsche stopped and we realised we had #91“Once the [third position, we were in full chilled mode, no kerbs and short-shifting to the flag, no risk at all,” Tincknell said.

 

“I was going up to the Ford chicane on what was the penultimate lap and then all hell broke loose and they told me to push. I started the last lap on maximum attack and started smashing the quality mode.kerbs and going after the Corvette on full.

 

Push! 

“I was going through Indianapolis and they came back on the radio and said: ‘He’s just gone out of Arnage...’ So I looked ahead and sure enough there he was going into the Porsche Curves.

 

"But he was going mega-fast for someone who had a puncture and I wasn’t actually sure if I could catch him or not.

 

“I got him at the exit of the Porsche Curves and up to the Ford Chicane. It was like a bloody movie or something, like a madman had scripted it!"

 

Somehow a Hollywood ending seems perfectly fitting for this bonkers, brilliant event.

 

 

ARTICLE: DRIVETRIBE

 

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