Ben Keating says the Riley Mk. 30 Gibson is like “driving a space ship” as the Texan, along with Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ricky Taylor, continue preparations for the new-for-2017 LMP2 car’s European debut in next month’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The trio wrapped up a two-day test at NOLA Motorsports Park on Wednesday, following a shakedown of the Multimatic-Riley-built prototype at Road Atlanta earlier this month, in what Keating has described as their “first laps in anger.”
The team owner/driver, who is debuting his new Keating Motorsports outfit, said he’s been pleased with the progress made so far.
“We actually spent a lot of time on track, which was really nice to see for the first time to start the car up,” Keating told Sportscar365. “We’re excited to see what else we can learn, and see if we can improve it.
“My goal between now and Belle Isle [has been] to drive as many laps as possible because I think the more time we can put on the car the more reliable we can be, and the better we can have it set up.”
While having data from fellow Riley squad Visit Florida Racing, which debuted the car in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Keating said not everything transfers over, as his car is running the Le Mans-specific low-downforce aero kit for the first time.
He said the focus of the Road Atlanta shakedown was extracting top speed out of the Gibson-powered prototype.
“A lot of the work we’re doing right now is aero work, trying to get this new Le Mans body kit dialed in for the best performance that we can have at Le Mans, in terms of top speed and reliability,” Keating said.
“It’s amazing how you make one little change to peel off some air to cool the car and it will cost you 2 mph.”
Keating, who made his LMP2 debut at Le Mans last year in Murphy Prototypes’ Oreca 03R Nissan, said the differences between that and the new Riley are night and day.
“It is interesting to me that this is the first time that I’ve driven a closed-cockpit prototype,” he said. “You wouldn’t think it would take that much time to get used to, but it does.
“I did two runs in the car during the shakedown, and I don’t mind saying that my first run in the car, it was a lot to take in. I was not very comfortable and it was just a bizarre experience for me. I felt like I was driving a space ship.
“It’s amazing to me, I was out of the car for an hour or two, got in for the second run, and it was a totally different experience the second time in the car. I was two or three seconds a lap faster, much more comfortable, and then I started to get the feeling that I can work with this. I feel much better.
“To me, I’ve been racing with Jeroen for four years now, and to me the biggest vote of confidence was his smile getting out of the car. He’s driven so many different types of cars, he knows what it’s supposed to feel like.
“I can tell you that Jeroen is incredibly excited about the car because he said it’s a real proper race car.”
With a stacked field in the LMP2 class for this year’s race, Keating warned that setting goals was a perilous proposition this far out.
Keating’s entry is the only Riley in the field and one of only four teams expected to utilize Michelin rubber.
“With 25 different LMP2 cars [at Le Mans], every car is a long shot,” he said. “It would be ridiculous to point at the right field fence and say, ‘We’re going to hit it over right there.’
“I don’t know how the Riley Mk. 30 is going to compare to the other three [constructors],” he said. “We chose to go with the Michelin tires. I’m not sure how Michelin is going to compare to the Dunlops that the WEC teams are running.
“There are still some gambles out there and only time will tell.
“I’ve got a ton of faith in Bob and Bill Riley and their ability to design an incredible car. They’ve been doing it for so long, they’ve got so many tricks of the trade, I expect the car to be great.
“But you don’t really know until you get to Le Mans and you get to go wheel-to-wheel with some of the other cars.”
Keating added that adding Ricky Taylor to the fold has the chance to be a major boost to the program.
All three drivers are fresh off respective victories in last weekend’s WeatherTech Championship race at Circuit of The Americas, with Keating and Bleekemolen taking their second GT Daytona class win of the season and Taylor remaining undefeated in IMSA competition this year.
“Obviously [Ricky] brings a lot to the table in terms of prototype experience and what different things that he thinks we might be able to improve the car or the experience of driving the car,” said Keating.
“But more than anything else, I just want him to bring his Midas touch!
“I look at the way the the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3 has started the season, and I look at the way the No. 10 Cadillac DPi has started the season, and I just want us all to keep it rolling.”