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MOWLEM: Le Mans Debrief

Ram Racing’s Johnny Mowlem files his latest Sportscar365 column…

Photo: John Dagys

Photo: John Dagys

Le Mans, France in June is THE place to be for any sportscar driver. In fact this year even Formula One Ferrari superstar Fernando Alonso decided it was a good place to be, although he wasn’t actually driving.

This was my 10th Le Mans, and every time I do it serves as a reminder as to what a hugely important event this race is, not just for the drivers, but for all team members, journalists and fans alike.

I believe it was featured in National Geographic as the single biggest sporting event on the planet and this year it seemed to be even wilder and bigger than ever both on and off the track! In fact 262,000 spectators attended the race this year, the biggest crowd since 1989, so it’s hardly surprising that everywhere you looked there were huge crowds of people, and the driver’s parade on Friday evening was an even bigger zoo than normal.

I am not sure if I felt this more than usual because for the first time I actually decided this year to get some caps made, 100 caps to be precise. I actually didn’t know what the word “casquette” meant until I did my first Le Mans, (especially when screamed at you by fun-crazed middle aged ladies!), but the crowds lining the streets of Le Mans for the parade love nothing better than a baseball cap, and get even rowdier when one is produced in order to make sure it is thrown in their direction!

In terms of the track itself, I have to say that I love the place, and every time I go back there I learn another nuance of the track and manage to unlock another few tenths in terms of lap time, and certainly over the years I have had my fair share of wet laps there, which again always brings a very steep learning curve when you’re out there as no two wet laps of Le Mans are ever the same.

This year all of that previous experience came in very handy as about an hour and a half into the race it started to rain heavily on the Mulsanne Straight. My initial thought was to pit to change to wet tires but the trouble with Le Mans is that it is such a long lap that you can have a large part of the track totally dry, and another part soaking wet, and so you need to work out which tire is better for an overall quicker lap, as well as take into account that when the ambient temperature is high, the track dries very quickly, so a snap decision to pit for wet tires can often come back to bite you a few laps later.

So I persevered, with the hardest part actually being driving down the straights in the pouring rain, on slick tires. It meant that it was impossible to go much above 3rd or 4th gear at 3/4 throttle without aquaplaning and a few times I felt the car really start to drift sideways as I was driving in a straight line, but luckily I managed to keep it all together.

Thenn as the rain worsened further, there was a huge crash on the Mulsanne Straight involving an LMP1 Audi and Toyota and one of the AF Corse Ferraris of Sam Bird, which brought out the three safety cars that Le Mans uses. At this time I wasn’t actually aware that only a handful of drivers had made the decision to stay out on slicks when the rain arrived, but that very much played into our favor as given the length of the lap, and each time you pit you have to wait at pit exit to re-join the next safety car, which can lose you more than a minute waiting at pit out.

The other driver in my GTE class that had made the same decisions as me to stay out was Porsche factory driver Patrick Long in the Dempsey Porsche 911 RSR, and unfortunately for us I was the first car picked up by safety car, which then put us effectively 2.5 minutes behind the Porsche. But the good news was that we were now running first and second in class.

The clean up for those first crashes took long enough that the track actually came back to slicks again by the time the safety cars pitted, but then not many laps later the thunderstorms hit again, this time even heavier and so bad that the safety car when deployed, had to actually slow down on the straights to allow me to be able to keep up with him as I again persevered on slick tires, doing no more than 80 kms an hour down the Mulsanne instead of our normal 290km/h!

This time when the safety car pulled in it was still too wet for slick tires and so we pitted for intermediates and came back out onto a pretty wet track right behind our sister car with Alvaro Parente driving. For the next 7 laps we had some fun together running in line astern on a slippery track but then the track dried just enough and I pitted again for slick tires and a driver change.

The upshot of all of this was that after nearly 3.5 hours of the race I pitted to put Archie Hamilton in the car with us running comfortably in second. The pitstop dropped us to third but he then did a super job to double stint and chase down the Dempsey Porsche, now with Patrick Dempsey himself at the wheel, to re-take second place. And so things stayed for the next few hours with us moving up and down through the top 3 positions throughout the pitstops, with Mark Patterson also driving superbly to keep us in that challenge for not just a podium place, but with a bit of lady luck, a potential class victory.

But then our luck ran out in the 7th hour of the race, and just 4 laps before I was due to get back in the car. Mark reported gear selection issues and had to bring the RAM Racing Ferrari F458 into the pits and get wheeled back into the garage. The lads quickly diagnosed the problem which necessitated a change of the entire gear stack, which unfortunately lost us almost exactly an hour equating to 15 laps in the pits before I could re-join the race.

All the team then did an awesome job to keep pushing as hard as we could and ironically our No. 53 Ferrari ran like clockwork for the entire rest of the race. We all did some good stints to the end and I even enjoyed a quadruple stint at night where I found that kind of rhythm that driver always likes to find.

I know everyone always has a “what if” story at Le Mans, but without that gearbox problem there is no doubt that we would have finished on the podium, which would have been only my second podium in 10 starts, showing that unlike races like Sebring and Daytona, Le Mans has never been that kind to me.

However, I genuinely don’t think we could have won our class. The Aston Martins were just too fast for us, and although they also suffered mechanical issues, the No. 95 Aston Martin didn’t and was a worthy winner.

It was also especially nice, and poignant, that this car should win, given that this was Allan Simonsen’s car last year when he suffered his fateful crash. Therefore as much as I would love to have won, part of me feels that this was indeed the right result.

Finally I would like to thank all of the RAM Racing crew who worked tirelessly to keep our car going, my team-mates, Archie Hamilton and Mark Patterson for superlative driving performances and not putting a foot wrong, and all of the crowds and spectators who filled the grandstands and the marshals who lined the track on that final lap of honor for helping to make this race such a great event.

We made the finish, and although the for the greedy side of us human beings that never feels enough, in fact to achieve a finish at one of the toughest endurance events in the world is something that the RAM Racing team should justifiably be proud of.

See you in Texas!

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