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24H Le Mans

NIELSEN: Le Mans Debrief

Christina Nielsen files her latest Sportscar365 column following Le Mans…

Photo: Vision Sport Agency

Photo: Vision Sport Agency

Our first 24 Hours of Le Mans is over, and Formula Racing finished a hard-fought 6th place. I learned a lot, still have a lot to learn, but I came out of Le Mans week with great memories to bring home.

Overall, I left one happy Le Mans driver!

We qualified 7th on the GTE-Am grid on Thursday after awful weather held us back. The rain stopped at one point, but then came back again as it began getting dark.

Not only was I new to the Michelin rain tires, but I was new to the famous Circuit de la Sarthe at Le Mans. The CXC Simulations sessions I did back in Los Angeles really helped me get a feel for the track, in addition to the test days at Le Mans and driving in the support series last year.

There are key factors, like traffic, that you will never have the chance to experience and learn how to handle before you’re there

In reality, you learn so much from actually running on the track. There are some similarities to at least one other track where I’ve raced – Sebring. Both Le Mans and Sebring have a lot of surface changes. But aside from that, Le Mans is unique, and you need time to dial yourself in.

Part of my experience with Le Mans included a Danish film crew that was with our team 24/7. I would sleep for about an hour, wake up at 4 a.m. and walk out of my bedroom to find Niels with a video camera in my face.

It added an extra element and made me more aware of what I was doing. I needed to use my filter! There were multiple times I was thinking, “What did I get myself into?”

But Niels is a very comfortable person to be around and I think the documentary will turn out great.

An hour and a half into the race during Mikkel Mac’s first stint on Saturday, a wheel came off our No. 60 Ferrari 458 Italia on the out lap, and we had to quickly pit and put fresh tires on the car. The team repaired the Ferrari as quickly as possible, but we really had to push to make up for the lost time.

These are the times you, as a driver, need to be a leader and give high fives and just say, “We’ll keep pushing, we’ll get through this.”

Even when you’re frustrated, you need to be a good example for the rest of the team. It’s a team effort and everyone needs to be on the same page.

I pulled my first double stint and took the Ferrari into the night Saturday. My challenge during the race wasn’t driving in the dark; it was the traffic in the dark.

The Ferrari headlights are great, which helps with placing the car on the track and in traffic, but there are still real challenges.

For example, the speeds out there are really extreme, and the prototypes take absolutely no prisoners at all. They can be super aggressive, and in full darkness, their car lights completely blind you.

It was especially difficult because our rear camera at that time was not always accurate with the amount of cars that were coming from behind. At the very end of my second stint, I was just beginning to see the sky lightening early Sunday morning.

Mikkel and our other teammate, Johnny Laursen, kept up our overall pace and by Sunday, our Ferrari had climbed from 12th place to 9th in the GTE-Am class.

Long stints for all three of us have meant that when rival cars had a problem, we either made up ground or managed to keep an advantage over teams that found trouble.

I took the car up to 6th position in our class, but then several other issues occurred, a broken damper being the biggest one. The crew conducted a rapid repair, allowing our Ferrari to rejoin the race.

We ended up getting 6th place in the 13-car class which I am happy with considering the issues we had throughout the race.

The fact that we finished is an accomplishment in itself and I hope to be back next year to improve this result. Now I completely understand why so many who have raced at Le Mans talk of a finish being an achievement in itself.

Words can’t describe the experience myself and my teammates had with all of the fans at Le Mans.

Honestly, it was a little surprising having so many fans at the practice sessions. It was great to meet the truly loyal Danish fans, who seemed like they were at Le Mans just to support you and your team.

The fan walk was surreal. It shocked me that even people who weren’t Danish knew my name and were looking forward to seeing me.

The drivers parade was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Seeing thousands of screaming fans as we were driven around Le Mans’ city center in a vintage, open-top car is something I will never forget.

The whole event makes you feel like superstars, and that was a nice way to set things up for race day.

It’s cool to be a part of history, as I was the first Danish female driver to compete at Le Mans. However, I hope that next year, there’s going to be more focus on me returning as a driver. Like any professional racing driver, I’m hungry for a better result. I’ll be back!

I have a week to relax in Denmark and I plan on gaining back my energy and enjoying time with the people I care about.

After that, it’s back to the States for my next race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with my Scuderia Corsa teammates, Alessandro Balzan and Jeff Segal, at the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen on June 30-July 3 at Watkins Glen.

Christina Nielsen (@ChristinaRacing) is the 2015 IMSA GT Daytona class championship runner-up finisher, driving for Scuderia Corsa in the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and Formula Racing in the European Le Mans Series.

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