Patrick Dempsey’s used to cameras and the spotlight. Yet heading into his third 24 Hours of Le Mans start, and second collaborative effort between his Dempsey Racing organization and the European Proton Competition outfit, he’s got a better idea of how to handle it.
The debut run for Dempsey in 2009 – then in an AF Corse-run Ferrari F430 GT – was an eye-opener both into the event itself, the fervor of the French fans, and the challenge of running this 24-hour race. As it happened, he and Joe Foster had to run almost the entire second half on their own due to illness knocking their third driver out of action.
Then there was last year. The 2013 story for Dempsey Racing was the culmination of a year’s plus work for the team to assemble its own GT program, partner with a veteran European squad and continuously search for new partners to support the effort.
Of course, there was one other major caveat – a full-scale documentary crew was watching and filming their every move as it happened for the preparation of the Velocity documentary “Patrick Dempsey: Racing Le Mans.”
Now, for 2014, the expectations are higher and the goal is simple – capture at least a GTE-Am class podium that so narrowly eluded them in 2013.
“Yeah…” Dempsey told Sportscar365 when asked if a podium was the goal. “We want to win.”
A win – or podium – would be Dempsey’s first in the endurance classic, after prior finishes of ninth and fourth in his two prior starts. The same story applies for Foster, while third driver Patrick Long, the American Porsche factory ace, has two class wins at the Circuit de la Sarthe (2004 GT, 2007 GT2).
Dempsey expanded on what year three for him as a driver, and year two for the Dempsey Racing team, means to him.
“Each experience is completely different, but you have to take it as it comes,” he said. “Be present in the moment and enjoy the experience. And we have to get our other work done prior to getting in the car.”
The big change for 2014 is the adopting of a new chassis – a 2013-spec 991-based 911 RSR replaces the venerable but older 2012-spec 997-based 911 GT3 RSR the team raced last year.
All drivers rank it a major improvement thus far, Dempsey most notably.
“It’s a great improvement in the braking, downforce and the Michelin tires,” he said. “The (Proton) team has done a great job preparing it. We’re methodical in our approach, and seeing where we end up.”
Long said the confidence level for the drivers has increased due to those necessary and strategic upgrades.
“Porsche has worked on it being more compliant damping-wise,” Long said. “The downforce is much improved and is more stable in the high speed corners. One of the hardest parts here is being confident in the Porsche Curves, but that’s been better this year.”
Oddly enough, after Porsche was the dominant manufacturer within the GT classes for so long at Le Mans, it enters this year devoid of its usual strength in numbers.
There’s 11 Ferrari F458 Italias in the 19-car class. Porsche has a still respectable six, but only Dempsey’s and the sister No. 88 Proton entry are the newer-spec 991-based model.
That poses an intriguing situation where the GTE-Am class now has last year’s GTE-Pro class-winning car eligible for competition. Dempsey and the Proton team are keen to exploit that.
It may be a case too where Dempsey is looking to build for the future on a global stage. The team announced Tag Heuer as a new partner on Tuesday and according to Foster, additional FIA World Endurance Championship races are possible and on the team’s radar.
But whatever happens Saturday into Sunday, the No. 77 entry will be an attention grabber. Dempsey and crew hope for the podium at Le Mans, if not more.