There are just two Australian drivers competing in the Le Mans 24 Hours this year, but they are both in cars that are starting at the sharp end of their respective classes.
Mark Webber’s LMP1 Porsche 919 qualified in P2 after team-mate Tim Bernard set a time that was just 0.47 seconds adrift of its sister during the last dry qualifying session.
In the LM GTE Pro class Ford’s return to Le Mans in the new GT – 50 years after the original GT40 won here for the first time – has seen no fewer than four cars entered, with U.S.-based Aussie Ryan Briscoe’s number 69 car starting just behind its number 68 sister, also second place in class.
We caught up with the Indycar veteran before the race to ask him what he’s looking forward to, and also what he’s not…
Q: What’s the big challenge at Le Mans?
A: The weather, definitely. You’ve got always changing conditions and it’s such a long track that it’s quite normal to have dry and wet parts at the same time. It’s one of those tracks you have to respect, I compare it to Indianapolis, you have to hold a high level of regard and not get too cocky out there. It will bite you pretty quickly.
Q: Which is the hardest section?
A: There are a few challenging corners, especially because you run low downforce for the straights. That’s not really a problem until you get to the Porsche Curves, which are very fast and narrow. The car’s moving around a lot on a very narrow groove and you’re having to watch for the LMP1 cars that are coming at you at 1000mph. So that’s probably the hardest part to drive, otherwise it’s pretty straightforward.
Q: Are you drumming your fingers on the wheel at the end of the long straights?
A: Ha! It gives you time to relax maybe, but you’re always having to watch your mirrors for traffic. And you have to make sure you’re switched on before the corner comes up…
Q: We often hear that Le Mans has become a 24 hour sprint racing, will you be flat-out the whole time?
A: I don’t know about 100 percent, there’s a lot of strategy. At times you need to be absolutely on it and at other times you don’t, but it’s not just coasting around – you can’t go out and be a second off the pace. Between pushing and being 90 percent you’re talking maybe a couple of tenths a second.
Q: What’s the Ford GT’s biggest strength?
A: We’ve got good speed, the car is basically built for a track like this with a small frontal area and low drag, it’s very efficient.
Q: How do you deal with the time you’re not in the car?
A: I’m still learning about it, I’m pretty new to endurance racing. It’s hard to get used to having team mates in the car, my whole career I’ve been in single seaters where if you’re not in the car it’s not running.
Q: Will you go to sleep between stints?
A: Yeah, I’m normally pretty good at that. Put some music on to drown out the noise and then grab some sleep. It’s important to remember that even when you’re out of the car you’re in the race, getting rest is an important part of the strategy.
Q: Do you think you can win the class?
A: Like any race, the end of it is what you look forward to. I hope I can go out and do the best job possible and everything goes smoothly; yeah, we could win it and stand on the top of the podium. That’s what I’m hoping for right now, but you don’t usually win a race like this that way, there are obstacles to overcome and unforeseen problems. But I’m really looking forward to it.
Q: Who do you see as the big threat?
A: Based on qualifying, Ferrari. Based on recent results, the Corvette. And based on the unknown Porsche, because you can never rule them out, especially if it’s wet. Porsche has been the strongest car in the wet so far this year and we’ve got lots of rain forecast. We’re not terrible in the wet, but I know that we can be really strong in the dry.