Le Mans 2008
Le Mans. Le
Mans was tough. I think it was the greatest example of the highs and lows of motorsport.
I knew what to expect after having four consecutive finishes with two of those being
wins and another one being a podium, so it was a hard one to accept the final results
this year. In hind sight, though, the whole month was just an excellent experience.
It was really exciting to be back again with the IMSA guys for a second year, knowing
everybody that much better. It went pretty smoothly and to lead the charge and put
in that pole position lap and the lap record was really sweet. Being able to let
that soak in during the Friday break before the race started on Saturday afternoon
was different from most races where you go from qualifying straight into the race.
It was great.
Pole lap. It is a challenge at Le Mans when you go for the one
perfect lap because the tire has an optimum performance that’s only there for a
small window. Usually it is the first timed lap so you go out kind of cold turkey
and try to lay down a perfect lap on one of the longest tracks there is. And you
have to do it at such a high rate of speed that there’s a tremendous amount of risk
not only in overdriving the lap, or making a mistake that could harm your lap time
at minimum, but also hurt the car for the race—so it’s a very tricky balance. The
irony of it was that we weren’t really planning on chasing the pole. Our main objective
was getting our car set up for the race and that went so smoothly that we were ahead
of schedule, enjoying ourselves at dinner break on the final evening of qualifying.
In a little bit of jest but in some competitive spirit we all looked at each other
and one of the team bosses, Franck Rava ( who co-runs the team with Raymond Narac,
the third driver on the team) looked at me and said, “What do you think about going
out there and putting in a lap that would be under four minutes?” And I said that
I could promise one thing…I’d give it my best shot. Little did I know that we’d
go almost two seconds under four minutes, but it was such a sweet feeling to do
that. Usually qualifying is primarily a matter of preparation for the race and that’s
how I’ve always seen it. But there’s something that’s extra special about Le Mans
and I just thoroughly enjoyed the quest for the pole with it being over four laps
and such varying track and weather conditions. It’s a science to time it well with
only a limited number of tires. We only had two sets for the whole eight hours that
we could really go for qualifying on. So when you get that one lap, there is sure
a lot of energy that goes into it and there are sure a lot of eyes on the screen
when you do go out for that lap. But I’ll tell you, when it goes well, like it did
right before the dinner break on Wednesday when we knocked Jörg off the pole,
and then again with Wolf on the second night, it was sure a wild eerie feeling—just
pounding the steering wheel with excitement when we passed the start-finish line
and the crew barely able relate the information to you they’re so happy. It was
The start. Sitting on that success, knowing that it’s a 24 hour
race and that pole position doesn’t really mean a lot, was fun but our real focus
was on the race and certainly we were confident, but things were difficult even
before the race started.
We were pushed to the back for what I understood to be an illegal fueling procedure.
The team had added some fuel to the car on the false grid before we went out for
the reconnaissance lap and the ACO rules deem that illegal as a safety measure.
So they basically put us to the back of the pack for the violation of that. I thought
that was harsh for the infraction but I understand that safety is their first concern,
which is something I had to accept and really put straight out of my mind. I didn’t
know until I came around on my two reconnaissance laps and had lined up to go onto
the grid that they had demoted me to the back. But I knew that I had to get that
straight out of my mind, realize that it was a very small part of the big picture
and that the main objective was to get through the start as clean as possible.
There are a couple of elements to the start of the 24 hours of Le
Mans. Qualifying up front, besides bragging rights, is really about staying out
of trouble and the further you are up on the grid, the less danger you have of cars
with problems ahead of you or less experienced drivers affecting you. But also there’s
the need to get through that traffic, after I knew I was going to start last, so
that I could get up into the clean air with the top three runners. In the beginning
of the race, you have no traffic, because everybody is running on clear track. You
don’t have the classes running amongst each other. So it’s really about pushing
hard in that first hour because that’s the only time you have clear track to put
in really quick laps and to really establish where you settle into your first quarter
of the race. So first and foremost it was all about getting through cleanly and
protecting the car, but once we got stretched out after the first lap, I just started
working at picking off competitors one by one, getting firmly up into the top three
as quickly as possible and did my best to keep within striking distance.
Our game plan from the beginning was to alternate Richard Lietz, also a Porsche
factory driver, and myself for the first portion of the race to keep an all pro
lineup in the car to stay in competition with the all pro lineups of our opposition.
That was a tremendously generous team maneuver from Raymond, to decide to let the
young boys run in the beginning and try to establish a bit of a gap from cars that
might be hanging onto our coattails. In saying that, Raymond is completely capable
and I think it was very much a team playing gesture on his part. I knew he wanted
to drive and certainly he holds his own as a driver of only four years of pro level
competition. His lap times speak for themselves and he is very steady and extremely
The accident. So when I got back in the car for my second stint,
starting the third hour of competition, I was just on my out lap when things went
wrong. With tire warmers allowed at the 24 hours of Le Mans, when the car gets dropped
off the jacks you are at racing speed when you come out of the pits, there’s no
really working up to it. So it was just straight back into it and I came up on two
cars fighting for position about halfway through my first lap, going down into Indianapolis.
I came up on them quite quickly because they had been jostling for position and
I was letting them sort their differences out. I was following the Flying Lizard
car and he was accelerating past the Ferrari and I decided to go in his lane and
tag along behind him. Just as I peeked past the Ferrari who was on my right, the
Porsche ahead of me was hard, hard, hard on the brakes. It caught me completely
by surprise because that’s not a section of race track where I do any braking. Out
of complete surprise and with that much speed, I jerked to the right to avoid running
into the back of him while sliding in front of the Ferrari, but at that high rate
of speed and with that much steering input, it sent my car sideways and in doing
so, on the correction I sideswiped into the side of the #80 car, purely trying to
avoid him. He didn’t see me and continued to begin his turn into the right-hander.
We brushed wheel to wheel and went into the gravel and unfortunately because of
the high rate of speed, the car suffered a damaged front suspension that didn’t
allow me to even get the car back to the pit lane.
The aftermath. It was a tremendous, tremendous negative experience.
I had never failed to bring a race car back to the pits in my whole career with
Porsche. I can’t think of any other time I’ve ever experienced that other than a
time when the whole wheel assembly fell off of my car at Mosport in 2005 and at
that point we had won the race because it was the last lap and we were actually
a lap up on the rest of the field. To be standing on the side of the track while
the rest of the cars are going around—I’ve never had that feeling and it’s just
completely empty. I was basically just in shock. I didn’t have a lot of emotion
other than being extremely surprised and just heartbroken. I couldn’t stop thinking
about the team, how much time and money and preparation they had put into the car.
To go out that early was such a tough one. In saying all that, I knew that’s what
makes Le Mans the race it is. Not just the high of all the preparation and being
on pole but also the possibility of having the race track swallow you up. That’s
what makes that place so challenging. The speeds are so high. I I truly believe
that such misunderstandings happen race by race but at much lower speeds and so
it really takes just a small lift or a little bit of a steering input. At 200 mph,
it’s so different. To put it into perspective, it’s a little bit like watching Talladega
with a sprint cup competitor where just a little bit of a correction or avoidance
turns into something so big. And that’s exactly what it was. It was a tough one.
Q: When you were moved to the back of the grid at Le Mans, how
do you take bad news like that and set it completely aside?
A: I believe in sport psychology and something that you are taught
in sport psychology whether you’re a hockey goalkeeper or a golfer on the PGA tour
or a football player, you only have one thing that’s in your control and that’s
getting the very best out of yourself on race day or game day. There are so many
factors out there that can affect your outcome or result. And so you cannot be affected
by the end result. You can only be affected by your personal performance on that
day. And so I try to take that philosophy into my racing and it allows me to focus
on what I do, which is to try to drive as fast as I can behind the wheel. There
are days when the refueling procedure gets you sent to the back or that just trying
to avoid two other cars that are in a battle sends you off the track into the gravel
trap and the day is over. There are so many things that can happen like that that
are outside of your control. But I’ve tried to learn not to waste mental energy
on what I can’t change. And that was a huge thing this year at Le Mans. An extreme
high and an extreme low. How qualifying and preparation seemed to be going so well
and then the most extreme result that we could have imagined which would be being
out of the race just two hours in.
Send your comments and questions to Patrick at
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