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 extra sweet.

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 fit.

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.

Ask Patrick:

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 askpatrick@pca.org. Although he can’t respond individually, he’ll get to as many as possible in his blog.