Pre Le Mans
Andy Wallace Column
The Build Up - And Some Grand Am Racing
Diplomacy required that Andy was left alone for a few weeks to complete the bulk of Bentley’s preparations for Le Mans. Now he can fill in the details of the last two months of his busy life. His feet have barely touched the ground.

Straight after finishing third at Sebring in the Champion Audi R8, the next round of Bentley testing started in earnest. Most, in the Czech Republic was the scene of our first test, a circuit where we could really test the straight-line speed. We were also looking at basic set-up work and tyre testing with Dunlop. It was my first time to Most, and to the Czech Republic. I was impressed with Prague, a nice place, which I saw a lot more of than intended. Butch Leitzinger and I did several laps of the city getting lost on the way to the airport. What a surprise! Most is a fast and quite technical circuit, and has an exhilarating 180mph first corner. All the Bentley drivers got plenty of time behind the wheel, running through the various tests. I was impressed with the speed we had, and felt comfortable in the car. Some of the cockpit switchgear layout was a bit awkward, but the visibility and driving position were excellent. I spent some time at RTN in Norfolk the following week, going through the dashboard layout, etc. These improvements could then be built into the second car.

We went to Snetterton then Magny-Cours next, for more chassis work and tyre testing, then to the Lausitzring to collect high-speed data. All this in preparation for the Le Mans test day.

Between all these tests, the aerodynamicists had been back into the wind tunnel, refining the set-up we expected to use at Le Mans. To their credit, they had it just about spot on – we made two or three very slight changes when we started running at Le Mans, but that was about it. We had a really good aerodynamic balance, which helped enormously. Time gets used up so quickly at Le Mans. One flying lap can take up nearly 15 minutes (with an in and an out lap). If you’re that close to the right set-up early on, there is more time left to experiment with other things… like how late can I brake at the first chicane, without disappearing off into the gravel bed? And yes, I did find out the answer to this question, without an offroad experience!

The Test Day was effectively the shakedown run for our race car, and although we had a couple of niggly problems, these were solved in a quick test on the airfield runway opposite the track on Friday morning. The Team had done an exceptional job to ready this new car in time. The car felt good immediately, and I soon felt at home. I ran most of the time on Dunlop’s daytime race compound tyres, which proved both quick and consistent. Near the end of the day I was able to try some softer rubber.

I did a gentle out lap before setting off on an attempted quick one. I only got to the first corner, where the yellow flags were out. Someone had gone off and was sitting in the middle of the road, so I aborted that one. Then it took a balancing act to look after the tyres for another go. You need to go quick enough to keep the temperature up, but not too quick so as to take the newness away. After this extra lap I set off for another go. This time of course I met heavy traffic in two places, but that one was my 3:36.3, and with the delays, I was frankly surprised how quick it was. I felt there was a lot more in the car, on a clear lap.

I got on the radio and asked if I could do another fast one. They told me to come in. I was traffic free this time all the way down to Mulsanne, so I tried again to negotiate on the radio for an extra lap. We were running out of time at the end of the day, and the Team wanted me to try a different set of tyres. Eddie (Hinckley), my race engineer, was emphatic that I had to come in; he was keen to give the other set a try, as they may be even quicker. Of course he was right, we were here to test not just to get the ultimate lap time, so in I came.

I met traffic again on the next set of Dunlops, although not as much as on the previous tyres. I did have quite a lot of understeer though, so the lap time was slower. The first set were definitely the better compound for Le Mans. We had gathered vital information, but were stuck with an unrepresentative time of 3:36.3, seventh fastest overall. Both of the softer sets of tyres we tried were not qualifying tyres, but night time compounds. I’m very pleased with the performance of the Bentley, and there is definitely more to come by mid-June.

Other work at the Test Day was the usual – fuel runs, brake wear, getting the downforce/drag level right. Say we were doing 10 lap stints (just hypothetically), if we could eke out another lap per stint, that would increase the stints by 10%. On a shorter circuit, say 40 lap stints, one extra lap isn’t much of a gain. Still worth having, but far more significant is that extra lap at Le Mans. You have to be so hot on checking fuel consumption.

Downforce is crucial too. In the old days, you just went for straight-line speed. Now, with the chicanes on the straight, it’s not so clear-cut. If you gain on top speed, you might lose more than that under braking. With the powerful carbon fibre brakes we have on these cars, you want enough downforce to be able to stand on the pedal from high speed without locking the wheels. We’ve got more downforce on the car than I thought we would have, which is a very nice situation to be in.

After the Test Day – which went really well, perhaps even better than expected – the next task was a real endurance test, back at Magny-Cours. Our objective here was 100% endurance. We spent the first day making sure we had a reasonable set-up and were ready. At 09:00 sharp the next day we started our endurance run. We had all six drivers present, running double stints each at a time. The car performed almost flawlessly, a very impressive achievement for such a new car. We ran for considerably more than 24 hours, and only stopped when everyone in the Team was totally exhausted. At this point the car was still going around and around, but we had gathered enough data (and confidence) to put it back in the truck, and head back to England.

We came away from Magny-Cours believing that we’ve got speed and reliability. It’s an excellent basis on which to go to Le Mans. I haven’t driven the Bentley since, but the cars have been out again. There’s one more test for me in the car next week. Then to La Sarthe…

Straight after Magny-Cours, Butch and I were heading to Paris (flat-out in the poor rental car) and a flight to the States, for Watkins Glen. We lost the 17th travelling, so Elliott Forbes-Robinson and James Weaver were on set-up duty at The Glen. The 18th was qualifying for the 6 Hours. Elliott and I flipped a coin; I won, so I qualified the #20 Dyson Racing Riley & Scott. This is an amazing car – it’s getting old now, but it can still turn a good lap time and is a pleasure to drive. It was extra wet! Pat Smith asked me if I wanted to go out straight away, or wait to see if the rain would ease off a little. I thought it was better to be pounding around, so I went out immediately. I set the pole on my second lap, after which the rain got even worse. So pole position it was - great!

We didn’t have a great balance on #20 in the dry, and it wasn’t as quick as #16 in the race, with quite a lot of oversteer. #20 normally has a bit of understeer, which is easily rectified with a large dose of right foot. I was losing time in the race because I couldn’t get the power down as soon as I wanted to. I stayed at the head of the field until lap 11, before being swamped by the vicious following pack. Then we had a water leak, so that was that anyway.

By then, I’d spent 45 days out of the last 50 on the road, so I had a couple of days at home, then a leisurely drive up to Lime Rock – about 750 miles, with time to admire the countryside.

Lime Rock can be infuriating. Most people either love it or hate it. Me, I’m not quite sure! It’s only 1.5 miles, but it’s very bumpy and there are a lot of tight corners. They’ve put concrete down where the tarmac has worn (on the corners, of course) and the concrete has no grip. So you find yourself taking odd lines, always searching for where the grip is. It gives the driver a very good workout over the bumps, and it does have a great last corner, which is virtually flat – just a brief lift – in fourth gear. It was Elliott’s turn to qualify, and he put the car second.

They had a strange format this year, with the two sprint races. I suppose it’s OK to do it now and again...it meant that I watched the first one, where Elliott came second. I quite enjoyed my race, with cars nibbling at me from behind. I think Didier (Theys) did too!

(Team Manager Pat Smith provides the explanation that both cars had the same set-up and engine, but Elliott and Andy chose 1st - 4th gears which were lower than those in the #16, so they would not have to use 1st in the chicane. Butch and James used 1st in the chicane. James and Butch chose hard left side and soft right side tires. Elliott had all 4 soft. Andy chose all 4 hard. The biggest difference was starting position. The #20 was left to fend off the others while #16 escaped. Both cars were set up much better than the competition, which was quite obvious on the bumpy sections.)

The car was better than at Watkins Glen, and my best lap was four tenths away from James’ and Butch’s best in #16. My main problems were Jon Field and Didier Theys – they were all over the back of me. I spent the first half of the race fending them off, then managed to pull out four or five seconds on Didier. Then the brake pedal started to get longer, so I was pumping with my left foot, then switching to my right to actually brake. Didier started to catch me, but I brought it home second.

There were not many cars in the race. Lime Rock has never had huge entries, even looking back to years I missed there. For safety reasons, you can’t have GT’s running with SRP’s, the circuit is just too small. I don’t know what the answer is to the current situation. Yes we need more cars, but at least the racing is close. In most Grand-Am races you have a really good “punch-up”, with some very close racing. The top cars are very evenly matched. Just a single series in the US would be better obviously; I just hope something can be sorted out in the near future.

I believe Rob (Dyson) wants to run the MKIII C chassis in the ALMS. They haven’t had much time to test the new car, but two cars in the ALMS would make sense.

The next fortnight? One last Bentley test, then I’ll be heading off to Le Mans. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s a fantastic car, the EXP Speed 8, definitely the best looking car on the entry. All we need to do is go round and round without breaking it....

Next column from Andy after the 24 Hours. The Speed 8s are looking like being the highlights of the race.

Andy Wallace link

Official website of the Le Mans 24 Hours
Official website of the Le Mans 24 Hours

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