Le Mans Qualifying
John Nielsen
Big John (Sound) Bites

Super John, The Great Dane, call him what you will. John Nielsen is a hero, always has been and always will be. A quiet, gentle giant off the track, he is the complete antithesis of his affable character on it. A hard charging, firm but fair professional, who thrives in a racing environment; John lives to race, yet has the worldly appearance of a regular guy who everyone treats as such, because essentially he is.

About to start his 14th Le Mans (seven of which he has led after midnight), John is still hungry to add to his 1990 win, and with the all-new Dome S101, he and his Den Bla Avis team are a good dark horse bet for a podium position this weekend.

The first Dane to win the race, he gone down in his country's list of sporting heroes, and whilst Tom Kristensen is much more likely to emerge victorious this year - and score a hat trick of wins - it is to Nielsen that young Danish drivers must be grateful, for puttting the red and white flag of Denmark on the sportscar map. Here, he talks to Sam Smith

John, the season so far; are you satisfied with the start you have made with the all new Dome?

'No, I must say we are disappointed in ourselves because so far we have not had a result. We've had the promise but so far nothing to show for it and in the championship (FIA Sportscar Championship) we have not exactly missed the boat, but we have a lot to do to make a challenge and to be honest it is a big disappointment. We are happy in the way we have the car and know that it can be quick and can be quicker. But Spa was bad luck and Monza was even worse. We can say, "yes okay it is a new car and we expect these problems," but really they were things that should not have gone wrong, and that has cost us points which would have put us in a very good position in the championship race. But for Brno onwards we will at least have a high downforce package for the car which will set us up nicely for the remainder of the championship.'

It is correct to say that the S101 was built solely for Le Mans, isn't it?

'Absolutely, that was the whole philosophy of the design concept, but the car was conceived to embrace a high downforce package as well, and like I say, that has been developed in the wind tunnel in Japan. So now we can have a compromise and have a Le Mans car and a sprint car.'

Is that transition difficult to implement on the car?

'No not at all, it is very easy, we move the wings around, the front splitters and modifying the bodywork. The fact that Dome have their own windtunnel has added to the budget, but ultimately it has helped because you don't have to do so much testing and developing yourselves, so I have to say it is better this way because these days you can just relate what happens in the tunnel on to what will happen on the track pretty accurately. So far that has been the case in the set up that both the team and the Dome guys have come to.'

We saw the Racing For Holland Dome set some astounding times during the Test Day and the first Qualifying session; was there one single thing that you can attribute that sort of pace to?

'We saw, especially at Monza (1000kms) that in 5th and 6th gear the car was just cutting through everything. So in the quick corners and on acceleration and in a straightline the car is very impressive. That is where the aerodynamic package kicks in. Jan's team did a great job and it shows the potential of the car in maximum trim, but remember that they had qualifying Michelins on and they are obviously going out to set times and get the glory. We are running a very different strategy to them and are doing things in a bit more of a conservative way."

A lot of people have doubts about Judd reliability to get through the entire race. How confident are you that it will last this year?

'There has never been as many Judds at Le Mans as there are now, so obviously John (Judd) has a lot more feedback and that has taught him quite a lot and in saying that, Judd engined cars finished in Daytona this year. So I believe that all the running that his engines have done over the past year has given enough experience of the engine for there not to be any problems. We are running a special Le Mans spec. unit, with some different valves and springs and pistons. It is a little bit heavier and has less power, it will rev. less but we think it will get us to the finish and we don't care that it is 40bhp less than the others, because finishing is our absolute priority. I have worked with John since 1979 when he did some Super Vee engines for me, and we won races in F3000 together so we are close and work well together. But the main concern, as always at Le Mans, is the gearbox. You have to be very careful in the early stages.'

Looking at the future in sportscars, which will become a hot topic this year, what are your own thoughts on just where sportscars are heading ?

'I think that the ALMS, and what has subsequently become the ELMS, is fine as long as it stays stateside. It is successful over there and they should continue that and stay out of Europe and let's get on with business here which means the FIA Sportscar Championship for me. There is no room for both so why stretch everything? There is just too much confusion in sportscars at the moment for the spectators and the sponsors. Everybody loses in the end; the perfect example is in America at the moment with the CART / IRL situation. Not only the teams, but the sport as a whole lose here and nobody knows what they are racing for. People ask me what we race in as a team. You cannot keep explaining to sponsors that there are two or three different series racing in Europe and then there is Le Mans, they just don't understand. There absolutely needs to be the same rules for everybody and only one championship in Europe and I think that everyone wants that, but it isn't easy. John (Mangoletsi) wants his and Don (Panoz) wants his series, so what can you do? Looking at it realistically there is no doubt that the FIA has its roots here and that is what I think the future should be.'

And technically what would you like to see for a specific and united sportscar series?

'The first thing is to sort out this roll hoop business. If I look at it purely as a driver then I feel safer being on my head with a double hoop than a single one. Performance wise the car is better with a single hoop but if everyone has to run the double structure then there is no problem. Everyone will be the same and on a level playing field. You just have feelings as a driver and I feel more comfortable with the double hoop.'

Now looking back John, that 1990 victory was naturally a great high for you. What in particular do you remember about that day?

'I remember it so well because it was the first Le Mans that I had finished since I started in 1985 (see below). We were pre-race favourites for the previous three years and I led in those years for so many laps and so many hours, but it just never stayed together until the end. I did the maximum running I could do in the car and there were difficult decisions to make like getting Martin (Brundle) in to the car in place of Salazar. That was also the last year of the old pits so it was very memorable because then it was just the winning drivers who went to the podium and the special thing I remember is Tom (Walkinshaw) lifting me right up on the top step of the podium, almost above his head.'

And Tom's not walked right ever since?

'(Laughs) Exactly, it wasn't easy for him! But Le Mans is like that, great memories when you are winning or doing well but the opposite emotions are just as fierce because in my first Le Mans in 85' I had that flip at Mulsanne hump.'

Remember much about that?

'It certainly stuck in my mind! It was just like a light aeroplane taking off. Everything went silent and I just thought this thing is going to fly! Not nice at all, but I just made myself small and waited for the bang, but because I was somersaulting I didn't know where the bang was going to come from. I went over three times in the air and then came down on the gearbox and went pinballing in to the barriers down to Mulsanne corner. I realised I was okay as soon as I landed, but the year after in the Jaguar it took me a few laps to go through there on full throttle.'

And now of course the Hump is no more?

'I know that it can be dangerous as I have just said but personally I don't like this changing face of the circuit because it is taking bits of Le Mans away, bits of the history and tradition and I think this is wrong. In the 60s the cars like the 917s were going just as quick as us but with 90% less of the safety elements that we have now within the car. The tracks are being made slower all the time, like the chicanes coming in. What that means is that the cars now need more downforce and that makes sections like Indianapolis as quick or quicker than the Mulsanne now. Again, the new section at Indianapolis scares me because the wall behind the gravel is squared off. Okay, the run off there needed to be improved and has been, but if you go straight off there then....Jesus....you are in trouble because the wall faces you. Before, the guardrail followed the trajectory of the corner so it deflected the car off (think Andretti last year - SS) but now you are just going to skip over the gravel and hit this wall head on, and if you go sideways then a roll at that speed it is not going to be pleasant at all, I just hope that nothing happens there this year.

Finally, predictions for the big race?

Qualify 9-12th and just get to the finish.

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

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