|The 24 Hours|
|Are A Bit Special|
|Sebastien Bourdais and Val Hillebrand are two of the bright young things of this year's 2001 Le Mans 24 Hours. While Sebastien has two races at La Sarthe behind him and is currently riding the crest of a wave in Formula 3000, Val is very much the newcomer having only competed in a season of F3 and a handful of FIA Sportscar races.|
After qualifying however, it is Val who is in the amazing position of being the second youngest driver in the race and starting on the outside of the second row. Still only 19 years of age, this fresh faced Dutchman - who races with a Belgian licence - is revelling in his new found fame and wholeheartedly looking forward to what is without doubt the biggest race of his short career. Driving the quickest chessboard in the world, Val is one of the most engaging guys in the paddock and if he keeps this momentum up in the early years of his career, he most definitely has a very bright future in sportscar racing.
12 months ago Sebastien Bourdais was one of the stars of Le Mans with some excellent driving in the Courage C52 Peugeot. An undoubted star, the bespectacled Le Mans born DAMS F3000 racer is now hungry for more success in 2001. Regarded by many as the best French prospect since Alain Prost, Sebastien is talked of highly by Henri Pescarolo and Jean Paul Driot, his respective managers in sportscar and single seater racing. Both Val and Sebestien talked to Sam Smith (on Friday) about their prospects in the race this year.
Val, a fantastic start to your career at Le Mans, with Jan putting the car on the second row of the grid. A lot of people are saying that Racing For Holland are just going for the glory and are not serious threats in the race. How do you view that opinion?
"Well, you have to look at it like this. We are a private team with just three previous races behind us and we are all still learning about the car. The manufacturers, or most of them, have had massive amounts of running in racing and testing over the past year or more, and that is very important I think. So, as long as we can avoid major problems then I think we will compete highly in the race, but if problems kick in then there is no way we can challenge for a top finish."
It's a big step for you racing here at the very front in your first Le Mans. Have you felt real pressure yet and do you expect there to be a lot of it in the race?
"Sure, it's a steep learning curve, but I am learning a lot from the team, especially guys like John Gentry who works in a consultancy role for us. And Jan of course is just a hero. The guy won the race years ago and has so much experience of the track and of every eventuality that can happen in the race. Donny and I are complete rookies around here, but to be honest, when I went out the first time in the night session on Wednesday I thought this is easy, but then I went out when it was properly dark and I must admit that I re-thought my original opinion. But pressure wise I just think the team expect me to run to a sensible pace and not do anything silly. They have jokingly said that if I go too slow they will kill me and if I go too fast they will also kill me! But really I only feel the normal pressure that a guy of my age does at a race this size."
Reliability wise, where in your honest opinion do the team stand?
"I think it is pretty good. The only problems that we have had are with the clutch, which was just a normal problem that many cars will have over the weekend. We actually expected it because we deliberately ran it for a long time to see its durability. No more real problems so far, but I'm told that it will come at some stage. I just hope that it is not too serious."
What sort of preparations does a guy of your age do for a race of this magnitude?
"I was drunk for 38 hours a couple of weeks ago (I think he's joking - SS)! Getting good rest and sleep is vital and Jan told me to do that from about a fortnight ago. Eating healthy food, having a consistent programme in the gym, all the usual things that you would expect really. What put me back a little was that I picked up an ear infection three weeks ago and I went deaf in my left ear for I while, but apart from that no problems."
Any predictions for where you are going to finish at 4pm on Sunday?
"We want a finish obviously, as everyone does. But I genuinely believe we can finish at least where we are on the grid. That would be mega."
Not a great qualifying for you this year?
"No, it was very difficult on Wednesday because we had to change a lot of things because the balance was not as it was in the test here in May. We eventually found that the front roll bar was not the correct one, so we found a solution in the end. But the most important thing is that we have done good work for the race and we have achieved that. We will surprise some people in the race and I am looking forward to doing that with my team mates."
How realistic do you think it is to equal that 4th place last year?
"It is difficult to make an accurate prediction because it is always difficult at Le Mans to do this. But, maybe I think it is achievable. We are not looking at it in a way where we have to equal or beat last year's result. That would be a wrong thing to do because it gives an impression that we are too confident. Henri is a very realistic guy and that comes to the team too. If we do not make any mistakes, then I think we will finish strongly. Normally the car is reliable and okay. We had some problems in the FIA Championship races this year but ones that happened and were understood and fixed by the team, so no real worries from the car itself, it is just eliminating mistakes from us (the drivers)."
You are combining this with Formula 3000 this year. How difficult is it to jump out of a single seater into the C60 week in week out, which is exactly what you have been doing over the last few months?
"I must say that I have never worked so hard since the start of the year. There was 3000 testing, then Sebring, then Imola 3000, then Barcelona FIA, etc, etc. The first weekend I had off in 10 weeks was the week after Monaco. But the difference between the two cars is not so big in the respect that the driving style is pretty much the same. The races are very different, that is easy to see, but for me in the cockpit the only real major difference is the Turbo in the Courage. That makes for good discipline in applying the power and this I really enjoy. But now I am saying that it is impossible to compare the two when you look at the racing because it really is difficult to do so. It (struggles for the word 'contradicts' -SS).....yes that is the word I think...because in terms of actually using the car it is a world away, but actually driving it in say qualifying is not so far away."
What's it like racing against your F3000 team DAMS?
"We have some good jokes between the Pescarolo guys and DAMS guys. A bit of fun has been going on about the Pescarolo mechanics giving me money to do things! But I suppose it is a funny situation because I work with both teams really closely and we don't work together we have a lot of fun."
Have F1 teams recognised that you are a versatile driver, because at the moment there are not so many single seater guys who run in sportscars as much as you have?
"I'm not sure that many F1 team managers follow this race as much as they maybe did 10 or 20 years ago. But maybe I am wrong because I remember Alex Wurz (won in 1996) who then got a Benetton drive soon after, so although they may not see the race itself, they look at your CV and see it and think that is a good result or maybe they know somebody in sportscars and some good words are said. But I can only do my best and if I do that to the maximum then the calls will come. It is up to me to get as much experience and as much racing in different cars in order to get to F1. You can't rely on them seeing or hearing it, so you have to make them see and hear it by doing the maximum job and that means winning races."
Less than four hours to go to the race start, as this is posted......
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