LE MANS
PK Sport At Le Mans
Ricardo Vehicle Engineering
17/06/2001
 
The Race
Part 1
 





After a morning of parades, marching bands and plenty of razzmatazz, it was about half past three when Mike Youles moved the PK Sport Porsche away from the herringbone formation to complete the preliminary lap round to the grid. In common with just about every other car, however, he headed instead straight back round to the pitlane.



"We were on slicks at the time, and there had been no rain on the warm-up lap, so it was just a case of topping up the fuel," said Mike Youles. That done, he made a second green flag lap to take up his position on the grid, directly under the new digital clock. The first signs of rain were starting to arrive.

Eight minutes before four and the pace car began its move up the rise towards the Dunlop chicane. It probably took half a minute or so for the full grid to start its move, with the leaders well out towards Tertre Rouge by the time Mike Youles and the GT runners headed off after them. With the sound of the Star Wars theme booming out around the track, the final moments were ticking away before the 69th Le Mans 24 Hours was due to start.

Just a little ahead of time the Cadillac pace car came into sight at the start of the Ford chicanes, holding back the front row in order to arrive at the startline on the stroke of four. It took some doing, but the ACO nearly always gets it spot on. 2001 has been no exception, and the leaders were thundering up the straight and disappearing into the distance long before the GT cars came through the final element. It was a good clean start, with no incidents, and the race was on.

The yellow PK Porsche looked splendid in the bright sunlight as it swept through onto the main straight. Tight on the tail of a lengthy string of similar GT cars, the colour contrasted strongly with the dark clouds gathering in the distance. "I was held up a little by the Del Bello car at the start," said Youles, "but soon got ahead of that, and was then catching the Taisan car when it started to rain. We were going down the Mulsanne at the time, and you could see the water ahead of you. The rain was gushing down. As we came through the first chicane they were showing the red and yellow flags (used to warn of slippery conditions, usually oil) and nearly all the Porsches ahead of me slowed down. I just went past them! It seemed the logical thing to do."

The effect of this Youles logic was that the PK Sport Porsche suddenly started to leap up the order. "It was certainly very slippery out there, but it wasn't that bad," said Youles. Maybe he's just more used to wet conditions than the rest, but Youles was lapping significantly quicker than the rest of the GT Porsches. The pitlane start of the Aspen Knolls Callaway had also meant that the class polesetter was not in the frame this early, but the whole race perspective was about to change.

Having got ahead of a gaggle of Porsches, spooked by the oil flags, Youles came around to the southern end of the circuit to discover yellow flags waving at Indianapolis, where Johannson in the Gulf R8 had spun a few moments before. It was his first warning of what was to come. At Arnage there was more gravel all across the racing line - a further hint, perhaps. Then, as he rounded the Porsche Curves, Mike was faced by the sight of four cars strewn across the track. The commentators described it as carnage, and there are few better words to convey the image of body parts strewn across the tarmac. Mike tiptoed carefully between the stricken vehicles, including one of the works Saleens, the FFSA Viper, a Courage and the Pilbeam. He pressed on past the pits this time, despite the increasingly heavy rain, but the fortunes for the four he'd weaved among were varied.



The Saleen and the Courage managed to get back to the pits under their own steam, to resume racing in due course. The Pilbeam was taken to the paddock on a flatbed, its race over. The Viper driver, David Terrien, faced an extraordinary challenge. The front left suspension was hanging precariously loose, the wheel inflated but useless. The front right was still attached, and steered, but had no rubber worthy of the name. Somehow he managed to sledge the car as far as the pitlane entrance, but then couldn't negotiate the tight sequence of turns. The car ploughed into the gravel. For the next half-hour he zigzagged across the pitlane entrance, variously employing brute force and the assistance of a tractor unit to make his way the last 200 yards to the pitlane. At one point he was forced to pause and carry out rudimentary repairs, using whatever tools and components he had to hand, but eventually he made it to the team garage. It was a valiant if poorly rewarded effort. A short while later the team confirmed that the car was beyond repair.

While all this was unravelling in the pitlane entrance, Mike Youles came in himself on his next lap. The team decided to make as speedy a stop as possible, so didn't refuel, but simply switched to full wets. Somehow the timing was perfect, because Youles emerged just ahead of the first of two safety cars. These had been deployed not only because of the need to clear the damaged cars from the track, but also because the rain was now so heavy all around the track that any kind of racing was impossibly dangerous.

As he made to catch up with the safety car Mike Youles found himself in the fortunate position of being able to put half a lap between himself and the cars immediately behind him. He was also among the first to make the change to wets, although quite a few attempted to stay out on slicks behind the slower-moving convoy. The net effect was for the PK Porsche to leap even further up the order, and with the safety car period to last almost until the end of the first hour, Mike Youles completed his first stint in 24th place overall, and leading the class.

It was a dream start, and in no small measure due to some astute tactics from team owner and manager Mike Pickup. "We were pretty happy about that, of course," said Mike. "It was a very funny start and a nightmare for the team managers, but it worked out really well for us."

David Warnock was next into the car, and the swap was a quick one. Even so, the front four runners in GT were so close at this point that the pitstop was still long enough for three of them to get ahead of him before David could emerge from the pitlane. This was partly due to the fact that the PK pitstop schedule was now out of synch with just about everyone else in the class, but things would even out eventually. Then, before he could get on the pace, a couple more GT runners came by him as well. Meanwhile, and giving some indication of just how relaxed Mike Youles was feeling after his hour and a bit in the cockpit, the PK first stint driver was already on his way to the commentary box, adding his knowledgeable input to the live TV coverage.



David was not long in establishing a rhythm, and his times started to fall rapidly. Youles had done a best of 4:23.366, and here was Warnock (in seriously more treacherous conditions) doing four twenty-sevens. Before long he was regaining ground, and had recovered two of the places lost to the pitstop.

For much of his stint the weather was kind, relatively speaking, but things were about to get considerably worse. "The lightning storm through from Arnage to the Porsche Curves was really quite spectacular," said Warnock after he'd finished his stint. "It's very very busy out there, but I did OK I think." In fact, David did very well indeed. With two hours gone he'd been running a steady fifth in GT, twenty-ninth overall. Remember, this car had started from forty-fourth place! By the time he finished his stint at about six twenty (French time) he'd moved up another place, but it hadn't been plain sailing by any means. "I had a near miss when the #14 Chrysler prototype came through," he said. "I was coming out onto the Mulsanne at Tetre Rouge when he caught up with me. He tried to overtake me on the outside and just lost it. I think it was Ni Amorim. He very nearly clipped me." Fortunately not, but he did strew gravel all across the corner. "On the whole, most people are being quite sensible though. It's all a case of trying to keep out of trouble and being aware of what's going on around you. It's surprising how spread out it becomes, and there are sections of track when you can be on your own for quite a time."

Stephen Day began his stint with the track damp but driveable. Conditions were on the point of changing radically. At quarter to seven, the heavens opened. The kind of rain that fell for the next half an hour was as bad as any seen here in decades. If anyone thought 1995 was wet, it had nothing on this. Naturally enough, the safety car was deployed yet again, and for the next half an hour Stephen trailed around behind its yellow flashing lights. The next hour came up early in his stint, and the three hour update sheet saw the PK Porsche twenty-seventh overall, fifth in class.

Perhaps just as significant as the overall position is the relative speed of the various categories, with the leading prototypes only (and we stress the 'only' with some justification) seven laps ahead. With a total of almost an hour spent behind the safety car (when overtaking is not allowed and laps are completed at an average of around six minutes or more) the prototypes have not been able to romp away with the race, as they would otherwise have done. Indeed, the whole field is far more close together than usual. This can have disadvantages as well as benefits, since a trip to the pitlane can cost a handful of places in one go, but the overall effect has been to allow the "lesser" classes to remain remarkably "in touch". One recalls the fact that a GT Viper won the Daytona 24 Hours a couple of years ago. There's little suggestion that anything similar could happen here, but there's a good chance that some of the GT or GTS runners could be well into the top ten by the end. Time will tell.






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