PK Sport At Le Mans
Ricardo Vehicle Engineering
The Race
Nearly There...

Hours Seventeen to Twenty-Three And A Bit

Stephen Day – or St. Day as he was called in the ACO’s official race Journal - had clambered aboard the #76 PK Porsche at twenty past eight and he was going to be there for a very long time indeed. The weather was also going to play a part in the way his morning panned out, and he didn't exactly relish the prospects. Few drivers can recall conditions like those experienced this weekend, and the general agreement is that few would want to again. Sure enough, Stephen had not been out on track long before the first spots of rain started to fall, and at just on nine he was back in for a tyre change.

Although much improved since he completed his earlier drive, Mike Youles was still suffering with back pain, and David Warnock was less than keen to tackle another deluge. The net result was a triple stint for Stephen Day, and all bar one followed the trend established earlier. "Just one of my three stints was dry," explained Stephen. "In fact, only one of my stints in the whole twenty-four hours was dry!" It did begin to look as though Stephen had drawn the short straw, although Mike Youles' final run wasn't going to be a beach party either.

As Mike had observed earlier, there weren't exactly many cars still running. "I was on my own for most of the time," said Stephen, who was still circulating in 19th place but five laps down on the Taisan Porsche. Under the circumstances, had he enjoyed his first Le Mans 24 Hours? "Yes, I suppose so. Yes," he replied, clearly unsure. "In a few weeks' time, when I think back, I'll say I enjoyed it, but last night wasn't much fun. It's been very hard, but it has been good. Yes," he said after a further pause, but this time with conviction, "I have enjoyed it." Will you want to come back? "Oh, definitely!"

Alone he may have been, but his run was not incident-free. As well as the steady stream of prototypes sailing by like Formula 1 speedboats, he was prepared to admit that the wet conditions had caught him out on a couple of occasions. "I had a huge moment at the start of the Porsche Curves," he said. "I ended up going straight on, and then the marshals directed me around behind the barriers and onto a service road. From there I could rejoin the circuit." By coincidence we had sat down with Stephen the evening before and watched a short film made in the late fifties. It showed Mike Hawthorn doing a full lap of the circuit and adding his own verbal commentary as he drove around the old track. What Stephen had done was, in effect, follow the original circuit as it headed off towards Maison Blanche. "The marshals were very helpful," he concluded. "Then I had another brief spin at Tertre Rouge, but that one hardly even slowed me down."

Although Mike Pickup was starting to show obvious signs of sleep deprivation (and he wasn’t alone, since very few in the team had found time for even the briefest rest) his humour was, if anything, improving. There’s something very uplifting about coming through the night and seeing the dawn rise over the Tribunes and grandstands at Le Mans. Knowing that your car is still out there, pounding round the circuit and going just as fast as it did when the race began, has remarkable restorative powers.

The fact that a Le Mans car does that – gives 100% hour after hour – can be a difficult idea to grasp. It’s tempting to think that the drivers ease off after a while, but they don’t. Stephen Day’s lap times on Sunday morning were every bit as quick as they’d been twelve hours previously, weather permitting. That was about to become a factor once again. Mike Pickup recalls the moment when the first heavy rain started to fall on Stephen. "He was just coming out of the Porsche Curves and approaching the start of the Ford Chicanes, when the rain started to fall. I yelled at him over the radio. I just caught him before he went past the entrance to the pitlane, and he dived in at the last moment." It was a close thing, and a full lap on slicks under the kind of heavy rain that then followed would have almost certainly ended in the gravel.

If Stephen had found the race hard going, he had also recognised its lighter moments. He and his brother recounted the tale of the man spied in his garden overlooking the Mulsanne near Tertre Rouge on Saturday afternoon. In the middle of a motor race, with cars speeding past the end of the garden at a hundred and fifty miles an hour, this archetypal Frenchman, complete with handlebar moustache and lolling Gauloises, was trimming his hedge. Yes, he was standing there, Speare & Jacksons in his hands, snipping away at the privet. The French truly are a remarkable people.

For the first hour Stephen drove brilliantly, despite the increasingly deteriorating weather. He made his final stop for fuel at half past nine and by ten o'clock he'd pulled a lap back on the Taisan car and was within two of overtaking the ailing Luc Alphand Porsche. Twenty minutes later he took that position, moving up into eighteenth place in the process.

Stephen came in to conclude his third and final stint just as the race began its twentieth hour. He handed over to David Warnock, with the car refuelled but staying on the same wet-weather tyres, at 11h 03m 48s (ACO race notes are surprisingly detailed!). David's first of two stints was exactly an hour long and the weather improved, but the battle with the Luc Alphand car wasn't over. The French entry had completed repairs and was now back in action, and moving fast. As David headed into the pitlane for fuel and a set of slicks, the #74 car went back through again to reclaim 18th. It was going to be nip and tuck for the next three hours.

David's next pitstop was unscheduled. Twenty minutes early, he was back in for a replacement set of slicks after he'd flat-spotted the originals. At 1 minute 25 seconds it was, by GT standards, a rapid visit. Unlike Formula 1 pitstops, GT teams are only allowed four personnel attending to the car at any one time. This means that the same mechanic has to undo the wheel nut, remove the old wheel (making sure it is safely positioned), carry the new one to the car, offer it up to the hub and then refit the centre-lock nut – and then go and do another one. Refuelling cannot be done at the same time either, so it all adds up. Even the top prototype teams, whose drivers don’t have to climb in and out of awkward doorways, still take a similar amount of time, although Audi did replace a gearbox this morning in under six minutes!

David’s additional pitstop didn't alter the established pattern, and the #76 Porsche returned as expected at ten past one for David to hand over to Mike Youles who, back pain allowing, would take the car to the chequered flag.

David had not been out of the car for more than a few minutes when he was asked if that had been his final stint. "I certainly hope so! It’s a nightmare out there," he replied. Although the rain had stopped falling and most of the cars were running on slicks, the surface never really dried out fully anywhere on the track. Racing is always easier when conditions are uniform, but the Le Mans track is so vast that it can be raining at one and but bright sunshine at the other. Puddles and damp patches seem to move around, and every corner becomes a test of nerve.

David had completed a full double stint of nearly two and a half hours. During the first hour the conditions had been steadily improving, and at his first stop the car was re-fitted with slicks. He was still on slicks at one o’clock when the rain resumed. When he’d gone past the pits to start his next lap there were just a few spots of rain on the windscreen. As he headed away beneath the Dunlop bridge he was unaware that the pitlane was already being subjected to one of the heaviest downpours yet seen – and this is the Le Mans that will be remembered for ever as ‘the wet one’! "It was dry all the way down the Mulsanne and around to Arnage, but then I came round to the corner that starts the Porsche Curves and, whoooaaah!"

A solid sheet of rain met him. It was, to quote Warnock directly, "a bottom moving moment". There can be few worse places for this to happen, since he was now faced by one of the most difficult sections of racetrack anywhere in the world - on slick tyres in torrential rain. All credit to him, he made it back to the pits without incident, but was mightily relieved to climb out and allow Mike Youles the final drive to the flag.

Mike Pickup was certainly impressed with David's performance. "He's been exceptionally good," he said. "He's kept it safe and driven really well. I'm very pleased with the way it's worked out." David was just glad to be out of it.

By half past one the rain really was torrential. There’s no other word for it. There were rivers of water running down the main straight and vast pools already starting to fill the pitlane. From the relative comfort of the team garage the spectators braving the grandstands opposite looked like little more than grey blobs seen through a sheet of bubblewarp.

Several cars ran into difficulties, including the Perspective Racing Porsche, which spun in the gravel at Tetre Rouge, and the Seikel Porsche #83, which went into the trap at Mulsanne Corner. Seen on the television monitors the track had taken on the appearance of a canal, and it was not long before it all became impossibly dangerous. Once again the safety cars were deployed.

Mike Youles was picked up right behind one of the two Cadillac pace cars. With so much circuit to patrol, and with many drivers setting their own slow pace under the SC boards and yellow flags, there was only a small, if somewhat elite gathering behind the PK Porsche. The #38 ROC Reynard 675 prototype was directly behind Youles, followed by the leading Audi R8, the Seikel Motorsport Porsche (recovered from its spin) and the second-placed R8. There were more cars behind the second safety car, but the programming editor on the TV broadcast followed Youles and the leaders for most of the next forty minutes. It was great for the team to be the centre of attention all around the world for such a long time.

Two o’clock passed sedately as Mike Youles and the rest of the remaining twenty-one cars circulated around behind the safety car. With twenty two hours completed and the #14 Chrysler Mopar Prototype officially retired, the PK Porsche #76 stood seventeenth overall. The Luc Alphand 911 GT3 #74 had been passed again, but was only a lap down in 18th.

By quarter past two the rain had eased off enough for racing to resume, but conditions remained difficult for the rest of the race. Mike Youles came in for his last refuelling stop at quarter to three just two minutes ahead of the #74 car, also making its final stop. The PK stop was forty seconds quicker, and this became a valuable cushion as the race entered its final hour. Meanwhile the #60 Saleen S7, driven by Briton Oliver Gavin with Terry Borcheller and Franz Konrad, had been in the garage with a gearbox problem for long enough to have been slipping steadily down the order. After a great start the RML-designed GTS car was about to come back out for a final lap and take the flag, but not before sixteenth slot fell to the plucky yellow PK Porsche.

With the sun shining once again and the crowds gathering in the stands overlooking the finish, the teams - even those whose cars had officially retired – began to mass along the pit wall. The end was very nearly in sight . . . .

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Official website of the Le Mans 24 Hours

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