Post Le Mans
Andy Wallace Column
Le Mans In The Bentley
We left Andy’s season at Lime Rock Park, and one of the images added to that piece showed Andy joking with Didier Theys after the second race. What was all that about Andy? The story continues through June with Andy’s drive in the Bentley at Le Mans. Once again, he provides a fascinating insight into what really goes on in the world of a sportscar driver. You won’t find this detail anywhere else, from anyone else. I'm sure you'll agree that it's worth the download time.

That photograph at Lime Rock. The rear view mirrors are very convex on the Dyson cars; great field of vision, but not so easy to judge the exact distance back to a following car. Let’s just say that it was a great dice between my Dyson Racing Riley & Scott, and the cars of John Field and Didier Theys. It got quite close on a few occasions and very close at one point. Didier had an excellent view of everything.

It was back to Europe then, for the final shakedown of the two Bentley EXP Speed 8s, at Snetterton. I drove our #8, Guy Smith drove his car. It was the Bentley truck that made the national news headlines though, when the trailer brakes seized on during the short trip from Hingham to Snetterton – on a single carriageway part of the A11. Radio 2 proudly announced that Team Bentley were blocking the A11. Not really the sort of coverage we needed. At one point it looked as though the cars would have to be off-loaded onto another trailer. Eventually our race mechanics managed to fix the problem: “it’s done this before.”

So we were late getting started but we still had plenty of time. The cars looked immaculate. The Team had completely rebuilt everything after our exhaustive test programme. Now everything looked like new again. The only problem on our #8 was a long brake pedal. Everything else was near perfect, and set up ready for race week in France. We even did a few laps on our race engine and gearbox, before re-fitting the qualifying units. We got to the bottom of the long brake pedal – some trapped air in the system, and then loaded everything back into the trucks. A good shakedown. We were ready.

Unfortunately, I was left short of time to get to a PR function that evening, at the Jack Barclay Bentley dealership in London. I was supposed to be there at 7pm, but it was well past 5 before we left Snetterton. Let’s just say that we had to hurry. I still had to complete my test report, so Catherine drove, while I tapped away on my laptop. The journey to London went OK, but I did have to swap my laptop for an A-Z for the final few miles; “Left here, right there – next left – shit it’s one way – OK right then...” We did well to arrive only 45 minutes late, after playing hunt the parking space. We’d done everything we could to get there as soon as possible, but when we walked in there was still the inevitable “where have you been” glances. The champagne was nice though!

We had that night in a hotel, then a day off, before setting off to drive to Le Mans on Sunday morning. Originally I thought scrutineering for our cars was going to be on Monday, but that changed to Tuesday, but arriving on Sunday evening meant we had more time to get prepared for the week.

Le Mans week just flies by. There’s a huge amount of stuff you have to do, besides the actual driving, and although it may not look much on paper, it always takes longer than anticipated. Monday’s plan was to go to the circuit to find out where our Team was set-up, and to sort through my race kit and helmets. In fact, first job was to commandeer the best caravans for the #8 drivers. Nothing wrong with that – the others should have got there earlier, right? Then I had a meeting with my race engineer, Eddie Hinkley, to look over the chassis set-up, available tyre choices and the qualifying running plan. I managed to spend some time with the #8 car crew – these guys always get the short straw. They do most of the hard work and usually get little credit for it. This is a young Team, but I’m very impressed with the way things have come together. Another task is to sort out last minute cockpit alterations for driver comfort etc. Monday is a good day for that, before the schedule goes crazy.

So Tuesday was scrutineering in the town centre, and that’s something I really enjoy. It’s great to see so many people attending, great to see that Le Mans, at least, is in a rude state of health. Of course, the whole procedure takes up a lot of time, but as drivers we should give as much back as we can. Afterwards there were PR briefings and a Team Strategy meeting back in the paddock motorhome.

I try to get as much sleep as possible early in the week, as sleep gets scarce later on. On Wednesday and Thursday qualifying finishes at midnight, so after eating / changing / team meetings, it’s usually around 3am by the time you get back to the hotel. I also try to have dinner with my team mates whenever possible. You have to be on the same wavelength as each other, all working together. You can’t win this race on your own, so you have to have complete trust in each other.

Having Eric and Butch on the team was fantastic. I’m grateful to Richard Lloyd and John Wickham of Apex Motorsport, and Bentley MD, Tony Gott, for putting the three of us together. It was an inspired decision as we have raced on the same team many times before, and work well together. When the weather turned so bad, we had to have complete trust in the guy behind the wheel. It made a huge difference knowing you were handing the car over to someone you could totally trust. Working together for the good of the Team is what Le Mans is all about.

So right from dinner on Monday, we were talking about our master plan, which was made easier by the fact that we race with and against each other all the time. Butch and Eric were happy for me to do extra laps in qualifying if necessary, as I was down to qualify the car, but I was keen for them to get as many laps in as possible. We just backed each other up, all the time.

Richard Lloyd had arranged for a system for the race, where the next driver going into the car could listen to the last two laps or so over a hand-held radio connected to his helmet. When each of us got out of the car, we could take over this radio and continue giving instructions if necessary, to the ingoing driver on his out lap.

We all had enough laps in Qualifying, which was in the dry of course. It’s important at Le Mans in particular, to brake as late as possible. You can’t really see how close to the corners you are when you arrive at such high speeds (particularly entering the chicanes at night), so landmarks and metre boards are vital. I’ve always thought that if someone was hell-bent on witnessing a huge accident, all they need to do is go down to one of the chicanes and move the 200 & 100 metre boards about 30 metres closer to the corner! (Hope no one gets any ideas!) There is a lot of time to be won by keeping your foot on the throttle until the last possible moment. You soon find the ultimate braking points – for example 170 metres at the first Mulsanne Chicane, 150 at the second, 90 at Mulsanne Corner, 90 again at Indianapolis, and the same again at the Porsche Curves. You log all those numbers...but if conditions change, you need to reappraise the situation. One of the most important pieces of information you want from the driver getting out of the car, is where you can brake without flying off the road.

Anyway, we didn’t have any of that to cope with in Qualifying. The tyres we had at our disposal were two types of soft race tyre and a night-time tyre. The chassis balance was excellent straight out of the box, but I suppose I was a little disappointed with the top speed. But we didn’t want to take rear wing off and lose the aero balance we had, which was near perfect. I went for a time on Wednesday, but every lap was spoiled by traffic. It’s incredibly difficult to find eight and a half miles of clear road. Even if the road ahead looks clear, it’s amazing how much ground you make up on some of the slower cars. My best then was a 3:37.4, which finally saw us ninth on the grid. That was frustrating, because I knew the car was better than where we were showing. Butch and Eric were happy with the car. Of course there still was a chance to improve the time in Thursday’s sessions.

Most cars went slower on Thursday; the track had lost some time. I had a lot of traffic again during daylight running, so I went for a lap at 10 mins. to midnight. I got a clear lap, but couldn’t quite better the time in the dark. We did have a nicely handling car though, and Butch and Eric managed full stint runs to give us fuel consumption and tyre wear information.

The mechanics had already changed to the race engine and gearbox for Thursday, so come the warm-up on Saturday morning; it was just a matter of bedding in the new brakes. We did a couple of laps each, and at each stop, we practised a full-speed driver change. It’s fairly slow in the Bentley, because it’s a closed car. We have a driver helper who comes in through the other door and helps with the radio, seat belts and drinks bottle.

Before the race, we had to slot in a Bentley PR event, other PR stuff, and interviews with the press etc. That was more like a continuation of Friday, rather than getting ready for the race. With a late night on Thursday, if you’re not careful, Friday just disappears – and then you have no time to yourself, to mentally prepare for the race. The parade through the town centre is good fun though, and we added to it by wearing our Bentley boiler suits leather flying hats and goggles – real Bentley Boys... Again, it was great to see so many people out enjoying the fun and the contact with the drivers. Our driver – we were in a Bentley of course – also wore a leather hat and goggles. Great fun.

I find it better to wake up early on race morning, and get into the track before the rush starts, then have a nap in the caravan. That’s almost the only time you have to yourself before the race – everyone wants to talk to you, and that’s one of the things that makes Le Mans. I understand that, I was on the other side of the fence once.

We’d joked about the weather – “if it starts raining, it’s your turn”. We all knew how difficult these cars can be to drive around Le Mans in the rain. The engines produce enormous amounts of torque, and can spin the wheels in almost any gear. Add to that the high top speeds and the minimal visibility in the spray, and yes there’s enough there to get your undivided attention. But hey - we do have the best job in the World. And sometimes you have to work for it!

I did the reconnaissance lap, and it was damp. I came in to top off the tank, and couldn’t decide between slicks and intermediates. In the end I stayed with slicks, but it was really frisky on the damp bits. It was still wet into and out of the two Mulsanne chicanes. Coming out of the second chicane, you had to be really careful with the throttle. Because you’re not travelling in a straight line until after the Kink, you can’t use full throttle for quite a long time. You need to be patient; it’s so easy to spear off into the barrier on slicks there.

We left the set up for the race almost exactly as it was in Qualifying. We were obviously hoping it wasn’t going to be wet for the whole race. In fact by the time we were on the pace lap, the track had dried a bit more. For some reason the pace car went very slowly as we approached the Ford Chicanes just before the start line. We were going so slowly that I had to keep dipping the clutch to avoid stalling. This was not helpful, and in fact as the race went green, Ralf Kelleners’ Champion Audi stopped as he went for the throttle. As I opened the throttle the Bentley did the same thing – it just stopped… I had to hit the start button to get it to move off the line – the first time I’ve ever had to do that at the beginning of a rolling start race. I mean, the whole point about this type of start is that everyone is moving when they throw the green. We really needed to be going 20-30 mph faster. In the confusion I passed Ralf, and two cars passed me – no harm done.

Anyway, there was a group of us – Brundle, Johansson, me then Kelleners. I was all over the Gulf car and inching away from Ralf. I had a bit in hand, the car was really, really good – but at this stage it’s important to settle down, not take too many chances. I just sat there enjoying myself. Driving the EXP Speed 8, in the 24 hours of Le Mans. What could possibly go wrong?

Then after about 20 minutes, it all happened: it reminded me of the Group C race in Mexico in 1990. We came out of Mulsanne Corner, built up speed to 300-320 kph...then there was an absolute downpour. It was a wall of spray and rain at the second kink before Indianapolis. We couldn’t see it coming, and I was thinking, “This is not good – survival mode now required”. I was looking in the mirrors to see where the cars behind were, because I didn’t want to get hit up the back, but at the same time I was watching the cars ahead. In that situation, you can’t just snap the throttle shut, because you would likely spin. But if you don’t lose some speed quickly you won’t make the corner anyway. Then I saw Stefan spinning. This was really bad! We were still travelling very quickly. I kept trying to slow my car down. Stefan’s car went left in front of me, hit the barrier, and a huge section of bodywork flew off. I saw it coming...I instinctively ducked down, because for all I knew, it was coming through the screen. Fortunately, it hit the roof and bounced off. I opened my eyes and carried on.

I was happy to have stayed on the road there, and when I got to the Porsche Curves, there was one of the factory Audis driving through the gravel, after what must have been a scary moment. A couple more like this and I could be in the lead! Back round to the pits and decision time. It’s always the driver’s call as regards tyres. I almost didn’t go into the pits; I was thinking shall I, shan’t I? You see, with Le Mans being such a long lap, it could well be dry on parts of the circuit. On the other hand it was so wet between Indianapolis and the start / finish line, that you could quite easily “flange it” on slicks, even at reduced speed. I think it was Jan Lammers who carried on, while Martin turned into the pit entrance road.

In the end, at the last possible moment, I thought I’d play it safe and go in. Unfortunately, his pit was the first Bentley pit, so by the time I had gone past him and been pulled back into my pit, I had lost a lot of time. While all this was happening, there was an accident between Arnage and Porsche, and the safety cars were dispatched. Martin got out just in time to catch the first Safety Car. But with all the shuffling about, I got stuck behind the next one, and therefore in one fell swoop had effectively lost two minutes to the lead group. I remember getting on the radio and saying, “What dashed bad luck. I seem to have suffered the misfortune of having to line up behind the second safety car”, or similar words to that effect. With the benefit of hindsight, I suppose I should have stayed out on slicks; there was always the likelihood that someone would go off, and they’d have to go yellow.

So 25 minutes gone and I’d dropped off the leader board. OK, it’s not a half hour race, it didn’t matter – I just had to settle down and put in the lap times, and we’d soon be back up there. I only had one problem during those first two and a half stints – I had a bad vibration, and had to come in for fresh tyres. Maybe a balance weight had come off, but after that the car was great. I was happy with almost everything. There were a couple of times the gearshift didn’t shift when I told it to though...

Eric did a long stint. He had a trouble free run except for the same occasional gearshift malfunction. Butch took over for the late evening. He too, did a fine job. Then the gearshift problem got worse. This time it wouldn’t shift at all, up or down. The gearbox was stuck in fourth, so Butch brought the car in. In fact it wasn’t a serious problem; water had been getting into the compressor unit for the pneumatic shift system. Our guys soon figured out the problem, but it took a while to fit a new unit, as it isn’t easy to get to. I took over from Butch at this point. The car was back to normal again. I got my head down and just pedalled away through the night for all I was worth. Then halfway through my second stint, we had another compressor unit failure. Except that this time it got stuck in sixth gear. That was exactly the same as they’d had on the other car.

In that situation, you’ve got to get the car back to the pits...somehow. Stuck in sixth was not so easy. It called for some quick thinking to get the car through Mulsanne Corner and Arnage. Turbocharged engines are not as stable as atmospheric ones at idle. Off throttle and off boost there is little torque, and they stall easily. First of all, I found out what speed the car wanted to idle along at in sixth. Then I worked out that that was faster than I could get through those two slow corners, in the wet. So at each of them, I drove off the track on the left, cut clear across the apex, then went wide on the exit, right over the kerbs. It was even more difficult at Arnage. Then I realised that I had the same problem to deal with in the pit entrance!

But I straight-lined that, and the relief of making it back was immense. That was the last time it stuck in gear, because the team had made a makeshift cover for the next compressor unit they fitted. They did a great job. The two changes lost us an extra 40 minutes in the pits. Our stops were slightly slower anyway than the Audis, but then it’s more complicated getting in and out of the Bentley, then there’s the screen to clean...and it was our first race. But the car was back to full health, and running very quickly.

The time between stints seemed to fly by. Each time I got out of the car, there were interviewers, journalists, and the Bentley PR people to satisfy. A quick debrief with my Race Engineer and Team Manager, before a glance at the timing screen. Next some dry clothes & food, and a word with Butch (before he got in after Eric), and Eric (just after he got out), then a massage and a brief rest. I like to get back to the pits an hour early, just in case. I like to get up to date with the progress, and enjoy chatting with the crew. Before you know it, it’s your turn again.

At midnight, it was pouring down. There were times when you couldn’t go flat out down the straight; there was the visibility problem, plus the danger of spinning the wheels and spearing off into the hedge. It was pretty scary, but you draw on your experience. ’92, ’95 and ’98 were all wet in varying degrees. You find yourself peering through the darkness, looking for where the road goes and any standing water that may have collected. On the straight, the water sits in the ruts caused by several years’ worth of trucks, driving along what is, but for 24 hours in June, the main road to Tours. You have to move out of the ruts, but not too far or you’ll touch the potentially slippery painted lines. Passing other cars is quite tricky. Despite all this; when you successfully bring the car back into the pits after a competitive double or triple stint, it’s a very satisfying feeling.

Visibility is generally better in the corners, but there were a few laps when you couldn’t see the kinks between Mulsanne and Indianapolis. You’re in top gear, you’ve got to 280 kph very quickly before the first kink...and you can’t see where to turn! It gets your attention. There’s more ambient lighting at the second kink, but that whole section of track is difficult.

Coming out of Mulsanne Corner, if there is a slower car ahead, you’ll want to get past before you get to the first kink, to avoid losing time. Quite often though, you’ll both arrive together, so you need to be decisive. If you can get alongside him, the worst that will happen, if he hasn’t seen you, is that he’ll sideswipe you. But this is far better than hesitating and getting your nose chopped off. Most times the driver of the slower car is well aware you are there, and will indicate left and let you through.

In fairness, the standard of driving this year was very high, even more so as the race wore on. It’s not like Daytona or Sebring. The blue flagging was excellent, too. I was back in the car at about 6am. It was just getting light then. That’s a good feeling. With every lap, you can see more and more, things are getting better with every lap, you’re through the night, and the other drivers can see you coming. There were a couple of occasions during the race when people were spinning around me, but I chose the right side every time...

We did have another problem. The flying Gulf bodywork earlier in the race had damaged the right side mirror. It partly snapped the stalk, and the mirror was vibrating backward and forwards. I gave the mirror a wobble when I got out, and decided that it might just hang on, but the next time I got in it wasn’t there. Fortunately, the excellent flag marshalling kept us aware of anyone trying to pass (and luckily there weren’t too many of those!).

It was great to be asked to drive the final stint to the finish. The team agreed that it should be a British driver in at the end. When Eric was in for his last stint, he somehow incurred a four-minute stop & go penalty – he didn’t have any recollection of where he might have got it though. “You’ll have to take it,” I was told, when I was about to get in for the last stint. Trouble was, we had a hydraulic problem with the clutch by then. You had to pump like mad, and even then you only had half an inch of travel on the pedal. I came in for the penalty, but was afraid we’d never get going again. The crowd were booing the fact that we had got the penalty, but I could hear them cheering as I tried to get it going again. I pumped the pedal like mad before hitting the start button. I stalled it on my first attempt, but managed to coax the car out of the pits on my second. Once up and running you don’t need the clutch pedal any more.

On the penultimate lap of the race, I slowed down to let the Audis catch up. All the way around the final lap in formation, the marshals were standing on the track waving their flags in congratulation. I could see masses of Bentley flags waving, everywhere. It was quite a sight. As we approached the finish, there were fans and marshals on the track, and we were going slower and slower. I couldn’t go that slowly, even in 1st gear, and the clutch pedal wouldn’t do anything for me. Then Emanuele Pirro stopped to collect a flag. I stopped, the engine stalled, but I managed to bump start it on the button. Through the Ford Chicanes it was coughing and spluttering, but I just about managed to get enough pressure on the pedal to get neutral. Then I pumped furiously to get it back in gear, and we just about crossed the line.

Finally everyone stopped. A sea of people swallowed us up. I got out of the car, and onto the roof. The Bentley fans went wild. It was as if we had won. My mechanics appeared, and began pushing the car to parc ferme. We thanked each other, and waved to the fans. A great moment.

Then near parc ferme, this bloke appeared wearing a dress. He told me that he’d made a bet with his mates, that if a Bentley got on the podium, he’d wear a dress. Trouble was, he was so pissed, he fell on the car!

Did you see the farmers opposite the Bentley pit, waving their blow-up sheep? They had photos taken with the car on Friday, and one of them gave our mechanics a blow-up sheep. There was a plan for the refueller to do the last stop with the sheep stuck on his helmet, but I don’t think that happened in the end.

The podium was amazing. We put on our original Bentley Boys outfits; the crowd were waving their Bentley flags and Union Jacks, and were making plenty of noise – fantastic.

Behind the podium, there was a bunch of guys with a fridge on wheels. There was another group in jeans and T-shirts, who got out a folding table and chairs, champagne and glasses. Before they opened it, they pulled on dinner jackets and bow ties, and there they were on the start-finish straight, drinking champagne.

The most recent race in bad conditions is always the one that etches itself in your mind. ’95 was bad though, as we didn’t have the downforce we had this time. ’92 was pretty nasty. But we can all be really proud of what we achieved this time. First race back for Bentley and we’re on the podium. And none of us went off the road. I didn’t feel like taking too many risks up the hill at Goodwood though.

Andy Wallace link

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Official website of the Le Mans 24 Hours

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