So Far ~ So Near
Christian Vann and the Taurus Sports Racing Lola came within a whisker of recording a remarkable top-ten finish at last weekend's Le Mans 24 Hours. The former privateer World GT Champion was co-driving the squad's conventionally-powered Lola B2K/10 #4 alongside Frenchman Didier Andre and Swiss driver Benjamin Leuenberger.
The first twenty hours of trouble-free motoring had seen the trio running as high as ninth and looking set for a best ever result for Vann in only his second appearance at Le Mans. Then, with the end almost in sight, a combined clutch and transmission problem cost the team over two hours in the pits. "That was such a shame," said Vann with understatement. "We really thought we had a top ten in the bag." The Taurus Lola crossed the line an unrepresentative 20th in an event where merely going the distance is considered a triumph.
While the team's Caterpillar-powered entry (#10) gained all the pre-race publicity, for being the first diesel-fuelled racecar to run at Le Mans for nearly forty years, it was the Judd-engined Lola that earned the plaudits. One of the reserve entries on the list and a late confirmation for the race when others dropped out, the Taurus Lola Judd crept almost unnoticed up through the field. A relatively elderly chassis, and prepared on a minimal budget, the #4 Lola plugged away faultlessly for hour after hour. "It was difficult to drive, and hard work," admitted Vann. "It's a 2000 car and, understandably, it's showing its age. We had no power steering and no paddle-shift gearbox, so it's a very physical car to drive. I'm not making excuses, but it is a little harder! We all wished we'd had something more aerodynamic, with some up-to-date software, but we did the best with what we had."
The three drivers shared the driving equally, and posted consistent and reliable times throughout the race, thereby maintaining a serious challenge while other, newer and faster cars encountered problems and driver error. "We were disappointed by our lack of pace," conceded Vann. "That's what did it for us. If we'd been able to run even just a bit faster we could have qualified better and, perhaps, been looking at a top six. Unfortunately, we didn't have the car to do that. As drivers we were very closely matched, and had we had a car that was more capable, we'd have done the same but quicker." Vann completed five stints at the wheel totaling over seven hours of hard racing, and was given the honour of taking the chequered flag at the end of an extraordinarily demanding race.
Qualifying had seen the silver Lola placed nineteenth out of forty-eight starters. The opening stint of the race, driven by Andre, earned two further places, and by the end of the third hour, when Vann took over, the #4 Taurus Lola was lying fifteenth. Vann's first turn at the wheel was especially fruitful, and while the sister car retired early with a gearbox gremlin, he eased the Lola Judd into the top ten for the very first time. It was eight o'clock on a hot, dry and sultry Saturday evening. As dusk drew in, and then night fell, the car thundered on like clockwork. By the time dawn rose on another perfect summer's day the trio had covered nearly 200 laps of the 13.65 kilometer circuit and were still in ninth place.
At just after ten on Sunday morning Vann completed his fourth double-stint, handing over to Andre once again with the car still holding ninth. An hour later, however, the first sign of trouble when Andre came in mid-stint to refuel and complained of problems changing gear. "She's run beautifully, no problems at all," said team boss Ian Dawson. "We've just got a clutch problem right now which means we'll struggle to start the car from the pits, but once it's going it's fine." Probably true, but at the next pitstop the car refused to oblige. "The clutch release bearing broke," explained Vann. "We couldn't engage the clutch from standstill. When the problem first started we were able to pull away by setting the car in first gear and then pressing the starter button with our foot full on the throttle. After a while that stripped all the teeth off the starter and drained the battery. The only way we could carry on then was to take off the back end of the car and replace the release bearing and the starter motor." Leuenberger was stuck in the garage for two and a half hours while repairs were completed. "Of course we always knew we couldn't compete on pace," admitted Vann, "but we also knew that if we could put together a reliable run we could finish well up. We were then faced with just looking after the car as best we could and seeing it carefully to the end."
With just over an hour remaining Leuenberger resumed racing. From an excellent ninth, the team found themselves a disappointing 22nd, but resolutely determined to finish. Fifty minutes short of the 24 hours the Lola pitted for the last time, allowing Vann to step aboard and savour the privilege of taking the chequered flag, 8th in class. "It was brilliant to finish and to take it across the line myself, even if I felt somewhat deflated by the position, but I was back in the car more by default than anything else," conceded Vann. "Benjamin was supposed to do that, but after the car had been standing so long in the garage while the repairs were being made the fuel had got hot. When he started the car again it pumped petrol out the back and all over his suit. He also got a bit of a nasty burn. I seized the opportunity to jump in before anyone else noticed, and drove away!"
In a race of attrition, where nearly half the competitors retired, this was a commendable result. "I was delighted with the team," said a grateful Vann afterwards. "They did a fantastic job. They'd come in for some criticism after Monza (where the cars did not run especially well) and to turn the car around after that performance and not only finish the race, but to make it look like a top ten, was a marvelous achievement. That's credit to Ian Dawson and, for my part, to our number one mechanic Tom, He was absolutely fantastic."
Christian Vann currently works in corporate event management for former F1 racer Jonathan Palmer, the new owner of the Brands Hatch Circuits group, but would dearly like to get back into more regular motorsport. "I'd love to carry on and do a bit more with Taurus," he says. "They've been a great team to drive for. I am also considering opportunities in America for next season, but I'm particularly keen to race sportscars again. I don't really care if it's a GT or a prototype, I'm not too fussed, just so long as it's competitive. I've been away from the sharp end for too long." He came remarkably close to it at Le Mans last weekend!