Frank Biela: One lap of Le Mans

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Frank Biela: One lap of Le Mans

Frank Biela, one of the top pilots in modern Le Mans racing, has not only three Le Mans 24H wins under his belt -- 2000, 2001 and 2002 -- but also an American Le Mans Series championship from 2003. Biela returns to La Sarthe this year for the...

Frank Biela, one of the top pilots in modern Le Mans racing, has not only three Le Mans 24H wins under his belt -- 2000, 2001 and 2002 -- but also an American Le Mans Series championship from 2003. Biela returns to La Sarthe this year for the 24H classic with Champion Racing, and he shared his view of a lap around the famed track with Motorsport.com.

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"A lap of Le Mans"
By: Frank Biela

Frank Biela.
Photo by Richard Sloop.
Without a doubt Le Mans is a very, very special place; it's a very fast circuit, and as everyone knows it's a wonderful combination of very long straights, which means a lot of high speed racing, and a lot of special corners which in turn also makes it very, very challenging, very interesting and very difficult for the driver -- there is no other circuit like it, and because it's a 24 hours race, it makes it very special for everyone else on the team too.

As a driver there are a lot of challenging corners on the circuit -- the first chicane at Dunlop Curve is not a special corner because it is right hander taken in 3rd gear at quite slow speed, but the entry is important because it gets tighter and tighter, so you have to brake into the corner which makes it very difficult and at the exit you usually get some power oversteer and that can also give you some problems.

Approach to the Essess through the quick left then the right hander is normally taken flat out. It's very fast and the grip level is usually high. It's very important not to lock the front wheels at the beginning of the complex so you have to be careful, but once you are in the corner you have a lot of grip so it's taken at high speed - around 190-200 km/h. The change of direction in the Esses is difficult because the left has camber and the right is off camber so if you are too fast in the first part and you go off camber, the car goes light and you can easily run out of road!

Tertre Rouge is the next up and is normally taken in 4th gear. You ride the curbs inside and then outside, and you have to set yourself up for the exit of Tertre Rouge because you need the momentum to carry you out onto the first of the long straights that is Mulsanne.

This is where you where you pull sixth gear and reach top speed for the first time on the lap, it's fun, gives you a chance for a small rest, and as you approach the first chicane "Playstation" it looks pretty easy, but if you are pushing hard to get a good lap time you must stay off the curbs, the grip level is not high here so when the tyres begin to go off and you are searching for grip you are sliding quite a lot especially in the third part of chicane. The car is always moving so you have to be careful not to spin, but it's basically third gear through here. Coming out of Playstation Chicane it's much the same story as coming out of Tertre Rouge, you have to be quick on the power to get back up to top speed and sixth gear for the next long straight.

The second chicane on Mulsanne is the Michelin Chicane, another 3rd gear complex, but you have to be late on braking in order to carry in a lot of top speed in which makes it difficult. After a few hours into the race this is always an interesting place on the track because it's so easy to end up in the gravel! It has a bumpy exit but you need to be back on the throttle as quickly as you can to pull top gear for the last part of the Mulsanne.

#1 Infineon Team Joest Audi R8: Frank Biela, Marco Werner.
Photo by Tom Haapanen.
Braking before the second gear Mulsanne hairpin is quite difficult because exactly where the braking zone starts you go from the "normal" road surface into the hairpin which is circuit tarmac and maybe 150 metres of different road surface, but you must not touch the kerb so coming down from top speed into second gear with the camber change and the bumps in the road is very difficult. In the hairpin you have to be sure you get the apex right so it's good to have the inside wheels on the curb. At the exit you have to be gentle with the throttle because you get a lot of wheel spin.

>From Mulsanne to Indianapolis you have 2 kinks, they are all taken flat out, there's a little hump at the 2nd kink, but if you hit traffic here it can give you one of those "moments", it is easy but also a strange feeling because you reach top speed at the first kink and then you are suddenly on a 2 lane national road with forest on the left and right of you so it is a part of the circuit where you really experience the speed of the car -- it's a nice feeling -- but sometimes if you are in traffic, it's not always easy to judge whether you should get in amongst it or go round the outside of it.

Then through Indianapolis, which is very fast and can be taken in 5th or 6th gear -- the grip level is very good, but as soon as you are through the right hander at something like 260 to 270 km/h you have to hit the brakes hard and come down to 3rd for the left hander. You need to be careful because the circuit has camber to the left which is inside the braking zone, so it is a very difficult and easy to lock the left hand wheel. It's a tricky point in the circuit which is why I usually brake a little earlier than you normally would but not too hard in order to try to carry the speed into the left hander. If you get the turn in point right you have to make sure you are on the left side of the curb where the ground is level at the exit.

Then accelerating up from 3rd to 4th and then braking down to 2st for Arnage, and for some reason, don't ask me why, it's very easy to lock the right axle, you really have to be careful on braking and shifting down. The corner itself is quite slippery because of the different tarmac so the grip level is low. You get a lot of wheel spin coming out of Arnage so you need to be gentle with the throttle.

Frank Biela.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
Accelerating up to 6th you reach Porsche Curves, one of the most interesting parts of the track. Braking into Porsche Curves is very difficult because it's very bumpy there. You have to find a good set-up for this spot, of course it's impossible to do a special set up just for this place, so there is always a little compromise, but you have to try to find a solution which absorbs the bumps as much as possible, it's a tricky spot because the speed into corner is something like 250 km/h, and because of the high speed into the corner you don't want the car to be too nervous going over these bumps. So first you have a right hander, then left and left again all in 5th gear at 250 km/h and with good fresh tyres you are always thinking this is a very interesting place, but I don't want to go off!! So you are always fighting with yourself - should I go flat or should I lift a little bit? And because it's very fast after 24 hours you are probably telling yourself you never really got it right!

Then there's another right hander and finally the last left hander is off camber and you have to go down to 4th gear and suddenly the car gets very light and you have a lot less grip than in the previous corners. Going through the first 4 corners of this complex you have good downforce and so you would think it would be the same in the last corner, but it's not so you have to be very careful not too go off there.

Once out of the Porsche Curves you have to accelerate as quickly and as hard as possible shifting up to 5th and 6th gear, there is a little "S" which is taken flat out, no problem, but it's a place where you always get angry and shout very loudly inside your helmet if you hit traffic because they are right on your line and you can loose a lot of time here, but it's a great place to make up time if you are on your own. Generally speaking, in the race you can take a hundred different lines a hundred different times, either because of other competitors on your line, or debris on the track or simply because the grip level has changed, sometimes it's a bit of a lottery and like a lottery, you either lose or there's always the possibility you can come up with the jackpot -- and that's what all of us are trying to achieve.

Frank Biela back in the garage.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
Next, and lastly, we arrive at the last 2 Ford Chicanes before the Start and Finish straight -- it's very difficult to find your braking point and the turn-in at the first chicane, it's very easy to turn in too late and you finish up going through the gravel bed; turn in too early and you hit the inside curb which is not good for the car so you want to avoid that at all costs.

The second chicane is taken in 3rd gear it's got good grip level and isn't really a big challenge, but the main problem here is that the condition on the track is always changing because you find gravel or cones on the track, or even no cones because they've been knocked out by a car that's gone off.

Back onto the throttle and you are heading for the start/finish line for another lap of this incredible track.

All in all it's an amazing circuit and the ACO have helped us all this year with the new tarmac that has been put down from Mulsanne to Arnage -- it's now very smooth -- they have done a great job -- it's certainly more comfortable for the drivers.


    Frank Biela

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Series LEMANS