MADISON, Wis. — Le Mans can be a daunting place for a U.S.-based team. With a different set of rules and regulations compared to their normal stomping grounds in the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón, not to mention the obvious language barrier, mastering the the nuances of the rulebook could often times be considered a victory in itself.
Luckily, experience is on the side of Level 5 Motorsports, which enters its third consecutive 24 Hours of Le Mans this month. The Madison, Wis.-based organization, which also competed in the 2011 Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, the precursor to the FIA World Endurance Championship, has one of the most successful and diverse crews in the business.
Two of the biggest changes at Le Mans, from a sporting regulations standpoint, that American teams have to adapt to are the pit stop and safety car procedures.
Unlike in the ALMS, which allows two air guns to be used simultaneously for tire changes, pit rules at Le Mans limit the use of a single gun and only two mechanics changing tires at the same time. However, instead of the same crew and air gun being used to change all four tires, most teams split up the duties between two separate crews.
“It’s definitely a change, but having done it so many times before, I don’t think it’s a big hurdle for us,” explains Level 5 Crew Chief Ken Swan. “I've been looking at how the teams at Silverstone and Spa were doing their pit stops and it's the same way we did them last year and the way we pretty much did them in ILMC. We're at the point where we just put our four fastest guys on it. We’ll be working on them and practicing a lot during the week.”
Another change comes in the way full-course cautions are handled at Le Mans. Due to the length of the 8.469-mile circuit, three safety cars are deployed during yellows, compared to a single car used most everywhere else. With roughly one-third of a lap of separation between packs, it adds an element to the strategy on whether to pit under yellow or during the green.
"The nice thing about Le Mans is that it's probably the easiest race of the year to do from a strategy standpoint,” says Level 5 Chief Strategist Jeff Braun. “There's no wave arounds, there's none of that getting your lap back if you stay out. A normal yellow at Le Mans is usually a half-hour because the track is so long. So that plays into the strategy of whether we pit or stay out.”
One possible advantage of pitting under green would be able to keep tire temperatures up, as unlike in the ALMS, a form of tire warmers are allowed at Le Mans. Tires are placed onto racks inside an oven-like chamber in the garage and heated to approximately 180 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal tread temperature. They’re then whisked away onto pit lane just seconds before the scheduled tire change in order to retain as much heat as possible.
Interpreting all of the rules is the other key to the puzzle, according to Braun, who spends countless hours re-reading the Le Mans rulebook before even stepping foot in France every year. With the French language version of the rulebook taking precedence over the English copy in the event of a clarification or protest, teams must be on the top of their game, no matter the language barrier.
“We have a good relationship already established with the ALMS technical officials as you see them every week and both of us know what to expect,” Braun explains. “But with the ACO guys, it's all new again. It's just not as seamless and easy as in ALMS. If I want to get a technical question answered in the ALMS, I could just walk down and find Charlie Cook from IMSA and get an answer. It's not quite so easy with the ACO; you've usually got to schedule a meeting in order to get an answer that would normally be pretty simple. It's just different."
As the buildup to the 24 Hours of Le Mans continues, find out what goes into Level 5’s preparation and its strategy for Sunday’s official test day in the next installment of our in-depth series previewing the world’s greatest endurance race from the eyes of America’s leading prototype team in the race.
Level 5 Motorsports