WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP -- LE MANS 24 HOURS From rallying to Le Mans With Sebastien Loeb and Michelin The 2004 World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb (Citroen-Michelin) will drive a Pescarolo-Judd running on Michelin tyres in this ...
WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP -- LE MANS 24 HOURS
From rallying to Le Mans With Sebastien Loeb and Michelin The 2004 World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb (Citroen-Michelin) will drive a Pescarolo-Judd running on Michelin tyres in this year's Le Mans 24 Hours (June 18th- 19th). For Michelin, whose record boasts a total of 36 world titles in rallying and an unbeaten run at Le Mans since 1998, the Frenchman's presence in the celebrated endurance classic offers an opportunity to look at the parallels between the two sports -- which at first sight appear to be worlds apart -- through the eyes of a driver who has always understood the importance of good tyre management.
Is it true that you familiarised yourself with the Le Mans 24 Hours circuit virtually thanks to Playstation, your partner in this operation!
Sebastien Loeb: "It is! And according to my team-mate at Pescarolo, Eric Helary, the circuit and the feeling you get at the wheel in the game are quite accurate. That doesn't mean however that you will see me taking corners in 5th gear as you do in the game on my very first lap! The real thing promises to be very different."
Tyre choices are also likely to be more complex too, no? What parallels are there between an asphalt rally tyre and an endurance racing tyre?
"In both cases, what you want above all is grip; lateral grip, grip under braking, under acceleration and traction. In rallying, I also like my tyres to be progressive. That is to say tyres that warn you before 'letting go', especially at the rear. I tend to 'lean' a lot on my rear tyres and I like to 'feel' the car. I also like tyres to be responsive when the going gets narrow and I tend to go for a slightly harder compound for extra precision and consistency."
Do you look for the same qualities from your tyres with the Pescarolo-Judd?
"In endurance racing, you need tyres that offer even more precision. The car is more exacting to drive and more difficult to reel back in when things go wrong. You can't push it as you can with a WRC car. In rallying, even through fast corners, you can use the steering wheel to add lock or opposite lock if you are caught by surprise or if you're not on the ideal line. That's out of the question with a prototype. Your driving therefore has to be very precise, which in turn means having tyres that allow you to drive that way. I think it takes longer to find the limits of an endurance tyre. Perhaps it's down to my lack of experience of circuit racing, but I don't yet feel the car and tyres 'working' as well as I do in rallying. In WRC, I can feel my car move. I can anticipate its reactions, and even play with them..."
Are the effects of compound and tyre pressure the same in both disciplines?
"In rallying, I have no trouble feeling the difference between, say, a soft and a medium compound. That's not yet the case in circuit racing. That said, I am sensitive to changes in tyre pressure in both cases. With the Pescarolo-Judd, if I sense I'm getting less grip at the rear, I know I've pushed my rear tyres too hard; there is too much heat in them and the air pressure has gone up. You feel that at the wheel straight away."
At Le Mans, you've also got the phenomenon of aerodynamic downforce. The cars benefit from more than a tonne of downforce at high speed. How much of a difference does that make?
"The aerodynamic downforce is effectively very impressive to begin with. In the fast corners, the quicker you go, the more grip you get thanks to the aerodynamics. You don't get that in rallying. But it can catch you out under braking because you lose downforce and grip as the car sheds speed. In fact, you have to brake hard at first before lifting and using the brakes to accompany the deceleration. Otherwise, the wheels can lock and you run the risk of flat spotting a tyre. It's particularly difficult for me because in rallying you don't have to think about that; you simply press on the brakes and the differentials make sure the wheels don't lock. Also, from the cockpit of a racing car, you can't see the wheels. When you see the smoke it's too late! It's not easy to find the limit."
What other difficulties have you come across during your testing for Le Mans?
"You don't only have to be careful with the braking, you also need to take care not to spin the wheels under acceleration. In circuit racing, even though the sense of speed and power is to a certain extent effaced by a certain number of factors due to what I would call your 'environment', such as the width of the track, you've always got to remember that the engine is putting out 600 hp for a weight of just 900 kg. To prevent wheelspin, you therefore need to learn to measure how hard you press on the right hand pedal when accelerating out of slow corners. If you don't, you lose time. The phenomenon is similar in rallying on asphalt, but there you've got the traction control and differentials to deal with the wheelspin.
"On loose stages, however, you need a certain amount of wheelspin to enable you to set the car up, for example. What about the effects of heat build-up in the tyres? In both sports, the tyres are pre-heated in special blankets or racks, but in rallying you've got the road section to keep them warm. When competing round a circuit, you have to be really careful during your out lap. In fact it's more complicated than that. After a few corners, you can feel the grip come on. You consequently think your tyres are up to temperature and then you get caught out under braking and lock a wheel. That's never happened to me in rallying."
You mentioned the notion of 'environment'. How different are the two disciplines?
"In a prototype car, you sit very low down and you can't see the exit of tight turns. That can be a little disconcerting to begin with. But if you raise the seat even by as little as 2 cm, your head just bobs around all the time and your neck soon begins to hurt. Finding the ideal driving position takes time. I have had my seat re-made a number of times. You're also competing in traffic of course. I haven't come across that problem too much for the moment but it's an important factor I will have to take onboard at Le Mans. There's also the night-time driving. You rarely get night stages in rallying today but I have often competed in the dark in the past. In the French championship, for example. It's not a problem for me, except that it obviously takes a little time to find your marks, even though you may know the track by heart. You effectively won't have Daniel Elena sitting alongside to read out the notes... In rallying, despite two passes through the stages during recce driving a road car, it is impossible to learn the stages bend by bend. To help us, we benefit from the pacenotes called out by our co-driver, but improvisation still plays a role. In circuit racing, although you quickly get to know the track by heart, you've got to be consistent for two hours at a time whereas in rallying, the stages rarely last more than half an hour. But Daniel will be watching from the grandstands!"
Following in Guy Frequelin's footsteps...
In the course of his own rallying career as a rally driver (vice-World Champion, three-times French Champion), the current Director of Citroen Sport Guy Frequelin competed in the Le Mans 24 Hours on five occasions between 1977 and 1982 (4th overall with Alpine-Renault-Michelin in 1978, and again with WM-Michelin in 1980).