LE MANS, FRANCE — When it comes to achieving success in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, or any endurance race for that matter, it’s about having the right balance of speed, reliability and talent both behind the wheel and in the pit lane. Any little miscalculation or slip-up could make the difference between winning and losing one of the world’s most prestigious sporting events.
Mastering the car’s setup and calling the right strategy in the race is also a key factor. That's why Level 5 Motorsports heads into this year’s event with its most experienced engineering staff, a seasoned group that’s set to take on any challenge thrown at them over the course of the 24-hour marathon.
From former Le Mans LMP2 class-winning engineer Piers Phillips to veteran Matt Greasley and longtime team engineer and chief strategist Jeff Braun, the brain-trust within Level 5‘s program is unparalleled. But the general philosophy of the race, which has effectively turned into a 24-hour sprint, remains the same, and that’s to stay out of trouble.
With 22 entries in LMP2 alone, more than one-third of the entire field, the level of competition is at an all-time high. In the case of Level 5’s Honda Performance Development ARX-03b, which drivers Scott Tucker, Marino Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe will be aiming to peddle to victory, achieving an optimal balance through day and night, as well as the possibility of rain, is crucial as well.
“From my experience, it’s important to give all three drivers a car they trust and that can be driven in all conditions throughout the 24 hours,” says Phillips, who was the engineer on the Le Mans LMP2 winning HPD in 2010. “Fatigue and slippery conditions during the night can play a major part, so it’s important to have a car that the drivers can manage through this period as well as being quick when required.
“Along with the weather and changing conditions, the strength of the competition is the other main variable,” Phillips adds. “It is the strongest the field has been for many years. There are a lot of strong teams with new driver lineups that have a lot of Le Mans experience. It will be interesting to see how these teams and drivers cope with the event.”
Le Mans is unlike any other track Level 5 visits each year. More than two-thirds of the 8.469-mile circuit is made up of public road, including the nearly 4-mile long Mulsanne Straight, which has seen two chicanes added in recent years. Still, roughly 75 percent of a lap around Le Mans is run under full-throttle. Top speeds in a LMP2 car reach in excess of 180 mph and as low as 50 mph in some corners, requiring more than 60 gear changes per lap.
"It's a much lower downforce setup than we normally run,” Braun says. “That's pretty good on most of the race track except on the Porsche Curves, which is a place you'd like to have your maximum downforce. That first complex from start/finish to the start of the Mulsanne is also a pretty darn fast place. One of the things from an engineering standpoint that we look through early on in practice are the driver's thoughts on the level, or lack of grip. Then it's just working on consistency."
With such a large effort for a single-car program, each engineer has their own duties during the race. Phillips will lead strategy and be the voice to the drivers on the radio, while Greasley, who engineered the team’s second entry at the test day, will focus on fuel mileage. Braun, meanwhile, will be at the helm of Level 5’s “mission control” back in the tent, where he’ll have access to multiple monitors, including a live television feed, timing and scoring, real-time strategy software and weather reports.
"My job is to look at the big picture of things and look at the strategy,” Braun says. “While most of the guys are focusing on our car, I'm looking at all the other cars and trying to see what they're doing and what we can do to combat that. If they went an extra lap on fuel the last two stints, we'll know we have to try and match that. Or it can be a case of seeing the falloff for teams attempting a triple stint. I'll look at the global strategy to feed that information to the race engineers.”
It takes a team effort to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and with the right pieces in place on the engineering front, Level 5 heads into the world’s greatest endurance race as one of the best prepared teams in the paddock. In the next installment of our in-depth series, we will explore some of the mind-boggling numbers behind Level 5’s massive Le Mans program.
Level 5 Motorsports