It's that time of year again isn't it? The butterflies are back and so to is the feeling that I will be a part of the greatest race on earth. The Le Mans 24 Hours should never be underestimated because unlike any other race it has so many...
It's that time of year again isn't it? The butterflies are back and so to is the feeling that I will be a part of the greatest race on earth. The Le Mans 24 Hours should never be underestimated because unlike any other race it has so many variables that it makes predictions completely futile.
This time last year I must admit that I was slightly in awe of the whole experience and any driver racing there for the first time is quite obviously lying to themselves if they are not. The whole thing is so vast that you only really appreciate it after it is over because it passes so quickly that before you know it, it is all over.
Going back to Le Mans with the experience gained last year, where at one stage we were the stars of the show when both Ben (Collins) and I were the quickest guys on the wet track, makes it somewhat easier as we now know what to expect. To be honest though there is no greater pressure than what we put on ourselves and that can only be healthy. Last year was fantastic as we were genuinely the fastest car on the track for a small part of the race, but this year I feel we can not only finish but we can finish well.
There have been a few changes since last year, namely the tyres and gearbox. We have moved on to Dunlop tyres and have done a development programme since the early spring. At Snetterton last Thursday we did qualifying simulations and it all went to plan. The grip is extremely impressive and I even managed to calculate that three laps of Snett is approximately the same as Le Mans, so I did three laps which is roughly equal to one (Le Mans) out lap and then went for it and the tyres not only seem really durable but also brilliantly consistent.
We first used Dunlop's at Nurburgring for the ALMS race in July 2000, which was also my first race so I feel as though I have grown with their development too. The work they have done with the Bentley boys has been terrific and I also think we have also benefited from this.
We have also switched to a Hewland gearbox and so far it is a definite step up in reliability for us. We concentrated on testing it at Pembrey and Snetterton in the last fortnight and so far there has been nothing but positives from it. I was even deliberatly rough with it at Snett last week and there were no problems whatsoever. We took off the flatshift as we believe it will save a lot of components on the car and I believe that this will be a big factor in getting us a good finish this year.
We all remember how wet it was last year and people tell me that it is rarely wet for two years running at Le Mans. But something tells me that there will be a few showers this year and to be perfectly honest that suits me down to the ground. I have always been strong in the wet and unlike a lot of drivers I enjoy it tremendously, although in monsoon conditions like it was in stages last year it is pretty scary. I certainly did not enjoy getting so wet in the cockpit last year. The cockpit is very exposed but this year we will at least have a little more protection as we have a new head rest that should deflect a lot of water if it does rain.
The team has been mighty in the last few weeks and as ever the boys have been on the limit doing all nighters to make sure everything is on schedule. They are by far the best group of guys I have ever worked with and they really care about the car and have a lot of pride in the team. That is why we can really do it this year and get well in to the top 10. Like I said, before you race at Le Mans you are ever so slightly in awe of the place and that was exaggerated for me by the fact that I loved racing even before I became involved in it. I have very vivid memories of watching the Rothmans Porsches and the Jags when I was a kid. I never imagined that I would also be there one day. Now I am and I aim to make the most of it and more besides.
Drivers wise I think we have a mega line up with Ben of course knowing the car and the track intimately after doing a quite superb job last year. TJ (Bell) came in to the team for Daytona and immediately impressed everyone with his pace and determination. The guy is very relaxed and can cope with all the hype because he has a good reputation in the States and can handle all the expectations thrust at him no problem. He has been slightly unlucky because he has had a few 'offs' but they have not been his fault, such as at Daytona when the rubber collected in the wheel arch and pitched him off.
TJ has been staying at my place in Silverstone with Theresa and I for the past two weeks and we have been training together every day. He's a top bloke and relishing the prospect of racing at Le Mans, as like me, he has been brought up on the whole Steve McQueen legend. Make no bones about it, that when we are on track, we care only about doing the best job possible but off it we know we are living other peoples dreams too.
And the dreams this year are just as strong as they were when Ascari made their debut this time last year. The only difference this time is that we all collectively know what we are facing and for that we simply cannot wait for the clock to strike four this coming Saturday.