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Opinion
Le Mans 24 Hours of Le Mans

How an engineer survives Le Mans

OPINION: It’s 31 years to the day since Peugeot took its maiden Le Mans victory with British engineer Tim Wright on the headphones. The 24 Hours is an arduous race for cars and drivers, but it’s no less so for team figures too – and several coping strategies are employed.

As an engineer, the lure of working at Le Mans can be the most exciting phase of a sportscar career. The whole experience, from the scrutineering that takes place in the town’s centre square with all the teams forming up one by one to have photographs taken, to being on the pitstraight with the cars lined up across the road in their qualifying order before they are wheeled to their start positions, is magical.

I have only engineered at the 24 Hours four times, but back in the 1990s there was no such thing as a backup or data engineer to relieve you during the night. Therefore, it meant preparing and steeling yourself to stay awake for at least 36 hours. The only data we had was just for the engine management team who had telemetry, only one-way from the car as two-way was not allowed, and of course the radio.

At Peugeot, having failed in our first attempt at La Sarthe in 1991 with the 905, we undertook several tests of 24 hours or longer at Paul Ricard. Being in the South of France, you would think that the weather would be ideal. But when these tests were completed during January and February, I can tell you that nothing about the weather was ideal! During the night, we had heaters in the covered pitwall stand to stop our fingers from freezing, but this didn’t help when we were all fighting the need for sleep!

What these tests did do for Peugeot was to iron out all the little niggles that can cost so much time by having the car stationary in the garage. I would estimate that across the three cars that were used, we covered at least 10 event lengths. The sort of actions needed to be honed down to the second was a change of brake discs and pads, making sure the mechanics had all the equipment they needed and that the action was completely safe, given the heat involved.

An important consideration when you need to stay awake during the whole 36-hour event is diet. Eating the right food can make a huge difference. However, with every good intention, Jean Todt, then the boss of the sporting side of Peugeot, was keen to look after his troops and so employed the best chefs who travelled everywhere with the team.

The food was certainly rich and plentiful, but they sometimes forgot that when the personnel were working through the night, a huge steak dinner was not what we needed. It was suggested, carefully, that maybe a lighter menu featuring fish would be better, but this was met with derision! “What the mechanics need is something substantial to keep them going!” the head chef told me.

Wright, in discussion with Yannick Dalmas, found Peugeot's Le Mans catering somewhat heavy going

Wright, in discussion with Yannick Dalmas, found Peugeot's Le Mans catering somewhat heavy going

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Other preparations to be considered would be the amount of clothing needed for the race. Warm weather during the day meant the normal team gear of a shirt and trousers, but during the night more layers were needed. Todt was very particular about how the garage looked at any time, therefore everyone had their own lockers hidden behind the panelling that sported the team logos and sponsors.

During the night, on a trouble-free run, the car was only in the pits every 30 to 40 minutes depending on how much the driver was pushing, so the mechanics could stretch out on their reclining chairs in the garage for that duration. On the pitwall, however, you had just over three and a half minutes each lap to record lap times. This was then relayed to the signalman.

I would work out fuel consumption based on the figure reported by the driver each time he passed, and any other strategy that was needed. A dash to get a coffee or a snack was just about possible, unless you could persuade one of your team to oblige. Another dash of course could not be avoided after too much coffee or Coca Cola was consumed!

The relief and the euphoria that hits you at the end of this race is difficult to describe. What a blessing it is to be able to finally take off the radio and earphones that have been clamped to your head for the best part of 25 hours

Traditionally, as the event is run in June, the night period is reasonably short, but that doesn’t lessen the worry that other cars may get in the way of your car or cause an incident that delays it, so when dawn finally breaks, it is a huge relief. If your car has survived thus far, you then realise that there is still around another nine hours to go and the doubts about reliability start creeping in.

In 1992, the 905 I was engineering for Derek Warwick, Yannick Dalmas and Mark Blundell, suddenly developed a problem in the early morning on the Mulsanne Straight – the furthest part of the circuit from the pits. Derek reported, quite calmly, that the engine was cutting out and wanted to know if there was something he could do to rectify this.

The engine and electronics people in the garage tried to work out what the gremlin might be and advised him to switch off any unnecessary electrical units like the heated windscreen. Luckily, unlike at the start of the race, it wasn't raining so the wiper wasn't needed. By switching the ignition on and off, to our collective relief, he managed to coax the car back to the pits. A change of battery and alternator lost us a couple of laps, but the car rejoined healthily still in the lead.

After 352 laps, at 4pm on the Sunday afternoon, the chequered flag was waved and Peugeot had achieved what all involved had been longing for. It wasn’t only a win that we were celebrating, as the number two car of Philippe Alliot, Mauro Baldi and Jean-Pierre Jabouille had also finished third.

Warwick managed to get the Peugeot back to the pits after battery problems to win in 1992

Warwick managed to get the Peugeot back to the pits after battery problems to win in 1992

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The relief and the euphoria that hits you at the end of this race is difficult to describe. What a blessing it is to be able to finally take off the radio and earphones that have been clamped to your head for the best part of 25 hours. The most special feeling, and certainly one of the high points in my career, was to be invited to stand on the podium with the drivers and the trophies that year.

The comedown that evening, once the adrenalin has stopped flowing, can be hard to deal with. After one edition of Le Mans, I was in a car with several mechanics on our way back to the hotel when we stopped at a set of traffic lights. Several minutes later, having noticed that the lights had changed a couple of times and that we were not moving, we noticed that the driver was actually fast asleep!

In 1993, Peugeot capped off the Group C era with a podium lockout, where my car driven by Yannick, Thierry Boutsen and Teo Fabi ended up second having led the race for many hours.

The unrelenting rollercoaster of emotions experienced at Le Mans can take some time to come down from

The unrelenting rollercoaster of emotions experienced at Le Mans can take some time to come down from

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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