Timo Bernhard: The other side of Porsche's Le Mans story
In his latest Motorsport.com column, Porsche LMP1 star Timo Bernhard reflects on a Le Mans 24 Hours that once again saw the crew of the #1 car leave empty-handed.
You have to expect the unexpected at Le Mans, but not even a Hollywood director could have written a more dramatic end to this year's race.
Le Mans is one of the biggest and hardest races in the world and there are a lot of factors that play a part - the unique track which is a mix of public country roads and the permanent racetrack, an eight-day long race week, the high speed and the incredibly long race.
The whole world is watching and after winning last year, Porsche is especially under the spotlight. That’s great for the sport but also creates a lot of pressure and commitments for us drivers.
It’s a long week and you need to be mindful of your own energy levels. The field is close together and it comes down to getting the smallest details right: tyre management, driving in traffic and making the right calls when the weather is going to strike.
We left no stone unturned to prepare as best as we possibly could for 2016, and we felt ready.
After scrutineering and a few days of preparation, we finally got out on track on Wednesday for qualifying. The weather was very changeable, and at times we had different conditions at each corner of the track.
I had two attempts in the first session, and while I put down purple times in the first two sectors, I ran into slower cars in the Porsche Curves, which cost me a lot of time. To get a clear lap at Le Mans with the amount of traffic on track is always a bit of a lottery.
Weather conditions on Thursday had changed and we had wet conditions in both qualifying sessions. With water on track and poor visibility, it was extremely difficult to drive.
We didn’t take any unnecessary risks and couldn’t improve our laptime. Our sister car, the #2, claimed pole and we were right behind them in second.
Whilst there is no track action on Friday it is still a pretty full-on day for the drivers with press conferences, interviews, visit to the Porsche staff camp and the drivers parade in the city centre.
It’s great for then fans to be able to get to see so much of the drivers but by the end of the week I was looking forward to getting in the car. For me, that’s one of the nicest parts of the weekend.
Once you get ready and into the car, you cool down, nobody is bothering you - it’s such a long week and you’re just happy once it starts.
Promising start, then problems
About half an hour before the race, the sky opened and we had a massive downpour which meant that for the first time in the history of Le Mans, the race was started behind the safety car - which was definitely the right decision considering the track conditions.
When the track finally dried up, we pitted at the right time and rejoined the field in second.
Ninety minutes into the race, Brendon Hartley managed to take the lead and we went on to have a distant battle with Toyota because of their different refuelling strategy – they came in after 14 laps, whereas we pitted after 13, but we did it quicker.
At times, we had two Porsches against two Toyotas and it would have gone down to the wire – however, our luck turned just after 11pm at night.
Shortly after I handed over the car to Brendon after my second stint, we encountered issues with high water temperature and the car had to come into the box.
After analysing the problem, our mechanics changed the water pump and about an hour later; Brendon went out again, only to have to come back in after a lap.
The cooling system had been battered, and it was a rather big job to sort it out. Our mechanics were working flat out to get our car sorted, and just before 2am we were ready to race again.
We were 39 laps down, and of course our chances of winning were over.
A pity for Toyota
Whether you’re a mechanic, an engineer, a tyre man or driver – Le Mans takes its toll. You’re on your absolute limit, mentally and physically.
Our clear goal for Le Mans was to win. We had a very quick car and led the race for 52 laps. It’s impossible to control everything and things like that can happen.
However, we did our job for Porsche, we fought hard and that also counts.
Toyota had an even tougher day in the office. When I last crossed the start/finish line, I saw their #5 car, it was stationary and I couldn’t quite believe it at first.
When I parked our car in parc ferme, the Toyota mechanics pushed their #5 car in - they were shattered. I felt very sorry for them.
Toyota drove a great race, and if such a battle over 24 hour ends only three minutes before the end, it’s hard and nobody deserves that.
Congratulations to our sister car on the win. Even though they benefitted from Toyota's bad luck, they drove a great race and deserved to win.
We haven’t had much luck yet this year on our #1 car and I feel sorry for our crew. The guys were relentless and did an excellent job to fix the 919 Hybrid and get it up and running again. Our car was really fast, we could easily go at the speed of the leaders.
Le Mans 2016 is in the past. We’ll be back again next year. It’s my heartfelt wish to win there with Porsche and I won’t give up.
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