One of the toughest road races in the world begins tomorrow at 1am, NZ time.
It is the oldest active sports car race and a true test of automotive excellence and innovation, together with a test of endurance for man and machine.
The 24 Heures du Mans was first run in 1923. To this day it remains one of that “big three” of motorsport with the Monaco F1GP and the Indianapolis 500.
Fifty years ago Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren famously won the race. This time, four Kiwis will be trying to emulate that feat — reigning IndyCar champion Scott Dixon (entering the race for the first time), Brendon Hartley, Richie Stanaway and reigning 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Wanganui’s Earl Bamber who achieved the victory in a Porsche 919 with co-drivers Nico Hulkenberg and Nick Tandy.
The Hartley Porsche 919, which he will co-drive with ex Formula 1 driver Mark Webber and sports car specialist Timo Bernhard, will be running in the fastest Prototype (LMP1) class.
Dixon and co-drivers, fellow Indycar driver Ryan Briscoe and sportscar driver Richard Westbrook, will be in the “GTE-Pro” class.
They will be driving a Chip Ganassi Team USA-entered Ford GT, car number 69, to commemorate that 50th anniversary of Ford placing 1-2-3 at the 1966 event. The crew chief on car #69 is experienced Indianapolis mechanic Brett Knostman. This is also his first Le Mans event.
“It’s a very impressive place to see when you first arrive and the history, the tradition and the atmosphere is almost touchable,” says Knostman.
Knostman started working on racing cars in the US some 25 years ago and for 15 years had been involved in the IndyCar series in its guises.
In January this year he took on the crew chief role for the Ganassi sportscar team.
All team members at any Le Mans event work incredibly hard under difficult conditions and for long hours but, as the crew chief, Knostman is constantly fed updates and instructions from the garage-based tacticians and engineers as to the next pit-stop, driver change, tyre sets, making sure the tyres are being heated to the correct temperatures in the ovens, and any change in settings for the car.
With around 20 to 24 scheduled pit-stops, one each hour, there is never much down time for anybody Knostman’s biggest fear is that his car will be involved “in somebody else’s mess”.
With cars in four different classes, speed differentials approaching 140km/h, drivers of vastly varying ability, darkness and often rainy conditions, this scenario is a real possibility.
During a pitstop Knostman stands at the front of the car and operates the “lollipop” that signals the driver where to stop and when to start the car to leave the pits. The crew chief is not allowed to touch the car but can monitor the operation and direct the crew to anything that needs attention.
“Chip and the management make sure every resource that is needed is right there if and when we need it — and this attitude goes through all of the various racing operations that they run,” says Knostman.
Ganassi, plus many key members of the racing operation, will be at Le Mans 2016 and that puts more pressure on Knostman.
Dixon’s IndyCar race strategist, Mike Hull, will also be performing that role for Le Mans.
Perhaps Knostman’s biggest challenge, though, is understanding the Le Mans specific rules and regulations.
Like its contemporaries, the Monaco GP and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, these events’ traditional rules are often outside of the normal races in the series. Adding to that, the event is peculiarly “French”.
While the fear of accident damage that could derail a race win is always present, Knostman says, “The first goal is to finish the race and reprise the emotions of 1966. It would mean a lot to Ford, to Scott and to me.”
The LMP1 cars of Porsche, Audi and Toyota will be in the running but a class win for Dixon and his co-drivers is more than possible.
“Scott is a very cool guy, very laid-back and easy-going and whatever direction the engineers or other regular drivers want to go with car set up there is a good compromise between them all. Scott, as the rookie, says he will just figure it all out. Kiwis are all pretty laid-back,” says Knostman.
One tradition that started at Le Mans, in 1967, was the spraying of the Champagne instead of drinking it.
Winning driver Dan Gurney, having managed a second consecutive win for Ford, was about to drink it when he apparently saw the Ford management standing below the podium. He decided to share it with them by spraying it all over them.
It’s a tradition that Dixon and Knostman will happily keep up, given the chance.