In the wee hours of tomorrow morning, four New Zealanders on the other side of the world will tackle the world’s biggest race — big in both length and spectacle: the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Reigning IndyCar Series Champion Scott Dixon makes his Le Mans debut for Ford, on the 50th anniversary of the historic and controversial 1-2-3 in 1966 — won by Kiwis Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon. Richie Stanaway is also back to compete for Aston Martin, following recent testing with Super Black Racing in the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship.
The full 24 Hours of Le Mans grid for 2016 is one of the most competitive
The two other Kiwis on the grid return as reigning endurance champions; Brendon Hartley as a World Endurance Championship title holder, and Earl Bamber as the defending 24 Hours of Le Mans winner.
“It’s definitely nice having the #1 on the side. I wouldn’t say that it adds pressure — it adds confidence,” Hartley told Driven earlier this week.
“Seeing what we achieved last year, we know how we did it, and what style we did it in at the end of last season. I think that brings a lot of confidence to our car and team. What it does add is a bit of a bullseye on the back, obviously that’s a bit of a target for the other teams. On a personal level, it’s only a positive having that.”
Hartley’s third straight tilt at the overall win with Porsche’s LMP1 squad has had a difficult lead-up, with results deserting him and team mates Mark Webber and Timo Bernhard so far in 2016. But Hartley points out that last year’s beginning was no different — and still resulted in a championship win.
“We had a similar start to the year last season, [and] we came back as a team to have a double podium at Le Mans and for our car to win the world championship. So it’s too early to say we’re behind the eight ball.
“It’s going to be a tough race, but we feel prepared coming in. I think as a team, we’re definitely more prepared than we’ve been before.
“We’ve got the confidence going into the race, but we’re definitely not arrogant. We’re respectful of our competitors — Audi and Toyota worked very hard in the winter months. It’s clear that it’s going to be a big big fight.”
Earl Bamber's #92 GTE-Pro 911 RSR during testing
Things have been different for last year’s Le Mans winner Bamber, who is not part of this year’s Porsche’s LMP1 campaign despite helping deliver Porsche the surprise win last year. Instead, he is one of the lead drivers in the team’s GT programme with Jorg Bergmeister and Frederic Makowiecki. “It’s disappointing to not be defending the outright win, but it’s amazing to be back with Porsche in a GT car and doing the race, because they have a tremendous history with the GT racing here at Le Mans,” Bamber told Driven.
Bamber’s absence from the LMP1 field has attracted coverage from several outlets, with one labelling him ‘the forgotten Le Mans winner’. But the driver shuffle is something he’s putting in the back of his mind.
“To be honest I don’t really think about the LMP1 stuff. Originally I’m a GT driver for Porsche, so my main focus is always the GT programme. This year I’ve raced quite well in the US, we’re second in the championship and fighting hard to win.
“There’s still a lot of pressure to perform and get good results for the week, so it’s going to be a tough week and a tough race.
“It’s probably going to be even more difficult than last year’s race.” Much like the Indianapolis 500, Bathurst 1000, and Isle of Man TT, Le Mans has a special atmosphere, stemming from decades of rich history and adding to the pressure on drivers to succeed. “I absolutely love Le Mans. I love the history, I love the fans, I love the fact it’s the biggest race in the world; and you feel that atmosphere when you’re there. I love that,” said Hartley.
Porsche's LMP1 entries.
“But then at a certain point as a driver you have to put all that stuff out of your mind. When you’re behind the wheel, you have to put out of your mind that you’re driving for Porsche, the most successful manufacturer at Le Mans. You’ve got thousands of fans all over the world cheering on Porsche, and you’re sort of the last piece of the puzzle.
“[The team] discuss everything. We spend a lot of time on group messages and emails discussing things with our main racing engineer and performance engineer. So then in the lead-up to the race on Sunday it’s on. Mark, Timo, and I are pretty much with each other 24/7, living and breathing Le Mans.
“Knowing that it’s the biggest race of the year, it’s potentially about making history. You’re aware, you embrace it, but you also try and put it in the back of your mind because behind the wheel we’re only focused on one thing — driving the car as quick as possible for 24 hours.”