IMSA at Le Mans Diary: Putting the Endurance in Endurance Racing

By David Phillips

IMSA Wire Service

Mention the words “24 Hours of Le Mans” to anyone who hasn’t participated in the event as a competitor or a fan, and they’ll likely conjure visions of the world’s fastest sports cars racing around the clock. Twice. But as those who have lived the 24 Hours of Le Mans can attest, those 1,440 minutes between Saturday’s 4 p.m. local start and Sunday’s 4 p.m. finish are but the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

It’s easy enough to read the schedule of the lead-up to the race:

Wednesday, June 12: Free Practice, 2-5 p.m.; Qualifying Practice, 7-8 pm; Free Practice, 10 p.m.-midnight
Thursday, June 13: Free Practice, 3-5 p.m.; Hyperpole Qualifying, 8-8:30 p.m.; Free Practice, 10-11 p.m.
Friday, June 14: Quiet Day
Saturday, June 15: Warmup, Noon-12:15 p.m.; Race Start, 4 p.m.
Sunday, June 16: Race Finish, 4 p.m. 

It’s quite another to fully comprehend the relentless sequence of events that can – and sometimes does – leave participants physically and emotionally exhausted before the green flag waves on Saturday. For those keeping score, that’s nine hours and 45 minutes of practice and qualifying, including two days that don’t wrap until midnight or thereabouts.

“For people who come here for the first time be it as a spectator or participant, they don’t realize the rigorous schedule that goes on for two days prior to the race and the timing of that,” says Mike Hull, managing director of Chip Ganassi Racing that again is fielding two cars in the Hypercar class for top prototypes. “Because you run until midnight for two days in a row, so the whole regimen of what you’re doing on a normal race weekend is totally changed. I think you have to do it once, maybe twice before you realize what you have to do to be truly prepared for this particular 24-hour race.

“Experience counts,” continues Hull, who oversaw CGR’s dramatic GTE class win in Ford’s return to Le Mans eight years ago. “When we came here in 2016, we won the race. We were prepared to win, there’s no question about that. But we had great support from Ford, we had great people working for us, we had great subcontractors, we had people with experience here who were part of the team. But at the same time people were totally physically exhausted before the race began because they didn’t understand how to pace themselves to be ready to race; nor did the team, for that matter. We are much better prepared today as a racing team by the sheer amount of experience we’ve gained since 2016, and I think the results this week will prove that.”

Emotionally exhausted? How about Thursday’s night’s Hyperpole qualifying session that first saw Sebastien Bourdais grab the pole in the No. 3 Cadillac V-Series.R with a lap of 3 minutes, 24.816 seconds moments before a red flag halted the session … temporarily. Following the clean-up, Cadillac Racing opted not to send Bourdais back out and then saw teammate Alex Lynn beat the Frenchman’s time by 0.034 seconds in the No. 2 Cadillac for a 1-2 for Cadillac Racing … temporarily. A few ticks of the clock later, Kevin Estre’s No. 6 Porsche Penske Motorsport Porsche 963 broke the electric eye at the start/finish line in 3:24.634 to secure the pole … for good.

“Everybody runs the same amount of fuel for that session and we had done one more lap when we turned our fast lap,” says Mike O’Gara, the Ganassi team manager. “So, we knew to go faster we’d have to do it in one lap fewer (an out lap and one flyer) than the other cars, and that would be difficult. Sebastien said he knew his fast lap wasn’t perfect but that to try to improve would be a risk, so we took that into account when we made the decision not to go back out. Do you go for more glory or do you understand it’s a 24-hour race and risking the car for one spot wasn’t going to be worth it?

“I was standing along the pit wall with (team engineer) Justin Taylor and I let out an expletive when the Porsche went past. He said, ‘Don’t worry, Mike, the race is what counts.’ And I said, ‘That’s OK, I just had to get that out of me.’ You have to have the memory of a goldfish in this sport. By the time I walked across pit lane to the garage, I’d already moved on.”

As had the rest of the team. Although Friday is called a “quiet day,” it’s anything but. While drivers participate in the hectic, sometimes chaotic driver parade attended by upwards of 100,000, the crews that didn’t get to bed until the wee hours of the morning are back at it, changing over their cars from qualifying trim to race setups, as well as inspecting the mountains of pit equipment to do their best to ensure it functions as needed for the full 24 hours and that the team is prepared for every eventuality.

“Today is called a ‘quiet day’ but it isn’t that,” Hull says. “It’s only quiet because we’re not on the racetrack, but our guys are working really, really hard to be ready for tomorrow. The infrastructure will be totally refreshed in terms of durability. There will be a lot of component changeover to be prepared for the race; trying to systematically inspect everything.

“People don’t realize that it’s a lot more than the Le Mans 24-hour race. The guys will be here at first light tomorrow to prepare for the warmup and they don’t begin the race until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Hopefully, they get to sleep tonight, which they will. We’ll be out of here fairly early today, but it’s like the Le Mans 48 hours actually, when you think about the enormity of the hours they put into preparation. It’s monumental.”

Thomas Latzkowski