The Plowman Perspective – Winning Le Mans LMP2 – Part II
As race day dawned for my first ever 24 Hours of Le Mans, I had one or two things on my mind. It’s a race I’ve dreamed of competing in – and winning – since I was racing karts. I knew I had a lot of responsibility on my shoulders.
After the disappointment of qualifying ninth in class, everyone on the #35 OAK Racing team knew we had a mountain to climb. We had barely shown half of what we could do and my teammates, Bertrand Baguette, Ricardo Gonzalez and I were determined we would make amends over the next 24 hours.
The key for us was to stick to our plan and strategy and not to make knee-jerk reactions. We just let the race and the weather play out, stuck to our own pace and it proved the right thing to do. There were a few pivotal points that really helped to cement the class win. One was during my last stint, the penultimate of the race, approaching the crucial three hours to go mark. I was running on intermediate tyres on a drying track and I had to make the call to change to slicks or stick with the intermediates.
Changing to slicks would have meant stopping earlier and an extra minute in the pits. The Dunlop intermediates hold together really well and lose performance evenly, rather than disintegrate, and you can go on for a long time, although there is a lot of risk involved. I was confident in the Morgan-Nissan and knew I could make the tyres work over those 10 laps, so I stayed out. It was the right call, I was able to keep within a second or so of the guys on slicks and we gained 30-40 seconds by not pitting.
The weather and safety car periods, totalling over 5.5 hours, were naturally a major factor for everyone, but they hurt us just as much as they helped us. I hit one of the lengthy yellows barely a lap into my triple night stint and it was really hard to keep my concentration. You have to stay focused; it’s so easy to make a stupid mistake just cruising around in second gear on cold tyres.
One thing that hadn’t occurred to me before I took my night stint was how cold it was going to be. Driving an open cockpit car, going 200mph with the air temperature barely 50 degrees and the wind chill factor, it felt like it was sub zero and I was shivering while driving flat-out. But I had to block that out and focus on keeping it clean.
That was the biggest thing for us, to make no mistakes. Bertrand, Ricardo and I all delivered faultless stints and the team delivered the perfect strategy and pitstops. There were a few other cars posting some flying laps and it would have been easy to react, but we were in a position where we didn’t need to take risks or push the car. Our job was just to stay on our pace and rhythm. We took an advantage early on and decided to stay true to that pace, be consistent and smart through the traffic.
I think we made some brave decisions. We didn’t overreact to the weather, we took balanced risks with our tyre strategy and ultimately as a team we didn’t make a single mistake. And that was the key – to stay out of the penalty box; stay out of the pits; believe in yourself, your team and the strategy; and just keep running the laps down.
Although my last stint was tough, watching Bertrand take the car home through the final three hours was almost unbearable. That victory was within reach and everyone had done such an amazing job; we dreaded that the worse would happen. We didn’t dare believe we had won until he crossed the line.
It was rightfully a sombre podium, but climbing up on that top step was incredible. I’ll never forget the sea of people in pit lane cheering, waving flags and singing La Marseillaise. Even as a British man, I may have gotten choked up at hearing our team’s French national anthem.
I didn’t know Allan Simonsen, but racing drivers share a common bond and losing Allan naturally hit the entire paddock really hard. A big part of me felt like I couldn’t really celebrate what was the biggest win of my career and that feeling stayed with me for quite a while. It didn’t feel right to celebrate when so many were grieving. I felt that when we lost Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Dan was a good friend of mine, so losing Allan brought back that flood of memories.
I couldn’t leave Le Mans without taking my trophy and champagne out to the campsite and finding Holly and Austen Wheldon, and our mutual good friend Rob Dematti. Rob flew all the way to Le Mans from Florida, a pretty expensive plane ticket. He claims he quit drinking for six weeks in order to afford the flights.
I’ve known the family for a long time. It was Dan who got me to America, opened the door to Panther Racing, and helped me to settle in the States. So I wanted to share my moment with them. When I got to the campground, there were still some spectators taking down their tents and they nearly lost it when they saw the trophy. They couldn’t believe that a driver had come out to the campsite with it and had loads of fun taking photos, so that was a great way to finish an exhausting but amazing week.
Our aim at the start of the year was to win Le Mans and the championship. Now we’ve done one of those, and we can take more risks to achieve the second. We know we can already rate this year a success by winning Le Mans and we go forward a much stronger team with nothing to lose but to go out and try to win the LMP2 title.