The battle for manufacturer supremacy in the World Endurance Championship reaches its fiercest point at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
This year, Porsche is looking to extend its world-beating record of 17 overall wins against much improved competition from Audi and Toyota. One of the favourites to take home the ultimate prize and seal the company bragging rights is the #1 Porsche 919 Hybrid of reigning world champions Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard, despite a rocky start to the season.
The #1 car showed plenty of pace in the first two rounds of 2016, but a crash at Silverstone and mechanical issues at Spa made for a slow start in the points race. However, the team only has to look back a year to see how the opening results can be discarded by a good finish at Le Mans, where double points are issued.
In 2015 the trio retired at Silverstone and finished third at Spa, leaving Audi in control of the championship. But a second place result and full championship points at Le Mans guided them back into a position of contention.
Having experienced the Le Mans bounce back effect, Webber, who has been a linchpin of the Porsche LMP1 revival, is confident his team can take victory in France and re-ignite its championship defence.
“There have been a lot of positives,” said Webber. “We’ve been the form car, even though the points don’t indicate that. That has been frustrating for us but at the end of the day we’re not overly concerned. We believe our reliability has been good – you can never get too complacent with a race like Le Mans, but Brendon, Timo and myself all feel we’ve been driving really well and the car is responding.
“From Le Mans last year, we know that we are extremely competitive as a trio and we have the number one sticker for a reason. We haven’t had the smoothest start to 2016 with a crash and a couple of punctures, but now we’re absolutely ready for the big one.”
Porsche entered Le Mans race week on the crest of a wave. After the disappointment of Spa, the team picked itself up and completed a successful endurance test in Spain.
“Honestly, the test at Aragon was one of the most amazing tests I’ve ever taken part in,” said Webber. “We have some ex-Audi personnel on our team and they said that even when Audi was in its heyday they never achieved anything like that.
“We were incredibly proud of that test; we did around 35 hours on fuel and tyres only, using seven drivers. That equated to about 8500 kilometres, which is of course a long way clear of the Le Mans mileage. However, that wasn’t Le Mans. Nobody saw it, nobody was proud outside of our own team, so we need to do it again but in front of the world with two cars.
“My personal focus is on car number one, but as a group we need to have both cars running very well throughout the race because we’re down to only two cars instead of three. It’s a little more intense with just two cars but the test was brilliant and we couldn’t be better prepared for the race. We’re absolutely ready for the race now, now all we need to do is go over there and navigate our way through what will undoubtedly be a tough 24 hours.”
“We perform in a modest and composed way”
Le Mans is the most unusual WEC event, partly because the Circuit de la Sarthe is the only FIA Grade 2 facility used by the series. As Webber notes, there are a number of unique variables at Le Mans that drivers don’t find at the eight other circuits on the calendar.
“It’s incredibly unique to race at Le Mans because most of it is a public road and all the normal road markings are left in place, so you get an incredible sensation for speed. You see a lot of the road markings punching under the car at high speed which is abnormal for a racing environment.
“Also the barriers are pretty close to the track in some sections; there are houses and pubs which make it pretty intimate….you can even smell the bacon sarnies in the morning! It’s a long lap of around 13 kilometres and communication is not easy with the radio signal at the far end of the track, so that’s something we need to keep an eye on. There are lots of things which Le Mans throws at you that other tracks don’t.
“It’s important not to get too hung up on the uncontrollables like the weather or backmarkers – just control what you can control. You’ve just got to tackle what’s in front of you at the time and not lose energy or focus. A lot of things will come up on the radar and we’ll have to deal with those at the time with awesome communication. Using our experience and composure we will stay tight as a team.
“This is not a normal car race. It’s a test of man and machine with a carnival atmosphere of 200,000 people, so we’re all entrenched in that and we feel the occasion. We need to try not to get too caught up in that, and perform in a very modest and composed way.”
The 39 year old made his Le Mans debut in 1998 with Mercedes but only achieved his first finish last year.
Although it has been nearly 20 years since his first outing at the Circuit de la Sarthe, Webber believes he is at the peak of his physical ability and is ready to push himself to the limit in order to claim that sought after first victory.
“The fans get incredible access which is great for them but also can be quite draining for the drivers. So we need to look after ourselves, manage our time and get good sleep when we can. I’m feeling very fit, I’m in good shape. There are no niggles – it is important to keep the little things like colds and flus out of the way. I’m fresh, lean and hungry to drive as many stints as possible.
“It would be incredibly unique to get a win at Le Mans. In 2014 we were leading with 90 minutes to go when we had a terminal problem with the car and came close again last year with second place. We really are knocking on the door for the right result.
“Hitting the middle step of the podium is difficult, and any small error of judgment can impact our finishing position. You need to be careful not to burn yourself up early in the week. From Monday through to the start of the race on Saturday, we are working full-on at the track.
“Timo, Brendan and I don’t want to finish second. We want to win the race. That’s our goal, and we’re not shy of saying that, but we are also respectful of the event and we know we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans takes place on June 18-19.
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