For two winners of this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, this was one of the most uneventful races they’ve ever driven—and for that, they’re grateful. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a top-level Le Mans prototype or a road-car-based Corvette: the key to winning is to do everything as flawlessly as possible.
No one’s perfect, so what does “as flawless as possible” look like in reality? We sat down with members of the Corvette Racing team who took the GTE-Pro class win, and Earl Bamber from the winning number 19 Porsche 919 LMP1, at the 6 Hours of the Glen to find out.
Most of the drama for Corvette Racing happened before the race even started. The team brought two Chevrolet Corvette C7.Rs, numbers 63 and 64. When number 63 hit the barriers in qualifying due to a throttle issue, all the pressure to bring home a win for America was on the number 64 car of Tommy Milner, Oliver Gavin and Jordan Taylor.
Teams constantly have to justify their existence to the funding powers-that-be and the pressure was on from GM. Sure, Larbre Competition was running the first customer C7.R at the same race, but they were a customer team running in GTE-Am, a lower class. GM needed to justify sending their flagship factory GT endurance racing effort all the way to France for a one-off, and they were already down one car from an unfortunate shunt in qualifying.
The number 63 car couldn’t be repaired in time for the race, so all eyes were on number 64.
Teams at Le Mans—particularly in the GT fields—are racing against British Aston Martin teams, Italian Ferrari teams, German Porsche teams, and the like.
“It’s like the Olympics of auto racing,” explained Brian Hoye. Hoye serves as crew chief for the number 4 Corvette in Tudor United SportsCar, which ran as the number 64 car at Le Mans.
If there was an American team racing an American car at Le Mans, Corvette Racing was it. They’re not a full-season World Endurance Championship entry. Most of their time is spent in the American Tudor United SportsCar series racing as the number 3 and number 4 Corvettes. This is their lone run in the WEC for the year, meaning that they had only two and a half weeks to adapt the cars from their last TUSC run over into WEC spec.
“You don’t have home court advantage,” explained Hoye. “You’re a visitor in that series.”
According to Hoye, Corvette Racing had to do much more than just add a 6 in front of their usual car numbers to run the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Several minor tweaks to the cars from their usual TUSC spec factored into the team’s strategy. For one, they had to swap out their 99 liter fuel cell for a 90 liter cell that fit the WEC’s rules. Corvette Racing’s race engineers and aerodynamicists work more on the 24 Hours of Le Mans than any other race they do.
Circuit de la Sarthe’s grueling 24-hour course has some of the longest straights in motor racing, so the Corvettes ran with less downforce than usual to lessen drag and maximize straight-line speed.
According to Hoye, the team simply replaces many of the car’s parts with new ones before big races like the 24 Hours of Le Mans. No part on the car is unimportant. Everything needs to be fresh and ready to go.
“Everything is so critical from the headlights to the door lights to—we had to replace a car door because the number fell off,” Hoye chuckled, referring to another year’s oops. Door numbers are the last thing you’d expect to fail during a race and get you black flagged, but they’re vital for corner marshals and other officials who need to tell your car apart from, say, the other Corvette in the same livery out on track.
To keep their sanity, the team made a checklist before the race of everything that needed to get done. Tasks were divided up and assigned to different mechanics to ensure that everything was completed on time.
The car wasn’t the only thing that had to adapt to new rules. Pit stops differ significantly from the American series as well. When the team ran the American Le Mans Series, the rules for pit stops were very similar to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. However, that changed with the merger that formed the United SportsCar series. For example, in the United States, the team can leave the car running during pit stops and can change tires while fueling. but in France, the car must be off in the pits and fuel must be done before tires are even touched. The WEC limits personnel who can work on tire changes as well to two men with one wheel gun at a time. The man placing the tire on holds it with his knees for Le Mans. In TUSC, two wheel guns and three men on tires is the norm.
Endurance racers’ pit stops are down to a choreographed art form so as not to lose any time that could be spent out on track. Hoye said that online videos of other teams helped a lot with getting that choreography right for Le Mans. Corvette Racing spent a ton of time studying their competition. How did all the WEC natives do their pit stops? What did the other GTE-Pro teams do for race strategy?
It seems like a no-brainer, but this is one of the biggest things Corvette Racing credited for their success at Le Mans. They tried three or four different ways before settling on an order that got them down to sixteen-second pit stops in practice.
There was some time off between the pre-qualification activities and the race, so Corvette Racing came in during their days off to practice pit stops. They practiced and practiced until they got them right under WEC’s rules.
The drivers may get the bulk of the attention, but winning Le Mans means that the entire team has to run like a well-oiled machine.
Despite all of this preparation before the race, the loss of the number 63 car in qualifying made the entire team feel somewhat unprepared. Number 64 could not have the same issue as number 63, nor could it have any other issues, either.
“It was a pretty dark period for the team,” said number 64 car driver Oliver Gavin. “We knew there was a lot riding on us.”
The team was sent scrambling to figure out the issue that sent number 63 into the wall, causing Corvette Racing to go back to an earlier standard setup that they trusted for the race.
This wasn’t the first time Gavin had been put into a high-pressure situation at Le Mans, though. In 2002, he was running with Ron Fellows and Johnny O’Connell. Fellows got sick, leaving only two teammates to run all night. He had the same feeling with number 63 being down.
“It was up to Jordan [Taylor], Tommy [Milner] and myself to execute on track,” Gavin said. “You can’t screw it up,” he continued. “You can’t make a mistake here.”
During the race, the biggest thing Corvette Racing’s drivers had to worry about were the LMP2-class cars. LMP2s—purpose-built racing prototypes entered with a mix of professional and amateur drivers on the team—often had pilots who were extremely fast on the straights, but less adept in the corners.
An LMP2 provided the number 64 car’s only contact of the race. Driver Tommy Milner swore he only got close to the prototype at Mulsanne Corner, but a scrape on the car proved that he was closer than he thought.
According to Oliver Gavin, there’s another risk regardless of the other driver’s car. Many of the younger drivers at Le Mans are so eager to impress that they want to make a pass stick no matter what—even when it’s not a wise idea.
“If you want it, you can have it,” said Oliver Gavin of some of the passes he gave up during the race. “Let’s see how things turn out for the next 22 hours.”
Hoye’s favorite phrase to tell his drivers is, “Make sure you keep the fenders on it.” Much like my “Don’t break the ‘Lump” (which I say so often that one of my teammates added huge stickers saying just that to my crapcan racing 944), the idea is to be fast but gentle on the machinery because it has to last for the entire duration of the race. You have to give up some to ensure that you don’t knock the car out of contention before the checkered flag drops. Not every pass that plausibly could be taken is worth trying to go for in an endurance race.
Other than maybe Milner’s scrape, the drivers didn’t really have any major incidents to speak of. There were many times when they were racing closely, going side-by-side and three-wide with Ferraris and Astons within the first couple hours of the race.
Of course, there were still some close calls during the race. The number 99 Aston Martin almost took the Corvette out when the Aston ran through the gravel. Gavin credited the keen eyes of spotters and a rear collision avoidance system that Pratt and Miller installed on the car with keeping them out of other cars’ way.
The one upside of being one car down was that the entire team could focus on the one remaining car. “The whole focus of the team was on our car,” explained Gavin.
For example, the number 63 car’s engineers were on the pit stand during the graveyard shift to give crew members from the number 64 car a break.
The number 64 crew may have had an entire extra back-up crew from the number 63 car’s personnel, but even then, they showed one crack under pressure. They waited too long to swap a set of brake pads during the race. The pads were so worn that the pistons were extended too far to do a quick swap. Once they pushed the pistons that clamp the brake pads against the discs to slow the car down back away far enough to fit a new, fat pad in, though, they were back in business.
Some of winning Le Mans lies with Lady Luck. The number 99 Aston Martin they were racing hard against crashed when Corvette Racing decided to swap out their brakes, forcing number 99 to fall behind. The battle now became Corvette Racing versus the number 51 AF Corse Ferrari.
The worst problems usually occur in the “witching hour,” with about five or so hours to go. There’s usually an incident with the leaders or some other issue that happens because everyone’s getting tired. It’s when the lack of a full night’s sleep catches up to everyone. Fortunately, the Corvette team didn’t have any major issues of their own, but the key is to never get excited until the checkered flag flies.
That’s not to say that the drivers didn’t have any other moments, though. The number Ferrari and the Corvette had an epic pit lane battle a little over eighteen hours into the race where the Ferrari was forced to tuck in behind the Corvette.
Everyone was nervous about that risky move after it happened. Would they be penalized for it? What was going to happen?
No penalty was assessed, and Corvette Racing was allowed to race ’til the very end.
Lady Luck stepped in again with less than two hours to go. The number 51 AF Corse Ferrari that was leading at the moment broke down with gearbox issues, ceding the lead to Corvette Racing.
With under two hours to go and the car in the lead, the idea of winning Le Mans started to seem like it was within reach.
“The last two hours of the race seemed to last forever,” said Gavin. It’s emotional and difficult to be stuck in the garage while you’re trusting a teammate to race well. (Hence, of course, Jordan Taylor hiding in the garage bathroom for the end.)
“We’re all somewhat control freaks,” Gavin explained.
Gavin, though, “lucked out” and was in the car for the end. He felt like he couldn’t even watch from the pits, so he was actually relieved to be back in control of the situation for the end of the race. It started raining when he was out on slick tires, but aside from that, the last two hours were relatively drama-free.
It was Gavin’s fifteenth Le Mans and fifth win, but even then, he said that he was “lost in a sea of emotions” and “delighted, happy and relieved” at the end of the race. To go from the extraordinary low of losing the other car on the team to the incredible high of winning one of the most difficult races in the world was incredible.
So, he ended the race with a glorious, glorious burnout. He knew there would be a full cool down lap after the race, so he took the opportunity to practice the burnout at Arnage. As soon as he got onto the pit straight, he laid down a celebratory trail of rubber and smoke fitting of America’s favorite burnout machine.
“I’d like as many [wins] as I can get,” Gavin chuckled. “It never, ever gets old standing up on that podium.”
According to Gavin, the team won because they kept their racing clean, made no major mistakes in or out of the pits, stayed out of the pits as long as possible, and made the right calls with strategy. “It was a textbook example,” he said. The car was fast, good to drive, and reliable.
Additionally, all three drivers liked the car and were about as fast as each other—something that can’t always be said when multiple drivers share the same car. Gavin said it was “exactly what you want from your teammates” - clean, fast and trouble free driving.
In some ways, the Porsche 919 LMP1 should have had an easier road to success. It was Porsche’s second year with the car, which had been one of the fastest WEC contenders all year and broke a record in qualifying for the 24 Hours of Le Mans itself. The team is native to the WEC, has 230 people working behind the scenes to help it win, and has the full factory backing of a marque that really, really needed to celebrate the 45th anniversary of their original 1970 win.
The surprise was which 919 won: the number 19 two-race-only third car of Earl Bamber, Nico Hülkenberg and Nick Tandy. That’s right: two Porsche factory GT drivers and a Force India Formula One driver. Tandy and Bamber usually drive on Porsche’s GTLM-class United SportsCar team.
How does a GT driver make the switch over to a top-class factory Le Mans prototype ride? Well, starting off in Porsche’s own International Cup Scholarship program didn’t hurt. (Unfortunately, this means that he also can’t write you a reference for the Porsche Junior program. Sorry!)
Bamber and Tandy are both products of Porsche’s own ladder system. Both drivers went up through various levels of Porsche racing, from the Carrera Cup series to Supercup, and then on to the Porsche GT cars and the LMP1 program. According to Bamber, the Porsche’s one-make series are some of the hardest championships in the world to win. All the cars are same in the Carrera Cup and Supercup series, making the whole system a great place to spot extraordinary talent and a great system to find up future LMP1 drivers.
Head of Porsche Motorsport Frank-Steffen Walliser gave Bamber a call about the third 919 two days before Christmas. According to Bamber, Walliser opened the announcement with, “We have a nice Christmas present for you.”
The first test was at Yas Marina right before Daytona. There, it was confirmed: Bamber would be driving the 919 at Le Mans. According to Bamber, he and Tandy got up to speed int he prototype fast, making them a perfect choice for the drive.
“Le Mans specials” usually do the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps as a warm-up before Le Mans, so that became Bamber, Tandy and Hülkenberg’s first race in the car.
Spa was a good warm-up for Le Mans. Bamber had gotten to drive a 911 Cup car around Le Mans the year before, but the 919 was a gnarlier beast to tame.
“It’s a little bit different when you do about fifty seconds a lap faster!”
How did Porsche’s third car end up winning Le Mans? According to Bamber, it’s because his car didn’t hit anything, drove as fast as the could and minimized the time they spent in the pits. Anything from broken equipment to poor fuel management can force a team to lose precious time stopping in the pits. The key is to avoid all of that.
In the car, Bamber’s first big scare was with a Ferrari. The Ferrari indicated to let the number 19 Porsche by, but then went right back on to the racing line. Code brown? Code brown.
Bamber’s other big scare came later, when he was doing his last triple stint before handing the car over to Nico Hülkenberg. He smelled oil burning and immediately thought it could be the worst. Was the 919 broken?
Fortunately, Bamber said his strategy was to “pretend I didn’t smell that.” This doesn’t always work, but it paid off this time. Soon, Bamber was relieved when he saw a blown up LMP2 that explained the source of the smell. He felt sorry for the stranded driver, of course, but a wave of relief washed over him after being incredibly anxious as to whether his own race was done or not.
At the end of the race, Porsche’s three cars ran spectacularly well. “It was a great team victory,” said Bamber, pointing out the long, hard evenings and late nights that the entire crew put in to make the Porsche 1-2 finish at Le Mans happen.
Bamber has only been doing endurance races since the Petit Le Mans United SportsCar season-ender for 2014, so he’s relatively new to it. Still, he’s learned a lot in that short time.
What is the most important thing to remember in an endurance race? “Drive your own race,” Bamber said. Drive as fast as you feel comfortable, but don’t push for extra seconds per lap.
Also important, according to Earl? Remember to enjoy the race. Do it with people you get along with well and leave the egos out of it. “It’s not about who hits the fastest lap,” Bamber explained.
After Le Mans, Bamber was looking forward to driving the GT car again back in the United SportsCar series. He had to take a little time to get comfortable with the RSR again after driving the LMP1, but says that it’s an incredible car to drive in its own right. (Let’s be honest, I wouldn’t exactly kick either one out of my pit stall, either.)
So, there you have it: how do you win Le Mans? Spend as much time as possible out on track, not in the pits swapping consumables or fixing a broken car.
Oh, and having a quick, reliable car helps a bit, too.
Photo credits: GIF via YouTube, Matt Rhoads (GTLM Corvette on track), Getty Images (podium shots, grime-coated Corvette, Porsche taking checkered flag, Corvette passing marshals at end), self (all others)
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.