Team Reports
Sportscar and GT teams ask us to cover major events for them. This is one ‘page’ of several from Marcus Potts’ material for PK Sport at the 71st Le Mans 24 Hours. This material benefits the team, but also provides that depth and insight into a major event that readers welcome here.

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PK at Le Mans - Hours Eighteen to Twenty Four

18 Hours
Having resumed his stint, Robin Liddell proceeded to trudge around the circuit at what was, for him, a modest pace, typically setting times of around four-forty. It was with some relief that he was able to confirm over the radio that the engine temperatures were now under control, but the accomplished racer was finding the strain of driving so much within himself almost as stressful as pushing along at the limit.

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19 Hours
At the conclusion of his double-stint at around 11:20 Robin handed over to David Warnock. It was not long after this that he was intercepted by the Radio Le Mans pitlane reporter, who announced that the popular English-language station had chosen Robin as their “Man of the Match” for his Herculean achievement in driving fifteen laps last night without power steering. “He deserves a medal the size of a town hall clock,” declared John Hindhaugh. Robin then spoke about the car’s difficulties and the team’s prospects for the months ahead. “Now it’s a damage limitation exercise,” he said, explaining that the car had suffered from a succession of ‘little niggly things’. “It’s been an interesting experience,” he admitted, “and I’ve learned an awful lot. I think we’ve shown what we can do,” he said, with thoughts towards the possibility the American Le Mans Series. “If we can run with the works cars in race trim, “ as the PK Porsche has done this weekend, “and we can get a lift up, then there’s no reason why we can’t compete directly with them.”

When eleven had shown on the clock and nineteen hours had been spent on track the PK car was just a fraction over a lap ahead of the DBA 675 prototype. Over the following forty minutes, however, and influenced by the two-and-a-half minutes taken for Robin and David to change places, plus the crew to refuel the car, that gap narrowed inexorably. Finally, at quarter to twelve, the #26 prototype swept by. Although John Nielsen’s car had spent over four hours in the pits, it was also able to lap regularly in the sub-four-minute mark, and was steadily recovering some of that lost ground.

While losing a place on track to the 675 made no difference to the class order, which still showed the #78 Porsche 7th in GT, the arrival in the pitlane of the T2M Porsche #84 with a clutch problem would. The Ickx / Bourdais / Berville entry would be static in the garage for almost three hours, and an eighteen-lap advantage for the German squad would evaporate. For the time being, however, PK was still shown 26th in the overall standing. Three more retirements were confirmed: the Riley and Scott on 214 laps, the #68 Viper on 229, and the #12 Panoz Elan LMP with 233 laps under its belt.

20 Hours
Midday on Sunday and, despite the earlier concerns, the #78 car had, if anything, restored some of its earlier pace. It was also looking a good deal cleaner than most of its rivals, many of these others showing all the signs and stains of twenty hours hard driving. During the earlier half-hour stop, Mike Pickup had insisted that the car be cleaned, and with the temperature problem apparently stabilised, David was posting some perfectly respectable times. Following the lap-by lap progress of the PK Porsche was not, however, as straightforward as it had been. For some reason the timing transponder was proving erratic, with the car shown on the timing screens simply as ‘Porsche’. Normally a driver’s name is also displayed for every competitor on track. Initially the organisers had wanted the team to bring the car back into the pits to have the faulty unit replaced, but after some tactful persuasion they agreed to revert to a manual system. This threw up some interesting times, with one lap at 12.30 recorded at 14:17. It stood out as unusually quick alongside the more typical, and team-advised, four-thirties and forties, but minutes later times for every car in the race had extended to seven minutes or more.

Thankfully this was no cause for concern in the PK garage. For the third time in the race the trio of Corvette safety cars had been deployed, on this occasion so that a fire aboard the #99 XL Racing Ferrari could be safely extinguished and the stricken car removed from the track. David headed for the pitlane immediately and handed the car over to Piers Masarati. It was quarter to one. As Piers sped off down the pitlane to rejoin the race he effectively overtook the stationary T2M Porsche, thereby moving PK into 6th place in GT.

21 Hours
For the first twenty minutes of his new stint Piers was stuck behind the safety car, and racing wouldn’t resume before 13.10. On current form Mike calculated that the car would have completed its 75% requirement for classification as a finisher by about three o’clock, and outward expressions of concern over the earlier overheating problems had eased somewhat.

Although not during this period, when he was still under instruction to look after the engine, Piers had been improving his personal best throughout the race. Piers was now capable of consistent laps in the four-eighteens, and unofficial timings reveal that his best lap of the race was around 4:16. Some hours later he was still feeling justifiably proud of his times but, for his final stint, he had to be content with taking things easy. It proved to be an uneventful hour-and-ten-minutes, with Piers completing his final sweep through the Porsche Curves just as the race entered its twenty-second hour.

22 Hours
Two o’clock on Sunday afternoon; two hours to go, and Robin Liddell was back in the #78 Porsche for his final double-stint. With the car refuelled, fresh rubber all round and a top-up on the engine oil, Robin powered out of the pitlane at 14.08.

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Now with an eight-lap advantage over the T2M car, which had emerged from its garage ten minutes earlier after completing the clutch change, there was little on-track pressure for the Scot. Similarly, only dire problems for the other cars in the class could narrow the gaps ahead, with the nearest car, the fifth-placed Racers Group Porsche, eighteen laps to the fore. Elsewhere, however, battles persisted, especially for overall positions in the prototype category. Gunnar Jeanette (Panoz #11), Jean-Marc Gounon (Courage #13) and Jan Lammers (Dome #15) were all on the same lap and fighting for fifth, and their dispute would not be resolved until the final seconds of the race.

On-going duels, such as the one between these three prototypes, tend to be rare in a twenty-four hour race and a strange atmosphere descends across the circuit in these closing stages. The emphasis is no longer on racing, per se, but more on simply keeping going. The spectators understand this, and watch the cars fly past in almost reverential silence. In many cases it no longer matters what position they hold, or how close they are to the car in front; it’s the fact that they are still pounding around the eight-mile circuit more than twenty hours after they started that matters. There’s an honour and a pride in simply finishing, and everyone’s a winner. Under those kinds of circumstance one can only feel the greatest sympathy for the likes of Graham Nash and his team when the British-entered Saleen stopped out on track at ten to three with a broken crankshaft. They were a little over an hour short of finishing fifth in GTS.

23 Hours
Just as the race entered its final hour Robin Liddell steered the #78 Porsche back into the pitlane for the last time. He rolled up smoothly outside the pit garage, coming to a swift halt at Mike Pickup’s feet. Just as Mike had calculated, the car had covered 271 laps and was well within the 75% requirement. The engineers and mechanics moved with the speed and efficiency of automata as they repeated the duties that had become almost second nature to them by this time – either that or fatigue no longer allowed them the luxury of hesitation. The car was refuelled, the windscreen cleaned and the air intakes were checked for debris. A quick inspection for anything else untoward and then Robin was off again once more. The final stop had added just two minutes to the overall time spent in the pits by the #78 car, making a total for the race of 2 hours 44 minutes and 29 seconds. The class-leading #93 car, by comparison, had spent just 1:15.07, and thereby hung the price of victory.

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The grandstands opposite the pits were steadily filling as the crowds gathered to witness the conclusion of the 71st Le Mans 24 Hours, eighty years after the first race. Back in 1923 the winners were Legache and Leonard driving a Chenard & Walcker, but the fastest lap fell to Frank Clement in a Bentley at an average speed of 107.3 kph – about 67 mph. Although present largely in name and little else, Bentley was fastest again in 2003. The best lap for the #8 Speed 8 was 3:35.529, achieved at an average speed of 227.997 kph on lap 236. If there’s a significant difference between the years and these relative speeds, then two other facts bear repeating. That first Bentley entry, in 1923, was a wholly privateer effort that received only grudging support from the famous WO himself – although he did attend the race and was subsequently persuaded of its value. From that fact alone, perhaps, stems today’s undiminished national fascination with this uniquely British event held on foreign soil, but I digress. Conversely, the 2003 assault has been a multi-million pound factory effort with no expense spared.

The second point relates to the cars themselves. The 1923 Bentley, carrying the number 8, was a standard 3-litre sports, straight out of the London showroom. It had brakes on only two wheels, ran through the night with only one headlight, and had no windscreen wipers. The weather was appalling. It lost two hours when a stone punctured the fuel tank and the car rattled to a halt at Arnage. Clement ran back to the pits, collected a can of fuel, borrowed a bicycle from a French soldier, rode back to the car, repaired the hole, and returned with the bike perched across the back seats – yes, it had room for passengers! Admittedly the windscreen wipers oof the first Speed 8 didn’t work either, but in every other respect the two concepts of “motor car” could not be further apart.

With fifteen minutes to go fate had one more cruel hand to play. Tristan Gommendy in the #16 ‘Racing for Holland’ Dome had a spin - and a huge accident. Despite returning to the pitlane, the team could not get the car back out on track again and it became the final official retirement. No such misfortune for Robin Liddell. The PK Porsche continued to run strongly and was sounding brisk as Robin worked through the gears, accelerating hard out of the Ford Chicane and up the main straight. The rasp of the Porsche’s exhaust, amplified by the overhanging grandstands, reverberated through the spectators. At five to four the teams were released from their garages and rushed to throng the pit wall. The PK squad, distinguished by their striking black and yellow kit, hung over the parapet, a large Union Jack waving bravely overhead. Cheers greeted every car that passed, some singly, others grouped, while flags and banners waved and claxons blared around the stands. It is always a singularly moving atmosphere.

The leading Bentley, #7 began its final lap. There would be no formation finish this year, with the second car close behind on track and, reputedly, the two squads no longer on the best of terms. It was a photo opportunity forgone by the Bentley PR machine but made no difference to the winning car’s reception. With a final kick of the tail the dark green car drove hard across the line, veering right towards the Bentley pits in acknowledgement of the factory’s efforts. The cheer was deafening. Other cars began to sweep beneath the chequered flag, some received almost as enthusiastically, others perhaps more so. Mike and the rest of the PK team craned their necks to catch an early glimpse of the black-striped yellow nosed Porsche.

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Time seems to slow in moments of intensity, and never more so than when you’ve been waiting twenty-four hours without a moment’s rest. Then, greeted by fists punched towards the sky and a spontaneous outbreak of hugs and back-slapping, Robin swept across the line. He had completed ten hours, three minutes and nine seconds in the car, the second greatest total of any driver in the race. Piers had driven for just over six hours, and David for five. Ignoring the frantic flag-waving marshals trying vainly to direct the finishers straight towards Parc Fermé, Robin pulled over and stopped, right beneath the team. Several leaped down to congratulate him but the yellow flags were insistent. “Allez, allez!!” came the call.

Reluctantly, and to the obvious despair of the team, Robin was forced to drive on. Memories of being able to accompany the car through to the very end just two years ago added a taint of disappointment to the celebrations, but there was still much to be proud of and emotions to share. At the bottom of the pitlane the crowds were already gathering around the podium, but the entire PK team, including partners and children, headed back to the garage. A human pyramid was created, with Kieron Marchant at its peak, to snip the wires holding the “Porsche 78” board in place over the door. It came down in one piece and was hurried inside before the surge of vultures outside could snatch another souvenir. A German beside me sneered his disapproval before turning away. It was with some relief that the shutter came down – this year for all the right reasons.

The British National Anthem was echoing round the circuit as the PK team emerged into the daylight of the paddock once again. A brief uncertainty descended before the promise of a cold beer prompted a mass migration back to the motorhome. The garage was locked – out of bounds now until the following day as far as Mike was concerned – and with it the end of another year’s test of determination and endurance. “I’m not quite sure how I feel just at the moment,” admitted Mike Pickup when he’d had a chance to sit down. “I think I need a glass of red wine to compose myself.” It was, indeed, a hard sensation to pinpoint. The euphoria of finishing in 2001 had been especially moving, heightened by being the team’s first finish at Le Mans. The disappointment of retirement last year had been equally powerful. By contrast, 2003 wasn’t quite either of these. Expectations had been higher, perhaps, and finishing no longer the unique accomplishment it had been two years ago. What is impossible to forget, however, is that being selected to race at Le Mans and then completing the course is an extraordinary achievement that will forever demand respect and admiration. When you’ve worked with a team like PK neither sentiment is ever far away.
Marcus Potts

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