Andy Wallace Column – Le Mans & Road Atlanta
Andy’s last column seems like a long time ago now – his drive in the Perspective Mosler at Daytona. We did have that very amusing morning with Andy and James Weaver in April though, to help while away the weeks from Sebring to Le Mans. Andy didn’t have the most successful Sebring of all time, so how did he fare at Le Mans, in the Racing for Holland Dome, and at Road Atlanta, Round 2 of the ALMS (in the Dyson Racing MG-Lola)?

I hadn’t driven the Dome until we ran at the Test Day: the team presented the project at Zandvoort, and we found the time to have a seat made. But the great thing about the Dome on May 5 at Le Mans was how ‘at home’ in it I felt straight away. It was a really nice car to drive.

I would have appreciated a bit more power though! The 2003 rules have really taken the ‘snap’ out of the engines, which lose out particularly at the top end. The turbo engines still have their low down torque – and from what I’ve seen of the 5 litre Judd V10, it goes quite a long way to redressing the loss of power at the top end: it’s got something like 30% more torque than the 4 litre, although I believe there’s some installation work to do if you want to replace the smaller engine with the larger one. The Doran team ran it at Road Atlanta at the end of the month (as they did last year), and it definitely leaves the corners quicker than the 4 litre, thanks to the extra torque.

However, the great thing about the standard 4 litre is that whenever I’ve driven one, it’s never missed a beat, not once. It’s been a great endurance engine for a couple of years now. But without the torque to rely on, you do need the revs, so you have to get the gearing just right. As a result of the Test Day, Jan made one or two slight changes to the gearing for the race.

The engine characteristics certainly give the rear tyres an easier time, and our plan was to triple stint the Michelins.

Anyway, back to the Test Day, and a first lap of 3:45, with a puncture towards the end of the lap too, showed what a really good 24 hour car we had. The Dome works well over most of the lap. Of course as with any car, there is always room for improvement, but the basic package is excellent. Jan had two stabs at a “qualifying” lap on May 5, but the red flag cost him the first one, then a driveshaft went when he tried again.

Our partner, John Bosch, showed what a switched on driver he is, and we were sure that when he came back for the race, he’d be right on the pace, which he was.

Ian Foley’s paddle shift system turned out to be just the thing to have, although Racing for Holland did have to duct some more air to the control valves after the Test Day: they were getting a bit hot. I saw the gear cluster after the 24 Hours, and it was in amazing condition. Apart from one or two small nicks on fourth gear, there wasn’t a mark on the rest, which is staggering, for the end of a 24 hour race. The gears looked as though they had only completed the morning warm-up session! That system is absolutely the thing to have.

A little editorial digression here. Do you remember when Andy was explaining the story behind the ’88 win at Le Mans? Jan Lammers was his ‘tutor’ then, and emphasised the importance of a steady throttle through the Porsche Curves, not on and off, stressing the drivetrain. So what did the telemetry tell us about Andy in the Dome, through the Porsche Curves? He was on and off the throttle! Had we caught him out?

No, that was then, and this is now. The Jaguar was a very different car, with the seven-litre V12 and all its torque. And the technology is much better now, and we don’t have as much power. You have to be on and off the throttle, to get through there as fast as possible.

Sorry Andy, couldn’t resist bringing that one up.

Scrutineering. It’s really healthy for sportscar racing to see all the people that gather for the “show” in the town centre. For the teams and drivers it’s a bit of a struggle logistically, but it’s the same for everyone, and signifies the start of the whole Le Mans experience. Every year I’m amazed at how many autographs I’m asked to sign. Some of the people I recognise year after year. Some arrive with photos they have taken the previous year, and others with photos from the previous 15 years! It’s great to see so many people enjoying their sportscar racing. But after all the autographs, administrative checking, suit & helmet checking and marking, weighing, photos, interviews, team photo, stage show then more autographs, I’m about ready to go and find somewhere quiet to hide!

Back at the garage it’s a good time to get to know the mechanics, get your helmet ready with sponsor stickers and drinks tube, all the little things done – and that carries over to Wednesday. The time actually just disappears in a flash. I’d left nice and early on Monday, for my usual trip via the Channel Tunnel, and then a leisurely drive (read high-speed blast!) down through Rouen and along the N138 to Le Mans. We were staying near La Fleche, in a wonderful Chateau, which the Dutch translate as Castle.

Wednesday afternoon was the drivers briefing, where the “white line” rule was clarified. We were allowed to put two wheels over the kerbs or lines but not to drive so far over as to pull gravel onto the track. It all seemed perfectly sensible and fair to me. There were still a lot of punctures though. Cars will always end up in the gravel after a spin or an over-optimistic out-braking manoeuvre, and then bring some back onto the track. Jan had a 200mph puncture in the race, at Indianapolis of all places. The large gravel trap there certainly did its job: I think Jan went in at just the right angle, and missed the wall by a few feet. The Jim Matthews car missed it by about six inches, which seems to prove that it’s in just the right place.

Anyway, down to the race. So with the Michelins easily capable of doing triple stints, that was the pattern that we stuck to for the drivers. There’s no point losing time with driver changes when you’re not changing tyres. Jan had his fun at the start, but then settled back to be best of the non Audis and Bentleys, and we moved up a place when the Audi UK car went out.

With the long stints, you don’t get into the car as many times. You drive for longer, but you also get more recovery time. The only real problems I had over the course of a two and a half hour stint, was some head buffeting and right foot ache. The airflow was pushing my helmet back at high speeds, and it took quite a lot of effort to hold my head up for that long. Also, as all upshifts are done with the throttle wide open, you’re holding the pedal down for a large percentage of the lap (and there’s a fairly strong closure spring on the V10 Judd’s throttles). After a while you start swapping to your left foot for temporary relief down the long straights! This can get quite exciting as you approach the chicanes with your legs crossed…

The records indicate that Andy first drove the car at 18.24, vacating the seat at 20.38, taking over again from 01.48 until 3.55, and then completing his final triple with an 08.47 to 11.22 stint, which was immediately after the Lammers puncture. That final triple was interrupted by the Dome’s only problem in the race: it needed a replacement battery at 10.28, costing 12 minutes – and losing them fifth place.

I pressed the starter and it just wouldn’t fire. In that situation, you can often wheel it into the garage, start the engine on a slave battery, run it for long enough to give the battery a boost, and then it may just start on its own on pit lane. But the engine was running very hot by this stage of the race, and we couldn’t run it for long enough before the water temperature went too high. All this technology and we’d been let down by a basic battery – but then Bentley had to change theirs twice. Unfortunately, it’s not an easy job on our car. The team did a great job, but we’d lost vital time.

We dropped back to eighth, but with John following me, and then Jan running a triple and a bit at the end, we kept the pressure on, which resulted in that thrilling last hour. For the splash of fuel, we reckoned we needed 15 seconds worth, but we wanted to cut that as fine as we could – but definitely didn’t want to run out of fuel. Ian Foley got it just right: we had five litres in the tank at the end. We needed one more lap to wrestle fifth place back. Jan passed Gounon on the last lap for sixth, and the Panoz was just a few more seconds up ahead… All things considered though, this was an excellent result for the Racing for Holland Team, against a very high level of competition.

And so a week later, many of us at were at Road Atlanta. We tested on the Tuesday, and were very happy with the balance and speed of the little Dyson Racing Lolas. Qualifying was effectively cancelled due to “inclement weather”.

dailysportscar.comThe Saturday morning session would count towards the grid together with the scheduled qualifying session, which looked as though it would remain wet throughout. This wasn’t good news for Chris Dyson and myself, as we’d had a problem in the morning with the #20, and hadn’t managed to set a representative lap time. I went out on the damp track for an exploratory lap, and decided I could probably squeeze a reasonable one out if I kept running to the end. Both Audis went out and so did James Weaver in the other Dyson entry. Every lap got quicker, with the chequered flag falling before it had fully dried out. I ended up 3rd fastest, but with the morning times added we would have to line up 5th. Good news for James and Butch Leitzinger, though. Their earlier time put them on Pole Position – great for the Dyson Racing Team.

In the morning warm-up the car felt great, and I managed a 1m 14.0s lap just 0.1s behind the quickest Audi. But from very early on in the race, I developed a big understeer problem [the cause has since been identified as a damaged front diffuser from a debris strike]. This made things a bit tricky, and I found it a struggle to stay with Didier Theys in the Dallara. I also had Olivier Beretta breathing down my neck in the Panoz. He was a bit quicker down the straights, but my car was a fraction quicker under braking and in 70% of the corners. We had a great dice going. I was marginally quicker than him over a single clear lap, but each time I got held up by traffic in a corner and lost momentum, he was all over me like a rash. He blew past me, and then I returned the favour a few laps later. This happened several times back and forth in traffic. Late in my stint I passed Olivier into turn one after he had been held up badly in the last corner. At the top of the hill into turn two I came across a slow car and went to pass him on the right. For whatever reason he also went right, but then hit the brakes…….! Not very helpful. I almost hit him square on, and Olivier re-passed me! Great race… so far. Then the Panoz peeled off into pit lane to get fuel for it’s thirsty V8. A few laps later I came in for fuel and tyres.

Chris took over for the middle and last stints, and he did a very good job, he just gets better all the time. But then we developed a misfire, and were effectively out of the race. Butch and James did a great job in the #16 until they hit starter problems late in the race, and in terms of speed, we showed we can be really close to the Audis. We’ll need to have everything just right to beat them though. Perhaps Sears Point will be our best chance: that track should suit us more than any other.

The close racing in the ALMS is so much fun for us – and hopefully the spectators too. The standard of driving overall is very high, and although you’re bound to have near misses, on the whole we get through without significant contact, which is to the credit of all of the drivers. The top LMP, GTS and GT drivers are very good at getting through the races without mishaps in the traffic.

So Sears Point next, and we’ll see if our cars really do suit that track. I want to go Audi hunting.


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