Guy Smith – What Do You Do After Winning Le Mans?

Before 2003, the last British Le Mans winner was….come on, come on, five seconds to answer. Well done, you got it within five seconds….didn’t you? Thereby proving the point that you don’t forget who won Le Mans.

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dailysportscar.comIt took Guy Smith “three weeks for it to sink in. My father was there at the race this year, and when we met after the podium, we were conversing absolutely normally. I think we must have both been in shock. I was up there on the podium with Tom and Dindo and the other three guys, and it was almost a sense of disbelief. I was desperately trying to take it all in, but I couldn’t.

“When I crossed the line at the end, it was a huge relief – but then everything happened so quickly. We had the run along the Champs Elysees on Monday – and even there I still couldn’t quite take in what we’d achieved. On Wednesday it was back down to earth, testing the Veloqx Ferrari at Snetterton, then on Thursday we had the Bentley dinner at the Savoy, recreating what the Bentley Boys used to do.

“On the Saturday, we were at Goodwood for the Festival of Speed. I’d only ever visited as a spectator, and certainly hadn’t driven anything up the hill – so on my first run, there was the crowd going wild. David (Brabham) and I were doing burn-outs and doughnuts before we started our runs, and when I got to the top, I did a careful three point turn. David arrived and did a full 360! Next time, I did the same. Then we settled down for a cup of tea. Fantastic moments.

“At the dinner on Saturday evening, I sat on Lord March’s table – what an honour that was.”

With the celebrations over, Guy settled back down to earth – and gradually it sank in. Plus the realisation – “What do I do now?”

“Even here in October, months later, I have to remind myself of the enormity of what we’d achieved.”

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We’ve covered the details of the Smith / Capello / Kristensen drive, and we hope we’ve left the impression that the performance of the #7 car was the most stunning ever seen at the old circuit – in 71 24 Hour events. It was far from a ‘dead cert.’ victory though: those nine Audi drivers were champing at the bit, just waiting for a Bentley problem. A headrest and two batteries for #8 – that was it. But the work required to achieve that level of reliability and success began months (years) before, and Guy Smith was the man involved almost throughout. He’d taken a huge gamble too.

“I didn’t realise at the time what a gamble it was: my biggest problem in 2003 was going racing again. It was frustrating not being able to race in 2002, and although I didn’t have a written contract with Bentley, I did have a verbal agreement with Dr. Pafken – so I had no issues about what I’d be doing this year – but thank heavens it turned out the way it did. Imagine if I’d gone through all that waiting and not been in with a chance of the win, or if something had gone wrong, or…?

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“So starting at Sebring, I had to get into racing mode again (rather than testing), and that’s not easy after so long not racing. I never want to get race rusty again.

“The test programme was very hard work. The hardest part was with the three of us, around Christmas time: Tom, Dindo and I did all the early work, but I never thought of complaining about it, because all the miles we did gave us a better chance in June.

“Then Johnny, David and Mark came on board, so when we did the four 24 hour endurance tests, it was a lot easier on us than it was on the team. I know how hard they worked at it: effectively it was six months without a break, working under massive pressure to achieve.”

Bentley designer Peter Ellery hinted at the work load in a conversation in August: by then he was refreshed designer, but he’d suffered with the whole of the rest of the crew during the first six months of 2003.

It all paid off, of course – for Bentley, and for the three drivers in the winning car. Guy was the first of the three to race again – in the FIA GT Championship, at Donington Park and at the Spa 24 Hours. So is that where his future lies?

“I’m definitely not going to turn my back on sportscars, but I’ve got to capitalise on the Le Mans win.

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“Stefan and I still have a very good relationship, and as a CART team owner, it’s great to have him keeping an eye out for me in the paddock. I know that if he had a seat available, with a budget, he’d put me in a car for next year – but of course it’s not as simple as that.

“He’s also looking at sportscar projects too, and it could be that an Audi R8 will still be the car to have next year: he’d love to drive again, and we’ve driven an Audi together already, of course. But at the moment, nothing is clear at Audi or Bentley.

“But besides Le Mans and the LMES, I’m looking at single seaters in North America too. I’ve tested a Champ Car, for Walker Racing in ’99, and I’ve also taken the Indy Rookie Test, and passed that in 2000 – with Al Unser Jr. overseeing me.

“March were hoping to make a comeback in 2000, in the IRL, but the budget never quite came together – although we came very close to making that Indy drive happen. In some ways, Indianapolis is the only place that compares to Le Mans – in terms of the speeds, the history and the tradition. It’s a very different kind of challenge in other ways of course. I can only imagine what Indy is like on race day, with the stands packed.”

So can you give us a feel for what it’s like to lap Indy at 225 mph, Guy?

“Although the place is huge, it seems much smaller when you’re in the car at those speeds. As you approach Turn 1, it looks like a brick wall directly ahead of you, because you can’t see where the corner is. The end of the pit wall is your turning point, but you just guide the car through, having taken a deep breath, absorbing the immense G forces, and feeling the car’s limits all the time, because you’re so finely tuned in to what it’s doing.”

Guy’s racing career obviously began with karts and single seaters, and you don’t win your first F3 race (with Juan-Pablo Montoya as your team-mate) without being finely tuned in to your car. He had oval experience anyway of course (before that Indy test), as the Indy Lights “Rookie of the Year” in 1998, but sometimes wishes he’d got into sportscar racing sooner than 2000, with the Johansson Reynard.

“I’ve learnt so much in the last four seasons, with the Reynard, the Bentleys and the Jim Matthews Riley & Scott.”

Perhaps a modern day Dan Gurney, or Mario Andretti? Like those two American heroes, Guy has F1 experience – although not quite as much as those two! He tested a Williams-Renault in 1995, his reward for winning (dominating) the Formula Renault Championship.

dailysportscar.com“So I’m ready to go racing, ideally in sportscars and single seaters. I’ve spoken to Johnny Herbert about this problem – and you have to keep an eye out for a potential ride in Indy Cars or the IRL. Only Frank Biela and Marco Werner of the ‘Audi’ drivers have been racing all this year, so I’m pushing my cause as hard as I can. The test drive I fixed up at Miami could be one part of the answer for me, but I want to go back to Le Mans, in a car that has the potential to win. We’ll have to see what the future holds…….”

For the last British Le Mans winner, that was a year (or two) in F1. For Guy Smith? It’s going to be fascinating finding out.

 

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