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LMES – Nurburgring 1000 Kms – Phil Bennett
Big LMES Fan

dailysportscar.com“I only did the deal with Graham (Nash) on Wednesday, and there I was on the GTS podium on Saturday. I thought it was a really great event – but I wouldn’t want you to think that my views on the meeting were influenced by the result. I think the LMES has got a very strong future. Look at the quantity and variety of the cars: it’s a great grid, a great spectacle, and on the whole I believe the ACO is doing a great job.”

So there was one happy GTS driver during last Friday and Saturday – no more so than when he was on the podium itself (photo - with Gian Maria Gabbiani). Phil Bennett did happen to spend a long time in the GNM Saleen too, and seemed to enjoy every moment of it.

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“I had some sponsors who specifically wanted to do the LMES, and I was looking at LMP2, GT and GTS. But I turned down one proposal to drive an LMP2, and when I looked at the GT cars available, well, there were decent cars out there, but I wanted an opportunity to go for a result, not just get a finish. Graham always wants the fastest guys he can find in his cars, and a drive in a Saleen had much more appeal to me than being another guy in a Porsche.

“So we did the deal as late as Wednesday, but the plan was always to do the LMES this year.”

Phil’s four sponsors are Free Parking, Richbrook, JAG and Unique Distribution. What a pleasure to hear that such concerns specifically want to be involved in a sportscar / GT series.

Phil Bennett’s name has been associated with the BTCC thanks to three years as a works driver (Vauxhall – Proton), but he has considerable experience round the Nordschleife in Porsches, in the VLN series, and his GT experience dates back to a Marcos LM600 – for Graham Nash – in the British GT Championship, in 2001.

“Look, when you race cars for a living, a car’s a car. The Saleen is a fantastic machine – 600 bhp, carbon brakes, loads of torque – but it’s also very user-friendly. The Dunlop wets were also very good, so the changing conditions actually suited us. But if it had been wet throughout, I think we’d have been with a chance of the class win…..”

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As it turned out, Phil Bennett spent four and a half hours in the Saleen… is that longer than anyone else in the race?

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“The initial plan was for me to start the race and do a single stint of about an hour. Gian Maria (Gabbiani – Beppe’s son) was down to do the second hour, then we’d see what happened. But Graham wanted me in the car if it rained, so when it started at the first fuel stop, he kept me in. With better fuel consumption in the rain, that turned out to be a longer stint, so I did the first two and a half hours.

“Gian Maria took over for what should have been a double stint, but after 90 minutes in the car, he got a cramp in his leg: he had to come in, so with the weather changing again, it was natural to leave me in the car to the finish, which was another two hours.

“The biggest problem we had was that we didn’t have any intermediates. I believe we were the fastest GTS car when it was wet, but of course the rest took time out of us on a drying track.

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“I was stuck out there on wets at the end, defending third place from the Barron-Connor Ferrari. At one point the gap was nearly two minutes, but I managed to keep it to 40 seconds at the flag. Another few laps and we’d have been in trouble. The Dunlop wets were outstanding though. I don’t know what tyres it was on, but at one point I out-braked an Audi. That felt good!

“Overall the car was very good – in terms of chassis balance, brakes and the engine. We were maybe giving away a little bit on power to the Alzen car, and we were losing out in the dry, but Graham provided a very raceable car.”

Any problems during the meeting?

“We had a small problem with the gearbox, and that was largely resolved after second qualifying. To look after it, we were giving it a little lift on the up-changes. We had an oil pressure alarm come on, but that turned out to be the sensor, the oil pressure was fine.

“Graham was a very straightforward guy to deal with. He just wanted me to bear in mind that it was a 1000 kilometre race, but anyway I was keen not to blot my copybook.

“The team made some great calls, we had the speed in the wet – we were a bit off in the dry – we made no mistakes, we lasted the distance and we beat the Ferrari 575s.”

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So what’s next?

“I’m going to be in the car for the Silverstone race, sharing with David Leslie. It was unrealistic to jump in and expect to beat Alzen and Larbe at the Nurburgring, but I think David and I will be a very strong pair at home.

“After that, I expect to be doing Spa too, then the LMES next year – and Le Mans.

“In 2005, with more rounds in the LMES, I think people will be able to concentrate more on the LMES, as opposed to doing two championships. Just look at the grid we had, for the second race. Just imagine what it could become. And did you notice how many ex-F1 drivers there were on the grid?”

We think there were ten, Phil. Not a bad line-up at all, eh, for race 2 of the LMES?

 

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