• Then Vs. Now. 11 Consequences Resulting from Postponement of Le Mans. • Giants and Legends. Reunion of Two Heroic Le Mans Men and Machines. • Dancing Partners. When the Drivers Ask the Porsche 911 RSR to Dance.
Event Story Lines.
Then Vs. Now. 11 Consequences Resulting from Postponement of Le Mans.
Fans of endurance racing have rarely had so much time to look forward to the 24 Hours of Le Mans as they have this year. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the French classic was moved from its traditional mid-June date to this weekend, September 19 – 20. There has only been one other delayed start in the almost 100-year history of the race. In 1968, the Le Mans 24-hour race was also contested in September (28 – 29) due to ongoing unrest in Paris. The postponement of the race also has wide-reaching consequences for the factory Porsche GT Team in the LMGTE-Pro class. This includes changes to the schedule as well as the waiving of popular fan events such as the technical scrutineering in the town square and the drivers’ parade the day before the start.
The Top-11 Consequences of Moving the Race to September are:
1. The Long Night.
In mid-June around the summer solstice (June 20), the days in the northern hemisphere are particularly long. On the originally planned date for the 88th edition of the endurance race on June 13 – 14, the race cars would have competed in darkness for just over eight hours. On the new September date, the sun sets on Saturday evening at 8:01 p.m. local time. The sun will rise on Sunday morning at 7:44 a.m. – which means the period of darkness is almost four hours longer than it would have been shortly before the official start of summer. Competing twice around the clock on the Circuit des 24 Heures, teams will spend approximately 12 hours of the race in daylight.
2. The Fast Pace.
The length of nighttime racing means a longer period of cooler asphalt and moderate air temperatures. As a result, the engines of the two ca. 515-hp Porsche 911 RSR race cars can run at an optimal level for a longer period. Cooler air means more oxygen saturation and thus better and more efficient combustion. A good rule of thumb: if the ambient temperature drops by five degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit), the output of the engine increases by one percent. Hence, in the long night of the 2020 Le Mans 24 Hours, a higher average pace can potentially be achieved in the race. “If the weather conditions are good, we’ll witness a significantly faster race compared to June,” says Pascal Zurlinden, Director of Factory Motorsports at Porsche. With the sun setting earlier on Saturday evening and rising later on Sunday, temperature profiles will be different. The average temperature over a 24-hour period in mid-June (data from the last 30 years) is 62.2 Fahrenheit (16.8 degrees Celsius). The September average is exactly one degree Celsius lower. Like the higher oxygenation, this factor further influences the vehicles’ performance.
3. The Soft Tires.
The cooler night-time temperatures also allow the soft compound of the Michelin tires to be run over longer periods. This rubber not only offers more grip but also more consistency when track conditions are good. “Unfortunately, we’re not permitted to drive triple or quadruple stints in the GTE-Pro class,” explains Zurlinden. After two stints, the GTE vehicles must be fitted with new tires. “The changed regulations no longer allow refueling at the same time as a tire change, and every tire change costs additional time. We’ll definitely see more double stints. That’s why we have to keep our pit stops as short as possible,” says the experienced engineer.
4. The Anticipated Rain.
The weather statistics over the last three decades show that the highest and lowest temperatures during the day and night hardly differ between June and September. However, the data also clearly shows that although there is less rain in September, the showers are heavier than in June. “We just have to take it as it comes,” says Pascal Zurlinden. At the endurance classic, however, there is the old saying: ‘It always rains at Le Mans.’ The big question is, at what stage during the race? “The possibility of rain plays an important role in the teams’ tactics – especially if the car isn’t 100 percent competitive in the dry. In the wet, the cards are reshuffled – and that opens up new opportunities,” explains Zurlinden.
5. The Low Sun.
During dusk and dawn at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, drivers often have to contend with low level sunlight. At sunset on Saturday evening, the light shining through the windshield at a low angle can blind the drivers, especially in the Indianapolis and Arnage sections of the race track and city streets-combination race course. At sunrise on Sunday morning, this phenomenon occurs in the famous Tertre Rouge. As Zurlinden remarks: “Our seasoned works drivers are very familiar with this problem. As the sun is generally lower in early autumn compared to the summer months, our boys will just have to squint a little more often. It’ll be okay. They’re professionals after all,” smiles the Frenchman.
6. The Earlier Start Time.
Unlike in previous years, the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2020 will start at 2.30 p.m. local time – 8:30 a.m. EST/5:30 a.m. EST on Saturday, September 19. One of the reasons for this is that the final stage of the Tour de France, the famous road cycling race through France, ends in Paris in the late afternoon on September 20. To avoid a clash with this event, the 88th edition of the long-distance race as part of the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) will finish on Sunday at the earlier time of 2.30 p.m. “From the outside, this slight adjustment may seem insignificant but it has a major impact on our team. We have to finish our preparations even earlier for the start on Saturday. This means shorter breaks and even more stress,” outlines the Director of Porsche Motorsport. That allows only four hours between the end of the warm-up and the start of the race to complete the final preparations.
7. The Lack of Fans.
For motor racing fans, the 24 Hours of Le Mans event is high on the “bucket list” to attend/watch and/or listen to each year. Every year, around a quarter million people flock to the track to watch the race. Once a year on this occasion, the capital of the French Departement Sarthe, with its 150,000 year-round residents, bursts at the seams. But not this year. The organizer, ACO, has prohibited spectators at the race track. “Fans always give us huge motivation,” says Pascal Zurlinden. The large grandstands opposite the pit lane are usually packed, especially at the start on Saturday and the finish on Sunday. “When I look at the spectators from my gantry at the pit wall on Saturday and Sunday, I basically see the same faces. These euphoric fans always give me an additional boost when energy runs low after 24 hours. That’ll be different this year. Still, despite the restrictions, it’ll definitely be another great experience for the spectators watching from home.”
8. The Cancelled Pretest.
The official one-day pretest held a before the race is a traditional part of the Le Mans 24-hour event. It is the one chance for manufacturers, tire partners, teams and drivers to prepare for the unparalleled quirks of the 8.47-mile (13.626-kilometer) race track prior to what is arguably the most prestigious endurance race of the year. The Circuit des 24 Heures is a combination of the permanent Circuit Bugatti and public roads. The track is virtually unique in the motor racing scene due to this combination, layout and length. Moreover, there are no other opportunities to test on this circuit outside the race week. “The elimination of the pretest is a big challenge,” says Pascal Zurlinden. “This is the first time we’re fielding our latest 911 RSR there, so we have some unanswered questions about the setup. We would’ve liked to have done this work during a test so that we could analyze the results and arrive at the official sessions as well prepared as possible. We would also have preferred to check out the handling of the tires during test stints. Now we only have the practice sessions just before the race to do this work.”
9. The Compact Schedule.
This year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans deviates from the well-established time schedule of races past. The practice sessions, which in the past were held alongside the qualifying on Wednesday and Thursday, are now scheduled for Thursday (ten hours of free practice plus qualifying) and Friday (free practice and “hyperpole” session). “The longer practice sessions allow us to do extensive work on the setup and tire management,” explains Pascal Zurlinden. “We can complete a lot of tasks, but compared to the usual pretest, we are at a disadvantage in that the breaks are no longer sufficient to conduct a really detailed analysis.” The Friday before the start of the race was always the last chance for drivers and team members to relax and catch their breath before the biggest race of the year. The so-called “Mad Friday” was normally all about the fans.
10. The Missing Drivers’ Parade.
During the day, wildly souped-up cars roll through camping grounds and over thoroughfares lined with fans. Every burnout is greeted with thunderous applause. The “Le Mans holiday” on Friday before the race traditionally ends with the famous drivers’ parade through the town center. Not so in 2020. The spectacle with pilots driving classic cars from the Place des Jacobins to Place de la République has been cancelled. “It’s a real shame for the fans, but there’s no other way around the restrictions required to contain the coronavirus. We’ll try to offer our passionate Le Mans fans the same gripping and spectacular program via our social media channels,” says Zurlinden, explaining Porsche Motorsport’s plans.
11. The Flying Pollen.
Watery eyes, runny noses and medication at the ready belong to the usual picture in the Le Mans paddock in June. Many drivers, team members and fans suffer from pollen allergies. In summer, the amount of grass pollen in the grain-growing Sarthe region in France is enormous. “I’m one of those affected,” reports Zurlinden. “There’s no way around taking antihistamines in June but the medication makes you tired. And that’s definitely something you don’t want at a 24-hour race. In this respect, I’m certainly not the only one who is happy to work almost allergy-free at Le Mans in September.”
Giants and Legends. Reunion of Two Heroic Le Mans Men and Machines.
The 1970 victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans exactly 50 years ago is one of the most important motorsport successes in Porsche history. What better reason to arrange a meeting of the protagonists of old – and today: Hans Herrmann with his Porsche 917 KH and 2017 winner Timo Bernhard with the Porsche 919 Hybrid.
You just need to look at the helmets to appreciate the progress that has been made in motorsport. The old helmet: a delicate, grey half shell. It gives the impression that you could easily push it in. The new helmet: a brightly colored high-tech piece of protection, with the perfect ergonomic shape – it looks as if even a blow from a hammer would bounce off it. We are in a photographic studio in Friolzheim between Stuttgart and Pforzheim, and the atmosphere is sizzling. Not because of hot spotlights focused on the protagonists, but those involved. Hans Herrmann, 1970 Le Mans winner, standing in front of his original car, the Porsche 917 KH, with his old helmet. And Timo Bernhard, the latest Porsche Le Mans overall winner, with the 2017 Porsche 919 Hybrid and his helmet. All four are celebrated champions, the two drivers drove both the first and the last lap of their victorious races.
Number 1 Priority: Safety.
When such absolute giants meet, the first topic up for discussion is always the progress made in safety over the years. “We still drove in pairs,” remembers the now 92-year-old Herrmann, adding with a wink. “The young guys today look lazy by comparison; they drive in teams of three. One of them can go and sleep for eight hours.” But even then the differences in speed between the various classes were already dangerous. “The top speed of the slowest class was around 200 km/h (124 mph). We flew past them at 384 km/h (238 mph).” “Motorsport is definitely still dangerous,” adds Bernhard, “but there’s no comparison between motorsport today and back then. Fear was a constant companion 50 years ago, that was no longer the case for us.” And Herrmann remembers: “When I bought a tube of toothpaste back then, I used to stand in the store thinking: ‘Hope you get to finish it.’”
The Technology Behind the Cars.
What the two protagonists mean is illustrated by the two race cars facing each other in the studio. The Porsche 917 KH with entry number 23, which started under the Porsche Salzburg name, weighs no more than 1,764 lbs. (800 kilograms) and was powered by a 4.5-liter, 12-cylinder engine that drove the rear wheels at around 580 hp. The engine had to be warmed up for around ten minutes before the car was ready to race. The artificial resin skin is just 0.047-inches (1.2 mm) thick. Inside it is so tight that the driver's helmet could touch the roof. A tubular frame protects against excess weight, but not against the consequences of possible cold deformation.
On the other side the much larger-looking 919 Hybrid, which two technicians and a race engineer had to prepare in a carefully choreographed affair lasting two hours before it could be allowed onto the circuit. The record winner was a rolling test laboratory for future Porsche technologies: a 2-liter V4 turbo gasoline engine with 368 kW (almost 500 hp) for the rear wheels paired with an electric motor with 294 kW (over 400 hp) for the front axle – making the Porsche an all-wheel drive. The electric motor is supplied by a lithium-ion battery, which in turn is fed by the braking energy at the front axle and by exhaust gas energy. The driver does not really have a lot of space here either but is much better protected. The battle scars of the 2017 race car with starting number 2 are beautifully preserved with a clear-coat finish. The 917 is also original, even though it looks as fresh as the day it left the racing department.
“The 917 was the high-tech car of its time. With it Porsche showed how to build the best prototypes according to the rules of the time,” says Bernhard. “The same goes for the 919 Hybrid. This was the car that Porsche used to show how technology for the road is developed in motorsport – just look at the Taycan.” Did Bernhard ever drive the 917? “Yes, twice. Of course not at the limit, but still enough to get a good impression of racing back then.” As a result, Bernhard now has even more respect for Herrmann and his teammates. And would like to Herrmann like to get into the 919? “My goodness, absolutely not.”
Le Mans – The Measure of All Things to This Day.
As much as the technology may have changed “the enthusiasm for racing continues unabated,” says Bernhard with certainty. “Le Mans has the same significance today as it did 50 years ago. But now it is one of the last motorsport adventures, because no other circuit layout combines a race track with public roads.” Hans Herrmann also watches every race since he quit driving himself – including every Formula 1 race. Consistency is key – as it is with everything in life. “After my close second place in Le Mans in 1969, I decided to retire from racing in 1970. I had promised my wife that too. No one knew at the time. The fact that I was able to actually finish my career with the win in Le Mans and one of the most important successes for Porsche was of course very nice.”
The Highs of the Racing Drivers.
The many dangers and upsets must have their upside. Bernhard loves to tell the tale of his then 85-year-old lady neighbor, who sat in front of the television for the whole night when he drove the Sarthe course and afterward said: ‘Mr. Bernhard, you kept me up all night, I just couldn't switch off...’. “This is a great example of how racing captivates people who wouldn’t otherwise have anything to do with motorsport,” says one of the world’s best racing drivers, who has been a brand ambassador for Porsche since 2020.
The time comes to leave Hans Herrmann and Timo Bernhard to themselves. The two must surely have more stories to tell. A total of 19 overall victories, 108 class successes and indescribable emotions have linked Porsche with the 24 Hours of Le Mans for more than six decades. This makes the Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen sports car manufacturer the most successful marque in the almost 100-year history of Le Mans. On June 14, 1970, Porsche took the first overall victory there in the 580 hp 917 KH sports car. At the 85th 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2017, Timo Bernhard together with his teammates Earl Bamber and Brendon Hartley took the flag after a dramatic race in the Porsche 919 Hybrid.
Dancing Partners. When the Drivers Ask the Porsche 911 RSR to Dance.
It’s race time. At more than 186 mph (300 km/h), the Porsche 911 RSR hurtles down the D338 road from Le Mans towards Tours in France. In the two chicanes, which are closed off for everyday traffic and are a favorite spot for speed cameras, the ca. 515-hp GTE sports car takes the curbs aggressively. Then, as fast as possible through the Mulsanne Corner and Indianapolis to the famous Arnage – the slowest section of the 8.47-mile (13.626-kilometer) Circuit des 24 Heures. Exiting out of Arnage, the driver hits the throttle early, and now needs to use every ounce of courage and experience. In a few seconds, the Porsche Curves loom into sight. Five ultra-fast direction changes that are both loved and feared by drivers and represent the most spectacular section of the French endurance classic.
Le Mans is known around the world for its long straights and famous turns. Corners like Tertre Rouge and iconic features like the Dunlop Bridge get adrenaline pumping in the hearts of endurance fans. However, there is another section that ranks even higher on the spectators’ list of favorites: the Porsche Curves. Originally, only the long right-hander (Turn 23) after the Arnage curve was given the name “Porsche”. Now, this title also encompasses Virage du Pont, Esses du Karting and Virage Corvette. The flowing combination of two right-hand and three left-hand turns throws major challenges at teams and drivers – when it comes to downforce and grip, the racing cars are tested to their absolute limit.
“It’s definitely the most demanding passage at Le Mans – and it’s also the one that is the most fun for drivers,” says Jörg Bergmeister. The long-standing “works” driver and today’s Porsche brand ambassador scored a 2004 GT win in 2004 with White Lightning Racing and again a LMGTE-Am class win at Le Mans in 2019 with the Team Project 1 customer team. “Although the cars are set-up for low downforce for the long straights, we shoot through the curves doing over 125 mph (200 km/h) in the Porsche 911 RSR,” describes the tall German. The 0.65-mile (1.029-kilometer) stretch between track marshals 30 and 33 is over in a brisk 17.6 seconds. Despite constant cornering, the average speed lies at over 130 mph (210 km/h). “We take the first right-hander in fourth gear, change up to fifth for the next two left-handers, then back down to fourth. It’s a real spectacle,” explains Bergmeister, who has contested 17 Le Mans races between 2002 and 2019.
“If you want to be fast over an entire lap at Le Mans, you have set a very fast pace on the long Mulsanne straight,” emphasizes the Head of Operations Alexander Stehlig. “We aim to reach over 186 mph (300 km/h) on the straights. This makes overtaking easier, and that’s important at Le Mans. To do this, the Porsche 911 RSR – like all other cars – is trimmed for very low drag. This means little downforce. It’s a dilemma, because we actually need maximum downforce, particularly in the fast Porsche Curves,” states the engineer. Why is the setup not adjusted to the requirements of the fast corners? The potential lap-time gain would never be able to offset the disadvantages of a slower pace on the long straights.
“Based on the low downforce setup, we still have to ensure that the car is well balanced for cornering,” says Stehlig. “And that’s tricky because, through the Porsche Curves, drivers play with the throttle pedal. Sometimes they drive at half-throttle, sometimes they go full-throttle. That results in load changes and so-called pitching – where the front of the car sinks as soon as there’s less thrust. This shifts the aerodynamic balance forward. The car then turns in quickly, but this can easily lead to oversteer, and no one really needs that there. So we make sure that the aerodynamic baseline is as stable as possible and therefore the car remains predictable. That’s the key to success on this part of the track.”
In the five curves, the speed fluctuates within the narrow range of 117 to 142 mph (189 to 228 km/h). In each curve, the cornering forces reach 2.29 to 2.42 g. Other data also underscores just how fast the Porsche Curves are: The stretch spanning over a kilometer in length makes up 7.5 percent of the entire lap. It takes the 911 RSR just 17.6 seconds to get through the five-curve combination at speed – which translates to around four percent of the entire lap time, or an average of around three minutes and 50 seconds for the GTE-Pro racers. In keeping with the name of this spectacular passage, speed is key. Under normal conditions, the best place for fans to watch the action is from the nearby Ferris wheel. “From that vantage point, everyone can see that it’s not simply about gentle sweeps. The Porsche Curves are tight, you experience brutal g-forces. From the cockpit, the barriers, which are often very close to the track, make the legendary passage look even faster. It’s a dream for real racers,” enthuses Bergmeister.
“For me, driving through the Porsche Curves is like dancing with the car,” Gianmaria Bruni says about his experience. The factory driver from Italy knows exactly how to master the world-famous corners at the absolute limit. In 2018, Bruni turned a sensational lap on the way to pole position. At the wheel of the Porsche 911 RSR, he lapped the 8.47-mile (13.626-kilometer) circuit in just 3:47.504 minutes – and promptly set a record for LMGTE vehicles. “When something like that works and you cover this part of the race track with its five corners in just 17.3 seconds, it’s hugely satisfying for us drivers. For me, there’s hardly a better feeling,” explains the three-time Le Mans class winner. “It only happens when everything comes together perfectly: fresh tires in the optimal operating window, ideal wind direction and no overtaking traffic in the Porsche Curves,” adds Bruni.
As soon as two vehicles meet in the fast passage, time will be lost. “When you encounter a slower car, it’s hard to get past. If it’s a prototype that overtakes you, downforce is lost for a moment, you get annoying understeer and at least two-tenths of a second go down the drain,” says Bruni. Since the vehicle has to be perfectly balanced through the Porsche Curves, understeer reduces speed. Completely reliable turn-in is essential for the swift changes in direction at over 124 mph (200 km/h) – for safety reasons, as well. “The barriers and run-off zones were changed again and again in recent years, but the basic characteristics have remained almost the same. The Porsche Curves represent an old-school passage,” emphasizes Jörg Bergmeister. “Which means, even with sealed run-off zones and the SAFER barriers, sliding off the track there will very probably result in a write-off. Therefore, a controlled attack is the key to the Porsche Curves.”
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