A Lap of Le Mans with Oliver Gavin

Jun 15 2007 admin News Comments Off on A Lap of Le Mans with Oliver Gavin

Four-Time GT1 Winner Shows the Fast Way Around Le Mans

Note: A map of the Le Mans circuit is available here: LeMansMap.

LE MANS, France – With four GT1 class victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the last five years – including a streak of three straight wins in 2004-06 – Corvette Racing driver Oliver Gavin knows his way around the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans. In the following interview, the 34-year-old British ace offers his insights on this famed circuit – and reveals its secrets.

The immense 13.629-kilometer (8.47-mile) Le Mans track is hallowed ground for motorsports enthusiasts, the site of the world’s greatest sports car race. The course has been changed 14 times since its inception in 1923, with lap lengths ranging from 17.2 to 13.4 kilometers. Regardless of its configuration, the legendary La Sarthe circuit has long been regarded as one of the most challenging venues in auto racing. The current track combines narrow country roads with glass-smooth stadium sections. For example, Highway N138 is an unremarkable two-lane road filled with lorries, buses and commuters – but for five magical days in June, it becomes the legendary Mulsanne Straight (“Les Hunaudieres” to the locals). So hang on tight as Olly Gavin takes us for a lap of Le Mans.

“Coming up to the start-finish line, I’m in the top of fifth gear into the first right-hander. That corner can be taken flat out, but feathering the throttle on exit just a little sets up the car to go into the Dunlop chicane.

“Then it’s hard on the brakes for the left-hander in the chicane. You must be careful there because the track is off-camber and there is a big curb at the apex. The organizers also install pylons to make sure the drivers don’t get too greedy and straight-line the chicane. It’s a notoriously slippery section and there’s often a lot of gravel dragged onto the track. When you switch back to the right the track falls away to the other direction and the car often feels a little nervous.”

“Next it’s underneath the bridge and down the hill to the sweeping right-hand corner at the Esses. That corner can usually be taken flat, but you must be mindful of the grass and cones on the inside. Then you want to get the car straight and brake for the left-hander, which is a banked curve and gives you confidence that the grip is going to hold through there. The car can get light and start hopping at the rear in the final part of the Esses, so you must be careful of the wall on the left-hand side.”

“Tertre Rouge is different this year, and the changes were a big improvement. The tarmac has a lot of grip and the corner is quite quick now. Last year it was a third-gear corner; now it’s a fourth-gear corner and you can really shoot down Mulsanne straight.”

“You want to get as clean an exit as possible going onto the Mulsanne straight because it’s a long, long drag leading to the first chicane. The roadway is heavily rutted from the trucks that use it every day, and it’s like the car falls into a slot. If you want to pass another car, you must go over the crown in the road and drop into the groove in the other lane. You can’t straddle the two lanes, so it’s a difficult stretch in the dark or when it’s wet.”

“It’s maximum braking for the first chicane at about the 200-meter board, knocking off about 100 mph of speed, but be careful because this braking area can be slippery. Just touch a bit of curb on the right-hand apex, then quickly turn back to the left to squirt off the corner and onto another very long section of straight.”

“You’re on the Mulsanne straight for such a long time that it’s a good opportunity to check the mirrors, look around at the cars ahead and behind, and talk to the team on the radio. I brake for the second chicane at about 150 meters, and I’m very careful of the entry, which is often slippery. I turn back quickly for the right-hander because the car has a tendency to understeer on the slick surface, and take a tight line out of the chicane to avoid the bumps.”

“I would have loved to have raced at Le Mans in the days before the chicanes were installed on the Mulsanne straight just for the challenge of it. I’ve talked with drivers who did, and they all say it was magic – if a little scary.”

“The kink going down into Mulsanne Corner isn’t an issue – it’s now taken flat, but it can be dicey if you’re three abreast. You need to get the car as close to the right-hand side as possible so the car is braking in a straight line. The deceleration is so fast that it’s easy to lock a wheel and flat-spot a tire, so it’s a fine line of knowing how close you can get to the edge.”

“The trick going into the Mulsanne corner is getting the car slowed just enough to turn in. If it’s dry all week, the surface is very grippy due to rubber buildup. You want to carry maximum speed into the straight leading to Indianapolis. It’s crucial not to get up on the curb because that can hurt your exit speed.”

“The next part of the track is really close to the trees, and when it’s wet the spray just hangs in the air. This is always one of the last sections to dry out after a shower. The vision here is very limited; there are two blind sections where you’re flat-out at 180 mph and you really must rely on the marshals to let you know what’s ahead.”

“Into Indianapolis, you dab the brakes and drop down to fifth gear through the right-hand turn and then you’re hard on the brakes going into the banked left-hand corner. You can almost throw the car in there and let the banking catch you – that’s quite comforting. You shoot out of Indianapolis to Arnage in third gear.”

“Arnage is the most frustrating corner on the circuit. It’s very slippery, very slow, and you feel that the car has almost come to a stop because you’ve been going so fast on the rest of the track. You can lose a lot of time in Arnage, and drivers frequently go off there. Unless you maintain 100 percent concentration, it’s very easy to make a big mistake in Arnage at some point in the race.”

“Now we’re coming to one of my favorite parts of the track, the Porsche curves. This section has a great flow. It’s bumpy on the entry, just a tap on the brakes and carry as much speed as possible going into the first right. You can take the next left flat – you turn in the car and hope that you don’t run out of road on the exit. The car must be stable for the long right hander in the middle of the Porsche curves; it’s downhill, off-camber, and can easily catch you out. You’re feathering the throttle, braking, and turning the car into the final left-hander, which is the trickiest part. The last curve is really off-camber and it tries to put the car in the grass. There’s also a big hole at the end of the curb from cars going off, and if you drop a wheel in there, it will spin the car into the wall in an instant.”

“Coming out of the Porsche curves I’m hard on the throttle in fourth gear, through the wiggle going into the pit entrance or the Ford chicane. The gravel traps here just seem to have a magnetic attraction and drag cars into them. There are buckets of gravel on the racing line as the race goes on. The first chicane is quite quick and the second a little slower, with pylons that prevent drivers from cutting the corner. Those pylons usually get knocked down within the first few hours of the race. Then the tribunes flash by as you cross the start-finish line and begin another lap.”

In 2006, Gavin and his teammates Olivier Beretta and Jan Magnussen performed this ritual 355 times to win the GT1 class, completing 3,011 miles – a distance greater than driving from New York to Los Angeles to San Francisco in 24 hours. Racing twice around the clock is a grueling test of endurance for man and machine, but there is no greater experience for a sports car driver than to stand on the victory podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The 24 Hours of Le Mans will start at 3 p.m. local time (9 a.m. EDT) on Saturday, June 16 and finishes at 3 p.m. (9 a.m. EDT) on Sunday, June 17. SPEED will televise 17.5 hours of coverage in North America from 8:30 – 11 a.m., 5:30 – 7 p.m., and 8 p.m. to midnight EDT on Saturday, June 16, and from 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. EDT on Sunday, June 17.

Release Date: June 15, 2007