Juha Kivekas' Post Card from Le Mans 2003

Text and images copyright Juha Kivekas
This year I got the photographers vest – thanks to Fabrice Bourrigaud, the chief of the press office, after missing it two years in a row.

This was my first time to LM completely on my own.  No host, no prefixed hotels, no hospitality – only accreditation papers, flight and a rental car.  Driving out of Paris, one word – wow.  I drove for an hour according to signs of Nantes before I actually had to stop by one. A close look – it said Mantes.  I really should have renewed my glasses earlier.  The other thing that misled me was that so many French villages are named Sortie.  Right.

It was the 80th anniversary race. Actually it has not been driven that many times because of the break caused by the Second World War. The weather was very nice. Saturday morning there was some rain, but it soon went away. Before and after that it was hot and humid.

This years Le Mans was a play rather than a race.  VW-company had already three wins for one brand and it was time to boost the sales of the new Bentley Continental GT.  Besides, it was the anniversary and it would make nice headlines to have a marque from the early days win the race.  No doubt the organizer had nothing against this kind of plans. Certainly, the new throttle diameters made the path easier for Bentley.

Do not get me wrong. This was – again – a great spectacle and the play was orchestrated with style.  It was really not a disgrace to motorsport, but honestly, not very far from it.

The press meetings of Audi and Bentley before the race were rather indicating.  All the Audi drivers and team chiefs said directly or between the lines that they are gunning for the third position after the “green cars” – no matter how the Audi press officer tried to prep them.  The Bentley meeting was quite muted.  On the stand nobody spoke a word about the engine – only about traditions and about David Brabham’s down under -accent.

I think it was quite revealing to find the Joest team chief Ralf Jüttner in British racing green clothing.  Even the Audi Sport director Wolfgang Ulrich had both Audi and Bentley passes hanging from his neck.

The winning Bentley accomplished 377 laps with 29 pits stops averaging 12.6 lap per stint.  The qualifying time for the Bentley was improved by some one percentage (2.3 s)  from last year.  Its best lap time in the race (3:36.1) was 1.6 % slower than the qualifying time (3:32.8).  Mathematically its average on track lap time was 3:44.6.  It pitted for 28 minutes and 44 seconds – 59 seconds average pit stop which is very, very, very efficient.

Before the race there was some speculation over the Audi chances in case the Bentleys could not do enough laps in a stint.  Obviously, the bigger throttle diameter of the coupe car means higher consumption and the narrower tires wear off earlier.  Tom Kristensen hinted that a good driver with Audi could do 15 laps (not 16 like Frank Biela learned in his first stint leaving one furious Mika Salo in the pits waiting for nothing).

The best Audi did 372 laps with one stop less than the winning car.  The best qualifying time for Audi was 3:35.7 – almost three percent slower (some six seconds) compared to the time of last year.  The new reduced throttle diameter did its job.  By the way these figures telltale that 1 % loss in power equals about 0.3 % loss in lap time at LM.  The Champion-Audi pitted one time less than the winning Bentley but stayed in the pits for almost eight minutes longer.

Some notes about the cars behind the VW-cars.  The Panoz, the Lammers Dome and the factory Courage all did 360 laps.  The Lammers car really lost it in the pits.  Its average on track lap time was over a second better than that of the Panoz.  The factory Courage-Judd dropped its performance from qualifying to the race considerably gaining the required reliability whereas the faster Pesca-Courages lost it in reliability.  The total pit time of the factory Courage was only a little over 34 minutes, which is a marvelous achievement for a small team with a Judd-engine.  For sure, it was one of the most optimized performances in the race.

The 675-class was quite pathetic – sorry to say.  The winning car was no surprise - it was the Lehmann-VW-Reynard, the one we used to know as ROC-Reynard.  Almost one and half hours in the pits.  Not exactly an impressive achievement, but still it made the most laps in the 675-race.  And which engine does it have - a two liter VW-turbo.  Albeit winning the small prototype class it still lost to a GT-class Porsche.  One must say those small Porsches are truly workhorses.

In the GTS-class it was the beautifully colored Ferrari 550 Maranello that took the honors before the anti-photogenic colored Vette (people really should look at their race cars in photographs to see whether a color works or not.).  Figure-wise the GTS-class was weird: The winning car spent more than an hour in the pits, the second over one and half hours.  On the other hand it must be said that the qualifying time of the fastest GTS-car was an amazing 3:53.3.  It was not that long ago when there seemed to be a four minute barrier.

I found the cars technically a bit dull this year, The Bentley engineers had lifted the pick up points of the front suspension to clear the front diffuser from wishbone aero interferences.  I’d say the most interesting car technically was the new WR.  Why on earth, you may ask, as it was so slow.  What appeals to me is that the car is obviously done with very small resources.  Functionality is written all over it.  Aerodynamically it was so clear.  I was quite enchanted with its rear end arrangement - good channeling of air between the rear wheels and the gearbox.  It was almost as open as F1-rear end.  Does it work?  Hard to tell given the fact that it was some 100 hp down on the old WR.  I find the team and the car very romantic. They dare to try to do things in their own way and not just copy.

The most memorable moment of the weekend was just before the victory ceremonies.  A small boy looked so elated after being lifted up in the air by the Bentley ace Tom Kristensen – “My daddy just won this race for the fifth time.”  Boy, was he proud.

Juha Kivekas (Dipl.Ing) is the managing director of Apextrem Ltd. which is a small Finnish R&D company specializing in vehicle dynamics and aerodynamics.  He has  also worked as a professional race engineer in lower categories and is the aerodynamacist for the Finnish Ski Jumping team.  He has participated in some 160 aerodynamics R&D projects varying from bridges and race cars to submarines and space devices.
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©Copyright 2003, Michael J. Fuller