Juha Kivekas' Post Card from Le Mans 2004

Text and images copyright Juha Kivekas
Tom Kristensen said: ”I've always been lucky to race at Le Mans with fantastic teams.  My fellow drivers think that I'm a lucky bastard.  That's probably true.”  Six times – this is definitely no longer just about luck.  It is about making one’s luck SKILL.

Ickx, Bell, Pescarolo, Dalmas and Kristensen – what do they all have in common?  Would I be wrong to say that all these drivers had speed combined with the ability to stay away from trouble? In any case, Tom Kristensen has taken his place next to the likes of Jacky Ickx, Pedro Rodriguez, Jo Siffert, Stirling Moss – absolute all time bests.  It is highly unlikely that he would have written so much history had he been in F1.

It had been pretty hot during the week leading up to the race.  I got to Le Mans this year on Friday and by then it was cooling down a bit.  Yet the change was not dramatic so tire choices were not too difficult.  Michelin supplied for about half the grid.

Everybody seemed to emphasize that all the Audi-teams were equal.  They all had the driver potential to take the pole and win the race.  Yet, it seemed that Veloqx was a little bit more equal than others.  One to three seconds a lap is quite a lot even on a long track and could not be explained with different drivers.  Perhaps the Veloqx-team benefited more from the presence of Audi Sport and Joest as it was “a new team”.  Interestingly, there were some heavy names behind the Veloqx: Chris Gorne, David Brown and Karl Hasenbichler.

The main race started as expected.  The Veloqx-Audis ran first and second followed by Champion and Goh.  Then just before the two hour mark both Alan McNish (# 8) and JJ Lehto (#38) drove off at the Porsche-curves from a fresh patch of oil topped with water spilled by a Pescarolo-Judd. It was a severe accident and could have ended worse.  Despite the injuries, neither driver needed a car accident lawyer.  Both cars were eventually repaired and got back to the race but ultimately Champion lost some 30 mins, and Veloqx over 50 mins.  Alan was no longer in any shape to drive – leaving a hard job for his co-drivers Biela and Kaffer so early into the race.

So it was down to Veloqx # 88 and the Goh-Audi and it ended up culminating in the last hour.  With Seiji Ara leading in the Goh car, Johnny Herbert was doing his best to reel him in.  As we know it ended sour for Johnny as he took the rally cross line through the gravel trap –  unfortunately just a little too much time was lost.

The GTS-class was exciting too. T he Corvettes and the Prodrive-Ferraris were pretty even.  In the end it seemed that the Ferraris had used their share of luck last year – so it was the Corvettes turn.  Of course, the Porsche 911 GT3 was the car to have in the GT-class. Checquered flag and it was the Dale White car crossing the line first after the Freisinger-car had trouble.

The small LMP2 protos were still unreliable, and bar the factory Courage, slow.  The winner of the class was 25th overall on the final list.  I am not sure the teams really understand what it takes to make a solid effort in the small proto class.  Even the winner of that class was over three hours in the pits.

Besides the sixth Kristensen victory, the other main topic had to be alternative fuels.  There was a Lola-Caterpillar with a diesel engine and the Nasamax-MG which was running with its 135 liter fuel tank filled with bio-ethanol.  I think Le Mans is absolutely a great test bench and a good showroom for this kind of technology.  I only wish Volkswagen or BMW would take the diesel challenge.  The Caterpillar effort did not quite convince.  It was out of the running order after just four hours.  May be it was a year too early.  Some rumours say that the next generation Audi proto could be a diesel.  I hope so, because that would change the image of the diesel engine for good.

Of the big protos only the Nasamax was built to new LMP1 regs., everyone else to the modified  LMP900 regs.  In the LMP2 category the WRs and Courages were built to new regulations.  All the new-reg cars looked wildly high with the new underbody – a bit like the protos in early seventies.  Speed wise the factory Courage and the Nasamax-MG proved that the speed is not that different from old cars.  In practise the Nasamax did a 3:52 and the LMP2 Belmondo-Courage a 3:51 lap.  In the race the Nasamax improved some eleven seconds!

The new reg cars differ from the old in a few key areas.  There is the roll over structure for the passenger, higher mid section of front underbody and of course the new regs do not allow the Lola/Dallara type separate fenders with deep valleys.  The new underbody is more rational in its shape.  It concentrates the low pressure between axles and thus there is less tendency for pitch-porpoising.  The elevated ride height most likely means that heave-porpoising sensitivity is also better in control.  The slanted longitudinal edges of the underbody together with now almost standard deep rear wing endplates give better yaw stability.  In my opinion, the new underbody reg are definitely an improvement over the old.

The old reg (LMP900) cars had to run an 80 liter fuel tank (formerly 90 liters).  This meant that stints were about a lap shorter than they used to be.  Also the span of the rear wing was reduced slightly.  As can be seen from Mike’s statistics, the '04 modifications to the LMP900s had not really slowed the cars .  Or, at very least, R&D had taken the upper hand.

According to www.lemans.org the winning car stopped 38 times and spent 35 minutes and 45 seconds in the pits.  I think that is a mistake and that it really only stopped 34 times.  It covered 379 laps equaling  5170 kms.  The third placed Champion car stopped 33 times and spent 1 hour, 6 minutes and 43 seconds in the pits (re-built after the accident) and lost 11 laps to the winner.  On track, the three fastest Audis had about similar speed – average lap times between 3:42–3:44 with the wounded Veloqx car at 3:47.

It was a genuine, good race.  One hour before the end there was no way of knowing who was going to win.  The result was fair.  I believe the best crew won.  Kazumichi Goh said: ”Today is the happiest day of my life. We clearly proved that a multi-cultural crew can achieve a lot.”

No, I did not get the photographers vest this year (so now Hawaiian Tropics girls) although I was accredited.  Nothing new under the sun at Le Mans.
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.

ęCopyright 2004, Michael J. Fuller