Rick Mayer, race engineer of the #82 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 LM GTE-Pro team, provides a preview of this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans race with the rescheduled date of September 17-20, 2020.
The driver line-up for the 88th annual race at Le Mans, France’s Circuit de la Sarthe include three Frenchmen – Sébastien Bourdais, Olivier Pla and Jules Gounon. The Houston, Texas-based American team will run with a different number this year, No. 82, and with a traditional red Ferrari.
General: Le Mans and I have a love-hate relationship; it is a harsh event to work and I look forward to the end of the race each year. This year will be particularly challenging with the condensed schedule, no test day and a longer night portion compared to a June race. The majority of the track time this year is on Thursday. You have to show up with the car basically in ready to race condition, as there’s no prep day between testing and the race. You hope Friday isn’t a late night for the crew as warm-up is at 10:30 a.m. Saturday and the race begins an hour earlier, at 2:30 p.m. this year. You have to get to the track so early on Saturday that it means the crew is working non-stop for just about 36 hours; assuming you finish. It is a constant struggle to pace yourself, maintain concentration and not burn out, especially on Sunday morning leading into the afternoon. At best, you will hope for a few 10- or 15-minute naps if you can fit them in. The decision process is a bit complex by Sunday afternoon and maintaining focus can be a challenge.
The circuit is 8.5 miles long and just under a 4-minute lap for the GTEs. Telemetry and radio coverage this year should be phenomenal with no (or limited) spectators using the available cellular bandwidth. Very few actual lap times will get posted before the race. It takes nearly 15 minutes just to do one timed lap when you include the ‘out’ and ‘in’ laps. We have more than 10 hours of practice time leading up to the race, but the number of actual practice laps is low, in comparison to a normal State-side (or European) sprint race due to these long lap times. This year also has a separate qualifying session. In the past every session but the first session was qualifying. The car will run with its race engine installed so we need to be a bit conscious of lap count leading up to the race. We have essential one day of testing; let’s hope the weather is good. We’ve not run the current selection of Michelin tires at Le Mans yet. They are different than last year and we’ve only run them at Daytona earlier this year.
The BoP (Balance of Performance) is such a moving target and it has been a topic of conversation for every event. As the ACO/FIA can make BoP changes right up to race day (mainly power and weight), no one really knows anyone’s true pace until the race settles in.
Setup: Having a reliable car is the most important item; you have to finish to win. It needs to be comfortable for all the drivers with no unpredictable handling tendencies. This could be challenging, as our drivers have not driven together before; all drivers don’t prefer the same car setup. The ‘Porsche Curves’ serve as a good gauge of setup because if the car is good there, it is probably good everywhere. You hope to have a great starting setup and just make small changes to it for the race setup. There isn’t a lot of time for setup exploration with larger time-consuming setup changes.
Preparation: This is similar to most 24-hour races. Large portions of parts and systems on the car have a manufacturer’s recommended service interval about the length of a 24-hour race, which is not coincidental. Not having a separate preparation day after testing means the car has to be essentially ready to race when you arrive. It also means any large damage could cause you to miss the race. Any final race prep gets done Friday afternoon. In the past we’ve had all day Friday, with no running, to prep the car for the race.
Different Race Methodology: It’s a grueling race; the drivers (and crew) need to be 100% focused for the entire 24+ hours. The drivers need to run a comfortable, careful but quick pace. They need to leave room in the brake zones in case they come upon some unexpected fluid, debris, gravel, or other anomalies on the track, particularly at corners with little to no runoff. We race in the GTE-Pro Class, so we are passing and being passed. The drivers need to leave ample room when being passed by faster cars or when passing slower cars in the GTE-Am Class. They spend as much time looking in the mirrors, or rear facing in-car camera, as they do through the windshield. The secret to success here is to stay on track and out of the garage. Think twice about each move – it is better to lose a second or two on the track than spend minutes or hours in the garage. You win Le Mans by staying out of the garage and off pit lane.
The past few years the ACO has used slow zones in place of always deploying the safety cars. Drivers maintain speed at 80 kph in sections where track workers are required to remove a car, extract a car from the gravel, repair the track, etc. Le Mans has nine (9) slow zones with light systems in the cars defining their active locations. This unfortunately adds random time gain or loss to the race. The slow zones are activated by the Race Director as needed and end when the Race Director is confident the track is clear. This does not coincide with how many times each car runs through the slow zone — it’s purely track condition dependent. You could gain or lose 30 seconds or more randomly. Slow zone use has significantly reduced the deployment of the safety cars [there are three (3) separate SCs at Le Mans]. Taking care of more minor issues this way keeps the race moving. If you have a fast car without issues this could be to your benefit. If you have to spend time in the garage to repair damage this system makes it nearly impossible to gain back laps lost. The Race Director has the option to deploy a FCY (full course yellow) which requires all the cars to run at 80 kph around the entire track, this was a rule change last year. Other Series call this a virtual safety car. During the FCY the pits will remain closed so the FCY essentially freezes the track positions and gaps and allows the track marshals and staff to attend to track issue more safely. It also removes the random gain or loss you get from slow zones or the Safety Cars.
Race Strategy: Again, (1) Stay out of the garage, (2) Stay on the track, (3) Do not hit anything or get hit, (4) Stop only for fuel, tires and the occasional engine oil, with a front brake change somewhere in the wee hours. The brake change this year will use a quick-change system, which should get it done quickly (20-30 seconds) in our pit box. How quick you can do this depends a lot on how much you practice it. The later in the race you do it the better the brakes will be on Sunday when you may need to push. The cars are so reliable now and lap times so close a two (2)-second advantage (or deficient) in each pit stop tire change could ultimately determine the winner. Doing a standard stop when the safety cars are deployed doesn’t really save a lot of time, like it would with a single safety car. You can’t re-enter the track until the next safety car passes, so you lose ~1/3 of a lap, which is about the same amount of time as a stop under green flag conditions. You pretty much have to double stint most of the tire sets, based on allocation, and with fuel and tires being separate again it’s the better strategy move as well.
Fuel: Fuel economy is a small concern this year at Le Mans; where it has not been in years past. The ACO adjusts fuel capacities for all GTE-Pro cars to be able to run 14 lap stints plus three (3) litres additional fuel capacity. It’s up to the teams to setup the fueling rate so that a full load of fuel with the car on the ground takes 35 seconds. The overall time to fuel and number of laps in a stint isn’t restricted. A stint will be just under an hour.
Tires: The GTE allotment is 15 sets of slicks for the race. There is no limit to the number of sets of wets that may be used in the race. We’ll need to double almost every set of tires. It’s a long track and when it starts to sprinkle with rain on the pit straight, it can be dry or pouring on the other side of the track. Tire selection is sometimes more luck than skill but we have more tire options here than in the States. We have three (3) dry compounds, and two (2) wet options. The correct wet or damp option is not always obvious. You rely heavily on good weather radar and your drivers’ judgment and experience.
Pit Stops: Rules have changed this year. Four (4) crew and two (2)-wheel guns; wheel change to be done separate and after fueling. Fuel fill time is regulated to 35 seconds for a full fill. This will make wheel change time important.
We have a skilled crew and a great driver lineup, but it takes some luck to win at Le Mans. We’d like to think we’re in the running for a win this year but with the competition being fierce in GTE…it will be a tough, hard fought race. It will likely come down to the last couple of stints and the cars separated by only a few seconds at the end.
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