How the allure of Le Mans grabs F1 drivers

Motor Racing - FIA World Endurance Championship - WEC- Le Mans Testing - Le Mans, France

“So far I’m steady as a rock but I’m sure that will go; the excitement will come in the two hours before the start.”

Nico Hulkenberg is preparing for his Le Mans debut this afternoon. The German has already raced in the World Endurance Championship (WEC) for Porsche at Spa this year, but even he acknowledges the 24 Hours will provide a challenge unlike any he has faced in his racing career so far.

“It’s special and unique,” Hulkenberg says of his impressions of Le Mans. “I obviously know and have worked in the F1 environment in the last few years, it’s different, for sure, and here things are more open. Obviously there are more fans and people around who hunt you down for photographs and autographs but that’s OK, you just have to fight your way through. Otherwise I think the magical feeling and the atmosphere will build when we get closer and closer to the race.”

Motor Racing - Le Mans 24 Hours Race - Le Mans, France

Himself still racing for Force India, Hulkenberg joins 11 former F1 drivers on today’s grid in the LMP1 class alone. Mark Webber was the most high-profile move of recent years as he left Red Bull at the end of 2013 to head up Porsche’s challenge, a switch which heightened interest in WEC even further and, judging by Porsche starting 1-2-3 this weekend, came at the right time.

So what is it that entices F1 drivers to want to race at Le Mans? Webber believes: “Because it’s still relatively old school, in a way.

“The track is obviously super long, it’s still a place with consequences so the concentration is super high. We’ve now got backmarkers who are going as slow as they’ve ever gone in relation to our speed, so that’s on the radar. The pit stops are a bit old school, the two guys over the line, the old school refuelling, night driving … it’s really a great event in that sense.

“But I think the number one topic for me is just the emotion that comes out at this event. When everyone’s tired and you see a lot of men in the garage - grown men - and you see how the emotion hits them when the result either goes to or from your way. That’s when you see the allure of the emotion here.

Motor Racing - Le Mans 24 Hour -  Le Mans, France

“Timo [Bernhard] and I went last year. Obviously we lost the race with two hours to go, we went to Audi to congratulate them and all the mechanics, all the management stood up and clapped Timo and I coming in. That’s Le Mans. You still get goosebumps now. I said: ‘Timo, mate, how flash was that?’

“They respect you and they knew what you guys did is not easy. You arrive at Audi, all the boys, you see them destroyed. They’re happy but … ’you made it hard for us but we got the result’. But that was really cool.”

While Webber’s age and experience may make him yearn for the sport as it was when he was so drawn to it as a youngster, former Marussia driver Max Chilton always had Le Mans on his ‘to do’ list even when he was trying to forge a career in F1.

“I’m very excited,” Chilton told F1i in the Le Mans paddock. “It’s one race I’ve always wanted to do. To me it’s one of the top three races: Monaco Grand Prix which I’ve been lucky enough to do a couple of times, the Indy 500 and this. Before I even got to Formula One I probably knew I was going to end up here but this is where I wanted to end up whether my career in F1 was two years or ten years.

“I’m lucky to be in a works LMP1 team straight out of Formula One, which is ideal because this is a three-year project. Hopefully I can be a part of it for the three years and see how it develops. I’m enjoying what I’ve done so far and I haven’t even raced yet so it’s all good at the moment.”

Motor Racing - Le Mans 24 Hours Race - Le Mans, France

And Chilton highlights the different backgrounds for drivers as one of the added attractions at the 24 Hours as he prepares for his and Nissan’s debut.

“There’s a lot more variety. In Formula One it’s very much that people have pretty much one career path. This, everyone has come from GTs, computer games, it’s all a bit different and Nissan is a little bit more extreme than others. But it’s good, we get on really well. It is weird sharing a car, you are sat around a lot of the time but it’s good.

“I like being open and with this you’ve got two team-mates so if I find there’s a place where we can find 0.2s, there’s no point me thinking ‘I’ll keep that to myself for qualifying’, you tell the other two because if they find that 0.2s every lap over 300 laps or whatever it is it’s going to help you overall. So you’ve got to just be open and I think I’m quite good with that.”

While Chilton is forging his new career in WEC, Hulkenberg is combining duties with racing in F1 for the first time since Sebastien Bourdais six years ago.

“It’s special,” Hulkenberg admits. “It’s not been done for a long time - well actually it was Bourdais in 2009 but before him there was a huge gap. I feel it gives me something and I’m also proud to be able to do this. To manage both obviously is a big challenge for me but it’s obviously a unique opportunity to be racing in Le Mans with Porsche so I took the opportunity while I had it.”

Both are at the pinnacle of motor racing

So what sort of advantage can Huldenberg’s unique position of being a current F1 driver on the Le Mans grid today give him?

“Obviously in the Formula One world I know how things work there operationally, how to drive it. I think driving style-wise there might be something interesting, but you can’t take everything from Formula One and apply it here because it’s a different game.

“It’s two different pairs of shoes for me and I don’t tend to compare. Both are at the pinnacle of motor racing.”

It’s the final line from Hulkenberg which is telling. Drivers want to compete against the best and drive the best cars. By not comparing the categories in any way other than their ability to provide a driver with incredible machinery to race - and extrapolate it over 24 hours to provide the emotionally draining challenge which Webber highlighted earlier - you understand the pull of Le Mans.

Motor Racing - Le Mans 24 Hours Race - Le Mans, France