From the Bentley Boys to Bell and Brundle, British racers have always loved Le Mans. And the class of 2018 looks like one of the strongest yet
Le Mans has changed in many ways over its 90-odd years, but the lure for Brits has endured on and off the track.
This year, should Manor’s Chinese funds materialise, Britain will provide the grid with 28 drivers, more than any other country, bar host France. Shake out the amateurs, and there are more Brits being paid to be there than drivers from anywhere else.
There’ll probably be more paying to be there, too, in the form of the tens of thousands-strong army of fans who cross the Channel every year to witness the world’s most famous endurance race.
The last time a Briton stood on the top step of the overall podium was in 2015, when Nick Tandy helped Earl Bamber and the moonlighting Nico Hülkenberg take victory, with a thrilling night stint. This year could see another Brit win outright in the shape of Mike Conway, one of the drivers with Toyota’s factory LMP1 team.
But, with the disappearance of works teams from the likes of Porsche, Peugeot and Audi in LMP1, for many fans it is the GTE-Pro class where the real thrills are to be had. Tandy agrees: “You can’t beat an outright win,” he says. “That’s something I learned in 2015. [But] GTE-Pro will be the class of the race this year. I just hope it gets the attention it deserves.”
The class will certainly be highlighting the cream of British racing talent – featuring no fewer than 11 drivers – and in many ways this year marks the coming of age for the contingent. From old hands to young hotshoes, British drivers form the backbone for each of the factories. And despite being rivals on track it is clear that off it there is a camaraderie between them that harks back to the glory years of Le Mans, when the original Bentley Boys would band together to take on the best the continent could offer.
The class of 2018 features a full two decades-worth of British talent: the now 44-year-old Darren Turner made his Le Mans debut when his young team-mate, 24-year-old Alex Lynn, was still in primary school.
Lynn is the most recent sports car convert with GP2 race-winning pedigree. And he’s unmistakably proud to have done so. “Aston Martin was always a brand I thought ‘that’s a bit of me’ about. I’m honoured and loving every minute.”
Last year a Sebring winner with Wayne Taylor Racing and Le Mans LMP2 polesitter with G-Drive, he’s taken to sports cars with impressive speed and showed exactly why he was so close to the Formula 1 grid.
Then comes Ford’s Harry Tincknell, 26 but something of an old hand now. He jumped off the single-seater ladder younger than most under the guidance of one of Britain’s greatest Le Mans drivers in recent years. “Having Allan McNish behind me opened the idea to me to move over to endurance racing early,” he says.
That was 2014, the year he and Jota won the LMP2 class at Le Mans on his debut.
Ferrari’s James Calado, 28, and Sam Bird, 31, have also both been around the GT ranks since 2014 ever since they beat Jérôme D’Ambrosio in a Ferrari shootout. “It’s quite unusual to have two Brits in an Italian team,” points out Calado.
“James and I get on like a house on fire,” says Bird. “He’s a good mate.” Two best-buddy Brits at Ferrari? Mon ami mate mkII.
Bird’s old friend, his former Formula 3 team-mate to be exact, Alex Sims, 30, will be in a new BMW M8 for Le Mans, too.
Sims, now in his fifth season with BMW, admits this all felt a long way off when they were all trying to make a name for themselves. “To be on the same grid with them all again, alongside the absolute greats of the GT racing world, is pretty cool. I definitely didn’t think that would be the case. I was scrabbling around trying to work out where my career would take me, not quite expecting to achieve quite honestly what I have done to date. I’m very, very proud of it, and feel very lucky.”
Among the greats Sims refers to are some decorated Brits. Tandy is an outright Le Mans winner and a man who’s won every endurance race that matters. Turner has won Le Mans three times, Oliver Gavin five with Corvette. Andy Priaulx of Ford won three World Touring Car Championships on the trot, four if you include its ETCC forerunner. No driver has won more British GT races than double champion Jonny Adam, who also shared that stunning Le Mans victory last year for Aston. Ford’s Richard Westbrook, meanwhile, has two Le Mans podiums and a GT2 championship.
Combined, these drivers are the next Martin Brundles, Andy Wallaces, Derek Bells, Brian Redmans, Vic Elfords, Richard Attwoods, Ivor Buebs and Woolf Barnatos. Revered Le Mans winners, all of whom are personalities, full of stories and engaging conversations.
Themes soon emerge when you consider the stories of how the three 20-somethings, four 30-somethings and four 40-somethings got to taking over GTE-Pro, and it is cause for optimism about the future. For the younger crop of the batch, the move to sports cars came as a result of them deciding that F1 was not the only game in town.
For the more experienced likes of Tandy and Turner the mindset was different. For them it was a case of making a career out of driving, not aiming for F1. That came quickly for both, Tandy coming straight out of F3: “I was very lucky in that I had a chance to go professional with Porsche and I was being paid to race in my second year out of F3.
“I wasn’t aiming to be an F1 or NASCAR driver, just a professional. I’m sure there are guys that wish they hadn’t spent so much time and other people’s money trying to chase F1. But you can’t look back with regrets; that kept me going when it looked like I might have stopped racing.”
There is one outlier at Le Mans in the manufacturer seats, as Toyota’s Conway is the only Brit chasing outright LMP1 victory for a factory now that Anthony Davidson has been moved aside for Fernando Alonso. Conway was late to the all-day and all-night party, instead chasing full-time IndyCar drives in the States, becoming a road-course ringer and eventually switching to sports cars full time.
“Once I had tried the sports car scene in 2013, because nothing was going on for me in Indy, it was the best decision I’ve made.”
Now he is regularly one of the fastest drivers in LMP1, at ease with that position and relaxed. Yet the steel remains, possibly a result of that hard life of chasing and working for seats. Perhaps the combination of steely composure is the very reason he’s so good in a prototype.
Like so many sports car drivers, and latterly F1 drivers, he is embracing the chance to drive fast and drive often.
“It opened my eyes up. There are sports cars all over the world and it’s been great to be able to jump in and out of different cars. I wish I had done it earlier, to be honest. I always focused on one thing but doing the different disciplines has been great for my skills as a driver. It gives you extra sections in your library to call on, different experiences to use in other things.”
It’s catching, too, this versatility, as F1 drivers crop up in races away from the usual places to build their own experiences. Alonso, the man whose name will be the first written by the headline-writer’s pen regardless of result this year at Le Mans, is case in point. He is reveling in a new-found varied diet of racing, something that has long been the norm for pros outside of F1, explains Turner.
“You drive whatever you are given. Some drive one thing because that is the opportunity they have been given. It has been healthy seeing the big names try different things, it’s mixed things up a bit and shown that you don’t need to be pigeon-holed. If you can drive you can drive; the bit you do – push the pedals, turn the steering wheel – is all the same. It’s not suddenly a different animal, it’s just at a different speed or weighs a different amount.”
There is one thing to get used to in sports cars in that you’re no longer alone. Often the biggest obstacle or single-seater racers to overcome is leaving the single-seater selfishness at the door to benefit the team. You’ll have to make do with a potentially uncomfortable seat, talk to your team-mates and spend a lot of time together.
It’s the very reason Alonso went to race in the midfield at Daytona in January, not necessarily to win but as a fact-finding mission to learn what that’s like. It’s something Jenson Button is learning about in Japan’s Super GT ahead of his own Le Mans debut with privateer SMP Racing.
Yet Sims, for one, found the team mentality easy to switch into. “In single-seaters I felt a little out of place. I found my home in GTs, rather than having to adapt too much away from what I wanted to be like. I enjoy the fact that you’ve got people you genuinely want to help and they want to help you. It’s a proper team environment, rather than wanting to hold everything back from your team-mate to make your team-mate look rubbish. That was always a bit weird to me.”
“Alex doesn’t do himself justice,” counters Lynn “He’s an extremely talented guy and had the ability to go all the way. Sports car racing has a different mentality, something that I like. I like being involved with two other drivers and you’d sacrifice anything for the car and to help your team-mates.”
But it takes some getting used to and Calado admits he didn’t get it at first. “I do now though and I love it. It’s nice to come in, have a coffee and watch your team-mate.”
Strangely, those stints spent in the garage when team-mates are in the car probably provided some of the group’s first live experiences of watching cars lapping Le Mans. Although that was not the case for Bird: “I watched it and went as a kid, I even did it as my French project one year!”
Conway’s impressions came mainly via friends “going for the parties” and presumably the Heineken and ‘steaks américains’.
“My first time there was when I raced in 2013,” he admits. “I’d watched it a few times but you never really know until you actually go and do it. That’s when you know and you experience what it’s all about. It’s like a drug, it drags you back to win it. Every year you forget how long it is.
“It only really felt a big deal when I first got out on track. Then I was like: ‘Oh, hell. This is a pretty cool track’,” he adds still seemingly in disbelief.
Tandy: “Until you’re involved in the Le Mans side of the sport you don’t really realise just how much it means across the industry – from manufacturers to fans.
“You feel the presence of the Brits. You feel it on the way down there, you get on the train or ferry and the cars are all stickered up with Le Mans stuff and it’s great. Then you get there and most of the people you speak to are Brits. I think from a fan point of view there seems more even the French. It’s like a second home race for us.”
Who will be bringing the trophy from home to home is almost impossible to call. Tandy can approach the race differently owing to his IMSA commitments taking priority. “We’re just at Le Mans to win; we’re on summer break. We don’t care about fourth, let’s put it that way. We’d rather break the car than bag points.”
That Porsche has proven itself to be fast, and the sweetest-sounding of all. But that counts for nothing at Le Mans.
Priaulx and Tincknell are in a Ford GTE that is in its third (and possibly final) season of competition, so it is a known quantity. It proved in 2016 it can win, too. Tincknell is in no doubt about their chances: “For me and Andy, this is our best chance to win it and go one better than last year.”
The first round of the ‘superseason’ at Spa proved those two cars to be the better bets, with the newer cars of Aston and BMW, plus the updated 488, playing catch-up.
Whoever does come out on top will know they’ve had to work for it, for rarely has it been so difficult or the standard so high to claim ‘just’ a class win. They’ll be writing their names in the history books or bumping their names further up the leaderboard of Brits at Le Mans.
The lasting impression is that Le Mans means everything to them all, regardless of how they got there or the disappointments of missing out on F1. This will be the biggest win of their careers.
It’s not a Brits benefit at Le Mans, of course, but the thousands in the tribunes could well be cheering a Brit onto the top step in the two biggest categories at Le Mans this year. And if not, there’s always a second chance in this ‘superseason’. But, as Lynn points out, it will be a long 12 months to wait.