A week in the life of a Le Mans driver

Racing for Aston Martin at Le Mans is a great privilege, which one team member was happy to share…

It’s called Les Vingt-Quatres Heures du Mans, but a single day it isn’t. To the drivers and teams taking part Le Mans is a week, at least. And that follows months of painstaking preparation. It is the world’s toughest endurance race, the race I love – and hate – the most. And the one I want to win more than anything. This year, I drove for Aston Martin Racing (AMR) in the LMP1 class, car number 009. This is my diary, warts and all.

Monday June 7

[9:00am] Think I’m on autopilot: car, track, race… Nothing else matters. All I want is to do a good job.

[2:00pm] Manage a three-hour track recce. Have walked every corner, assessed every kerb, noted every bump, Tarmac change, and run-off area. Can’t be a single square foot I haven’t inspected.

[10:00pm] Dinner with the team. Scooter ride there and back with DT was interesting! Note to self: use hands for holding on, not taking ‘onboard’ phone pics for Twitter! DT – Darren Turner, one of my co-drivers and all-round superstar. Darren has won the Le Mans GT1 class twice.

[11:00pm] Staying up late to adjust body clock, want to be sharp in qualifying. Qualifying sessions on Wednesday/Thursday don’t finish until midnight, allowing time to acclimatise to driving at night.

Tuesday June 8

[11:00am] Drivers’ briefing. So many legends in one room – Mansell, Alesi, Fisichella, Kristensen, McNish… With 55 cars and three drivers per car, the briefing is akin to a school assembly, with the Clerk of the Course – the headmaster – reading off a list of dos and don’ts.

Emanuele Pirro makes his traditional contribution – very funny! Speech from Karim Ojegh about passing slower cars safely – pretty brave to address a group like that, but he makes a good point.

[11:30am] Time for a team meeting – my first with Aston. Engineers, drivers and management discuss strategy, how they want us to approach qualifying, jobs to do, etc. Very thorough, very professional. Just as you’d expect.

[1:00pm] Lunch, and Pete’s here! Drivers’ motorhome is fantastic, food is GREAT! AMR has a ‘Driver Performance’ department run by top trainer Pete Webster, who makes sure drivers are in peak condition, not just their fitness but also their nutrition, hydration, etc. Every meal has been carefully planned, along with massages, stretching sessions, warm-ups, etc. This year the drivers have their own motorhome to provide respite from the ‘madding crowds’!

[3:00pm] Seat fittings and pitstop practice. We are nightmare slow. Car will be re-tyred and refuelled in 40 seconds so we must have drivers changed and ready to go by then. Out of 20-odd attempts only one was sub-40. The 007 drivers are doing it in 18sec! Drivers have bespoke moulded seats, with cockpit and pedals tailored to them. But when you’re sharing a car with two others, all different in size, everybody has to compromise their comfort level. In our case we had to use three different seats, costing crucial seconds.

[5:00pm] Crappy autograph session. Really happy to do these for the fans but this one [by the race organisers] seems poorly timed – sitting in the rain, hardly anyone here!

[10:30pm] Spend 1.5hrs sitting in the car in a deserted pit. If I can’t sit comfortably for that long at a standstill, will have no hope in the race! Learn all the controls and switches – reckon I could operate them blindfolded now!

Wednesday June 9

[9:20pm] Just finished first free practice session. Went well. Quick grin as I headed onto the track, but after a few corners it was down to business. How’s the car handling? What can I do to go faster? What information can I give the engineers, etc? Although I’d tested the car, this was another world. Flat in sixth gear at 210mph from Mulsanne to Indianapolis corner, with the car darting about as it tramlines down the gulleys, your eyes are on stalks. The first few laps feel like a film on fast-forward – until your brain can catch up you cling onto the steering wheel, trying to stay in charge. Soon you become accustomed to this feeling, using the straights to relax and even release your grip on the wheel slightly to stretch your fingers.

[1:00am] Just finished first qualifying. Car was fine, although headlights average and circuit seems less well lit than I remember. My performance was messy. Got caught up in a gaggle of slower cars kicking up gravel and crap onto the track and my tyres. Was like 200mph dogfight. Lost grip, then confidence in the car. Should have backed off and found some space. Regardless, we’d done enough to provisionally qualify ninth, one-tenth behind the sister 007 car. In reality this is the best we could hope for as the diesel-powered Audis/Peugeots were in a class of their own thanks to ‘unbalanced’ technical regulations.

Thursday June 10

[11:00am] Been working on my seat – every sharp edge I can cut away will make it faster to swap at pitstops. It’s not easy with a closed-roof car and small doors. Just practiced taking it in and out probably 100 times! Everyone laughing at me!

[9:20am] Good first practice session. My pace was strong and car felt great. Was nice to hang onto the tail of TK [Tom Kristensen] in an Audi for three laps – in fact he was holding me up! Don’t get used to it…

[1:00am] A fantastic night session! Track dry, car good, headlights now repositioned and much better – posted good times. Big confidence boost, feeling great about the race.

Friday June 11

[10:30am] Tired this morning, but have a media ‘meet and greet’ session. DR [David Richards – the boss] puts me on the spot with an impromptu Q&A in front of assembled journos – thanks, DR!

[12:30pm] Autograph session at our merchandise stand – packed! It’s more knackering than driving the car! Fans incredible though, so passionate – am feeling the love!

[5:00pm] The Drivers’ Parade. Massive crowd. Am keen to get it done, though – blazing hot, no shade and no water. The day before the race is the traditional Drivers’ Parade. Competitors are ferried through the streets of Le Mans in vintage cars, escorted by brass bands and dancing girls. It’s fun but arduous for the drivers who now, less than 24 hours from the race, want only to eat and sleep.

[11:00pm] Have a bit of a talk with myself – noticed I was getting carried away earlier, enjoying the parade, stressing about getting passes for friends, etc. Is wasted energy. No more now, am cutting myself off from everything. Head down, all that matters is the race.

Saturday June 12

[7:00am] Big brekkie – porridge, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, etc. Desperate for a coffee, though! Feeling good – focused, not nervous. Am ready.

[8:00am] Warm-up. It’s raining. Pre-race warm-up is the final practice session, giving teams and drivers one last chance to tweak their cars. Quick driver change practice with DT before the session starts: 26sec! DT starts, has no problems, but the team decide not to continue in the rain and risk an ‘off’. Good call, but means JB [Juan Barazi, my other co-driver] and I will go into the race cold. Could have stayed in bed!

[9:00am] More pitstop practice. Couldn’t have stayed in bed!

[11:00am] Final team meeting before race. Talk car set-up, race strategy, driving order (DT to start, then me, then JB). Triple stints throughout. Blimey. A ‘stint’ is one tank of fuel, approx. 45mins. Changing drivers takes more time than refuelling alone, so it makes sense to do it when a tyre change is required – once every two to three stints.

[1:00pm] Rushing around preparing my helmets, checking the car, looking at data, getting fresh clothes, towels and wash kit. Must eat!

[2:00pm] ‘Class of 2010’ drivers’ photo on start-finish straight.

[2:30pm] Cars lined up on the grid looking stunning, grandstands packed, atmosphere electric. Trying to stay focused. Notice Peugeot’s Marc Gené and Franck Montagny listening to iPods – good idea. DT just chilling… A proper driver, that man.

[3:00pm] Race start. DT makes solid start, glued to the back of 007. No changes at the front, but the pace is furious. Amazing they’re pushing this hard so early. Tempting to stay in the garage and watch, but it’s better to go eat, stretch and relax.

[4:45pm] Called back to pits, DT in in 30mins. Several retirements already, including Mansell.

[5:15pm] Gear on, feeling focused and calm. Driver change goes well, car feels good. Gonna be a good stint. Can smell the BBQs from the campsites… jealous! Up to P8 after Kristensen tangles with a GT car.

[7:30pm] Hand over to JB after triple stint. Team happy with my performance. Even a ‘well done’ from DR (left)! Three consecutive stints not as physical as I’d imagined – pleased to have run the London Marathon a few weeks ago! Five-minute debrief with ‘Wilks’, my engineer – how the car behaved, report any ‘moments’, etc. Shower. Eat. Bed. This became my routine after each run. I felt relatively fresh for the next stint, almost like I’d fooled the body into thinking a whole night had passed since my last turn.

[11:00pm] Woken by Pete. Thanks to earplugs was in surprisingly deep sleep! They want me ready one hour earlier than planned – is there a problem? It’s difficult to follow your car’s progress because when you’re not driving it’s best to eat and sleep. Some drivers stay in the pit – they usually struggle towards the end.

[11:15pm] Arrive in the pit, no problems – in fact we’re up to P7 following trouble for one of the Peugeots. If we can continue, we could be on for a real result.

[11:45pm] Start of another hassle-free run. Safety car out on track towards the end, so team ask me to do a fourth stint. No problem! I’d never done a quadruple stint before but was pleased/amazed to find it was the easiest. Seemed to get a second wind.

Sunday June 13

[2:45am] Hand back to JB. Debrief. Shower. Eat. Sleep. Still P7. The following 11hrs 15mins pass without incident – at least for us. Elsewhere the attrition rate is astonishing and TV screens are flooded with the devastated faces of mechanics, drivers and engineers.

[6:00am] Trouble for 007. Car pits with significant gearbox problems. A solution is found and they rejoin the race nearly an hour later. We’re up to sixth overall but am nervous now about our reliability.

[7:00am] It’s another incident-free triple stint, although I get a slight bollocking from GHC for not letting a Peugeot by soon enough. GHC – George Howard-Chappell, team boss. At the time I didn’t understand what the big deal was: I let the Peugeot through safely, just on my terms. Only heard later the Peugeots were on a very aggressive charge.

[12:00pm] Final stint before handing over to DT. Still P6 with a comfortable cushion. Towards the end Wilks asks if I can do a third stint. No problem.

[2:00pm] Drama as the Peugeots pay the price for their audacious charge. We’re now fourth, way beyond my wildest dreams. Wilks: “OK, Sam. That’s your bit done. Pit this lap. Fuel. Tyres. Driver change. Good job.” Halfway around that in-lap the engine loses power. Immediately Wilks is on the radio having seen an oil pressure alarm flash up on the live telemetry. “Sam, slow down, slow down. We’ve got a problem.” I don’t need the call. Blue smoke fills my mirrors and, as it starts to seep into the cockpit, I fear a fire. “Look out for flames, Sam, and head for a fire marshal.” In the event of a problem a driver’s brain defaults to one thought: get back to the pits, we might get out again. But when your engineer tells you to pull over, you know it’s serious. “Sam, pull over, pull over. Try to stop by a fire marshal.” As smoke fills the cockpit I pull up alongside a marshal post on the entry to Arnage. After some radio discussion I’m told to retire the car. Our race is done. It is 2:15pm, with just 45mins remaining, and though we’ve completed more laps than the eventual fourth-place finisher, we can’t be classified. I climb out and see a small crowd on the spectator bank. Everyone is on their feet, cheering and waving banners – many with Aston Martin logos. A welcome, heartfelt acknowledgement of what we’ve accomplished despite the devastating end. I’ve never experienced that level of support before, but am so grateful that in that bittersweet moment I swear never to grumble about an autograph session again.

Sam Hancock is the founder of The Drivers Club private driver coaching service (www.thedriversclub.co.uk)