By Sam Smith
JOTA Sport’s new star Mitch Evans is looking forward to making his Le Mans 24 Hours debut next weekend in the highly competitive LMP2 class. The Kent-based team is defending its hard-won crown with the newly named Gibson 015S, née Zytek.
Evans, a native of Auckland, has a fairly tidy LMP2 record so far: one race, one win. It was a fine debut at the 6 Hours of Spa last month when he joined team regulars Simon Dolan and Harry Tincknell on the top step of the podium, vanquishing the regular WEC runners.
Impressing the no-nonsense, straight-talking team, Evans showed dedication, shrewdness and a willingness to set aside the selfish nature of modern single-seater racing to embrace the team ethic which is vital in sports car racing. All of this should be of little surprise, as Evans’ mentor and manager is Mark Webber (below with Mitch), who himself saw the professional and career-enhancing power of sports cars from an early stage of his career.
“It is so unique and there is so much good Kiwi history at Le Mans,” Evans said at Spa, “especially with what Bruce McLaren achieved back in the day (McLaren won in the Ford GT40 in 1966). It is going to be so cool racing there and seeing what it is all about. I have the feeling I’ll get on just fine at that track.”
Evans or rather the Evans’ family story of competing at Le Mans holds a remarkable and dramatic subplot however. Mitch’s father, Owen, was a renowned racer himself and was all set to to make the Evans family debut at Le Mans 19 year ago.
“My father did actually qualify for the 1996 Le Mans 24 Hours, but after the test day he went back to New Zealand to set a world record. He had a massive accident and almost lost his life,” says Mitch.
“Obviously he couldn’t compete in the Le Mans race, it was a massive disappointment and very unfortunate. It will be cool to have him over again this year and he’ll be at Le Mans for both of us really.”
Owen Evans qualified for the race in a Parr Motorsport Racing-run Porsche 911 GT2, entered under the Hardware Racing banner. He was scheduled to drive it alongside Andy Pilgrim and fellow Kiwi Andrew Bagnall in what would be the pinnacle of his racing career.
The time between the test (it was still known as pre-qualifying then) and the race was not a time for Owen Evans to idly contemplate his big Le Mans debut. Instead he had an important and ultimately fateful date with an attempt on the New Zealand land speed record. It didn’t end well.
Evans’ Porsche at Le Mans in 1996 – his name was absent from the final entry list
After achieving the record, registering a run of 216mph, Evans wanted to go faster and was strapped back into the specially modified Porsche 911. At similar speeds a blown right-rear tyre made the car slew off the road, before it dug into the soft grass and rolled to destruction. Evans was grievously injured.
“It seemed like the world stopped for me,” Evans Sr said after the accident. “The whole thing only took three seconds or so, but it was quite amazing as it was like a whole video replay of my life, mainly things about the kids. I knew I probably wouldn’t survive it.”
Mitch Evans was too young to remember the episode, but in home video from the day of the accident an almost two-year-old Mitch can be seen in his father’s arms just before the fateful final attempt.
Mitch today in JOTA overalls
“I couldn’t just walk away knowing I could achieve a higher speed,” said Evans of the final run. “We stuck to the game plan and it was totally my decision.”
There had been a sense of foreboding before the incident however. His eldest son – Simon, currently leading the New Zealand V8 Super Touring series, had caught his eye.
“I remember turning around to see Simon,” recalled Evans at the time. “And he looked at me, with his hands in his pockets, kicking a stone on the ground, and I thought ‘that’s a bit weird’ as he was looking at me really strangely. I glanced at him again and he sort of looked at me again as if to say ‘What you doing, Dad?’ I was nearly going to hop out of the car there and then, it was that close.”
The injuries were devastating. After leaving the road at an estimated 230mph Owen suffered a fractured skull, broken ribs, which caused both of his lungs to collapse, a fractured left leg and his right arm was partially severed. He remained in hospital for over two months before lengthy rehabilitation.
Owen would eventually recover and be able to see both of his sons motor sport careers flourish. But the dream of racing at Le Mans was over for him. Almost two decades later he will be making a pilgrimage back to La Sarthe to bury at least a few of the demons from his past and watch Mitch attempt to make it a JOTA double in LMP2.
Oh, and Owen’s replacement at the 1996 Le Mans 24 Hours? Some young chancer called Stephane Ortelli!