The month of June sees the endurance side of motorsport focus on a city 120 miles to the west of Paris and its world famous race, Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans.
Throughout the years the Le Mans 24 Hours has remained close to the road racing roots of the sport, still running on public highways as well as the normal closed track. This link to the past is part of the enduring appeal of the race.
The Circuit de la Sarthe itself has added to the legends of the sport, corners such as Indianapolis, Arnage, and Tertre Rouge becoming familiar to the tens of thousands of fans who flock to the race every June. Perhaps the best known part of the track is the route départementale 338 or simply, the Mulsanne Straight. This was a flat out run for the competitors, a true temple of speed, until safety considerations led to the introduction of two chicanes in 1990. With top speeds exceeding 250mph in the preceding races such action was really necessary to protect competitors, marshals and spectators.
This ultimate test of man and machine at speed is one of the greatest sporting spectacles on the planet – indeed National Geographic named it as the overall top global sporting event that should be experienced, even including the Olympics. From the small beginnings in 1923 the race today extends over a week with scrutineering, autograph session, concerts, practice, qualifying and a parade filling the time before the race itself gets under way on Saturday afternoon.
The schedule begins with the teams bringing themselves down into the city centre to pass the process of scrutineering, a series of checks and measurement of the cars and licences and other paperwork, though much of this is ceremonial these days. The final part of the ritual is a team shot with the crew, the drivers and the car lined up to be recorded for posterity.
Greaves Motorsports had a major change in its composition after Gary Chalandon left the team following the race at Spa. In his place 20 year old Olivier Lombard had been signed for the rest of the season.
Team Principal, Tim Greaves, explained the rationale behind this choice.
“Olivier was one of the drivers who enquired about a drive for us for the 2011 Le Mans 24 hours. However, at that time we had just decided to retain Tom Kimber-Smith for Le Mans but I kept in contact with Olivier.”
“Subsequently, an opportunity arose for him to share a drive with Kevin Weeda in one of our Radical SR8s at Spa. Olivier was very impressive; in the short time he had in the SR8, he qualified third and posted the third fastest lap time in the race. The quality of drivers in the Radical field is very high, especially at the sharp end of the grid. With Gary leaving the team, Olivier seemed the best choice to replace him as he was also available for the rest of the season.”
“Greaves Motorsport received a lot of interest from drivers wishing to race with us at this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, all very high quality. Saying no to them has been very difficult; I hope they won’t hold it against me.”
“We have a strong driver line up for the 24 hour race and one of the best teams in the pit lane. Now we have to deal with all the other challenges that the big race with throw at us!”
The first action on track kicked off at 16.00 on Wednesday, 8th June. The four hour session was used to get Olivier familiar with the car and the track, as his experience with the Zytek was limited to few laps at Rockingham when the team completed a final shakedown run before heading to France. All went well with Karim and Tom also getting some mileage on the board. The final result was a time of 3:45.229, good enough for fifth place in LM P2.
In to the dark for the first Qualifying session and Tom posted the fastest time in early in the proceedings, with a 3:43.814 to head the class. However while trying to improve on this effort he clipped a kerb on the second section of the very quick Porsche Curves. This pitched the Zytek-Nissan into a complete 360° spin. Fortunately the car only grazed the barriers so damage to front and rear was light and Tom was able to drive the car back to the pits for attention.
The crew repaired the superficial damage and the team resumed the planned programme of getting car and drivers prepared for the race. Karim Ojjeh completed his full allocation of laps with a fast and consistent pace, despite niggles with the gearbox. Tom’s time was still good enough for fourth.
The following evening during the second qualifying session the team concentrated on getting a good race set up, making the car as easy to drive as possible during the marathon to come. In the final Qualifying session Tom improved fractionally on his time from Wednesday to post a 3:43.802, which left the team 6th on the LM P2 grid, none of which would matter at 15.00 on Sunday. Tom’s team-mates were also highly competitive with Karim recording a 3:49.718 and Olivier a 3:47.774; there was a quiet air of confidence in the garage.
Tim, as ever, had a few thoughts after the final session.
“Tom was very quick but clearly disappointed with himself, but he will have plenty of time to show his skills over the week-end”
“During the first session we had issues with the gear change which proved difficult to pin point the problem and it is still some that needs attention.”
”Other than that we are good to go. Tomorrow we will change the engine and suspension in readiness for the race on Saturday.”
Friday is designated as a rest day, though for those working on the cars it is anything but, as every aspect of the car is checked and checked again and again and again in an obsessive-compulsive drive to ensure that no potential problem is overlooked and every aspect of performance is optimised.
The fans invade the pit lane from mid-morning and watch the mechanics prepare the cars for the race. The drivers have their part to play as they make the trip into the city for another unique feature of the Le Mans 24 Hours, the Drivers’ Parade. Once assembled the trio of drivers climb into old cars and are driven round the city centre to receive the plaudits from the crowds, they sign autographs and give interviews.
It is these events that enable the participants to connect directly with the fans, making everyone part of the spectacle. The atmosphere is that of a giant party, with everyone invited, so unlike certain other areas of motorsport.
Saturday comes around and it is an early start for the team, most of whom will face a 40 to 50 hour day before seeing their beds again. The Morning Warm Up passed by without issue, the various support races were run, a spot of lunch was grabbed and soon it was time to get into position for the main event.
Olivier Lombard had brought a new sponsor along, the famous Parisian cabaret, Moulin Rouge. Being very obliging a few of their dancers came to support the team in person, and of course a photo-shoot with the car had to be organised. It seemed very popular with both those fortunate enough to be on the grid and the fans lining the Pit Straight.
The cars were lined up against the pit wall in a salute to the famous Le Mans Start, that saw the drivers line up on the opposite side of the track and then sprint to their vehicles to get the race under-way. Safety considerations have long put paid to that tradition but there is still a real sense of occasion, of the build up to the main event.
Then it is time for the drivers to get on board and head round the circuit for the formation lap. The grid forms up and the final checks and rechecks are made by the crew, then suddenly it is time to clear everyone off the track and the cars set off on the pace lap.
This year the role of Honorary Starter was given to Jean Todt, President of the FIA, and he waved Le Tricolore at precisely Three o’clock to get the race under-way.
There was a plan: Tom was to keep pace with the leaders while looking after the tyres and not risking the car in traffic. It would be the same plan for Olivier and Karim when their turn to drive came. Of course a simple plan like this is easy to say; actually executing it would be the hard part.
There were other factors that necessitated changes to the original strategy. The two huge accidents to the Audis during the first half of the race brought out the Safety Car for nearly 3½ hours, causing those on the Pit Wall to get their calculators out and try to optimise the fuel/tyres options at pit stops.
All three drivers cycled through their stints in rotation, till at around 02.00 on Sunday morning car #41 grabbed the lead. A combination of faultless driving and preparation was paying dividends, in contrast to the opposition who were having various issues, serious or minor, that would delay their progress.
The car suffered only one mechanical problem – a small screw in the paddle shift assembly coming loose; that gave some intermittent problems with the gear changes. It was fixed with a new steering wheel during one of the early Sunday pitstops.
As the hours of darkness continued the lead increased and at the halfway mark the Greaves Motorsport Zytek-Nissan had completed 156 laps, one more than the second placed Oreca. By the three-quarter mark the lead had stretched out to four laps, but there was still a full six hours to go and Le Mans is always looking to catch out the unwary.
So it proved as it would not be “Le Mans” without at least one drama and for the team that happened to Tom Kimber-Smith. After a routine pit stop just after midday on Sunday he spun the car at the Dunlop Bridge while on cold slick tyres on a wet track. The team enjoyed an eight lap lead at that stage, so after Tom was able to get out of the gravel, the crew checked everything over in the pits and the Zytek Z11SN – Nissan was soon back on track and in the lead of the LM P2 class.
The hours passed with the finish approaching; the tension in the Greaves Pit Box grew almost unbearable. Suddenly it was time for the Clerk of the Course, Daniel Poissenot, to appear on the Pit Straight and wave the Chequered Flag to finish the 2011 Le Mans 24 Hours. Greaves Motorsport had done it, the drivers, the crew and all the friends and family were overwhelmed – they had won Le Mans!
In one of the most dramatic and competitive races ever seen on the classic French circuit, Greaves Motorsport scored an emphatic victory on the LM P2 Class with their Zytek Z11SN – Nissan, driven by Karim Ojjeh, Olivier Lombard and Tom Kimber-Smith. The trio completed 326 laps to finish at the head of their class by a margin of six laps and also an amazing 8th overall in the final results.
The victory was achieved in the classic way by keeping the car out of the pits and on track. The ingredients of this success were three very quick and safe drivers, the best team to support their performances and of course an ultra competitive Zytek Z11SN – Nissan package.
“This was a victory built on team work. From the drivers, to the crew, our suppliers and partners such as Dunlop, Nissan and Zytek, everyone did their planned tasks to the maximum. There are hundreds of people involved in getting the job done, not forgetting the support from our new best friends, the Moulin Rouge girls”
“The drivers did a fantastic job driving a fast, but disciplined race. The reliability and speed of the car reflects the professionalism and hard work of the crew. Add in the contribution of legendary Race Team Director, Paul Thomas, and also the multi tasking Team Manager, my son – who even gave up his job of changing tyres – it was a good job, well done by all.”
“We knew the car was good, the chassis, engine and crew so we had all the accessories to win. We did our job against tough opposition and the car went like clockwork. Nissan have never won at the Le Mans 24 hours and we are just a simple client of theirs who was looking for an engine. I’ll decide at the end of the year and the end of the LMS whether I will retire.”
“I would love to come here as a factory driver; that would be very special. We always had a plan, which was really just to stay out of trouble. Look what happened to Audi which could have happened to anyone, including us. Olivier showed this morning that our car could have been the fastest in the class but you increase the risk of something bad happening if you do that.”
“Exceptional, there is no other word. I only tested the car last week for the first time so I am delighted with what we’ve been able to do. I will be at Imola with Greaves Motorsport and the rest of the LMS.”
Race Result: 1st LM P2 (8th Overall), best lap 3:43.883
Qualifying: 3:43.802 6th LM P2