In the moments before the start of the world's most famous endurance race, an air of nervous enthusiasm settles over the SRT Motorsports Viper team. It feels like the curtain's about to go up on opening night and all the actors in this particular play are mentally rehearsing their lines.
“To come to the 24 Hours of Le Mans and represent the United States – there are only two American teams here, Corvette and Viper – that makes it special,” says SRT motorsports and brand boss Ralph Gilles, who is at the track to support the team from start to finish. “It feels good but it's daunting at the same time. We don't want to disappoint anyone.”
Only a handful of crew members on this team have worked at Le Mans before this year and crew chief Frank Resciniti says a few have never done a 24-hour race of any sort. Talk about trial by fire. “We're adding another page to Viper history – to racing history itself,” says Resciniti. This 90th anniversary edition of the first Le Mans 24 Hours is his sixth.
The tension extends to the drivers who will pilot the team's pair of GTE Pro-class SRT GTS-Rs over the next 24 hours. Of the six, the three in the No. 53 are comfortable veterans, with a combined 18 previous Le Mans starts between Marc Goossens, Ryan Dalziel and Dominik Farnbacher. The No. 93 drivers are learning on the job: two, Jonathan Bomarito and Kuno Wittmer, have never competed at Le Mans, while Tommy Kendall's one and only previous start was in 2000.
“It's quite something to be here,” says Wittmer. “It's the biggest racing event in the world. In my opinion, even the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indy 500 don't come close. There's so much history and prestige with Le Mans.”
Drizzle hits the grid as the green flag drops and a patchwork of variable surface conditions develops along the 8.5-mile track. Goossens, the most experienced member of the SRT Motorsports team with 11 previous Le Mans starts, takes the first stint in the No. 53 car while Wittmer takes the first stint in the No. 93.
A serious crash takes place at a very slippery Tertre Rouge corner of the Circuit de la Sarthe and the track's safety cars emerge to bring the field under yellow for nearly an hour as repairs are made to trackside barriers.
HOUR 2 The race goes green a few minutes into its second of 24 hours, with the Vipers running 10th and 11th in class. The LMP1 and LMP2 machines, the fastest in the field and in need of more frequent pit stops than the GTE-class Vipers, begin pulling in for their first fuel stops. Their arrival in pit lane signals about 20 minutes to go-time for the rookie SRT Team crew members, who begin preparing their cramped pit box in preparation for the arrival of the cars.
The first routine pit stop goes smoothly but the No. 53 team pulls out a spare hood and plans a change at the next opportunity because the integrated headlights are showing a potential problem as a lens is shifting. It's a minor problem and the team is ready to make the fix. It's been 13 years since a works Viper team raced here but the SRT boys are well aware that it's impossible to avoid issues; it's overcoming them that is key to success.
HOUR 3 Both starting drivers elect to stay in for a third stint as conditions continue to pose a challenge. With plenty of cars spinning off the slick track and rain becoming heavier outside pit row, Wittmer's No. 93 car comes in to change to wet tires while Goossens elects to keep the No. 53 on slicks. It isn't long before the rookie realizes he's been duped by Mother Nature and also the nature of the track: the rain is short-lived and the car has to pit again for slicks.
“Even when the track looks really wet, it can dry really fast,” fellow first-timer Bomarito observes, “so we hurt our wet tires and lost too much time right there. That was a lesson learned and we won't make that mistake again.”
Goossens adds: “They took the safe option and the best thing to do here is to take the safe option.”
HOUR 4 As drivers make their first swaps – Bomarito into the 93 car and Farnbacher into the 53 – comes tragic word that Allan Simonsen, who crashed in the first hour of the race, has succumbed to his injuries. The family requests that his Aston Martin team continue racing as that's what Simonsen would have wanted. SRT team boss Bill Riley gathers the squad together in the pits to share the sad news, while the drivers out on track are to be informed when they emerge from their stints. It is a shocking moment for everyone in the racing community, both at Le Mans and around the world.
“The only thing you can say is that Allan was a very, very talented driver and he died doing what he loved doing,” says a sad Goossens, who knew Simonsen.
HOUR 5 Farnbacher hits the gravel at the top of the pit lane entrance and finds himself stuck in deep. A course vehicle pulls him free, and he continues to his pit where the crew does a quick fuel and tire change. Initially it doesn't appear there's any damage but the car soon returns to the pits with an electrical problem. One of the rocks kicked up under the car in the spin has found its way between the alternator belt and pulley and the team has to make a change.
It is a frantic thrash as the crew diagnoses the problem and makes repairs, which include a battery swap, and the car is returned to the track. It's back a lap later because the passenger's-side door, opened to access the battery during the previous stop, hasn't latched closed.
“The bad part about racing here is that the gravel really sucks you in,” says crew chief Resciniti. “The crew did their job and fixed the problem and it was fine. But there is a little bit of inexperience and that's what happened with the door.”
Goossens is philosophical: “We don't need to panic. We're still here to learn and anything can happen at any time,” he says. “You'll be amazed to see tomorrow at 3 p.m. how many other people have had problems like this.”
The mood is tense, especially among the rookies, but their No. 93 car leads the No. 53 now for the first time.
HOUR 6 Tommy Kendall gets into the No. 93 car for his first turn behind the wheel and Bomarito exits. “It was amazing and tough all at once,” enthuses Bomarito. “There was a constant little mist on the track but just in certain corners. That really messes with your head quite a bit!”
As Farnbacher finishes his stint in the 53 and hands over the wheel to Ryan Dalziel, he learns from his team about the death of Simonsen. The news hits him hard as the two were close and had raced as teammates in Europe. Dominik tweets: “I will continue the race for you, my friend Allan Simonsen. You were my favorite mate. Thanks for those great memories. I miss you.”