INSIGHT: Vipers strike at Le Mans
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.”
HOUR 1 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.”
HOUR 7 All of the drivers on the SRT Motorsports Viper team are running multiple stints, staying in the car for up to three hours at a time. (Under the rules, they aren't allowed to run for more than four hours in a six-hour window). Between stints they'll grab a snack and a drink in the pits, and they have the option to head back to team trailers where they can get a massage and a nap. The rest of the time they are found in the control room at the back of the team's pit box in front-row seats that give them the best view of the team's live results and telemetry.
HOUR 8 Kendall exits and hands over to Wittmer for his second session in the 93. “Traffic affected me a fair amount, so I wasn't happy with my speed,” says Kendall, whose priority is to keep it clean and not get embroiled in any incidents. “I just kept telling myself ‘Gas and tires, gas and tires – they're the only reason we want to come into the pits.' It's a long way to go to the end. I'm going to get some fluids, food, a rub-down and some sleep.”
This being just a day after the longest day of the year, the sun doesn't set until 10:03 p.m., but paradoxically, some of these Le Mans rookies are heading into what will feel like the longest night of their career.
HOUR 9 Goossens returns to the No. 53 car as the pit crew provides a scheduled brake service, but soon after, the driver hits the radio to report that the car is pulling left under braking and he's coming back in. One of the rear calipers has seized and further repairs must be made. It's more bad luck for the veterans on the Viper team, and the car is down to 12th in class.
Wittmer, meanwhile, has to endure a 30-second stop-and-go penalty after failing to observe the red pit light during a safety car period.
HOUR 10 No dramas but it's past midnight, it's cold and it's raining. Both Vipers keep reliably laying down laps, while many crew members simply lay down.
HOUR 11 Farnbacher takes over the No. 53 car from Goossens, Bomarito takes over from Wittmer in the 93. “We didn't quite have the start to the race that we wanted,” says Wittmer, “but I think it's slowly changing to our direction. We're going to keep cracking off laps, keep running fast, keep running hard and let's see where it takes us at 3 p.m. on Sunday.”
The voyage of discovery for SRT Motorsports is all about gaining experience, and getting to the end of the race will maximize that learning process.
HOUR 12 Still cold, still wet, and the cars have been running for long stretches behind the safety car due to many caution periods. “We have to watch certain things, especially the engine temperature to make sure they don't run too cool,” says Gary Johnson, SRT Motorsports' racing manager. “We've been taping up some of the grille to take care of that.”
HOUR 13 In the No. 93, Kendall takes over from Bomarito who has just added layers of experience to his enduro driving résumé, for driving a GT car in the dark at Le Mans offers an additional challenge. The sports prototypes fly past the GT cars on the straights and their downforce allows them to carry huge speed into the corners, so Jonathan counts on the team to keep him in a state of high alert.
“Those headlights close in on you from so far back that it's really important to know when they're coming,” he observes. “That way you can time when, where and how you let them past without losing too much time to your GT rivals.”
HOUR 14 There's been a lot of gravel strewn across the track surface thanks to many wayward moments from various competitors in the 55 cars that started this 90th anniversary Le Mans, and many teams are reporting punctures. Kendall discovers his after the final third of what was once the Mulsanne Straight, while under braking for Mulsanne Corner. It gives him two scares.
“I did a huge tank slapper, and ended up in the gravel," he relates. "After I was pulled out, I had to drive back to the pits very slowly and I can tell you, it's hairy going 15mph at night!”
Despite TK's conscientiousness, the tire carcass breaks some of the left-rear bodywork, so the No. 93 crew removes the rear diffuser to clean out the gravel and give the car a thorough check over. After applying repair tape to the torn body panels to hold them together for the remainder of the race, the car is sent on its way.
Farnbacher exits the No. 53 car for Dalziel's next stint, reporting that he's pleased with the Viper GTS-R's behavior for an event like this. “It's very stable, easy to drive and good on tires. You hardly even sweat in the car,” he says. “Another thing is, the fans love the Viper! You can see them jumping up and down when they see that fireball coming out of the exhaust.”
HOUR 15 Kendall surrenders the wheel of the No. 93 to Wittmer, while Dalziel exits the No. 53 car and Goossens returns after what he describes as a “good night's sleep” – a somewhat generous description for a 90-minute nap.
Sleeping at the track is a surreal experience. In the team accommodations, the sound of engines is muffled but omnipresent, while the PA system runs all night. When the track goes under yellow, the engine noise fades, but at the green, the cars scream. In short, it's hard to truly sleep.
HOUR 16 Having made it through a long night with both cars still running strong, sunrise at 6 a.m. seems like it should be cause for celebration. Instead, it's tough on morale: eight hours – approximately the duration of five back-to-back Formula 1 races – remains. The service crew members are huddled under shipping blankets they've pulled off spare panels, sleeping fitfully. “We started getting ready at 6 a.m. on Saturday,” points out Resciniti. “Everybody's tired, everybody's cold, and it just keeps going…”
HOUR 17 Behind the wheel, Wittmer is continuing at a measured pace and the No. 93 is holding strong in 10th. “You know, a lot of guys are running pretty quick and I don't think it's necessary right now to knock off any under four-minute laps,” he says afterward.
HOUR 18 Wittmer hands over to Bomarito who is still perplexed by the weather and consequent track conditions over such a long circuit. “You're always questioning what you might find,” he says. “It's raining on one corner – light sprinkles – then something better or worse in other corners.”
HOUR 19 The weather still won't settle one way or another and Bomarito's opinion is endorsed even by the veterans. After surrendering the No. 53 Viper to Farnbacher, Goossens remarks: “It's so tricky, chopping and changing. We're using wets, drys, intermediates…And it's very cold this morning.” He may be referring to how this affects grip levels. He may simply be sympathizing with the SRT crew who, between stops, are sprawled out but trying to keep warm. It's a scene echoed in every garage along pit lane.
HOUR 20 A record number of caution laps are recorded as drivers struggle with inconsistent grip levels.
HOUR 21 Farnbacher pits the No. 53 a couple of laps earlier than planned with a flat left-rear tire and hands off to Dalziel. Bomarito turns the No. 93 over to Kendall and it appears that an issue may be emerging with the electronics in the transmission. Without losing a vast amount of time, there's nothing the crew can do but hope it doesn't get worse.
HOUR 22 Goossens takes over the No. 53 from Dalziel whose work is now done. “It seems through the race we've gradually gotten faster,” says Dalziel (at far right, with Farnbacher) who's in good humor as he enjoys a hot crepe for breakfast. “It's fitting that Marc should finish the race. He's very much the team leader and it's a nice reward to the driver from the team.”
Driving the final stint is going to be a mixed blessing in the No. 93. Kendall hands off to Wittmer and he'll be the guy to take the checkered flag – providing it lasts. The transmission is continuing to struggle and the drivers have had to revert to manual shifting techniques. “It's even harder than it would be on an old-school car,” reports Bomarito. “The pedals aren't set up for that type of driving with the clutch and it's harder to time the shifts with the paddles.”
HOUR 23 Goossens puts down a few laps in the 3min58sec range. The Viper is clearly handling well through corners, and makes pass after pass through the turns, but that serves to highlight that the regulations have strangled much of the engine's potential and its straight-line grunt is nowhere near what it could/should be. The Viper's V10, which pumps out 640hp in road course spec, has been restricted to produce fewer than 500 chevaux in race trim. “To do all that work through the turns for nothing, it's very easy to get frustrated and dragged into risky situations,” says Goossens, “but there's no point in chancing everything.”
HOUR 24 TV coverage playing in the pits shows heavy rain at the back of the track, which the drivers confirm on the radio. Both cars come in for wet tires and the change is fast and efficient. In a moment of perfect choreography, the rain catches up with the race in pit-lane as the cars scream away from their pits. The rookie Viper team has found its rhythm.
The team runs out to the grid as Goossens and Wittmer bring Vipers 53 and 93 home in eighth and ninth, respectively. “I had tears in my eyes the whole final lap,” says an emotional Wittmer.
Bringing the car home at the end of a 24-hour race is always a victory of sorts. The fact that the SRT Motorsports team has gotten both Viper GTS-Rs to the end and in the top 10 on the model's Le Mans debut is an absolutely huge deal. That's a combined total of 48 hours of race experience that could not have been replicated in any test session. Everyone on the SRT team has learned a multitude of major lessons in racing's hardest environment of all. And next year the Viper GTS-Rs will return, stronger and faster, because competition improves the breed. Always.
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