It doesn't get any better than that.
It's hard to explain to somebody who hasn't been here to see and feel the history and power of Le Mans, but even for something as routine as the pre-race test that the SRT Viper team completed over the weekend, everything that's special about this place is out on display.
When we walk onto the track and see the small city that springs up with the trailers and all of the pit structures that are built out of the garages, everywhere you look you're reminded of the magnitude of the event. And on a more personal note, every time I walk up to my No. 93 SRT Viper, I just pinch myself because I'm not sure there's a sexier car out there anywhere right now. Altogether, it's just awesome to be here and representing an iconic brand at the most iconic endurance race. It feels like I'm doing it for the first time.
I last raced here in 2000 with a Porsche privateer team but I didn't know any of my co-drivers, I didn't know any of the team…and didn't do any testing beforehand. I was a total fish out of water and, to be honest, I don't remember that much about the race for that reason! Going back this time is a whole different experience for me and it's nice to go with a group that I know and feel comfortable with.
So, it's probably pretty clear that I love this place, but if there's a downside, you know that rain is probably going to fall at some point and that's what happened during the test. It was our first chance to turn laps at Le Mans with the new SRT Vipers, but because of the mostly wet conditions, I actually did not get any dry running in. It's not the worst thing to happen, but most of our competitors have lots of dry setup information to call upon. We don't, and will have to accelerate that process next week when official practice begins…provided it's dry!
The rules require each driver to do 10 laps during the test; it's kind of a qualifying deal to show you're able to do the job, so when the rules say those 10 laps are compulsory, they're not kidding. I guess if something happens and you don't complete the full 10, you have to go to the officials and beg for leniency and you may or may not get it. Literally, your whole invitation to in the Le Mans 24 Hours is in jeopardy until you complete this phase.
Maybe it's because I'm the salty old dog in the team, but the SRT gang sent me out first, and sure, it's a quite an honor to be the first person to drive the latest Viper GTS-R at Le Mans. But at the same time, it was incredibly nerve-racking because the track was wet, it was still raining, and there was no leeway for mistakes because my teammates Kuno Wittmer and Jonathan Bomarito had to get their 10 compulsory laps in, too. No pressure!
Instead of exploring the limits in those conditions, I just circulated around all 8.5 miles until I was clear. Obviously you're going around the track and you're feeling it out a little bit but, for the most part, I had to be so far on the safe side that speed and lap times weren't even a consideration. When they radioed to me, “You have your 10 laps completed and you can come in,” all of a sudden this weight was lifted, and I was raring to have a proper go, but I couldn't because I had to pit and turn it over to Kuno and Jonathan. So that was that. Then we ran out of time for me to make a harder run at the end of the day.
We ended up having an issue when Kuno got pulled off the track by the ACO and was asked to try and engage reverse but there was an issue and he couldn't do it. Jonathan got to do his laps, but Kuno got summoned by the stewards and got a pretty strong reprimand. And then they called Jonathan in and, sure enough, the same issue sprang up. Lots of planning goes into the test day, but sometimes the weather intervenes and sometimes you end up working through little issues like the one we had. The hope is that you've handled all the problems before we go racing.
I'd say we're still pretty happy with what we learned about the car. Kuno put in some awesome laps for a guy that has never been to Le Mans, and it really validated the simulator program that we've been developing. He's spent the most time on the simulator, five or six days, and I drove last week. Overall, we're quite pleased with it.
There's still some room for improvement and, like I mentioned, we barely got any dry running, but it was a real tribute to the SRT guys and the Riley Technologies guys and the simulator program that they've been obsessing over. All they've worried about is how to get the car ready and what setup we wanted to run, and we were so close to where we wanted to be right out of the gate.
With the driving activities over for the week, all the guys have gone in different directions; I came to Paris, met up with my wife for a few days and now leave for London to film a test drive before coming back to Le Mans on Sunday for scrutineering.
Every part of this experience is cool. The tech process is a major event, a major procedure. It just adds to the build-up and I'm looking forward to that in-town scrutineering and the team photo and everything that goes with it. I really enjoy all the little aspects of this event; it's not just about the driving, but everything that goes on before and after that makes the 24 Hours of Le Mans such an unrivaled, unparalleled happening.
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