Murphy Prototypes driver Mark Patterson shares more of the 2015 Le Mans race through his unique and witty perspective with anecdotes from behind-the-scenes
July 8, 2015
Story by Mark Patterson – Photos by Thomas Murray and James Edmonds – Special Thanks to Chequered Flag Media
Read Part 1 here
The hysteria building to the 83rd running of this epic race kept pace all day Friday with a golf game at the Le Mans course (inside the track, down at the Mulsanne corner); a classic car signing session nearby and then of course the annual opportunity for France to show off it’s organizational incompetence: the highly complex and widely admired Driver Parade throughout the downtown streets of Le Mans before a sidewalk choked with fans who behave like hooligans in an English pub at 3am after defeating Ireland or Swaziland in a major rugby game. The teams are driven through town on extremely old collectible convertibles, perched on top of the back seat perfectly poised for throwing T shirts, key rings, hero cards, caps and other memorabilia at the screaming crowd of lunatics. They beg like Oliver Twist did for porridge but being English, the little boy was more civil. You have to be there at 4pm for the 5 o’clock launch so we accommodate French punctuality by showing up at 4:30 to minimize the amount of downtime we have to suffer while the organizers try to remember the right sequence of events for something that has happened over 80 times so far, yet never on time. The parade started at 6:45, unnecessarily exhausting a lot of drivers standing around doing nothing. By the time we got going, as the 3rd last car in the line (for some reason behind some unique collector cars, motorcycles and Jamaican dancing bands), the first cars were already parked back at the cathedral with their drivers heading back for an early night’s sleep. None of this detracts from the roaring, begging, sell-my-child appeals from the fruity sidewalk mass, but it places a real burden on the teams who leave last.
The best Friday news was playing golf with Bruce Tully from the U.S. and Nathanael, who has played half a dozen times in his life. Given that vast reservoir of experience, certain shots clearly resulted in balls probably never having to suffer the indignity of a smack to the head ever again. However on a 180 yard downhill par 3, he picked up a wedge (says it’s his best club) that I urged him to replace with a 5 iron and just swing slowly, smoothly. For once he listened, head down, hands through the ball, good club head speed – all the things you learn during your first 5 or 6 times on a golf course, and the ball soared into the sky landing perfectly on the green, generating more jubilation from Nat than winning a race. Golf can do that to you. He almost forgot to watch the rest of the action, with the ball rolling elegantly towards the cup, missing by just a few inches, but one good 3 foot put later and Monsieur Berthon had earned his first birdie.
Race day started slightly cool but with ranging blue skies likely to last through my first double stint and that’s good enough news to greet the day warmly. The 9am warm-up session helped us and others find minor imperfections to optimize the car with all three drivers doing a few laps, practicing driver changes and then sitting down with the head mechanic and engineers to map out our strategy for the next 24 hours. This rotates around pushing the pro drivers into 3 stints back to back with me doing doubles, except they’ve spared me the darkest night hours. President Hollande, fleeing Paris and his record lowest popularity poles in French history, came to witness the start (the first French President in more than 30 years to come to Le Mans). When he arrived, the entire army of fans who were crammed into the stands rose together and booed him to death. Rather weird, but this is France and the rest of the grid parade went well for the 14 LMP1 cars, 19 LMP2 cars and the 22 GT cars (minus 2 Corvettes makes it 20), desperate for the crowd to move on and the race to start.
The only oddity for this year’s starting grid was seeing 4 LMP1 cars positioned behind the last LMP2, the result of the 110% rule: a privateer team and all 3 factory Nissan’s qualified worse than 110% of P1 in their class, so their disgrace is to have to start “out of class”. A privateer team one might understand, but a massive budget propelling a foray into the big leagues of LMP1 competition by a company like Nissan? No excuses. Someone in engineering or marketing has to step down. To further muddy their already deeply muddied stance, 45 minutes into the race the slowest Nissan (#21) suffered the embarrassment of the left side door popping open, though probably not just for air conditioning purposes. This is a door latch part we’re talking about, not a failure of a 1,200 horsepower engine – hard to explain why heads won’t roll.
The start was a multi-lap Herculean horse race inches apart, mainly between Audi and Porsche, but the two Porsches swapped P2 and P1 with ex-Murphy driver’s red #18 car taking the race lead and progressively inching away. Within just 22 minutes these blindingly quick LMP1 race cars began lapping the back of the GT grid and the race was on with all classes now alert to having to share the track until 3pm tomorrow.
It only took one hour for the first safety car incident to occur when the Rebellion LMP1 hit an LMP2 going into the first chicane sliding uncontrollably sideways on oil dropped seconds before by a factory GT Porsche, when their engine blew. The red Rebellion hit the LMP2, which hit the damaged GT Porsche, which caused the Porsche to catch fire – game over for them, plus two other unwitting competitors had their race plans inverted without warning. Racing is brutally unkind to the unlucky as well as to those who think they aren’t even involved in the unlucky team’s bad luck.
Our almost bad luck in Nathanael’s opening triple stint was getting by Tracy Krohn’s light green machine when he went spinning into the first chicane, very nearly hammering into us. “Almost” is one of the most important words in the English language, because it implies that traumatic events really don’t have to be remembered or described. Our real bad luck was that the leading three LMP2 cars were caught by the first of the safety cars (such a long track, they use three) and we got caught behind the second one, forcing about a minute and a half gap to the LMP2 leaders down our throats. Not so much fun. What was a lot of fun was Nat sticking to the long goal strategy without pushing for lap times, and after his three stints were over and Karun jumped in for his triple-stinter, we had gradually hauled in a few positions compared to our starting P8 grid spot. By 6:30pm we were P3 under yet another safety car procedure (the 3third so far). These SC procedures obviously extend the stint time for a load of fuel from 50 minutes by another 5-10-15 minutes, so my first double stint had been pushed off at least half to three quarters of an hour. That’s not a hardship, just a fact. The hardship is that this SC was called based on yet another Porsche GT car going up in flames after dropping most of its oil at the entry to the second chicane.
This was all 45 minutes after an LMP1 Audi, spotting one of the leading Porsches essentially trapped in a huddle of GT traffic barreling down the Mulsanne straight, did the one thing race strategists in endurance races hate: taking a massive chance by cutting two wheels off track and trying to gain a small advantage while risking the entire race. The Audi shifting over with both left wheels on the race surface and the right ones now on the crabby shoulder, lost control at the high speeds they prefer, exploded left into all the traffic, smashing up at least one other car but deservedly wiped out his chances of ever finishing this race. Running in P2-P4 overall in a 24 hour race and taking that kind of chance makes no sense whatsoever. That Audi is out of the race. Done. Finished. And will have to sit through a quiet conversation with Dr. Ullrich.
Right before the 6:45pm restart, we had to pit for an engine oil fill up (off plan), so we continue towards the 4th hour in P6 and current plans are for me to jump in around 8 PM, one hour off a perfect accident free race. We hold positions between 4th and 6th as cars all make their different pit strategies work.
Best Green Irish Finish, yet below our hopes
It’s been a long time since sending the last note as things seemed to zoom by without time for contemplation and writing. I will start where we left off and try to make heads or tails of what happened in between.
I dived into a pillow on Saturday night from what seemed like a dizzying height at 12:30am (well, that’s actually Sunday morning) after a large plate of pasta and chicken, killing five good hours of night’s most challenging dark hours…all the while with two background noises pounding in your head: massive throbbing race engines changing gears without interruption and the incessant base beat of some heavy rock music that plays almost through the night, for those silly enough to stay up that long. All this while my partners labored on with the yoke of triple stints across their shoulders ‘til the morning light cast a sheen across this gorgeous French countryside. To finish the night chore with almost no sleep at all, Nat put in a quad (four stints of 50 minutes each plus some safety car time) at the end, knocking himself flat. The best news came from this exhausted but smiling Nathanael, stumbling into our sleeping quarters 200 meters from the garage as I was heading back down to drive an early morning shift: “We are P3, mate, yez, yez, P3” as he fumbled with his bedroom door handle for a well earned two hour snooze.
Last night before hitting the pillow – maybe somewhere around 8pm – a full hour later than our zero safety car scenario, I jumped in for a double stint and while the driver change was smooth, my belts weren’t yet tight by the time Roy lifted the lollipop (signal to fire up the engine and get back out on track), and the water bottle tube hadn’t yet been been connected to the automatic feeder link. Got the belts done 90% before pit out and made several final tugs going down the Mulsanne Straight. Left handed, trying to pin the water tube into a quarter inch hole on the complex dash area, while barreling down the long bumpy straights with one hand on the wheel was exciting but not really successful. A double stint without liquids was a non-starter so on the next lap I switched to right handed even though I knew that’s the upshift hand, a daring but unavoidable chore. Once plugged in, I peddled away gleefully getting stuck in GT traffic in all the expensive areas (Dunlop bridge, Indianapolis, Porsche curves) and feeling sloppy pegging 3:50s and 3:52s, but as time went by, things settled down below 3:50 and in clear laps, down around 47s and 48s. Early after the refueling stop, no tires, I suddenly started to feel some lower leg cramps particularly in the right leg, despite taking an electrolyte infused sip at least two or three times a lap. Initially not a big deal, but this isn’t a GT car with lots of room – you can’t reach down all the way below your knee to massage the problem and at 260-300 kph, that involves elements of risk some members of the team may feel are inconsistent with our long term race goals. At one stage I had to get my left foot over onto the gas pedal to relieve the right leg cramps and to keep moving forward. Unless you’ve driven an LMP2 and know how compact things are below the steering wheel, it’s not easy to understand this kind of pretzel maneuver. Despite the humiliation of asking the engineers to get the next driver ready in case I had to bail out early and off sequence, I made it to the end of the double stint and booked a 3:45.3 lap, a solid 3 seconds better than 2013, practice a week ago or the recent quali sessions.
The ever upbeat Alice MacKenzie, our physio, beat the living daylights a out of all sore areas, starting with my ego, before I headed for the food tent and then nosedived into bed. By the way, turns out I was wrong in the last report about the chance-taking Audi that really crashed hard on Mulsanne Straight – he made it back out with new body work in a matter of minutes and finished the race 7th. They were not taken out by what to any normal TV eyeballer would seem to have been a race ending incident.
What happened during the 5 hours I was asleep is hard to know, but Nat’s glee early in morning at being in P3 and more than a minute ahead of our next rival, said it all. Our engineers planned on our pro lap times averaging 3 minutes 42 seconds and 10 seconds a lap more for me. So holding onto P3 against some of the best pro drivers in WEC and the ELMS is not a good math exercise when I’m in the car, but during the morning double stint that started at 8am, I managed to embarrass our reliable team of engineers (Taka and Dave Benbow) by running untrafficked laps in the 3:45 to 46 area, shaving some of the planned bronze driver time loss off a bit. Running our pros on medium tires meant their times, while solidly 3:40s and 41s, were no match for the two LMP2 leaders who ran softs at night and managed quick lap times of 3:37 and 38. Quali times. As Brendon Hartley mentioned after the race, jaw agape, their two winning Porsches had just finished a 24 hour race averaging 2 seconds below last year’s LMP1 quali times!
With only hints of cramping in the morning stint, when Dave radioed in to ask if I could stay in and do a triple stint. I knew immediately what this meant tactically: with so many yellow zones and safety car interruptions, if I could do one more continuous stint and satisfy my minimum 4 hours in the car, the final hours of the race could be run by Nat and Karun, saving us yet another driver change, worth at least 25-30 seconds in gross race time. We actually did finish the race with the lowest number of pit stops among the top 10 LMP2 class competitors (30 versus 31-36), though some of the leaders were obviously following a version of our strategy too. That and the fact that we pitted twice off-plan, slightly corroded the purity of Benbow’s strategy. So as the fuel load ran down I agreed to stay in for a third run. During that fuel only stop the team had been ordered to repair some rear bodywork damaged when an Oak Racing Ligier popped us in the rear going into the braking zone of the Dunlop chicane, a tricky approach if ever there was one. He spun into the kitty litter but we hardly felt it – nevertheless, we ate crow sitting in the pit box as time slipped by before releasing for the tactical third grandpa stint. I couldn’t have felt prouder that Taka and Dave had lost my birth certificate and was just having a ball clocking good lap times and keeping us on track in 4th place.
Until I didn’t. The most slippery braking corner is Mulsanne at the end of the massive straight. We know this so we brake hard at a certain point and manage the closing distance to ensure a smooth tight apex entry in 2nd gear, which after a while you can do like clockwork. This time the clock wasn’t working so well and I overshot a few yards, going back to throttle at the exit and the car made one of the more balletic moves of the entire race, spinning around 189 degrees. When Tracy Krohn crashed his Ligier or his Ferrari last year (in each case several times) it makes the evening news for catastrophic bubblegum eye candy reasons. Unfortunately for me, during the slow spin, an iconic yellow Corvette nicked the left corner of our Murphy Mobile without me even feeling it. Apparently on TV you could notice there may have been some slight contact but our engineers didn’t even bother to radio me any warning about missing bits. By the time I got the car fired back up, out of danger of blind approaching cars and back on the track, my right calf had cramped up to the size of a Krugerrand but not nearly as valuable or useful. With still 33 of our 75 liters of fuel still left in the car I had no choice but to call for an unscheduled driver change. When I pitted, the car was immediately popped up on trolleys and wheeled backwards into the garage, which I couldn’t understand at first. Turns out the entire left corner was hanging on by a thread and it took us 7 laps or about 25 minutes to change the rear wing, the dampers and springs. Lesson: don’t spin.
Nathanael retook the track in P6 around 10:30am with less than 5 hours to go…meaning our shot at a podium now had odds something like midday dew in the summer sands of Abu Dhabi. For those who haven’t been to Abu Dhabi in midsummer, don’t go, because it’s cheaper to experience the sensation by simply sticking your hand into an oven for 2 minutes while the Thanksgiving turkey is being roasted. He put in yeoman’s work as did Karun in the final stints, pounding out laps at or below 3:40s and out of the blue a tiny shard of luck came our way when one of the Oak Racing Ligiers had a tiny gear part fail, taking them out of the race completely with an hour to go. Sometimes it might be better to be taken out early in the race before your hopes have been elevated too much. Our P6 became P5 and Karun made no mistakes, judiciously bringing the ship home in a solid spot for the history books. This is Murphy Prototypes’ best Le Mans finish and I’m confident it will be bettered in the coming years. In total Nat drove over 12 hours, Karun over 8 and me just under 4.
While Nat and Karun were busy ensuring our P5 was safe for record keeping purposes, team manager Alan McGarrity took me to see the ACO doctor because my total driving time was 10 minutes light of 4 hours and we could get disqualified if I didn’t do another stint. There is no 10 minute stint, so it’s 50 “fuel” minutes or nothing. So he created this wounded warrior script for me to play out my in front of the officials, begging for an exception – a force majeure exception – that would exempt me from another full stint based on safety for all competitors. So considerate. We were just trying to avoid another driver change of 25-30 seconds. One delightful side benefit of this little farce was that we had to go up to the control room to locate the official ACO doctor…I thought we’d walked into NASA’s control room. Just stunning. After the senior Doc put me in the hands of some nurses and doctors to give me a liter of saline drip, Alan promptly abandoned me and I was left alone for an hour as not one but two bags of this junk dripped slowly into my left arm through a vicious looking needle. Only after I felt dizzy from all this damn liquid could I honestly tell them I couldn’t drive another stint. Their rules say to sign these force majeure waivers, they need to take away my racing license and have me apply at the next race to see if I’m fit enough to compete. So they decided to be French instead and said we should simply agree that I will not climb back in the car and they will provide an explanatory letter that doesn’t penalize our team. After the race Alan showed me a letter signed by all 5 of the top ACO officials waiving my 4 hour limit in exchange for being penalized 10 minutes at the end of the season. Our ELMS season is measured in points, not time. The letter is meaningless but I like the way they think and am applying for French citizenship on Monday.
Of the three Le Mans races I’ve been lucky enough to compete in (plus the first one I attended as a guest of Bill Maier of Natixis Bank in NYC), this one really had drama to spare, even from the start. There were some obvious mistakes and some really weird ones, fires galore (one even next to us in the pits from a faulty refueling rig), but as the race wore on, fatigue always interferes with plans set almost a day ago when minds still had their logic buttons switched on. Mechanical and human fatigue combine to produce disappointment, shame, regret and conversely joy for those who benefit from the adversity of others. Examples include both the leading Ferrari in the GT Pro class: with just over an hour to go, with a clearly unidentifiable problem, being wheeled into the garage and never leaving it. Also, with only 45 minutes to go, the GT Am leading team forcibly put their gorgeous Aston Martin into the wall at the Porsche Chicane, apparently not managing to brake at all for the second apex – Paul Dalla Lana, their experienced bronze driver was at the wheel at the time. Two of four class leaders dealt a blow with just a small sack full of minutes left to go to the checkered.
Our garage was filled with Murphy fans, wives, daughters and wonderful guests like Bruce Tully for his second Le Mans in a row, his brother-in-law Tom Sennet and nephew Simon Schneider; Bill Maier again of course (after hosting his 3rd bon voyage Le Mans cocktail party for me in NYC) and local Natixis executive Stephane Pasquier. Bill also brought along the CEO of a significant Natixis client, but because his board thinks he was researching an acquisition in Europe, Paul will have to go nameless. He’s a race driver himself and seemed to get a kick out of seeing the sausage being made up close and in person.
When the curtain dropped at 3 PM some of the good guys came out on top for a change. Well-known F1 driver Nico Hulkenberg has never run Le Mans before and ended up winning it for Porsche. One of his co-drivers just a year ago was competing against us at United Autosports in the British GT championship (Nick Tandy) and now he’s a Porsche LMP1 factory driver with a Le Mans win notched into his belt. Brendon Hartley’s bright red Porsche #17 came home a close 2nd, giving Porsche dominance in this race over last year’s WEC champions (Toyota) and the irritatingly winning habits of Audi’s amazing cars. The only car Tom Kristensen drove this year was the pace car that kicked off the race – at average speeds less than one third of what he was used to topping out at down the mighty Mulsanne Straight.
In the exciting but undercovered LMP2 class on broadcast TV, the top five were the #47 Oreca Nissan looking strong from the start, the Gibson Nissan #38 with co-ELMS drivers Simon Dolan and Oliver Turvey, then the top driver line up in an Oak Ligier (Sam Bird, Julien Canal from Le Mans itself and Roman Rusinov who tried to convince me in Shanghai last year that the massive slump in the Ruble was actually good for their economy because it made everything cheaper in Russia! In fourth was their sister G-Drive sponsored car #28 followed by Murphy’s #48. To try to make ourselves feel better about ourselves, I’m going to assert that 5th out of 19 LMP2 entries was a reasonably good outcome and an overall 13th finish in a field of 55 ain’t a place for tears ‘n bitchin’. Lest you think these reports had nothing whatsoever to do with Le Mans because I haven’t mentioned the word weather once, it did actually begin to rain lightly in the final 20 minutes though not severely enough to cause the huge crashes of earlier years as cars struggled to get back to their pit boxes on slick tires in pouring stormy rains.
This race report wouldn’t be complete without a tip of the hat, a circus clown’s hat, Nissan’s way. The screen in every garage for 24 showed the top 21 cars, 10 LMP1s and 11 LMP2s. At the close of business, not one Nissan LMP1 car was on the screen. To their credit or shame, the post-race party at their hospitality tent was the loudest, boldest and rowdiest of all, proving their clients are either obsessively loyal, naively uninformed or completely idiotic. From this baseline, perhaps a new viable Nissan LMP1 program will evolve, but it will need to stop lugging a 300 kg hybrid system around that’s not switched on. It will also need to have normal sized brakes because their brake energy recovery system isn’t working yet so additional weight from oversized brakes needed to be added for this race, and of course that promised rear wheel drive feature needs an ON switch too. Other than that, they were the fastest and the only front-wheel-drive car on the track.
For all the drama, glory, fame and disappointment we get to share at Le Mans every year, new bonds are formed, deeper appreciation for this mighty event course through our veins and if at all practically possible, we will all return to drive or to appreciate this majestic racing competition – there is none like it. For this France, we thank you. This and soft, smelly Brie.