Inside Look: What It Is Like to Race at Le Mans
In a word: intense.
Ben Collins is a world-renowned stunt and race car driver who has competed in many categories across the world. In 2003, he won ASCAR’s European Stock Car Championship. For years he appeared on BBC’s Top Gear as the anonymous expert driver The Stig. He has been a stunt driver for Daniel Craig and others in the James Bond films Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, as well as the upcoming No Time To Die. As told to Charles Thorp.
I’m very lucky in that I have gotten to race a number of different disciplines, from single seat racing to NASCAR. But I have to say the pinnacle of racing, in my opinion, is done at Le Mans.
I have done four of the 24 hour races, and I’ve only finished half of them, which is a fairly typical rate. It is such a breaker of people and material.
So the team is working for six days straight leading up to the race, to make sure the car in the right form. There is a constant tension leading up to the day. Despite that I like to take time during the qualifying and test sessions to walk through the town. There is an incredible energy amongst the crowd, people walking around with food and beer in their hands, and the excitement just grows until race day.
The cars are special as well, incredible machines with 800 horsepower that weigh next to nothing. The speeds can be anywhere around 220 miles per hour, with more downforce than a Formula One car. For me, it is such joy to be steering a car at the top of its class.
My first Le Mans it rained for 17 hours of the 24, and the water was deep over the roads. The race is notorious for strange weather, and it is such a long track, with its 8 and a half miles, that it could be pouring on one and be bone dry on the other.
I actually love racing in the rain. There is no question a wet road can set competitors apart. The rain requires a different kind of style, which consists of finesse and feeling. Growing up in Britain I had a lot of experience in driving during a downpour.
The driving is shared between three team members, and everyone does their stint, which means driving the car until it needs to be refueled again. The goal is to get the best time that you can, without killing the tires and forcing a pit stop, with your turn at the wheel.
Our car was very good in the rain, as luck would have it. But there were parts of the track where there were two inches of standing water. I remember hitting one of those pools at 160 miles per hour and the car was weightless for it must have been quarter of a mile.
There was no grip. There was no control. The steering wheel wasn’t responding. It would be a mistake to touch the brakes, because the car would do all sorts of strange when the tires caught. You have to have faith at those moments.
Since our car was quick in those conditions, I was able to un-lap our position and get into a place where I could challenge the front. I got us up to fourth place, and that is when the fuel pump broke.
So there I was at four in the morning, forced to walk drenched back to our pit, through the mud and wet trees. I can still say it was an amazing experience.
I kept coming back. On my third visit to Le Mans, our team actually finished in fourth place, but I think we could have had first. The only issue was we were forced to keep replacing turbos. The team kept working hard to stay in contention despite the stops, and in the end we knew we could have had it. Our pace was right. That was my first finish. Not bad in my opinion.
The area is a beautiful place for a drive. The spectators are just as much a part of the experience, and you can see their excitement. The speeds are so high, and there is so much to see between the groups. That is what you expect from one of the oldest races in the world, and where the heart of road racing really started.
Early on, as a driver your focus is so intense that you really can’t see anything beyond the road, but as you get more comfortable you start to notice the surroundings, like the giant ferris wheel going around in the background.
I remember one year being on the Mulsanne Straight of the Circuit de la Sarthe at some insane speed and catching this guy leaning over into the road with an enormous stein of beer in his hands, wearing a viking helmet. That is etched in my mind.
The morning is my favorite time at Le Mans, just as the light is starting to break, when you can really pick out your apexes. The air is cold, bringing cool oxygen to get the best performance out of our engine. The rubber is down on the track, and the track is grippy. The tires are right so you are prepared to run a string of really fast laps.
The people who are there to watch are just starting to wake and barbecue up their breakfast. So you are getting these whiffs of food on the fire as you whip by. Bacon and sausage. What’s not to love about that? You feel part of something much bigger.
My last one was 2014, and I got the fastest lap for Ferrari in the Pro-Am class. It was during that time in the morning and I just said let’s let it rip. I was in the groove, and I had all of the braking points locked down.
There are a few challenging spots like the Mulsanne Straight and the Mulsanne Corner, which is a big commitment corner because you aren’t braking in a straight line. That is always dangerous. From there you tilt out toward the Indianapolis corner and into the Porsche Curves where there is a right-left-right-left sequence of high speed encounters.
The Ferrari GTE that I was driving is really lively during high speed cornering, making it really fun when you are dialed in properly. It felt like you could push the tail around with a feather. I remember the motions well, and knowing that I had a really great lap on my hands. Right behind the steering wheel you have these LED lights that flick up to show the peak revs in each gear. I saw them flicking up higher than I had before.
Nobody else in the world might have cared that I had that perfect lap, but for me, that was everything. Once you wrap up your stint, you get out of the car in whatever physical state you are in, debrief the crew on how the mechanics of the car are doing, have a shower, and then try to go to bed for a little rest.
Those sleeps are less deep if you are sharing the car with less-experienced drivers, which was my case a few times. So you know that if it starts raining or conditions get more difficult, then you are going to get a slap in the face and an espresso in the hand. So I sleep with one eye open, because I hate being woken up in an emergency.
Those times that I do get out of the car, and really get to close my eyes, I always have the same dream. I see the center line of the Mulsanne Straight, the white stripes passing under me, like my brain is running footage. Even in my dreams there, I am racing Le Mans.