Porsche - The night of nights

The night of nights


“I absolutely love the darkness. You’re alone, and you feel like you’re invisible.”

Experience is the name of the game at Le Mans. Formula One drivers first have to acquire it. Nico Hülkenberg is enamored of the high-speed race through the night.

The radio command when starting up after a pit stop is always exactly the same: “Ignition on, hybrid on. Go!” This time it precedes Nico Hülkenberg’s first race in the night. A 27-year-old native of Germany, Hülkenberg is a rookie at the classic sports-car contest. As are his teammates in the Porsche 919 Hybrid with starting number 19: Nick Tandy from Britain and Earl Bamber from New Zealand. Neither Hülkenberg nor Bamber has ever competed in a 24-hour race before. Tandy brings experience from two GT entries for Porsche in Le Mans. But he too is unfamiliar with the role of leading man on offense in an ultrafast Class 1 prototype. “We are the wild and inexperienced youths,” says Hülkenberg, assessing the situation before the race. “All three of us have the speed. I don’t want to make any predictions. We’ll let it fly and see how far we get.” That will prove to be far. Very far indeed.

A full-time Formula One driver and temporary Porsche factory driver, Hülkenberg got behind the wheel for the start. Accompanied by drums and trumpets, the start-up unleashes spine-tingling emotional fireworks. It is the culmination of an entire week of theatrical buildup in Le Mans, including a photo session with the cars at the Place de la République, qualifying rounds until midnight, and the drivers’ parade surrounded by crowds. After Hülkenberg, Tandy and then Bamber took the wheel.

Racing engineer Stephen Mitas, who came to Porsche from Formula One, guides the three Le Mans novices over the radio. His sonorous voice exudes stoic calm. A native of Australia, Mitas knows precisely what to say and when to say it. “It’s perfect,” says Hülkenberg. “It’s a skill that very few people have. His composure has a big influence on our mental state as drivers.”

Before jumping into the 919 Hybrid again, Hülkenberg stands in the pits for a while. He is wearing his helmet, his body is tense, and his mind is concentrated. He has been following the radio communications between Bamber and Mitas for some time now, listening to what’s going on out there and what the car feels like to his teammate. Pit stop. Hülkenberg slips into the narrow cockpit, is given his drinking bottle, new tires, and a full tank of fuel.

At 8:53 in the evening, the sun hovers low over the horizon. Thanks to just moderate wear on the tires, the cool night will allow quadruple stints. A stint is the range of a full tank—a minimum of 13 laps, or nearly 180 kilometers. Quadruple stints are about the length of two and a half Formula One races. Hülkenberg takes us along on the night of nights—on an exhilarating 13.6-kilometer lap that gives us just a taste of the high-speed race.

“The pits are well lit, but when you’re out on the track you notice the ultraviolet light in the cockpit, which makes the controls on the steering wheel glow. Once you’re out of the pit lane you brake into the first right kink, then get back on the throttle again. You’re led under the Dunlop Bridge in a wonderful flow and come to the Tertre Rouge—a curve to the right that is seriously fast. Then there’s the long straight. For the two chicanes, it’s important to brake late. You have to find the right compromise between carrying a lot of momentum into them on the one hand, and accelerating early again on the other to keep going on the straight. Whatever you do, don’t ruin the exit from a chicane, and always look out for the slower GT cars! They also have to position themselves and can’t just disappear into thin air.


The reward for the strains of the night: The 919 Hybrid is the first to cross the finish line, and the 17th overall victory is assured.

“At the end of the straight before the Mulsanne curve there are a lot of bumps on the road’s surface. It’s easy to miss the braking point, lock up the wheels, and skid straight ahead. Where you exit the curve there is a mass of spectators, and you’re pointed straight at them. In the dark we can only see as far as our headlights go. It’s a completely different kind of driving than during the day. Like racing in a tunnel. I hadn’t experienced it before, but I love it!

“After the Mulsanne curve you come to a wooded area first, and it’s dark on both sides. You take the two right kinks on this segment flat out. Then you come to Indianapolis one and two—awesome curves with a lot of banking. You feel the compression in the car, and it’s harder to steer. You shoot into the first Indianapolis at over 300 km/h, and brake in the middle of the second. You have to make sure not to miss the braking point or the banking, otherwise you’ll get some serious understeer. There’s not a lot of run-off there. It’s a critical spot! Especially if you’re there at the same time as slower cars.

“The Porsche 919 Hybrid reaches speeds rivaling those of Formula One cars, and really gets down to business. The biggest difference is the all-wheel drive powering out of the curves, which gives you an incredible amount of traction! And you’re pushing the entire time, whereas in Formula One you have to think about tire wear a lot earlier. You’ve hardly emerged from Indianapolis when you hit the Arnage—and on this part of the circuit, which is the slowest we take, at around 70 km/h, it’s really easy to slide. There’s much less grip here than on the rest of the track. You always think you can brake later, but that doesn’t work.

“The Porsche curves on the last segment are pure high speed. Into and through the right-hand combination. It’s extremely fast, and everything just flies by. You have to be absolutely concentrated and hold your line, and hope you don’t hit any curbs the wrong way. It’s easy to crash here—and that’s the last thing you want at more than 250 km/h. You almost always have to deal with slower cars. And if you have to lift off of the accelerator at the entrance to the Porsche curves, you’ll lose an awful lot of time. The Ford chicane is the last one, and everything goes smoothly. The brightly lit grandstand appears. Stephen will check in here at the latest. He tells me which combination of switches will enable the car to run best. I tell him how everything feels—and try to thread my way through traffic once again.”

Maneuvering through traffic, managing the highly complex hybrid race car, driving at sprint race speed. For 54 laps. After three hours and twenty minutes, Hülkenberg hands over the car to Nick Tandy, holding the lead position. Upon entering the pit lane, it’s time to turn on the speed limiter, take off the earphones, loosen the seatbelt, and stop on the line. The fuel hose locks in, Hülkenberg throws open the door and wiggles out of the car. He pulls off his helmet and balaclava. And he beams, still full of energy following the quadruple stint. “I absolutely love the darkness. That was already the case during testing, and now all the more so in the race itself. Formula One also has floodlit races, but they’re not at all the same. In Le Mans you have only your car and your headlights. You’re alone, and you feel like you’re invisible.”

Tandy and the 919 have disappeared into the night. There is still a long way to go. It will be more than 14 hours before Hülkenberg crosses the finish line—a lap ahead of the second Porsche driven by Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley, and Mark Webber. The third 919 with Romain Dumas, Neel Jani, and Marc Lieb finishes in fifth place. The memories of the action on this 14th day of June will accompany Hülkenberg throughout his life.

“The tempo was extremely fast,” he says. “I wouldn’t have expected that at an endurance race. The tension in Le Mans is amazing. The team is great, with a lot of people all about. The emotion of driving a winning Le Mans car to the finish and then of standing on the podium when thousands of people rush out onto the start and finish stretch to cheer is indescribable. It’s unbelievable what you get from this. It’s the greatest success of my career thus far!”

By Heike Hientzsch

What to do in Le Mans


Circuit des 24 Heures, France, Aerial view, © Google Inc.

24 hours

The city

Le Mans has hardly been damaged over the centuries. Its historical old town and cobblestone streets are well preserved. 
The city center lies on a hill, protected by restored walls with eleven towers along the Sarthe river.

The sights

The highlight of Le Mans is the Saint Julien Cathedral. This historic building features a Gothic choir with a double ambulatory 
connected to a Romanesque nave.

The brand

Le Mans and 24 hours: this symbiosis applies not only to the classic endurance contest for sports cars and GT racers. Over the course of the year the city also hosts 24-hour races for bicycles, in-line skates, motorcycles, karts, and trucks. And a 24-hour golf tournament. For more information: www.lemans.org, www.golfdes24heures.fr, www.24rollers.com