The night of nights
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
A full-time Formula One driver and temporary
Racing engineer Stephen Mitas, who came to
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.
“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.
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
“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
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 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.
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