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Rob Bell - Insight into the Magic of Le Mans

9th June 2008

Rob Bell returns to tackle the Le Mans 24 Hours race for the second time in his career. Driving with Virgo Motorsport, and the team’s debut at this eponymous event, he gives us the lowdown on the week ahead.

Q. What did you gain from the Le Mans test last week?
It was good to go and do a system check, check the aero balance which is important at somewhere like Le Mans where it is such a long, unique track. It was also a little frustrating because of the weather. When the rain cleared and the track dried up we were able to start to do some constructive testing but then it rained, and there were three or four red flags which interrupted the session. We completed some aero work which was good, and in the wet we tried a number of different Dunlop tyres and found one that worked better than the others, so it was definitely useful from that perspective.

Q. What are your expectations for Le Mans?
To be honest, we’re going there to win. We have three professional drivers in a proven car which has won endurance races before – six hour races – and tyre support from a major manufacturer, Dunlop. That’s a rare package, with so many positives that we can go with a high level of expectation. Although we also have to bear in mind it is a difficult place and just because you have three top flight drivers and a good car, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll win. You have to be aware of the other good people around you, not only in our class, but in other classes – these are coming past you regularly, and if they have difficulty in getting past, there could be a problem. You need to keep it on the tarmac and, I think for GT2, if you have a clean run, you could be looking at a podium and if you’re a bit lucky, perhaps victory.

Michelotto, the Ferrari development agents, help us extensively. They’ve been running 24 hour engine tests, and with their engineers in our garage, we know we have strong support. They also help with car set up, so we work closely with them and this is very important and valuable to us. Having this level of back up gives us the confidence to tackle something like Le Mans.

Q. What’s the biggest challenge?
Keeping it in one piece. Just because we have a good package isn’t everything, there’s the Prototypes lapping us and at night they come up on you quite quickly, so you need to keep your wits and stay alert. The weather can also be quite challenging, especially if it is raining at night, when you can’t see where the standing water is lying. The straights tend to be more problematic, so there’s a bit of guess work needed if the weather’s bad.

Q. How tough is Le Mans?
Last year it took me nearly a week to recover! It’s the tiredness, rather than physical effects. Although this year I have a race the following week, so I’ll have to get over it a bit more quickly this time.

During the race it’s tough, but not too tough. There’s three of us, so we do get some respite, get fed regularly, eat the right stuff and have some breaks, so we’re well looked after. I think it’s the mechanics and engineers who take the brunt of it, as they have to be awake for nearly 48 hours. They have a much harder time, having to be ready for any problems, as well as servicing the car at regular intervals. It’s not a problem for me though. I could sleep although I only had a few hours last year, but it’s adrenalin that keeps you going, as well as your overall fitness.

Q Who are your major competitors?
On outright pace I would have to say Porsche at Le Mans, but there isn’t a Porsche with three professional drivers behind the wheel. It’s the other Ferrari entries and tyre manufacturers that are similarly rivals. We’re up against Ferraris with Michelin and Pirelli tyres, so they’ll be quick, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Flying Lizard Porsche entry take pole for our class.

Q. What makes Le Mans so special?
Last year was my first Le Mans, and before I went there everyone was telling me how special it was. I didn’t realise just what they meant. I thought as I’d done support F1 races, driven round Monaco, been to some big events it would be similarly impressive, but when I got there it definitely knocked my socks off. It’s just the atmosphere, the drivers parade, the sheer numbers of people– even scrutineering gets 15,000 people watching – just the whole event. And of course, the hope of being on the podium, spraying a little champagne – that would be very special, as it’s such a tough race to win.

Bell, a professional racing driver, started his career at the age of 11 in karting. He graduated to single-seater racing at 19 years of age and after six seasons of junior formulae competition, Bell made the switch to sportscar racing. Since 2005 the 29-year-old has contested Le Mans Series events, with his first full season of GT2 racing in 2006, finishing 3rd in class. Last year he took the GT2 class championship title with Virgo Motorsport and came fifth in class at Le Mans 24 Hours race with Team LNT. This season he races in the Le Mans Series and the Le Mans 24 Hour race with Virgo Motorsport, and in the FIA GT Championship with CR Scuderia.