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Q & A with Rob Bell at Le Mans 24 Hours 2009

10th June 2009

Rob Bell makes his third Le Mans 24 Hours start this weekend. He talks about this famed race and his expectations from the weekend.

This will be your third visit to Le Mans, how do you think your experience helps?
Yes, I raced in the Panoz in 2007 and then I was in the Ferrari in 2008. Experience is very valuable at Le Mans, you go into the week knowing what is coming up. You’re not excited or flustered about what is going on and it just comes to you naturally. The same can be said for the track, it is quite a tricky track to learn and having driven round it for the last two years you can go there more confident.

How have you prepared for it?
Same as normal to be honest. Whether it is like the last race I did in Adria in FIA GT which was only 4km, but a tiny twisty circuit that is still really physically challenging to this one, the preparations are very similar. Going to Le Mans - it’s the same focus really. There is the same testing and focus on getting the car right, as you would for any race, so it’s just the same preparations as normal for myself. On track we do try and ensure we have a motor-home available and a trainer to keep us fed and pumped up during the night. We need to eat well and sleep cleverly to be at our best when we’re up for nearly 48 hours.

What about the team, how have they been preparing?
The car is being fully rebuilt, the engine, the gear box, everything including cable ties and wires get changed, it’s like a new car, which then gets rebuilt again after Le Mans. It’s an event in itself. We do more racing here than nearly every other event put together, so it’s just a question of them getting prepared with the car before the event. Then when they are at the track they have a long race too, they will try and catch some sleep in the garage, but they need to look after themselves and eat the right things. They have a late night before and they are up early the next morning, so it’s pretty much 48 to 50 hours they are awake for.

Is the Ferrari F430 car much different this year to the one you ran last year?
The car itself during the winter had updates from Ferrari, so we have a revised suspension, but it’s the new rule changes are the biggest thing for us this year. We have to run 5mm higher, a big 15mm rear gurney on the rear and a smaller restrictor. It’s all aimed at slowing us down, because the organisers don’t want to see the GT2 cars creeping up to the speeds of the GT1 cars - last year we went under the four minute lap mark. These rule changes have made us have some set up issues since the beginning of the year, but hopefully we have ironed them out now.

Obviously you have data from previous years, but can you use it with the regulation changes?
We can still look at last years and draw from that. The tyres are still Dunlop tyres, we have made one or two improvements to them over the winter, so we have a rough idea where we are and what we need to do. We do go into it relatively confidently we know where we are in relation to the data and where to start on the car.

We take all of the aero off, it’s a low downforce track due to the straights and we need all of the straight line speed we can get.

What is the bug with Le Mans, why do people keep going back there?
It is totally unique. When I was doing single seaters and some of the other big events in racing, you think Formula One is the goal and nothing else. People talk about Le Mans being special but the first time you go there and you hear the crowd roar when you go over the start finish line, it’s phenomenal. It’s more akin to a football match to be honest. Over the week there are 300,000 people there all having a good time, so the atmosphere is amazing. The race itself is pretty cool, the circuit is a great challenge, and to finish the race, never mind win it, is a massive achievement.

Which part of the race do you enjoy driving the most?
During the day, definitely. If it’s raining, that’s one thing, but if it’s dark and raining that’s another. In the light it’s one less variable to go wrong, if you have a headlight go out at night it can be pretty treacherous. You can feel pretty hungry too, because you can smell the barbeques from about 11pm onwards! But the less you have to worry about as a driver the better, so if it’s cool and during the day time that is when I’ll be asking to get in.

How do you decide on the stints?
It will depend on the heat and the weather on track during the race. If it is very hot then we will swap more because you’ll start to wilt in the heat. It also depends on if you single stint tyres, if you come in to change tyres you may as well change drivers for the amount of time it takes. If it is a cool race you may well be able to double stint more often, and then stints will be longer. If it’s warm we will single stint in the day and then double in the evening, otherwise we will try and do more double stints during the day.

If it rains and its dark it’s sometimes better to leave a driver in for as long as possible, up to three hours at a time. If you swap the drivers and they have been used to a warm grippy track during the day it could take a long time to adapt. Last year I had a three hour stint in the wet because of that reason.

What is the longest stint a driver can do?
Well three hours is pretty much at the peak of your physical ability as a driver, although Le Mans is a demanding circuit as such because of its long straights, so it’s quite easy to drive around Le Mans.

What’s your favourite part of the circuit?
The straights, because it’s easy!! The Porsche curves are good, it’s like a street circuit through there because there are barriers both side and they’re quick and a bit off camber. Then the last couple of chicanes are pretty good, when you’re pushing really hard on a lap you can cut them quite a bit, so like in qualifying there is time to be gained there. If you get it wrong, you can damage your car, so it’s a great risk as a driver. During the races we will stay off them, but if we’re on a bit of a charge at the end (hopefully!) then we will be hitting them pretty hard.

How do you pace yourself during the race?
It’s a 24 hour sprint basically. There is no pacing yourself in the Le Mans 24 hours these days. So you’ll just basically stay off the kerbs until you need to really push. Every lap is a qualifying lap pretty much. In the old days there was a time when you’d set off on a charge and then slow it down because the cars would shake themselves to bits but now the reliability is there, especially in the GT2 class so now everybody is racing all the way to the flag.

So concentration is key?
Yes, you need to be fully focused and concentrating for the whole stint you are in the car. There’s no waving to the crowd, or my mum, when I’m out on track!