Mark Patterson (Upper 1969) raced in the 86th 24 Hour race at Le Mans in June this year - Mark’s 6th Le Mans challenge.
60 cars get to grid up on Saturday June 16, which means no more than 180 race drivers across the entire globe get to compete at mighty Le Mans. These drivers hail from 35 countries in total, famous, infamous and completely unheard of. The oldest is 66.
Read all about Mark’s race day below:
When the event is epic, when the crowd is large, vocal and constantly on the move, when hopes run high and the odds run low, it’s times like these that Meatloaf’s Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad or Cat Stevens’ The First Cut Is the Deepest seem to convey the emotions of the day. After a valiant attempt by Algarve Pro Racing to conquer the entire LMP2 field of dream teams loaded with much better driver line ups, we ended up with a DNF with two gearbox failures. I love one-hand-tied-behind-my-back challenges, but this is the first of 6 Le Mans races where the team was unable to take the checkered flag. We stole one, of course, but I meant cross the finish line with the car still running.
Given today’s world of instant technology access, this is news to no one who follows these race reports, but I thought I’d get most of the bad news out of the way in the opening lines and then let the report overflow with the challenges, the fun and the good news (not all was good news) that filled most of Saturday and Sunday in our light blue, silver and white Ligier # 25, boldly carrying the Flex-Box, Pinnacle and Samwha Paper logos.
After the first gearbox meltdown, our amazing crew blew through 3 hours of relentless work to get the car put back together, so drivers were sent out to start booking laps and see where this all ended up. Later, during one of my night refueling stops, Race Control ordered us to repair a dead car number panel that is illuminated on both side pods of all cars throughout the race. Told it would take a minute or two. It took 13 minutes. The tiniest of tiny little glitches and there in a flash, 3 laps had disappeared into the magician’s top hat. I was on a 4 stint run (2 hours and 40 minutes) with things going OK to well, but of course at night Le Mans is pitch dark and corners are found with a blind man’s white walking stick and a whole lot of guessing. This meant lap times went up a few seconds, which is always difficult for drivers trying to put in their best times.
I got into a solid race with another LMP2, following 10 to 30 meters behind him, which is always fun...not being the rabbit, but being the hunting dog. The air is cold at night, even inside the cockpit, so you release your hands after the strenuous and critical Dunlop and Terte Rouge corners, flex your fingers, check front and rear brake temps on the steering wheel, flick a glimpse at the predictive lap timer to know if this one will be a good one, look up at the rear view video for oncoming LMP1 cars, generally just trying to focus on staying relaxed before the next big physical challenge. Doing a stint or two at Le Mans with its long straights is pretty manageable, but hanging in there for 3 and 4 stints takes a pinch of fortitude and a wisp of reality denial.
In the 4th stint (do you sense an excuse could be on its way?) I was too focused on this LMP2 driver to maintain 100% concentration, so with both of us passing a duo of GTE’s between Mulsanne’s 2nd Chicane and the 90 degree Mulsanne corner, I got hip checked by the second GTE driver right as we kink into the braking zone. Most GT drivers lift 10 meters earlier to let the passing car through. Not this time. Not this one. Not his fault. In an instant I knew I had traversed a line I’d asked Ate and Tack to avoid at all costs (short term gains versus the commitment to get through the entire 24 hours untouched). The car became the twirling swizzle stick in a gin and tonic, bouncing off the railing. Initially, at the dead of night right after impact, it’s difficult to know which way the car is facing and exactly where you are. With calf muscles cramping, an uncooperative and non-responsive gear shifter and race cars tearing into this braking zone at around 190 mph, I had to reverse back blindly onto the track and get the car moving forward again without getting torpedoed by an incoming missile. At this stage I hadn’t realized the steering and an upright had been destroyed on impact.
Tense moments for sure, but eventually I got the car heading wobbly left and right back to the pits 7 kilometers away - at a very awkward 50-70 kph, with race cars screaming by at 300 kph despite the cornermen’s white flags. There was more than enough time to ruminate about the decision not to back off, get through the Mulsanne braking point and then pass the GTE car on the long straight down to Indianapolis. The hunting dog game was over. However, most of your mind is preoccupied with hope that no one hits your wonky and uncontrollable car.
That repair took 90 minutes, so now Algarve had been put in a precariously weak place, not just in terms of falling back in the field, but as ACO rules require 70% of the 24 hours as track time, we were now dancing around the edges of a Did Not Finish (DNF) outcome. At worst we were almost at the bottom of the field. Thank goodness for Bykolles entering an LMP1 car again this (they crashed on the opening lap last year, but did 65 times better this year), as we were in 59th position with Bykolles in their garage for the rest of the race. So once the car was put back together, drivers launched the long term job of lapping along flawlessly while hoping others didn’t. Others complied. Really competent, experience others. You know, like ex-F1 drivers Montoya and di Resta.
While Toyota’s two LMP1s competed only against each other, G-Drive walked out front among the LMP2s for the entire race, while the Pink Pig Porsche made mincemeat of the GTE class. This year all 3 classes had domineering winners and a lot fewer catastrophic incidents than we’d seen during the Prologue and the Quali sessions. Disappointing for us, but as the hours clicked by, as you’d expect when fatigue kicks in, the error rate began to soar. At an earlier point in the race it looked like the paucity of Safety Cars and Yellow Zones would mean that the 396 Le Mans lap record would easily be surpassed. The last 40% of the race changed all that, resulting in 14 cars retiring from the field (almost 25% of the field of 60), one a very long Safety Car incident involving no crashes at all - simply a steel manhole cover that had popped loose and had to be welded and cemented back into place. This race ended up with 388 laps, so we can blame the manhole cover for missing the record lap count.
Greg Wheeler and the data engineers (Loris and Manuel), recognizing the toll taken by the long early race stints, shifted mostly to a 2 stint strategy for the last 10 hours. The track began to rubber in well and except for the race’s first stint where we experienced intermittent rain sprinkles (no tire changes), President Macron had ordered rainstorms before and after the race, but not during it all. Team mates, Ate and Tack both pushed further and further into good lap time category, where Greg had hoped we could be racing: low 40s without traffic. Tack hit a 3 minute 40 second lap.
I’d slept from 3 to 5 AM and had to be shaken out of the RV bed by trainer Stewart Wild, an appropriate surname. He is built like a cross between an intense French bulldog, a cage fighter and a baby orangutang, with slightly less hair. In his hands your strained or cramped muscles, your stretched tendons and slow reflexes are all tuned and ready to go before the next driver change. Inevitably, like a boxing cornerman, he whips out the tiny brown vial of ammonia they use to accelerate the recovery of a KO-ed boxer, makes you sniff a few toots and if your helmet stays on, you’re lucky. Clears your mind in a flash.
So I completed an easy double stint, locating Tracy Krohn once again, unfortunately in fine fighting trim for his first two laps of the stint. Catching him was easy, but getting by was not, until he pulled out his vast notebook of major errors committed at Le Mans, and helped me out by repeating one of them. Truth be told, this must be the first Le Mans race where he hasn’t ended up stranded in the kitty litter or munched up against a railing. Anyway, pulled away from him comfortably and booked a handful of 3:39s, so felt we were doing all we could to regain track positions. While Tack, Ate and I rolled in and out of the car, we had moved up to about P48, surrounded by half the LMP1 field that proportionately had more disasters than any other group.
Before I jumped in for my last double stint just before 11 AM, Stewart Cox and I had been chatting about how well the replacement gear parts had been holding up, and how quickly the first one had failed (1,300 km versus 26,000 on the old one, well past any warranty period of 8,000 km). Turns out this planned double was to be the team’s final stint of the race. The cloud layer was heavy and low, but with no rain in sight I punched away at the best lap times we could find (3:37.6 was the best, or 2.4 seconds quicker than last year in the same car with the same team), so things were looking good for a decent finish. With no mechanical missteps or other kinks to worry about, the steering screen suddenly lit up with a “GB Temp Hi” warning, showing 134.1 on the right side. I immediately radioed into Greg, Loris and Manuel (the entire team of mechanics, plus Sam and Stewart Cox are on earplugs all 24 hours too, of course). Stewart called the “Box, Box, Box!” command literally 5 metered too late as I sped past the pit-in lane. Now 13 long kilometers lay ahead with a decent chance of the gear box overheating or melting down before completing the lap, which means the car would be stranded on track for the rest of the race. Stewart told me to baby the gearbox at half speed all the way back, which turned out to be good advice as the temperature kept soaring to almost 160 degrees Celsius by the time I first heard a snap sound followed by a stirring of rocks, marbles, nuts and bolts. We had lost all gearbox traction three-quarters way through the Porsche curves with about a kilometer to go to reach our pit box. So I went to Neutral and coasted as far as the car could go, which was halfway along pit lane, where it’s legal for the crew to push the car home. No photographer or TV camera missed the opportunity to film our pit lane dilemma.
After tearing off the engine cover, opening up the gearbox and doing a quick inspection, it was obvious to the mechanics that the task ahead would have to be another 3 hour replacement job. This would have left less than 5-10 laps for the # 25 car to toodle around for no reason at all...Algarve was now in DNF territory, so we collectively decided to retire the car. The disappointment across the team was patently obvious, especially with the knowledge of meticulously prepared and installed new engines and gear boxes, this shouldn’t have happened. So while drivers, wives, friends and family began to wander away numbed, heading off to their RVs and hotels, the Algarve team of mechanics, sleepless the past 20 hours, dived into the task of polishing the car clean, shutting the garage door to pit lane, disassembling the engineers’ data room, the tire tent and preparing for the packing up of 100,000 bits and pieces that have to find their way back to Portugal in the next day or two. And in the background the roar and screaming of engines revving to the next gear change would fill our ears for the next three and a half ours, while our car sat motionless in the last garage along Le Mans’ 60 car pit lane.
We finished P48 overall md P16 in the LMP2 class.
For highlights from this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans, please CLICK HERE.