21 – 22 August
Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
WEC FIA World Endurance Championship
Going to Le Mans with United for the past 5 years has been very special. We have been staying in a beautiful Chateau, about half an hour from the track. Whenever I get there, I like to see the gates open to the astonishing palace, a sense of calm before the storm. I think it’s a place that gives me good vibes and the right atmosphere for the weekend. Besides being super comfortable, I can even rest when I come back from the track. I arrived with more bags than usual because my family arrived the following week after the test. It gave me a special pleasure to prepare my daughters’ suitcase and even go to the supermarket to have their cookies and favorite snacks waiting. It was like being at home.
I went to Le Mans as the 24h winner. On the one hand, it relieved a lot of pressure because I already won this race, on the other hand I also wanted to defend that title. This year we went a week earlier because, for the first time, the pre-test took place on the Sunday before the race. I got there also a little bit earlier because of all the bureaucracy and covid checks that were needed to get the pass to the event.
United had 3 good cars for the race. We (#22) were candidates for victory not only because Phil Hanson and I won last year but also because me, Phil and Fabio had won Spa and Monza for the championship (WEC). It was Fabio’s first time at Le Mans and it was important that he did as many laps as possible to get to know the track – although you only learn Le Mans during the race.
Surprisingly, there were no changes in the track from last year to this year. I ran the track with Fabio and I felt that every lap you do at Le Mans is always very special. It’s hard to explain, it’s something you just feel when you’re there. I can’t say which part of the track I like better because it’s the pace of the entire track and the high speeds that make each lap so special but of course the Porsche corners are the fastest and most technical. I like racing in Le Mans during the day or at night, there are different challenges. At night there’s the feeling that it’s just me and the engineer who are awake, we’re doing something we like, there’s a feeling of loneliness because we don’t see anything else, just the corners, we don’t even talk as much at night. In fact, there’s not that much to say because most of the teams just want to survive the night and almost every driver is pro, the gentlemen drivers are all asleep.
We were happy with the outcome of the pre-test, we were constantly in the top 5 and we felt satisfied with our pace. Over the past few years, Phil has become an experienced driver and, on top of that, I trust him when he is behind the wheel. Fabio adapted well to the track despite having had two incidents but none of the three of us lacked pace.
Between the pre-test and the race we had 2 days off. I picked up my family from the airport and it was like we were on vacation in Le Mans. We were staying at a hotel with a swimming pool, the weather helped and it seemed that we were disconnected from everything and not in the week of the 24h of Le Mans. It was good to have the family for the first time in Le Mans, to see Carolina and Maria playing with Paul di Resta’s children and finding their own language to communicate, it was great to have Joana with me again in Le Mans and to have that support from her, being able to talk to her every moment of the weekend. During the race days, I was with my family when I woke up and at meals whenever I could. It was good to go to the track with my whole family for the first time.
On Wednesday, the free practice began. We started very well, our pace was good and the expectation was high for the weekend. When it came to qualifying, it was clear that our goal was to qualify among the top six so that we could enter the hyperpole, a special qualifying session that defines the top 6 places on the Le Mans grid. I got traffic when I went for my first qualifying lap and on the second lap I got FCY (full-course yellow). At that moment we didn’t have a single lap but we knew this could happen and we had two more new sets of tires. I came to the garage, changed tires, and made another attempt to qualify the car up front. On the first lap, I hit traffic again and on the second lap, despite having a good distance to the next car, two GTs left the pits and ruined my lap, my chance to qualify at the front. This time I kept pushing because we needed a qualifying lap, although far from what we could do. I came to the garage, we had another set of new tires and Phil (Hanson) made one last attempt at qualifying the car and unfortunately he also caught traffic.
We ended up qualifying in 12th, out of the top 6 which would give us the opportunity to go to hyperpole and fight for pole position. I was very upset that I had a fantastic car and that I qualified poorly, not because of anyone’s fault but because of the circumstances of many drivers on the track. What made me most upset was the lack of ethics of drivers who left the pits and ruined that particular lap of mine when they were on their exit lap from the pits. This is something that really frustrates me, it is not and has never been a matter of ego but rather a matter of principle, my way of being on the tracks and in life which is paying attention to others and not just looking after myself.
From here we focused more on the race setup and, once again, in practice, we were on an excellent pace and got back into the top five. Everything was well underway, everything ready for the race. Not only me, but also Phil and Fabio, we were all doing a good job and we knew we were still one of the great candidates for victory.
I made the start. It started to rain just before the start, on the pre-grid. It was raining a lot, we were starting from the middle of the pack, which is never the ideal situation, so my priority was clear: not having a scratch on the car, regardless of wasting time or not. We knew that we had a competitive car, three very fast drivers, a good team and that, above all, it wouldn’t rain anymore.
In the first stint, I didn’t feel comfortable with the car, I could easily lose control and there were many drivers spinning and falling backwards, simply trying to gain five or six seconds but losing a lot when there was still more than 23h until the end. I lost a lot of positions but I knew I was being cautious. When I came to the first stop, we changed from intermediate tires to slicks and then, with the track drying, I started to impose my pace. I started to make up for the time and positions I had lost and in the fourth stint I handed the car over to my teammate Phil Hanson in the front seats. From there, I got into my routine which is eating, sleeping, getting dressed and racing again.
During the race we had some bad luck with the slow zones but we kept chasing the leaders. We were comfortably in 3rd, about a minute and a half away from p1. When I was going to do my 5am stint, just a lap before Fabio entered the pit, the engineers saw that we had a battery power failure that needed to be repaired, otherwise the car would stop. We all know that in Le Mans, when you put your car in the garage, you can hardly come back to win. We changed the alternator, we changed the car lune and, finally, as nothing was yet working, we ended up changing the battery and finally solving the problem. With all this, we were in the garage for an hour and a half. From then on, the car was great but the goal was now to finish the race to get the world championship points. I did my three stints and didn’t drive anymore, I left the car to Fabio, who was a rookie at Le Mans, and to Phil, to drive and gain more experience.
I was disappointed but not too sad with this result. I know that a 24 hour race has to be perfect to be able to win it. There are a lot of things that don’t depend on us and this year, although we had good chances again, what took us out of the race was simply a battery. It wasn’t a mechanical failure, it was just a part that came out defective.
I saw the car that really deserved the win lost this race with an electronic problem on the last lap. Those drivers and that team have the right to be sad this year.
Next year there will be more Le Mans and I will be there again with United.