"You know," said Kenny Acheson, second in the 1989 and 1992 races, "Le Mans may be different without its great long straight, but it's a lot safer now, isn't it?"
With an infestation of chicanes on the once-notorious Mulsanne straight, where in the old days cars ran flat out at speeds well over 200mph, France's greatest race has improved its safety image of late. But fear will pervade the paddock in the aftermath of veteran racer Michele Alboreto's death while testing an Audi Le Mans sportscar in April.
Twenty years to the weekend since a clash with Alboreto in a Formula Two race at Pau jeopardised his own career, Acheson travelled to Canada this weekend as a spectator. He has mixed recollections of the endurance classic. "You stand there, all kitted up, ready for your team-mate to hand over to you," he said, "and all the time you are secretly wishing the car breaks down so that you don't have to drive again. Le Mans is a great race, but to be honest it's only great when it's all over."
Next weekend, the former F1 racer turned television commentator Martin Brundle will be thinking similar thoughts as he leads Team Bentley's challenge. He was also testing at the Lausitzring in Germany when Alboreto was killed. "It was clearly one of those big ones where you don't want to go and have a look," he says.
Brundle admits that you never go to Le Mans without acknowledging the high level of risk. "Of course there is concern after the puncture that afflicted Michele's car, though the fact that four different makes of chassis have turned into aeroplanes in the past few years makes it clear that it is a regulation thing and not something inherently wrong with one manufacturer's design."
Modern sports racing cars have flat-bottomed chassis whose aerodynamic performance is very sensitive to ride height. The slightest change in the rake of the car can have catastrophic results, as Mercedes-Benz drivers Mark Webber and Peter Dumbreck found at Le Mans when their cars took off two years ago. After the Alboreto tragedy, the great fear is punctures.
"It's very difficult to detect them," Brundle says, matter-of-fact despite the high stakes. "The problem is that at speed a tyre grows through centrifugal force. With Jaguar in the Eighties we had infrared sensors, but they kept coming on in the wet. You tend to ignore an emergency warning that keeps coming on every five minutes.
"My Jaguar team-mate Win Percy had a big shunt at Le Mans in 1987. I learnt from his experience that you lose a couple of hundred revs when you get a puncture. If it's a front tyre you'll probably get away with it, maybe just hit the wall. In 1999 my Toyota threw its tread, but I just spun at 200mph and did a bit of damage. But usually a rear puncture is a triple whammy, because the tyre explodes and takes the suspension, brakes and rear wing with it. So you have three wheels, no brakes and no rear-end downforce. That's a catastrophic failure."
Brundle has his own survival technique. He will not follow directly in another car's slipstream, and will drop back over crests or serious bumps. And he will be keeping an eagle eye on the revs.
"My Bentley is a closed coupé and there are three carbon-fibre hoops which make the cockpit structure very strong," he says. "So I am happy with the integrity of my car and its tyres, and I'll just try to put the rest of it out of mind.
"Le Mans is a great race, worth winning. But it's a seriously intimidating place, and has to be treated with respect."Reuse content