Ahead of this weekend’s Le Mans 24-Hour Race, and the debut of the new mid-engined 911 RSR, factory driver Kevin Estre gives his insight in to how thin the margins are between success and failure
What do you have to do to win Le Mans?
Twenty-eight-year-old Kevin Estre is racing for the works Porsche GT team in the FIA World Endurance Championship in the LM GTE Pro category. The third round of the season is also the French event and the greatest endurance race in the world. The Lyon-born French driver who has been living in Austria with his wife, Carolin, for the last few years is dreaming of adding victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours to his laurels. He set the third-quickest time in the GT category at the test day on 4th June and he talks about the question that all the favourites, and the majority of outsiders, are asking themselves with 10 days to go to the start: what do you have to do to win Le Mans?
What do you need to have to win Le Mans?
You need good team-mates and I’d say that the more experience the drivers have the better. We have often seen guys nearing the end of their career who have lost a bit of speed, but who are still very competitive at Le Mans. Over six hours outright pace is more important, but at Le Mans experience can help you win the race as it enables you to anticipate a crash or sense a change in grip. From that point of view I have to say that our line-up, Dirk Werner, Michael Christensen and myself, has less Le Mans experience than our sister car (two outings each for the drivers in no. 92 compared to a total of 16 for the trio in no. 91).
You also have to have a good team and here I think that we’ve got what it takes with the Porsche engineers and the Manthey Racing staff. They’ve had the same mechanics for four years; they carry out perfect pit stops; they’re highly trained and as they only do the FIA WEC they know the rules and the car by heart.
Finally, you have to have a good car and a fair BoP. Our 911 is making its Le Mans debut so we’re facing the unknown in certain areas even if we’ve done a lot of work for this race. Last year Ford won with a brand-new car which proves that it’s possible. The 911 RSR was designed more with Le Mans in mind than the other races, so we’ve got great confidence in its potential. And the car’s performance helps you to avoid errors that can cost victory. When you’re not quick enough you’re tempted to use the kerbs, take risks in traffic and in the strategy.
What are the specific qualities a car needs for Le Mans?
Above all, a good top speed as the circuit has the most straights of the year, but you can’t neglect downforce, which is necessary for the numerous quick corners.
And for the driver?
From a physical point of view Le Mans doesn’t need any special preparations. For me the Spa 6-Hours race is almost more difficult, especially as there are only two drivers per GT crew at Porsche. But mentally speaking Le Mans is much tougher because we’re under more pressure and we spend more time at higher speeds with a lot of traffic. Once again experience is the best preparation for this. And the fact of having already won here probably removes a bit of pressure.
How do you go quickly while still keeping a good safety margin?
In fact, that depends a lot on the competition. Current endurance races are basically sprints, but in the end the safety margin varies according to the competitiveness, where you’re running and the time of the race. If, for example, you’re in second place 20 seconds behind the leader and there are three hours to go, the margin’s almost nothing, more like 101% than 95%.
What role does pressure play?
At Porsche they don’t put us under pressure. On the other hand, you can feel it as the make hasn’t won in GT since 2013. In addition, we should win this year as we have a mid-engined car. The engine in the rear overhang in the old machine can no longer be used as an excuse. Among ourselves we say: ‘It’s the year of no excuses!’ So as a driver you feel this pressure indirectly. But personally, I’m not putting myself under more pressure than the other years.
Does luck play a role in a race like this?
Well, you need a bit to win in endurance, in terms of strategy for example. Here there are three safety cars and sometimes just a split second can make you lose or gain a big chunk of time. It’s the same thing if you come in to refuel when the others are losing time in a slow zone.
So what do you have to do to lose Le Mans?
There are so many answers to that question that even a book wouldn’t be enough! It’s the longest race with a lot of drivers on the most demanding circuit with more people working on the cars. There are far more factors that can influence the result and the same goes for the risks of making a mistake.