This weekend saw the Murphy Prototypes crew take the trip to the south of France to the Circuit of Paul Ricard. It’s just an hour’s drive from Marseille airport, but the track is high up in the mountains of Provence and, as a result very hot and dry.
The circuit was originally by the French drinks magnate, Paul Ricard in the late 60s, and was a grand prix circuit through the 70s and 80s. The track is owned by Bernie Ecclestone, and as a result, boasts some of the best quality facilities in the racing world. An aircraft landing strip suitable for private jets is just beside the circuit, as well as a Michelin star restaurant and 5 star hotel!
The track was dominated by the 1km long Mistral Straight that is followed by the high-speed right hand Signes corner. The track is also unusual in that it is very flat. The track’s elevation ranges from 408 to 441 metres above sea level. The circuit has numerous layouts, and is known for its distinctive black and blue runoff areas known as the Blue Zone. The runoff surface consists of a mixture of asphalt and tungsten, instead of gravel traps, as common at other circuits. A second, deeper run-off area is the Red Zone, with a more abrasive surface designed to maximize tyre grip and hence minimize braking distance, although at the cost of intense tyre wear. You really don’t want to go off on either surface!
We arrived on the Wednesday afternoon to 30 degrees’ heat – great for a holiday but for the drivers and the rest of the team working, it was a tough battle to keep hydrated. We arrived early to set up for scrutineering early Thursday morning, with the first Full Practice or FP1 on Friday afternoon. Throughout Thursday the mechanics worked hard during the day on final set up for testing on Friday with any changes to be made as per instructions from the engineers
For this weekend I had very accomplished and experienced teammates, Jonathan Coleman, VdeV Driver and Le Mans Driver with So24 and Pegasus racing the previous season, and Kevin Ceccon, Gp3 and Gp2 race winner and Auto GP Champion.
Early Friday saw the collective bronze driver testing in the morning, which meant Jonathan would be out on track for the 30-minute session. This was a perfect opportunity to give the car a run before Free Practice 1. Jonathan went out for a first couple of installation laps. All of sudden the paddle shift wouldn’t work, and he turned ‘AGS’ Automatic Gear Shift off. The Oreca 03R could still change gear by lifting on the way up a gear and blip the throttle on the way down. The team were working on trying to figure out the problem but in the meantime the clutch started to slip and we had to pull into the pit garage, instead of allowing it to tear the clutch to pieces.
For FP1, I was out in the car first, but the same problem arose. This time we could see by the live data back in the garage that the clutch was holding pressure which meant we had to change the clutch master cylinder. As a result, I missed out on valuable track time getting to know the Le Castellet circuit. The problem was sorted, and Kevin and Jonathan both got their remaining time in the car and made any adjustments before FP2
I was first out in FP2, using a tyre from Le Mans that had quite high mileage. The car felt really comfortable though and I was able to push from the outset. The plan was to come in after a few laps and change tyres, and head out again on the 6km track. I ended up getting a fuel low light, so we came in for a splash and dash for fuel and of again. During that final stint, I was pushing to get past an LMP3 car going onto the back straight and tried to go around the outside, but caught out on the dirty marbles and spun 90 degrees down the track flat spotting all four tyres. I had to come in to change tyres because of the damage done to them. It was good to get a feeling for the track and where I could push and try overtake in safe places. However, round the outside and onto the blue zone was not one of them!
Kevin qualified the car in the 10-minute session on Saturday, which put us in 6th place on the grid for the rolling start of the 4-hour race in Le Castellet – one of our best for the season.
The running order for the race was going to Jonathan to start, then Kevin for a double stint then I was in for the final double stint to finish the race! Jonathan would start the race on a brand new set of Dunlop tyres and Kevin would take over after 45 mins and continue his double stint on the tyre to do a triple stint in total.
Jonathan did a great first stint and came in to change to Kevin, with a fill of 75 litres of fuel and off he went again. There was a problem with a headlight, which meant we had to change the front clip during the next fuel stop. This cost us a bit of unscheduled time but luckily he made back up some ground before I got in. Kevin drove an impressive double-stint that included a series of lap times which mirrored those of the front-runners and made up time on the cars ahead of him. Unfortunately the gap was just a little too much to make up a place. He therefore came into the pits P8 and exactly on schedule with 90-minutes of the race remaining.
A perfectly executed pitstop for fuel, tyres and I was in the drivers’ seat, with no time, or places, lost. I went out on a brand new set of hard compound Dunlop Tyres which I hadn’t driven on before. It really took me a while to get used to that and get some temperature into them. I got into a rhythm. My next pit stop was just for fuel. Our pit box was very close to pit entry on the way, and this made it tough to get the speed down quick enough for the line straight out of the final corner. The last part of my stint went relatively quickly. I got the call from the team that the car behind was beginning to push us for position so now I had to protect our position. They were gaining ever so slightly in the closing 20 mins but I pushed hard through the traffic and the heat to hold position.
Having never driven on this track before this event, I knew I had a lot to grasp, but having a double-stint in the race really helped with that. It took me a while to get used to the tyres and the circuit, but I was pleased to be able to consolidate our position and to lap consistently towards the end. Once again, I have to thank Greg for the continued opportunity to drive in the ELMS and the team for doing such a great job this weekend. The team now looks towards the fifth round of the European Le Mans Series that takes place at Spa on 25th September.
Below is a lap onboard which gives you some idea of what it is like to drive an LMP2 car.
until next time,