ON THE eve of his return to Le Mans – a track that tried to kill him, twice – Aussie ace Mark Webber caught up with Wheels to share his expectations, his thoughts on Porsche’s racer and to reveal that, while exciting, his heart rate at Le Mans is about half what it was in F1.
Mark, Le Mans is just two days away. How are you feeling? Nervous?
No, mate, not nervous at all; I’m very calm. I’m such a small part of such a big effort – we’ve got two cars and six drivers – so I’m feeling good. We had our pre-test last weekend and that was big step for the team to take the car to Le Mans for the first time because she’s obviously a very challenging circuit. But the car ran really well; we did eight hours straight, which is well over 100 laps. So that’s a lot of big boxes ticked and it’s brewing up to be a pretty phenomenal race actually.
Last time you were at Le Mans in 1999, you flipped, twice. How did you approach the end of the Mulsanne Straight at the test? Flat or did you build up to it?
Yeah, mate, I was flat, and it was no worries at all. It was a lot steeper the last time I was there – they flattened it off after my accident. It’s very quick down there, of course. It doesn’t matter what driver you are or what level of experience you have, the concentration down there needs to be very high. We’re approaching 330-340km/h, so you need to be very alert with traffic and it’s very narrow as well. So it requires massive focus.
Had you been back since your accident?
No, that was my first time back. So, yeah, it was good to be back.
What’s been the biggest hurdle going from F1 to Le Mans?
Probably just how much of a compromise you have to make with car set-up across conditions. In Formula One, we worked in such tight, tight margins to get the car in an absolute perfect window for each session. In endurance racing, the window is a lot more open because of the temperature swings and the track changes a lot with the Michelin tyres. Then there’s the factor of sharing the car with team-mates, so you have to have a compromise with how you feel in the car. So I’m still learning. I was very experienced with Formula One, but not this category. The amount of technology, the level, the professionalism is very similar to Formula One. It’s just a different way of skinning the cat really.
How does the Porsche 919 compare to your Red Bull F1 car?
The lap times are slower than an F1 car, the top speeds are the same, but we’re 250kg heavier. So you have to go through the corners slower. The cars are generally geared for Le Mans, so they’re quite low downforce; the G-forces are pretty low. But we’re doing the same lap times every lap, thanks to the tyres and the way endurance racing has to be. You have to do the same lap time every lap; the car has to take it, the tyres have to take it and so does the driver. So I’m under a lot less load in the sports car, but mentally I’ve got to deal with a lot more, like backmarkers. My heart rate in the F1 car was around 160 back in the day, but now it’s about 110 in the sports car.
Can you win this year?
That’s why we’re here, but it (winning first up) is something that’s never been done before. Except by Porsche, once I think. Yes, we’ve got our Porsche jackets, we look slick, we look organised, as Porsche do; everything looks immaculate and it’s such a famous and historic brand. But to just turn up and race people that have been here the last 13, 14 years on the bounce and doing a great job is hard. Toyota still hasn’t won there, so it shows the size of the task in front of us. We’re not writing ourselves off, otherwise I wouldn’t be going there. We’re going to be competitive, but we need the car to run smoothly and for as long as possible. Every hour will be a battle and if we can win every hour we’ll be closer to doing something we’re incredibly proud of. But Le Mans, it doesn’t take much to wreck your day.
What would be a good result? Top five, a podium?
A smooth day. If we have a smooth day, we’ll be very, very happy with where we are. That means we’ll be reasonably competitive. And if it runs for 24 hours with low garage time, we’ll be very happy with that.
Who do you think deserves to win the 2017 COTY title? Cast your vote for a chance to win $1,000.
Sign up here to receive the latest round-up of Wheels news, reviews and video highlights straight to your inbox each week.