Sunday, July 14, 2024

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Like 'driving on black ice' – why drivers can seem like 'idiots' during a chilly Le Mans

The ban was introduced last yr through the World Endurance Championships but was lifted for the French classic after a chilly Spa-Francorchamps round, which was the scene of several cold tire crashes, including Toyota's Brendon Hartley at Raidillon in qualifying and Antonio Fuoco from Ferrari just seconds after leaving the underside of the race.

While one other U-turn in 2024 was being considered, the ban continues to be in place this week on the Circuit de la Sarthe, where temperatures should not particularly high to compensate – they’re consistent with weather data from 1991-2020 and fall near 10° C (50°F) at night.

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Taking to the track with cold tires is subsequently not something drivers stay up for.

“Basically, it's like driving on black ice. Very similar,” describes Frederic Makowiecki from Porsche. “You get there, you switch, the automotive won't turn, the automotive goes straight; you brake, he doesn't brake.

“What's more, today's cars with multiple systems react even more unpredictably.”

Peugeot driver Loic Duval explains: “You know that feeling if you're on a plane, there's lots of turbulence and sooner or later an air pocket appears. Woah! It's similar with us.

“That's the feeling when you lose – and it happens several times in the first two laps! As long as you don't fall out, fine. And if you fall out, you'll look like an idiot.”

#6 Porsche Penske Motorsport Porsche 963 by Kevin Estre, Andre Lotterer and Laurens Vanthoor

#6 Porsche Penske Motorsport Porsche 963 by Kevin Estre, Andre Lotterer and Laurens Vanthoor

Photo: JEP / Motorsport images

To get your bearings, night exercise sessions are particularly vital, lasting two hours from 10 p.m. to midnight on each Wednesday and Thursday.

“We know that we have soft that works really well in such conditions, especially during the warm-up,” emphasizes Makowiecki.

Toyota's Sebastien Buemi explains: “The problem is that the soft tires do quite well within the warm-up, but once they warm up they’re too soft and the automotive moves rather a lot, which will not be excellent.

“So at some point you can take a risk and use medium media, but it's really hard to turn it on. And if it's cold, you can have something like we had at Spa last year.”

Makowiecki points out that on a “warm” test day – with temperatures starting from 16°C to 23°C – “half a lap” was enough for the set of medium rubber to be within the working window.

Buemi, nonetheless, stays concerned, especially in the case of road traffic: “It's clear that if you get out of the box and are on cold tires and someone arrives with warm tires, there is a big difference in the primary sector. It's huge. Sector 1 with cold tires, you lose seconds and seconds.”

“When a car comes out and it's five to ten seconds too slow in sector 1, you know, it's a chicane – you've got an extra turn on the track! Of course, this will potentially create some weird situations where you have to have a GT that goes into the first corner and is much faster than you in the first sector – even though it's a GT.”

The stated reason for banning tire warmers is environmental, although Duval questions the actual advantages of the “radical” measure, for instance if it results in accidents by forcing teams to supply more spare parts. However, the French veteran emphasizes that he’s aware that sport stays a technological “laboratory” and suggests that one other, higher solution may be found.

Meanwhile, a lone voice appears in Kamui Kobayashi, clearly reveling within the difficulties that cold tires pose.

“You don't have to ask about that,” replies the Toyota team principal and driver when Motorsport.com mentions the dearth of tire warmers.

“As skilled drivers, we pay for this – in every situation, even in really bad weather conditions like last yr at night.

“We should survive, that is our job. I feel the challenge is more for amateur drivers.

“If anyone can do it, we don't say 'professional racing driver'. [The ban] is welcome, honestly.”

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