Taking a look behind the scenes at the 100th 24 hours of Le Mans


Taking a look behind the scenes at the 100th 24 hours of Le Mans

Hertz Team Jota and Motul, Official Lubricant of the legendary French race, provide us with a glimpse into the backstage operations of one of motorsport’s most iconic events. An insider’s view of different team duties: Driver, Team Manager, Mechanics …

Motul Asia Pacific – June 22nd, 2023

One hundred years after the journalist and billiard champion Charles Faroux imagined the sentence “Running is immortal” as it was engraved in the special century trophy, the 24 Hours of Le Mans celebrated its 100th anniversary with an extraordinary staging. The scenery started with the waving of a French flag held by NBA player Lebron James, who put the American touch to a magnificent scene and in front of an enthusiastic audience chanting the famous “U-S-A” in chorus. The 24 Hours of Le Mans celebrated the start of its first century of life. And that mythical scenario, where the Wright brothers flew their first powered and manned airplane 15 years before the first race, in 1923, lived up to the expectations.
The laurels of the centenary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans were girded by Ferrari in his return 50 years later with the Hypercar 499P. The rosso sports car, marked with the number 51, flew at La Sarthe with a crew formed by Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado and Antonio Giovinazzi towards the Parnassus of motorsport. Ferrari made history after a delirious battle with the current champion team, the Toyota Gazoo team and its powerful Hybrid GR 010, and signed an unexpected success for the Maranello team.
While the battle was being fought outside, with the air intoxicated by adrenaline, beyond the limits of the asphalt, among prefabricated and coloured sets, the competition was lived with nerves on edge. There, where there are no spotlights, another fight against the clock is waged by an army of super skilled people made up of engineers, mechanics, marketing and communication managers, therapists, cooks… They also stay overnight so that everything works in perfect harmony.
Thanks to Motul, one of the team’s sponsors, and Hertz Team Jota, we were able to get a first-hand look at how is that life away from the cameras. Furthermore, in a team born this year and participating for the first time in the top category of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, following a partnership with Hertz, Singer and Tom Brady, the famed American football player in the NFL, owner of the Brady clothing brand.

Who pulls the strings?

The most important piece in the system, the one that fits all the gears together, makes them fit together harmoniously and has the authority to make decisions, is the Team Principal. At Hertz Team Jota this role falls to Dieter Gass, who during a race like the one that took place last week had to coordinate “some 65 to 70 people for the two cars”. The exceptional nature of this challenge requires it. “Normally in other races we have certain restrictions, but not in the 24 hours,” explains Gass. The team is a conglomerate of different professions and nationalities. “We have engineers and mechanics, logistics people, communication and marketing members, guest management, catering…”
For Gass, there is not just one secret to success in this career, “but many”. The most important, “to lose as little time in the pits as possible”. Obviously having a winning and reliable car is crucial. “The car must perform well, be fast and drivable to the limit throughout the race, in any track condition, on new or used tires, etc…,” explains. And finally, to deploy the best possible strategy: “You always need to call the driver to pits at the right time”. All these elements must create the perfect scenario “if you want to have a chance to win the race”.
The strategy is slowly simmering. “It is discussed beforehand with a lot of small meetings with the Technical Director, the Chief Engineer and the drivers,” stresses the ‘boss’. Then, the die is cast. The action on the asphalt determines the outcome of the 24 hours. Every second, every minute can hide a trap. “You have to be alert 24 hours a day and you can’t relax for a single second. There are times of maximum stress, when the weather conditions change or because of accidents,” he adds. It is in the heat of these periods that all the weight falls on the Team Manager “and there, in a second, you have to make the right decision, the one that will make you win or lose”.

Inspiration is work

Unforeseen events can be anticipated in advance. “I always say you have to be prepared to expect the unexpected,” says the Hertz Team Jota Team Principal. For him, inspiration is work: “you always have to be ready to face the unimaginable and this means always having a plan ready to react to any scenario. And this works, in most cases.”
One of the most thrilling moments of the 24 hours is, in Gass’s words, “the start”. When the traffic light goes out, “that’s when you have to make room. It is when you are closest to your opponent, and you need to demonstrate your rivalry with those with whom you are going to play the race”. For this reason, and although the choice of the order of participation of the drivers “is not so important”, it is important to define who is the driver who steps on the accelerator for the first time. “And that’s always an experienced driver,” comments.

‘Dreaming’ aboard the Porsche 963

One of those who could drive the precious steering wheel of the Porsche 963 of the Hertz Team Jota is Antonio Félix da Costa, who comes with great experience in an event of such capacity as the 24 Hours of Le Mans. For the Portuguese-born driver, winner of the immortal race in 2022 in the LMP2 category, “there is no other race like it. Much less like this year’s, the centenary. Le Mans is in itself, a special emotion and even more so when you are part of a project as new and recent as Hertz Team Jota”. This time it didn’t quite work out despite the fact that the team led the race for a few moments. Several incidents punctuated his participation which prevented him from getting close to the positions to fight for the podium.
The indescribable reputation of Le Mans is to be found in its origins, in its longevity and also in its epicness. “Because it’s not just a 24 hour race. It is a 36 or 42 hour race. Plus the days leading up to it, when there is enormous activity and excitement. It’s an indescribable experience,” admits the driver. That excitement that one day became an obsession for film legend Steve McQueen, who went so far as to say, while filming the documentary of the same name in 1970, that “running is life. Everything that happens before or after is just waiting.”
Le Mans is a carousel of laps that flow between day and night. A race flooded with insomnia, which runs through the forests of Arnage or Mulsanne, which unfolds at high speeds of more than 340km/h through Les Hunadieres and which faces new curves such as the ‘Virage du raccordement Motul’, released a year ago as a result of the agreement between the oil company and the ACO after 68 years of close collaboration.

Adrenaline rushes

“Sleeping during the race is very difficult because you’re super excited, your adrenaline levels are very high, the car is on the line and you’re fighting for a win. It’s certain that you have to think that the best thing you can do to help your team for the next shift is to go to sleep and rest, but it’s impossible,” confesses the Portuguese.
The story of this mythical race is written with sweat, expertise and the drivers’ unusual adaptability. The light marks the course of the race. “The track is a challenge in itself every minute,” comments the Lisbon driver. The shadows are constantly moving. And it is easy to lose references or even be dazzled. “Sometimes you get the feeling that you’re racing on different circuits. And it’s hard when the light starts to change abruptly, at dusk or dawn,” he adds.
In this particular jet-lag simulation, nutrition is the key to maintaining the level of concentration. “Staying hydrated and eating what you touch is critical to maintaining energy levels,” he says. The nutritionists measure the levels of sugar, stress, hydration… Fainting cannot become a dangerous variable. Neither can sleep. Especially in those tricky moments of the competition when it is easy to become disoriented. Such as night shifts. “The communication with box helps a lot and is very important at night. When it’s dark you never know where the next car is, so you have to get timely information,” says Antonio. In order not to lose focus, drivers set small goals “so you can keep the race under control and manage the risk level”.
But there is no fear, only excitement. “The only thing that worries a little bit sometimes is to be aware of everything we have behind us: sponsors, equipment, etc…
Carrying that pressure is always the hardest part of the race. But everything is worth it when you win. This time it was not possible, but “last year we got the victory and that is a great moment, one of the happiest of my life!”

The Big Brother of data

Stress is not exclusive to drivers. Engineers suffer behind the scenes. Some, stationed in the pit-wall; others, less exposed, looking at data in the garage and the paddock truck. “The most critical and stressful time for us is before the race, when we have to define the car’s set-up,” reveals Olivier Berta, Race engineer at Hertz Team Jota. It is in this choice that the key that unlocks the door to success or failure is locked.
Then, during the race, there are other moments of extreme tension. “Like when a Safety Car appears, that’s when you have to be ready to react quickly to an unforeseen situation and try to take advantage,” he says.
From a technical point of view, each car is supervised and monitored by 7 engineers. “We are connected by a parallel intercom system constantly and we analyze the car in real time with telemetry,” Berta explains. A system similar to the one used in F1 operates in the WEC. The engineers, as if it were a Big Brother, analyze live all the parameters of each car, “vital engine constants, temperatures and tire pressures, amount of energy and fuel used on each lap, brake pressures…” Then, when the car returns to the pit-lane, they download the data stored in the control unit “to be able to further investigate other values that are difficult to analyze in the race, such as those channels that regulate the balance of the car”.
It is precisely this balance of the car that causes the most headaches for the engineers. “And on the drivers because the track conditions are constantly changing,” he says. For this purpose, the engineers communicate with the drivers and give the relevant instructions for them to adjust the parameters through their multifunction steering wheels. “We have tools in the car to make the drivers feel more comfortable with the car,” Olivier adds.

Building the Hypercar

Paul Walters is one of the team’s mechanics of reference. An experienced endurance racing operator. His work is more exhausting before and after the races. During the competition, everything is more routine and focuses more on pit entries for driver changes, wheel changes or refueling. “It’s almost a relaxing time for us,” he jokes. Or not so much. Mechanics are the first to arrive and the last to leave the circuit.
The task of a mechanic begins in the previous days with the construction of the box. Everyone has a task in the construction of what will later be “our home for a few days. In this environment of panels decorated with the team’s branding and sponsors, the cars rest. The garage is clean and organized. “Everything must be properly installed and connected. We work efficiently and we must get everything just right so that each department can function properly,” he says.
Once everything is assembled, it’s time to get to work on the car. “Our most intense work is before the race, with building the car,” he says. Also afterwards, when they must check everything, disassemble and pack in travel boxes. During the race, on the other hand, they must be alert. “We never sleep.” Any small incident brings the action back to vertiginous action. “A puncture, damage to the bodywork after an impact with barriers or other cars…”, he lists as the most common shocks. They had some of these during the last race, when the car suffered several serious incidents and had to be stopped for a long time in the box.

The garage choreography

Then there are the pit-stops. There are usually about 28-30 per team in the race. Pre-planned stops to change tires and refuel or change drivers. The mechanics act as a precise choreography, at each stop. With tires at the ready, the driver’s seat, the fuel hose… As soon as the car stops, they start a frantic liturgy to adjust everything in seconds. Everything is trained in advance. Everyone has a list of tasks and everyone is trained to collaborate in unison.
Part of the success of this group coordination activity lies with Australian Cassie McColl, a Sports and Exercise Science graduate, who has taken the physical preparation and coordination of pit stops to another level. Hertz Team Jota recruited her a few months ago as Human Performance Analyst and after an exhaustive analysis plan, the results were not long in coming. In a short time they managed to lower the best time in the wheel changes by two seconds. Her work involves “choreography, technique training and skill development of team mechanics.” The result is fantastic, something Walters emphasizes. “We spend a lot of time practicing pit-stops and that’s why Hert Team Jota is known as the benchmark in pit-lane for speed and efficiency.”
Mechanically, everything can be changed, and at a very high speed and precision, “because we train hard to be able to change everything on the car. Nothing is impossible anymore,” Walters explains. Although there are always more complex details and parts that are easily replaceable. “The fastest part to change is the drink bottle, but also the wheels,” adds the mechanic.
Many people are unaware that there is a fundamental part in driver changes. This is the replacement of the driver’s cockpit. “Each one has a custom seat, it’s designed and manufactured specifically for him so when there is a shift change the driver coming in should find his seat attached to the car. Then there are adjustable parts such as seat belts.”

The Prêt-à-porter spare parts service

All these parts are handled by the logistics managers. They usually operate between the garage and the spare parts trucks, which are usually located right in the paddock, almost attached to the pit. In these rolling warehouses, boxes of parts are accumulated, from crates with the smallest parts (screws, washers, springs, lubricants, etc…) to the most voluminous ones such as chassis, engines, wheels, spare fibers, etc…
In the event of an incident, spare parts coordinators observe the damage together with mechanics and engineers and assess the damage, draw up a list of the parts needed and work in record time to prepare all the parts to be replaced. They are then listed in a program where everything is recorded and each part is catalogued with its useful life. In a season a WEC team can handle tens of thousands of parts.
Among them, Motul, as an Official Lubricant Partner of the race, provides a variety of fluids and oils used for several workouts to enhance car performance. To keep all parts immaculate during the most demanding race in the world, brake oils, cleaning fluids, and daily maintenance fluids are required. In addition, Motul provides its flagship product for a super endurance test such as Le Mans, the 300V oil, which is formulated with organic base using non-fossil renewable materials and is the most durable and reliable oil for the Hypercars. It is in the details that the victory lies.

Engaging on Twitter, Instagram, and Tik Tok

The team’s visibility, apart from the race situation, falls into the hands of another ‘invisible’ of the team: the Communication and Marketing department. Over 2,400 journalists from 160 countries follow up the race religiously by receiving timely information via press releases and social media. Along with the Cannes Film Festival, it is one of the most followed events in France.
The Head of Social Media, Dylan Stewart, admits that updates are necessary to satisfy the constant demand for information during a one-day race, both through an email list and social media platforms, which generate content in multiple formats. Every major position change or incident changes during the race. “The race is our most stressful time,” he admits.
A carousel of requests characterizes race weekend. “The drivers are available to the press throughout the weekend, but only when they are not meeting with engineers,” he notes. Because of this, digital channels such as Twitter and Instagram stories are used to maintain the conversation. “This is where we post most. But perhaps it is through TikTok and Instagram posts we can engage the most.” And among the contents, the most demanding in terms of its
elaboration are “the videos. Filming and editing take a considerable amount of time.”

A once-in-a-lifetime experience

There are also other special fans who must be satisfied during the weekend with even more dedication, and they are the team and sponsor’s guests “At Le Mans, the paddock is a special place. We must accompany the guests to the hospitality so that they become familiar with the facilities. It is also important that we leave them with a little free time so that they can soak up the atmosphere and enjoy it,” explains Nela Kourilova, Guest & Hospitality Manager.
Night visits to the track are unprecedented in other races. One of the most popular activities at Le Mans is the opportunity to observe the Hypercars arriving at high speed at certain points on the track. “We offer special shuttle services to the golf area or to the Virage in Indianapolis,” explains Nela. The guests are dressed in team colors thanks to a “special merchandise pack” and are offered other unique experiences such as electric scooter rides around the track, VIP laps or balloon rides. The ‘money can’t buy’ experience is one of the most valuable aspects of visiting Le Mans. A once-in-a-lifetime experience where everybody wants to be.
Photo credits:
Hertz Team Jota
MOTUL APAC contact:
Anuja Weeranarayana